“Night Train to Memphis” (Roy Acuff, 1942).
It’s impossible to say for sure who did what on this song, since it has three co-writers: Owen Bradley, Marvin Hughes and Beasley Smith. However, Bradley and Hughes were all best known as musicians, while Beasley was a words-and-music songwriter, so likely the words are primarily Beasley’s work. Bradley and Hughes knew each other well—Hughes was the longtime music director at WSM, home station of “The Grand Ole Opry,” and at this point Bradley was a sessions pianist who worked on WSM shows regularly. There’s no piano on this recording, but perhaps Bradley came up with the tune and Hughes did the arrangement, or vice versa.
The shouting band members is a characteristic of the song, and gives it both period charm and a party atmosphere. This wasn’t characteristic of Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys, and possibly this was the idea of Hughes and/or Bradley.
“Driving Nails in My Coffin” (Ernest Tubb, 1946).
“Coffin nails” is, of course, an old slang term for cigarettes, so it’s sort of strange to see the phrase used for drinking. But either is a good way to die young.
I’ve made one change in the lyrics, because it seems clear to me, due to the rhyme scheme, that Irby’s original version of the song involved not “a bottle of booze” but rather “a bottle of brew.” If I had to guess, I’d suspect that Irby had a beer company sponsoring a show or something like that, but that’s just a guess.
“Two Glasses, Joe” (Ernest Tubb, 1954).
This barroom classic, written by Cindy Walker, is an entry in a country subgenre old even in 1954: the sad drinking song. Four years before, Hank Williams had spoofed it in “There’s a Tear in My Beer,” though he chose not to release the song.
Walker’s twist on this standard trope is to set the song to a jaunty tune that is superficially at variance with the words: the upbeat tone of the melody and setting (especially the honky-tonk piano, are discordant with the gloom of a lyric that ends, “and leave me here alone to cry.” Personally, I think it’s very effective, depicting the singer as a guy trying to put on a brace face while writhing in pain on the inside.
“Detroit City” (Bobby Bare, 1963).
My lovely wife always likes it when I do funny songs, and I admit that, as a former standup comic, I have a liking for the humorous side of life. But what draws me to country is mainly the sincere songs, the ones that look at life straight on and don’t feel they need to make a joke out of what they see. This song, by Danny Dill and Mel Tillis (yes, that one, but not yet known as a singer), is a classic example.
I was in Detroit occasionally in the 1960s, and some of my earliest memories are from there (for example, National Guardsmen in the streets, 1967). I’m sure that’s part of why I love this song, but mostly it’s because of its evocation of one of our most powerful human urges: the longing to go home. We’re not salmon, swallows or monarch butterflies, but still—you may be somewhere where you can make a lot more money and live a statistically better lifestyle, but still there’s that ache that draws you home—draws you home, even if your home wasn’t ever any kind of a paradise. It’s the place you know, though, the place where every turn in the road has a story, every face you pass has a meaning.
This comes up in a lot of country songs, and no wonder—almost every country musician’s story is of leaving home to seek fame and fortune … by singing songs about where you came from.
Here’s Bobby Bare’s Grammy-winning version. I don’t love the overdone arrangement, but his performance is a strong one. For contrast, here’s a simpler version by the great George Jones. Much more my cup of tea.
“Wildwood Flower” (Carter Family, 1928).
In a 1973 interview with Mike Seeger, excerpts from which are included on Bear Family Records’ irreplaceable compilation The Carter Family: In the Shadow of Clinch Mountain, Maybelle Carter talks about “Wildwood Flower” and admits that “I think some of the words have kind of gotten mixed up til they’ve meant something else … (They) don’t make too much sense in a few places in the song, and I believe that they have just misunderstood.“ She adds that she has no idea what the song was originally.
She’s right, of course. The “folk process” had thoroughly garbled the words to “I’ll Twine Mid the Ringlets,” the 1860 song of lost love and a broken heart with words by Maud Irving and music by Joseph Philbrick Webster, long before it found its way to the Carters.
However, the Irving/Webster song survives as sheet music, and I’ve reverted to Irving’s original lyrics, while keeping the music more or less as the Carters (and several subsequent generations of country and folk artists) have known it. Maybe it’s because I’ve been a lyricist for 40 years, but I have difficulty singing lyrics that don’t make sense.
