“Waiting for a Train” (Jimmie Rodgers, 1928).
Rodgers is credited with writing this song, which he absolutely didn’t do—nearly all of his songs were written by other people or (if his name is on them) adapted from older blues songs or mountain ballads, and this is no exception. It dates from no later than 19th-century England, was published in numerous songbooks and was first recorded by George Reneau as “Reckless Hobo” (1925).
The Rodgers version is significantly different from any known earlier version, and both producer Ralph Peer and Rodgers’ songwriting sister-in-law Elsie McWilliams later claimed to have contributed to reworking it. Their accounts are different enough that they can’t both be true, so the exact process of the song’s creation remains a mystery.
The recording (which you can hear right here) has a sound that is unlike any other country recording, before or since. It was made in Atlanta on October 22, 1928, and Rodgers—who was never one to let an opportunity for a good time slip by him—arrived a week early for the session and spent the interim prowling the city’s clubs and speakeasies. It was in one of them that he heard a jazz quintet (featuring guitarist Dean Bryan, steel guitarist John Westbrook, cornetist C.L. Hutchinson, clarinetist James Rikard and bassist George MacMillan). He invited them to drop by the session, and they backed him on “Waiting for a Train” and “I’m Lonely and Blue.”
(This was typical of Rodgers, whose musical tastes were eclectic and who rarely walked past a swinging door. A similar circumstance led him to record “Blue Yodel No. 9 (Standing on the Corner)” (1930) with a young Louis Armstrong on trumpet.)
“Peace in the Valley” (Red Foley, 1951).
It was unusual, in the early 1950s, for white artists to record songs associated with black artists. Thomas A. Dorsey’s “Peace in the Valley,” written in 1937 and memorably recorded that same year by Mahalia Jackson, definitely is such a song. Dorsey probably didn’t mind, though, because Foley’s version sold more than a million copies and spurred numerous other white artists to record what became Dorsey’s most profitable song.
The lyric is cool in that it starts out with the singer “tired and weary,” dreaming of the life to come. The second verse is about plants, the third verse is about animals and then the final verse brings the song to where it’s always been heading: the blessed relief of life in the world to come, where care and trouble are washed away, leaving only “peace and contentment for me.” Like most great songs, it pretty much sings itself.
I can’t really capture the charm of Foley’s version, which features close harmonies by the Sunshine Boys. They were obviously inspired by the Jackson version, but have a mellower, more whimsical quality that appeals to me—reflecting the laid-back style of Foley, whose crooning earned him the nickname “the country Crosby.”
Here are the Jackson version and the Foley version. Compare and contrast.
“It’s Not Love (but It’s Not Bad)” (Merle Haggard, 1972).
Written by Hank Cochran and Glenn Martin (Cochran likely did most of the words, Martin most of the music), this song is typical of Cochran in that it’s short and simple, with two four-line verses, each followed by a four-line chorus. That’s only 16 lines in all, and four of them are the title, so the whole song amounts to only 13 original lines.
There’s a clever touch in the rhyme scheme: The verses are AABB (“you”/”you”/”had”/”bad”), but the chorus shifts—seemingly to the equally conventional ABAB, but as it turns out it’s an unusual ABBB (“was”/”mad”/”had”/”bad”), with the opening “was” left unrhymed. This is surprising (unrhymed lines always are) but also strong because, in the space where the ear expects to hear another A (rhyming with “was”), it instead hears another B (rhyming with “mad”). It’s a small detail, but it has outsized impact.
As to the content, this is—like most Cochrane songs—an exploration of a particular mood, not the development of an idea. Cochran loves to balance two strong emotions to produce an ambivalent mood: In “I Fall to Pieces” (1961), it’s resentment and self-awareness, in “She’s Got You” it’s nostalgia and pain; in “It’s Not Love (but It’s Not Bad),” it’s sorrow and happiness. Cochran’s songs are about grownups, typically ones who’ve known the passion of youth, but have outlived it and watched it die. In the two earlier songs, the singer looks back on the failed relationship with despair, but in this one he sees a new happiness. Not a new, overwhelming passion, but a contentment that is … not bad.
