North Babylon Public Library, January 26, 2021
“Setting the Woods on Fire” (Hank Williams, 1952)
Written by Fred Rose and Edward G. Nelson, this is a great example of why many people said that Fred Rose could write a Hank Williams song better than anyone, even Williams himself. Since the song first hit the airwaves, people have assumed that it was a Williams original. In reality Rose—who was Williams’ producer on every studio recording he ever made, his publisher on every song he ever published and his co-writer (credited or uncredited) on many of them, and who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Williams and Jimmie Rodgers in the hall’s first class of inductees in 1961—is simply doing what he did best: tailoring a song to the particular skills of the artist who would be performing it.
Nelson (1885-1969) was not based in Nashville; chances are that he and Rose worked on this song in Hollywood in the early 1940s, when both men were based there, and that Rose later pulled it out and offered it to Williams. Nelson was a prolific Tin Pan Alley songwriter, and co-authored such hits as Bing Crosby’s “I Apologize” (1931), “Auf Wiedersehen, My Dear” (1932) and Eddie Cantor’s “Josephine, Please No Lean on the Bell” (1946). Rose and Nelson weren’t frequent collaborators, but they did write “Hang Your Head in Shame” (1944), best known in 1945 versions by Bob Wills and by Red Foley.
Here’s Williams’ version of “Setting the Woods on Fire,” still the definitive one.
“Can the Circle Be Unbroken” (Carter Family, 1935)
The original hymn, by Ada R. Habershon (words) and Charles H. Gabriel (music), was called “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and by the 1960s most performances of the song by country musicians had reverted to that name. However, the Carters always sang it as “Can the Circle Be Unbroken”; the use of “Will” these days probably isn’t related to the original hymn, since all these recordings use the Carters’ lyrics—which probably weren’t by A.P. Carter, but were entirely different from Habershon’s, except in the chorus.
“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 sessions 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.)
“In the Jailhouse Now” (Jimmie Rodgers, 1928)
This song is credited to Rodgers and his sister-in-law, Elsie McWilliams, but at best they tweaked a song that had already been recorded several times and has a publishing history dating back at least to 1915.
It was a huge hit for Rodgers, popular enough that he recorded a sequel, “In the Jailhouse Now, No. 2,” in 1930. It also took words and music from earlier versions by other people.
“I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” (Hank Williams, 1949)
One of Williams’ earliest recordings, this is perhaps the song which most defines his public image as a despondent poet of lonely train whistles and hopeless love. Technically it was the B-side to “My Bucket’s Got a Hole in It” (1949), but it was immediately recognized as the better of the two songs and drove the record’s rise to No. 4 on the country charts.
The power of the song comes from its simplicity. It’s a long-line waltz sung so slowly that it loses all of its dance qualities, its 3/4 time instead reading as a pulsing 1. The vocal (which Williams claimed originally was intended to be a recitation, not sung) drifts over the beat without a clear sense of direction, mirroring the lyrics’ narrative inertness—there’s no story here, only a sense of despondent sadness so deep as to deny even a flicker of hope.
It’s not until the penultimate line that we even learn that the song is, to some degree, a love song, and we know that the person to whom it’s sung doesn’t hear it and never will. The imagery begins with the haunting evocation of a lonesome whippoorwill and a train at night and, instead of zooming in on the narrator and his specific cares, widens outward to encompass the night, the end of summer and, finally, a falling star, a silent flicker on the horizon, gone as soon as it’s seen.
Williams’ reputation as a poet, as “the hillbilly Shakespeare,” rests on this song more than any other. It’s well-deserved.
“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.”
“I Saw the Light” (Hank Williams/Albert E. Brumley, 1947)
Williams’ appropriation of the tune and the general sense (and some specific quotes) of Brumley’s lyrics to “He Set Me Free” (1939) are beyond question. Still, this is an exuberant song which improves on Brumley’s song by being simpler and more direct, an exultant celebration of personal salvation that works even for non-believers.