Here’s the classic Carter Family version, from 1928. Notice the incoherent words.
“Thank God and Greyhound” (Roy Clark, 1970).
I’ve made a tiny change to the lyrics of this song, which was written by Larry Kingston and John Edward Nix. I’ve changed their line “Now we’re here at the station and you’re getting on” to “Now we’re at the bus station, and you’re getting on.” This is for clarity: These days most of us don’t board buses at a station, but at a stop; and if you’re “here at the station and you’re getting on,” it’s a train station.
I added this song to my repertoire after Roy Clark’s death on November 15, 2018, because I thought I ought to have a Clark song in my book, even though I don’t really care for most of his stuff. He deserves is, because he’s an important guy in 1970s-1990s country, primarily for his role as the longtime co-host of Hee Haw (1969-1997), in which capacity he gave innumerable musicians their first national exposure.
It took some digging to come up with this one, but I’m glad I did—it’s great fun to sing, and audiences always seem to like it.
Here’s Clark saying goodbye in a breakup song that’s as pointed as anything Taylor Swift has ever written.
“Falling and Flying” (Bad Blake, 2009).
The hazard in writing songs for a movie about country music is that the songs will be, deliberately or accidentally, echoes or even parodies of famous country songs of the past—“Cold Cold Heart” or “You Ain’t Woman Enough to Take My Man” in widescreen.
Stephen Bruton and Gary Nicholson avoided that and produced a genuinely moving country song. I was just starting to get into country when I saw Crazy Heart in 2009, and I immediately liked this song—though, at that time, I never thought about performing it. When my lovely wife suggested it a couple of weeks ago, though, I immediately saw what a great idea it was.
The chorus is the catchy part, sure—a single phrase repeated six times often is—but to me the phrases that resonates is “being who I shouldn’t be.” We’re all trying to be our best selves, and that’s praiseworthy even when we fail.
The song is heard several times in the movie. Here’s the best one, by Bad Blake and Tommy Sweet (a.k.a. Jeff Bridges and Colin Farrell). Bridges is something of a country singer in real life, Farrell an actor playing a country sing; no matter, they ace it.
“I’ve Decided to Leave Here Forever” (Mac Sledge, 1982).
Acting is a funny business, with fuzzy boundaries on every side. If, for instance, an actor plays a country singer in a film, writes his own country songs and plays them live in the film, is he in fact a country singer/songwriter? Where does the role end and the actor begin?
That’s the case with Robert Duvall, who wrote “I’ve Decided to Leave Here Forever” for the film Tender Mercies, which won him an Oscar for his performance as fading country star Max Sledge. It’s a fantastic performance, one of Duvall’s best, and the song is a fine one. So, yes, he’s a country singer/songwriter.
That isn’t to say that, if he had decided to skip acting and play country for a living, that he’d be a country legend today. One of the fictions of Tender Mercies is that a singer as limited as Duvall could become a big star; his songs are good, but not enough to put him in the class of Kris Kristofferson or Bob Dylan, stars despite their vocal limitations.
That said, it’s amazing that an actor could put himself into the persona of a country singer so thoroughly that he could actually write and perform good country music. Jeff Bridges and Clint Eastwood (and Sissy Spacek, for that matter) did their own singing, and did very well, but not their own writing; for the time it took to make this film, Duvall was the complete package. He may not be a country legend, but he’s a cinematic legend, and deservedly so.
Here’s Duvall’s own performance, simple and moving.
“Honky-Tonk Man” (Red Stovall, 1982).
I’ve loved this song since well before I was into country, but I now understand it better. (With some effort: It shares its title with a Johnny Horton hit from a quarter-century before, so it’s a hard song to track down.
Clint Eastwood is a country fan from way back when (on another soundtrack, he duets with Merle Haggard). His voice is way too husky to make him a viable singer, but he brings real conviction to his performances in Honkytonk Man (which also features several real country stars in cameos, notably Ray Price, Marty Robbins and Porter Wagoner). I recommend the film highly—with the warning that it’s pretty dark.
Here’s Eastwood as Red Stovall, helped out by the great Marty Robbins, a younger man who ironically died only a few months later.