“Please Help Me, I’m Falling” (Hank Locklin, 1960).
Part of the challenge of writing a popular song is that it’s only three minutes long, so you have to set up the basic idea as quickly as possible. Good songs do it in the first two or three lines (“Today I passed you on the street/and my heart fell at your feet./I can’t help it if I’m still in love with you”); the great ones do it in the first line alone (“Yesterday all my troubles seemed so far away”).
It takes a songwriter who’s both confident and capable to handle a puzzle song, one in which the basic idea of what’s going on in the song is initially withheld, challenging the audience to make sense of the song as it goes along. It requires the skill to pull off a story that’s structured in an unusual, unexpected way, and the confidence that your audience will stick with you—that they’ll be intrigued by a song they don’t understand after four lines, rather than inspired to turn the radio dial in search of a song that makes sense.
Writers Don Robertson and Hal Blair begin “Please Help Me, I’m Falling” with a seemingly inexplicable line: “Please help me—I’m falling in love with you.” By the end of the first verse, 1/3 of the way through the song, all we’ve learned is that the singer wants the woman he loves to stop that from happening.
What can this mean? Why would somebody who was falling in love with someone else ask her to help prevent it? In a typical popular song he should be happy about falling in love, and implore her to do likewise. It’s a puzzle, and about the only thing certain is that we’re headed for a twist. Maybe she’s dead. Maybe she’s a character in a painting. It won’t be the usual pop song, that’s for sure.
Robertson and Blair trust their audience enough to let them get into the second verse before they answer the puzzle: The singer is married to someone else, and is clinging to the sanctity of his vows, even as his heart inclines elsewhere.
I love this structure, and I love the grown-up nature of the content. This isn’t “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” or “I Can’t Get No Satisfaction” or even “Hey, Good-Looking.” The singer has a grown-up problem, a clash between personal desire and a sense of morality—and he opts for the latter.
Or does he? The words pull us one way, but the music—swooning and romantic—pulls us in the opposite direction. What I love most about the song is that it begins as a puzzle and ends the same way: How does this story end? Does the singer make it through today with his marriage vows intact, or doesn’t he? We don’t know—but, even if he does, we know the dilemma will only start over again tomorrow.
I always say that, where rock and pop and rap are generally written for teenagers, and thus are largely set in simple worlds of simple people with simple problems, country music is for grown-ups. This is a classic example, a peek into a messy world in which neither the people nor their problems are in any sense simple.
Here’s Locklin’s definitive version and, just for kicks, a very different version by the Everly Brothers.
“I’m Moving On” (Hank Snow, 1950).
I’ve been performing this song since 2017, but I haven’t really been happy with my version of it. Hence today’s performance marks the debut of an entirely new arrangement featuring, among other things, a return to the key of D, Snow’s original key for the song. This is a hard song to perform on the piano, because the original recording’s swinging band arrangement is pivotal to the song’s success, but I think this gets closer to what the song should be. (I’ve retained the opening imitation of a train, which is a classic challenge for any country instrumentalist.)
The arrangements for my songs (covers and originals alike) are almost always a work in progress, because I’ve spent the past five years teaching myself to play the piano, working for three hours a day five days a week. As you would expect, this has produced considerable improvement, meaning that arrangements that were the best I could do four years ago now strike me as pathetic and aching for revision—which, sooner or later, they get.
A key change is usually part of this, because back in 2016 I couldn’t really play in any keys but the simplest C and F; nowadays no key can faze me, and I’m making much better choices. (I prefer, when possible, to do the songs in their original keys.)