Williams sticks to Brumley’s challenging AABB-BBBB rhyme scheme, with the A rhymes different for each verse but the B always the same “ight” rhyme (in Brumley it’s an “ee” rhyme). This is possible, of course, because the English language gives us so many rhymes for this sound—“night,” “light,” “sight,” “right”—but mainly because Williams reuses them: His three verses feature 18 “ight” rhymes (not counting an internal rhyme in the first line of the chorus), but nine of them are “light,” four are “night,” four are “sight” and one is “right.” Such rhymes as “fight,” “slight,” “fright” and “might” go unused.
(Note: Brumley doesn’t actually stick to this rhyme scheme past the first verse—the second and third verses are AABB-CCCC, with only the C rhymes on “ee.” So you could argue that Williams out-Brumleys Brumley himself.)
Here are three versions of this tune, all great recordings: The first is the Chuck Wagon Gang (personal favorites of mine) doing “He Set Me Free”; then we have Hank Williams in what is his first truly great recording, making “I Saw the Light” an instant classic; finally, a television performance in which Roy Acuff and Hank Williams trade off verses with the Grand Ole Opry cast as their chorus. (Yes, that’s June Carter hamming it up between Acuff and Williams.)
“Your Cheating Heart” (Hank Williams, 1952)
I guess Audrey Williams’ bee in her bonnet about this particular song must have stemmed from its being such a big hit, because her husband painted far worse pictures of her in other songs (“You Win Again,” anyone?) that, so far as we know, she let go.
I’ve been tempted to work up a new arrangement for this song, one that’s more country, for some time. This one feels kind of cabaret to me, and that’s not what I’m going for. I have enough troubles convincing people that what I’m doing is country.
Nonetheless, I’m sentimentally attached to this arrangement—the first one I ever did—as my first step along a road that has taken me to any number of arrangements that I like better. In my first days as a country singer, I felt like an impostor, someone pretending to be a piano player; it’s only in the past eight or 10 months (aided by a rigorous practice regimen thanks to the lockdown) that I’ve felt like I actually am a piano player. Maybe my discomfort with this arrangement is because it reminds me of those early days, but I also feel a tie to it, as people do to their earliest childhood memories, even if those memories are trivial or embarrassing.
We’ll see what happens in days/week/years to come.
Oh, and here’s Williams’ classic version. And here’s a link to an entire essay by me that’s about (wait for it) the apostrophe in “Your Cheatin’ Heart”—and why you don’t see that apostrophe above. Seriously, that’s what it’s about. Check it out.
“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.
Here’s Kristofferson’s own version, which I still like better than any other.
“I’ve Been Everywhere” (Hank Snow, 1962)
Geoff Mack, an Australian singer/songwriter, wrote this song in 1959, and it was a hit for an Australian singer named Lucky Starr in 1962; it was probably Starr’s version of the song that Hank Snow somehow heard and loved. The thing was, the song was entirely a string of Australian place names, which wouldn’t make sense to an American audience. So Snow got in touch with Mack and asked him to make an American version. Mack pulled down an atlas and, browsing over the maps of the 50 states, came up with the song as we know it today.
So yes, ironically, “I’ve Been Everywhere” was written by a guy who hadn’t been anywhere—he’d never visited a single one of the 92 places mentioned in its lyrics. At the time he wrote it, anyway: Snow’s recording became a huge hit, and Mack came to America the next year, where he met Snow in Nashville and was inducted into the Songwriter’s Hall of Fame.
Some years ago I heard Lea Salonga sing it at the Carlyle Hotel in Manhattan. That song has been everywhere. (Including Austin, Texas, in February 2016, when it became the first song ever sung publicly by Tennessee Walt; it has a Gilbert & Sullivan feel to it, so I put on my western hat and sang it as Walt amid a performance of my one-man show, Gilbert & Sullivan and Me.)
“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.
“Crazy” (Patsy Cline, 1962)
Billy Walker, for whom the song was written, turned it down. His big objection to the song was that it was “too girly”—that the character was weepy and despondent, lacking in strength or manliness. When producer Owen Bradley offered the song to Decca star Roy Drusky, Drusky said the same thing. Apparently neither of them had ever heard a Hank Williams song.