“That’ll Be the Day” (Buddy Holly, 1956).
No, I’m not switching over to rockabilly, let alone to rock ‘n’ roll. But Holly loved country music, and his best songs work well in a country mode.
He might have been a country star, if the great Owen Bradley hadn’t made one of his rare mistakes. Bradley, a Country Music Hall of Fame member and arguably the most influential country producer of all time, was the head of Decca’s Nashville office, which in February 1956 signed Holly. Bradley’s list of artists would be the stuff of legend—Patsy Cline, Red Foley, Brenda Lee, Loretta Lynn, Webb Pierce, Ernest Tubb and more—and Holly’s star seemed to be on the rise.
But Bradley didn’t see the commercial potential in Holly’s rockabilly style and didn’t like his band, the Crickets. He tried to repackage Holly as a mainstream-county artist and, after two singles in this style tanked, Decca canceled the contract. Bradley didn’t make many mistakes in a long career, but that was one.
I will say, though, that there’s a weakness to “That’ll Be the Day.” The lyric is structured for a twist ending—throughout the verse, the singer proclaims a scoffing “That’ll be the day,” but in the last line he admits that, if that day ever came, it would kill him. The words “that I die” give the entire lyric a different meaning. However, the tune is so kinetic and forceful—and those pivotal words come and go so quickly—that the cleverness of the lyric is lost. The lyric clearly wants a pause before the twist … but the music is off to the races, and can’t be stopped.
“Some Other World” (Floyd Tillman, 1946).
I first heard this song in Willie Nelson’s recording from 1967, and I naturally assumed he’d written it. It’s actually by Floyd Tillman, a Western Swing artist who was a great songwriter and an annoying performer. (Annoying to me, anyway.) I can’t find Tillman’s 1946 recording online, but his Nashville Sound recording of 1958 should make my point for me. He had a nice voice, but his style was very mannered and irritating.
Nelson’s 1967 recording is also mannered, but is beautiful nonetheless. I’ve heard Nelson perform this live several times—it’s clearly a favorite of his.
“Act Naturally” (Buck Owens, 1963).
Johnny Russell’s song took the long way to success—for years it seemed like it would never get recorded—but after Owens recorded it, the song took off … thanks to a 1965 performance by Ringo Starr and a little band called the Beatles (like Holly, a Decca reject, though that one’s not on Bradley).
It’s rather an odd song, with a fixation on the movie business that’s unique in country to my experience, but it’s fun to listen to, fun to dance to and, yes, fun to sing. So much so that I’m willing to overlook the fact that the title should probably be “Act Natural.”
Here are the two recordings you have to hear: Owens from 1963, and Starr from 1965. (Let’s not obsess over the fact, by this time, Starr was already a movie star. The movies didn’t make him a big star, after all.) And, just for fun, one you don’t have to hear: Loretta Lynn from 1963.
“Oh, Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble” (Mac Davis, 1980).
This is Davis’ signature song, and deservedly so. My only criticism is that there are only two verses. C’mon, Mac, couldn’t you stoop to toss us one more?
Here’s Davis in a live performance. Sounds like the audience is having a great time.
“My Shoes Keep Walking Back to You” (Bob Wills, 1956).
This song is short and simple, but gets under your skin. I’ve fiddled around with it for two or three years now, and I’m still not sure this is the arrangement I’ll end up using long-term. But I do enjoy singing it.
Which doesn’t mean that I don’t notice that a list of body parts (“my arms,” “my eyes,” “my lips”) ends with “my shoes.” Are shoes a body part? My guess is that Ross and Wills originally had it as “my feet” (which fits), but discovered that the phrase “my feet” is just silly enough to undercut a romantic song like this.
In any case, I love this song, but it always makes me think of Fred Astaire being chased around by a shopful of shoes in The Barkleys of Broadway (1949). And it makes me think of parody versions galore; for example: “And my hair keeps reaching for you, and my tongue keeps licking for you, and my nose keeps sniffing for you, and my socks keep walking back to you.”