One aspect of my original arrangement for “I’m Moving On” that remains is my desire to set off the third and fourth verses from the rest of the song in some way. They make sense to me only as a flashback: The first two verses and the last three are denunciations of the singer’s unfaithful sweetheart as he prepares to get on a train and leave her, but the third and fourth find him aboard a train, urging first the fireman and then the engineer to get him home to his sweetheart as quickly as possible. (Snow doesn’t give the whole story, but in my head he has rushed home to be with her, caught her with another man and rushed back to the train station, followed by his pleading sweetheart; the sight of the arriving train reminds him of the one he got off only an hour ago, and of how radically his mood has changed in that hour.)
That’s why those two “flashback” verses need to be sonically distinguished somehow, the way a cinematographer might shoot those verses in black-and-white. In my original version I set off those two verses with instrumental solos, which is what Snow does, but I’m not a good enough pianist to be comfortable with two solos in the same song. This time I’ve used a simpler, more direct accompaniment for those two verses, reflecting the not-yet-disillusioned passenger headed—though he doesn’t know it—for disappointment.
There may be some other way to make sense of these lyrics; if so, though, I haven’t found it.
Here’s Snow’s swinging original version—see what you think.
“Total Strangers” (Hank Thompson, 1959).
I find this song very entertaining. Sometimes comic songs from another era need tweaking, to adjust period slang, offensive attitudes or whatever, but the only change I’ve made to this one is to switch around the final two verses.
I suspect that Thompson did them in the order he did because his original idea for the song was rooted in an experience similar to what is (in my version) the second verse, the one about hunting. However, I think it’s punchier this way, because what is now the third verse (about his wife and his girlfriend) packs a twist: The other two verses find the singer victimized by people who lie and depict him as a total stranger, while the girlfriend verse shows that he himself has used this ploy in the past. To me the song is stronger with that as the final thought.
There’s one joke in the song that I don’t think works in my version, or in Thompson’s: “He said, ‘I’d like to help you out’ as he opened wide the door” is a funny pun on the phrase “help you out,” but it comes out of nowhere in a song that’s not pun-based, and the listener doesn’t have time to process it before the song has moved on. I don’t think there’s a way to make the joke work in this context.
Here’s Thompson’s version, a great example of the good-time-Charley spirit that he brought to most of his biggest hits.
“The Wild Side of Life” (Hank Thompson, 1952).
A friend of mine once told me that she didn’t care for country because “there’s so many misogynistic ‘You’re such a slut’ songs.”
Hard to argue with that as a criticism, especially for the country of the 1920s through the mid-1950s, in which “trifling woman” songs were popular and there weren’t any female stars to offer a rebuttal. Today, in an age when Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Miranda Lambert, the Dixie Chicks and Taylor Swift have gotten their licks in repeatedly, it’s less egregious, but such songs have always existed and still do.
I’d argue that this isn’t actually one of those songs, because the singer is essentially blaming himself for looking at his woman and seeing something other than who she was. This is fundamentally not so much a slut-shaming song as it is a self-shaming song about a man who, like many men, idealizes women and can’t make a relationship with a real woman work.
That said, it cries out for an answer song—and it definitely got one.
Here’s Thompson’s version, which was such a huge hit in 1952. Note the strong, two-beat fiddle intro, which is a hallmark of Western Swing. Many country bands included a fiddle at least occasionally, but Western Swing bands were typically bigger than classic-country combos, and often featured two fiddles.
Personally, I prefer Hank Williams’ cover version, from a radio performance. It’s simpler and has more emotional pop—which you can say about almost any comparison between these two Hanks. Note the occasional lyric tweaks, notably the replacement of “you gave up the only one who ever loved you” with “you cheated the only one … “ It doesn’t scan as well, but it’s sharper.
“It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” (Kitty Wells, 1952).
I’ve made the case that Jimmie Rodgers’ “Blue Yodel No. 1 (T for Texas)” (1928) is the most important song in the history of country music. It made a breakout star of Rodgers, and his music was an overwhelming influence on any number of subsequent stars, including Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. Country sounds like it does because of “Blue Yodel No. 1.”
The only other candidate is “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels,” and not only because it was the first-ever No. 1 country hit by a female solo artist and opened the door to generations of iconic female stars.
It also established female country singing as a form of feminist expression (or, in the case of Wells, proto-feminism): Female solo artists have always sung songs that weren’t gender-marked, as male artists do, but when they do sing songs that are gender-marked, they tend to be songs of resistance to male oppression. Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a-Drinking” (1967), the Chicks’ “Goodbye Earl” (1999) and Swift’s “Mean” (2010) are all linear descendants of Miller’s song.
Here’s Wells’ groundbreaking version, and also (just for fun) a quartet version featuring Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette and, yes, Kitty Wells. It’s from a 1993 trio album by Lynn, Parton and Wynette; that the album is called Honky-Tonk Angels tells you all you need to know about how important this song was and is.
“Making Believe” (Kitty Wells, 1955).
This is maybe my favorite Kitty Wells recording, for her simple, stripped-down performance, yes, but also for the song itself, which is lovely and wistful. It was written by a man (singer/songwriter Jimmy Work), but works well for a singer of either gender. We’ve all been there.
Here’s Wells singing the song, and also Work singing his own song. The best version, though, may be this lovely one by Emmylou Harris. Her slurred “lieve” annoys me, but even so it doesn’t get much better than this.
“Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart” (Johnny Cash, 1966).
I’ve monkeyed with the lyrics here a bit, but I think Cowboy Jack Clement, who wrote the song, would forgive me. I don’t think either he or Cash ever saw it as an untouchable, iconic country anthem; it’s a goof, a bit of fun, so why not have fun with it?
One of the things I revere about Cash is his sense of humor. I grew up with rock ‘n’ roll, Broadway and comic opera, so I’m used to songs that are willing to laugh. Country has its share of comedians—Minnie Pearl and Grandpa Jones come to mind—but a lot of its biggest stars tend toward the earnest, even the somber.
I believe that laughter is good for the soul, so hearing Johnny Cash singing this song always gives me a lift.
“Busted” (Johnny Cash, 1963).
It’s hard to imagine a genre other than country in which a song like this (written by the ridiculously gifted Harlan Howard) could become not only a hit, but also a standard. Its treatment of poverty, hopelessness and the economic realities of American life for way too many people might fit in either country or folk, but the tightness of the songwriting and the focused intensity is country to its bones.
Here’s Cash singing the song, plus—for the fun of it—a bizarre, genre-crossing version by the great Wanda Jackson, which is really its own thing, defying traditional genre labels.
“A Boy Named Sue” (Johnny Cash, 1969).
This seems like it would be a pain in the neck to memorize, but in reality it’s not that hard. It’s long, but it’s a classic country story song—if you follow the story, you won’t get mixed up.
Here’s Cash singing the song. And, just for fun, here are two answer songs: the raunchy “Father of a Boy Named Sue,” written and performed by Shel Silverstein, author of “A Boy Named Sue,” the other Jane Morgan’s hilarious “A Girl Named Johnny Cash.”
Oh, and the song that kept Cash and “A Boy Named Sue” from No. 1 on the Billboard Top 40 for three straight weeks in 1969? It was the Rolling Stones with “Honky-Tonk Women.”
“Musical Chairs” (Tompall Glaser, 1976).
There’s a Tom Lehrer feel to this song, written by the great Shel Silverstein. I think it’s failed to achieve wider popularity only because its primary recording is by Tompall Glaser, a good singer but not an exciting one. If, say, Waylon Jennings or Kenny Rogers had recorded it, I think it would have had a much bigger footprint. I’m happy to give it some exposure now.
Here’s Glaser whooping it up.
“You Don’t Know Me” (Cindy Walker/Eddy Arnold, 1956).
This song is credited to Walker and Arnold, and they claimed that Arnold had given Walker the gist of the idea for the song. I have my doubts; in those days top singers often insisted on getting a share of the songwriting credit (and, hence, the songwriter’s royalties) as a condition for recording a song. Songwriters didn’t like it, but knew that half of a big pie was usually bigger than all of a small pie—or no pie at all.