Here’s Lee Ross singing (and Bob Wills talking over him) in the earliest recording (though not the first one released—that was Wills’ kid brother, Billy Jack, who recorded it later but got it into stores a couple of months before Bob’s version). And here’s Ray Price’s over-the-top classic version, also very Western Swing but without Wills’ commentary.
“Jody and the Kid” (Kris Kristofferson, 1971).
Like any Kristofferson song, “Jody and the Kid” offers a virtual clinic in songwriting technique, as he characteristically avoids the easy answers to conventional challenges in favor of innovative choices of his own.
Right from the start, Kristofferson makes things hard on himself. It’s challenging enough to tell a story spanning maybe 20 years, and to do it in only six sentences covering only 24 lines. But Kristofferson is just getting started: His story will be divided into three verses, each a genre song in its own right, and each verse will have a tone all its own. The first verse is essentially humorous, a story of a young man who is annoyed (but secretly pleased) by a little girl who tags along after him; the second verse is a love song; and the third verse is—like almost all of Kristofferson’s great songs—a story of loss and loneliness.
There’s nothing in the first verse to warn us what will happen in the second verse, and nothing in the second verse to warn us what will happen in the third. Each verse has different goals to accomplish, and only eight lines—only two sentences!—to do it in.
The obvious first line would be something that would set up the central relationship—say, “She was 9 and I was 13.” But Kristofferson hates opening with the obvious. He likes to drop us into the middle of a story, with a line that in itself tells us nothing of the who, what and why of the situation: “Take the ribbon from your hair” or “Broken down in Baton Rouge and headed for the train.” He trusts his listener to follow a trail of breadcrumbs to achieve understanding.
The opening line, “She would meet me in the morning, on my way down to the river,” is a masterpiece, both misleading and revelatory. In the conventions of country music, “she” is always a romantic interest—which is not the case at all in Verse 1, but we’ll discover in Verse 2 that it actually is.
Having created this intriguing confusion, Kristofferson’s challenge is to lay the breadcrumbs to get the listener to where he wants to go. The third line, “with her feet already dusty from the pathway to the levee,” tips us off that this isn’t likely to be a romantic interest—that’s not the sort of thing that people say in country songs. And then the fourth line, “with her little blue jeans rolled up to her knees,” tells us that this is a child—“little” is, of course, the key word.
The next two lines nail down the relationship (“I paid her no attention as she tagged along beside me,/trying hard to copy everything I did”), and then the final two lines tell us how he feels about that relationship (“but I couldn’t keep from smiling when I’d hear somebody saying,/’Looky yonder, there goes Jody and the kid.’”).
Kristofferson has already accomplished a huge amount in eight lines, and the real miracle of the song is that he’s going to do the same thing all over again in the second verse and then again in the third. One of these days I may write a full blog post just taking apart this masterful lyric, as I did recently with Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee” (1969); for the moment, why don’t you look for yourself at how he resets the story with each verse, at how he homes in on the last two lines of each verse and their insight into the singer’s emotions, and how in various structural ways he weaves these three episodes together? If you’re anything like me, you’ll be amazed.
I don’t always think Kristofferson is our greatest living songwriter—there are plenty of other brilliant contenders for that crown—but I think it quite a bit.
Three versions for you here; Roy Drusky’s original recording from 1968, all pear-shaped tones and tinkling piano, with all the Nashville Sound trimmings; Kristofferson’s own version from 1971, stripped-down and straightforward, and a surprisingly effective 1968 version by, of all people, George Burns, even more Nashville Sound than Drusky’s, but with more personality. (Burns’ age, very obvious in his performance, adds greatly to the interpretation.)
“Jackson” (Johnny Cash and June Carter, 1967).
This song was written by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber, and that latter name should be enough to tell you that it wasn’t originally a country song. Leiber, one of America’s all-time-great pop songwriters, is the lyricist (usually with composer Mike Stoller) on such classics as “Hound Dog” (1952), “Jailhouse Rock” (1957), “Yakety Yak” (1958), “There Goes My Baby” (1958), “Stand By Me” (1961), “On Broadway” (1963), “Is That All There Is?” (1969) and any number of others.
According to Wheeler, Leiber’s contribution was essentially editorial—in particular, urging Wheeler to open the song with its strongest line (“We got married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout”), rather than saving it for the end. Even so, nobody heard it and thought, “Ah, this is a country song.” The original recording was by Wheeler, and the first major version was by the Kingston Trio, with nothing country about it.