In any case, this is one of the best-written songs ever, short, simple, emotionally powerful and with a classical unity of structure: It’s an interior monologue with the singer meeting his/her loved one on the street; it takes off into his/her regrets … but then comes back to their parting, and the realization that the whole song has taken place in the course of a brief meeting, heavily freighted for the singer and meaningless for his loved-one. It’s sad and beautiful and, all in all, a perfect song.
Here’s Arnold’s original version, with all the Nashville Sound trimmings; not at all country, but an all-time great recording. And, for contrast, Walker’s performance of her own song, from 1964. She wasn’t a bad singer at all.
“Safe Between the Covers” (Tennessee Walt, 2015).
The details of this song are actually remarkable accurate, weird though some of them seem. My mother (and her siblings) actually did live for years in an abandoned railroad depot in Atlanta, Michigan, for example. And the first car my mother remembered them having had been picked up as a repo from a local bank, where my grandfather knew one of the bank officers.
My mother’s favorite books evolved as her life went on, and the account of them in the song is generally accurate. People think that, when I mention “with Williams and with Dickinson,” I mean Tennessee Williams; actually my mother almost never read drama (Shakespeare aside)—but William Carlos Williams was one of her favorite poets.
“On the Wings of a Dove” (Ferlon Huskey, 1960).
A lot of non-country fans know this song from its performance by Robert Duvall in his Oscar-winning performance as a country singer in Tender Mercies (1983).
I’ve known it for years, but only learned it in the past few weeks—one more thing I owe Izzy from Massapequa—and am really enjoying it.
Here are three versions: To begin with, Huskey’s gospel-tinged original from 1960 (I love the jangling piano, and wish I could play well enough to include it in my version—but not a chance). Then we have Duvall’s version, from the movie; he’s not much of a singer (Gail Youngs helps out to good effect), but I actually like this arrangement better than the lavish treatment on Huskey’s recording. (Notice that Duvall includes the first verse that Huskey’s version omits.)
And, finally, another cut from the Loretta Lynn/Dolly Parton/Tammy Wynette trio album, Honky-Tonk Angels, from 1993. Just because I like it, overproduced though it is. (They include the missing verse, of course, because they want to have three solo verses.)
“Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age” (Cindy Walker/Bob Wills, 1949).
As noted above, I don’t take Wills’ songwriting credit seriously, and neither should you.
I’ve tweaked the lyrics some here because … because … well, because I think the idea of the song is way better than the actual lyrics. You can judge for yourselves, because you’ll find the original lyrics on both the Bob Wills version and on the Tubb/Foley version, the latter being the one I love best.
(Tommy Duncan is the singer on the Wills version. The freakish shouting and hooting over the song are Wills himself. They’re why I can’t listen to Wills for any length of time, despite the amazing caliber of his musicians. It’s like he heckles himself.)
“Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Kris Kristofferson, 1970).
There’s a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song to be made out of all the artists who’ve covered this classic Kris Kristofferson song. A representative sampling might include Joan Baez, Michael Buble, Glen Campbell, Skeeter Davis, Sergio Franchi, Engelbert Humperdinck, Gladys Knight, Peggy Lee, Jerry Lee Lewis, Loretta Lynn, Johnny Mathis, Jim Nabors, Willie Nelson, Olivia Newton-John, Elvis Presley, Ray Price, Charlie Pride, Frank Sinatra, Sammi Smith, Andy Williams and Tammy Wynette.
The inspiration from the song came from an Esquire interview with Sinatra. Asked, “What, if anything, do you believe in?” Sinatra replied, “Booze, broads or a Bible—whatever helps me make it through the night.”
That was in 1969, and Kristofferson knew exactly what he meant. He was an unknown songwriter and Sinatra was one of the world’s biggest stars, but they were both touring musicians, and they knew all about coming back to a lonely hotel room, too wired to sleep, and looking to a whiskey bottle, a Gideon Bible or a faceless female fan to keep them from going crazy in the dark.
That’s why so many singers have sung this particular song. They may sing country, folk, rock, pop, gospel or hip-hop, but they’ve been in that hotel room, and they know what Kristofferson is talking about. Nobody has to explain this one to them.
“It Sounds Like Country from Here” (Tennessee Walt, 2018).
I’ve written whole essays, and done whole shows, exploring the question of what makes country country. This isn’t the place to get into that. Suffice it to say that, with any given criterion, there’s a counter-example that either makes a classic country song not count as country, or makes something that obviously isn’t country count as a country song.
(Example: It’s Ernest Tubb and the Texas Troubadours, circa 1950. The singer is on the road, far from home, missing the people he loves. Jerry Byrd’s steel guitar keens as Tubb rasps out his longing for home. Classic country, right? Check it out right here. See what I mean?)
To me, what makes country is a mix of certain traditional subject matters, a direct, sincere emotionality and a preference for simple, stripped-down arrangements that honor the song more than the singer. By these criteria, I think I’m a country singer. If you think I’m a folk singer or a rapper or an opera singer, that’s OK with me. Either way, I’m happy if you like the songs and unhappy if you don’t. Either way, though, it still sounds like country from here.
“The Loneliest Place in the World” (Tennessee Walt, 2019).
In the last note, I mentioned certain traditional subject matters associated with country. One of them is a lonely guy in a bar, wallowing in self-pity. I don’t drink, and can count the number of times I’ve been in a bar on the fingers of both hands. Am I writing from personal experience? Absolutely not.
Even so, I say that “Pass me a glass of yesterday” is as country a line as anyone ever sang.
“The Wind Blows” (Tennessee Walt, 2017).
This happens to be about someone I know—not anybody I was ever in love with, but someone I know. I’d been thinking about writing a song about her for awhile, but couldn’t get a handle on it until I happened to see a poster for Tim Burton’s underrated film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016).
For some reason I was struck by one of the secondary characters in the movie, a young woman who’s so buoyant that, if she isn’t tied down to the ground, she’ll blow away like an escaped balloon. It gave me the central image that I’d been looking for, and the song came into my head almost unbidden and almost word-for-word complete.
Almost two years later, I was listening to an old cassette tape of songs by the brilliant Philadelphia-based songwriter Paul Nordquist, a tape that at this point is more than 30 years old. On came a song which included the line “She’s so wonderful her feet don’t touch the ground.” I was thunderstruck; I hadn’t remembered this song at all—it’s not one of Paul’s classics—but clearly that line had stuck in my subconscious for all those years.
The working of the human mind are endlessly fascinating.
“Jimmy Buffett” (Tennessee Walt, 2018).
I’m indebted to my old friend Sally Denmead and her husband, Jonah Winter (also by now an old friend), for the existence of this very popular song.
A couple of years ago, my lovely wife and I were chatting with them at their house in Pittsburgh, and the conversation turned to strange, unaccountable events. I held the floor for a considerable period recounting my 2010, a year during which—besides the events recounted in this song—I was also misdiagnosed with a fatal disease and, through a bizarre set of circumstances, was widely believed to have murdered my mother.
When I told the story of me and Jimmy Buffett, Jonah said, “There has to be a song in that.” Sally chimed in to second the notion. I wasn’t convinced—it seemed odd but not in any way resonant, nothing with enough scope to make up a decent song. I laughed it off.
But the next day, as I was driving us home to New York on I-80, my lovely wife dozed off as we passed through the Delaware Water Gap, and I found bits and pieces of the song as it eventually emerged bouncing around in my head. For want of anything else to do as we headed through southwestern New Jersey (the area where Sally grew up, coincidentally), I thought it over and the song came together in my head. I sang it to Sara as we unloaded our luggage, and there it was.
Since then it’s scored a hit whenever and wherever I’ve done it, and I owe a percentage of the applause to Jonah Winter and Sally Denmead. Thanks, both of you!