That all changed in 1967, when Johnny Cash and June Carter recorded it in February and then Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra did a strongly similar one in July. Since then it’s been primarily seen as a country classic.
Billy Edd Wheeler’s version is a kind of low-energy folk take on the song; the Kingston Trio’s version is stylish but not compelling. Cash and Carter light it on fire, and Hazlewood and Sinatra slow it down for a pop version of the same idea—but slowing it down only saps the song of energy. Broadly speaking, the faster this song is, the better it works.
“Six Days on the Road” (Dave Dudley, 1963).
There are many versions of this song (written by Earl Green and Carl Montgomery), and they all stick to the basic idea of a strong, driving beat that mimics the pounding of a truck’s tires. In general singers like to take the song fast, pushing it near the point of careening out of control, but keeping it barely short of breakdown. Again, very trucklike.
“Georgia overdrive” is a driving technique whereby a driver puts a vehicle into neutral at the top of a hill, letting gravity take over on the way down. It saves on gasoline and allows a truck to surpass its theoretical top speed, but carries an obvious risk of running out of control.
The “little white pills” referred to are probably amphetamines intended to help a driver stay awake on an overnight haul.
The I.C.C. is the Interstate Commerce Commission, which operated from 1887 to 1995, at which point deregulation spurred its dissolution, with its component duties distributed to other agencies. Among other things, it monitored weight limits on trucks (“I’m a little overweight” refers to the truck, not its driver) and required drivers to maintain records of how far they traveled, by what routes, what they were transporting and such (“my log’s three days behind”).
“Mind Your Own Business” (Hank Williams, 1949).
This is one of the great early Hank Williams songs (sadly, there aren’t any late Hank Williams songs), managing to combine whininess and exuberance in a characteristic way.
Williams was more of a lyricist than a composer—some of his greatest songs, including “I Saw the Light” (1948) and “Cold Cold Heart” (1951) were written to existing tunes. In this case, the tune he cribbed was his own—the melody of “Mind Your Own Business” is quite a bit like that of “Move It On Over” (1947).
“Making the Same Mistakes All Over Again” (Tennessee Walt, 2018).
This was one of the easiest-to-write songs I’ve ever written. The song came to me in two verses, almost exactly the same as the current first two; I though to myself that it needed one more, something of an overview, and an hour or so later (during which time I was doing other things) I looked back in on it and it had three verses.
It’s nice when that happens. Doesn’t always.
“That Much a Fool” (Tennessee Walt, 2016).
I seldom venture into topical songs, but this one is a fairly good representation of my own political perspective, which I would describe as “centrist”—meaning, alternatively, “someone who sees the folly of extremists of the left and right alike” or “someone who is seen as a fool by left and right alike.”
For the record, the fifth line of the first verse was originally “I believe that Donald Trump would be a great president”; subsequently I’ve performed it as “will be a great president” and “has been a great president,” and I look forward to the day (hopefully soon) when I can render it as “was a great president.”
“Jacksonville” (Tennessee Walt, 2017).
It seems odd that you can write a song and not fully understand what it’s about, but I assure you that I did. I saw the signs on I-95 for Jacksonville as I headed north, and started idly fiddling around with the name—many country songs are based on town names. A song emerged, but I couldn’t really tell what it was about. The melody was originally very similar to another one I had been working on earlier that day, though it has evolved since then. I imagined that similar evolution would clarify the lyrics, but to date that hasn’t happened.
So, no, I don’t know who the woman described in the song is, or what makes her so dangerous. I’m not sure who the singer is or whom he’s talking to, though I definitely get the sense that he’s speaking from personal experience. I like the song anyway, and I hope you will too.
Maybe someday I’ll figure it out.
“It’s Too Hot to Dance” (Tennessee Walt, 2017).
I described the origin of this song in my introduction of it. About the only thing more I can say is that in my head I hear this as a rockabilly song, with a more muscular piano arrangement than the current one (which isn’t by any means wimpy).
Haven’t come up with anything yet, but maybe I will at a later date. In the meantime, I’ll (yes) sweat it out.