Personally, I’ve never felt that obsessive, self-harming romantic infatuation was a female-only condition. In any case, since then the song has been covered by such artists as Elvis Costello, Julio Iglesias, Slim Richey, Steven Tyler, Neil Young and Nelson himself. So far as I know, none of them objected to its “girliness.”
“Out of My Head (and Back in My Bed)” (Loretta Lynn, 1977)
Written by Peggy Forman, this song was Lynn’s 12th No. 1 single, and her last to date. It’s unusual for a Lynn song in that, while the singer is dissatisfied with her relationship, she isn’t deciding to get rid of her man—she’s already done that, and is instead deciding to get him back.
The lyrics as I perform them are mostly the original lyrics; the only major alteration I make is to change “no other man/can do what you can” to “no other dame/is even half the same.” If this was 1927, I’d simply sing the song in the voice of a woman; if it was 2027, maybe I’d sing it in the voice of a man singing about another man. Being a man of the in-between generation, I prefer to tweak the lyrics!
Here’s Lynn in a typically take-no-prisoners performance.
“Always on My Mind” (Willie Nelson, 1982)
People are often surprised to learn that Nelson didn’t write this song, and that in fact it had been recorded by a number of people a decade before Nelson got to it. In part this is because the song seems to fit Nelson’s own story so well: He’s a four-times-married singer who has blamed the failure of his first three marriages on his not being there, owing to his passion for the life of a touring musician. (In his late 80s, Nelson is still on the road for most of the year.)
This overlooks the obvious: Nelson isn’t the only touring musician out there, and the life is pretty much the same for all of them, whether they sing country, rock, pop or opera. The song captures a dynamic common to the lives of nearly every touring musician, the same way that Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (1969) did, and it’s no surprise that hundreds of musicians have covered each of these songs.
Songwriters Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson knew that life firsthand, as did Brenda Lee and, yes, Willie Nelson. It’s about Nelson’s life, yes, but it’s about a lot of other people’s lives as well.
“Sweet Dreams” (Don Gibson, 1955)
Another short (and, yes, sweet) song by the great Don Gibson. His songs are short because he has a genius for cutting to the chase, getting his idea across and getting out. If I tried to express this idea, I’d do it in three verses, three choruses and a bridge; the verses would probably be six lines long, maybe eight, and the chorus four or six. Call it 36 lines over all.
Gibson gets his job done in 12 lines, and it’s one of the best songs ever written. His version is 1/3 the length of mine, and three times as powerful.
There’s always Patsy Cline’s immortal performance of this song, but it’s a bit Nashville Sound for me. Give a listen to Gibson’s own version, from 1955, and Reba McEntire’s live version. They’re both great. (No surprise, Gibson’s runs 2:17 without rushing; McEntire’s runs 3:09, almost a whole minute longer.)
“Time Changes Everything” (Bob Wills, 1940)
OK, here’s my problem with this great song, written by Tommy Duncan, who was the singer for Wills’ Texas Playboys during their glory years in the 1930s and 1940s: I can’t find a recording that I love as much as I love the song.
Wills was the pre-eminent master of the country subgenre known as Western swing, which was essentially dance music—basically, swing music played with country instruments. To me it’s not actually a subgenre of country, but rather a subgenre of swing. Wills’ recording (with Duncan singing lead) is a great performance, but it’s way too fast for this wistful, aching lyric; and Wills’ trademark whoops, hollers and interjections (basically heckling himself) annoy me even more than they usually do—which is saying something. This is a lyric that cries out to be taken seriously, and Western swing wasn’t about taking lyrics seriously.
Recordings by such greats as Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash take their cue from the original production; they’re fast and superficial. At least they don’t mimic Wills’ cackling. I’ll take Cash’s version, of the three, but none really gets the song the way I hear it.
Someday, when I have a band, I’ll have to record this and make it sound the way it does in my head. Believe me, it’s better.
“Back to December” (Taylor Swift, 2010)
I get a lot of pushback from people—especially the people who love the kind of music I love—when I say that I consider Swift the greatest living songwriter under the age of 50. They also give me the stinkeye when I say that she’s one of the greatest country songwriters ever.
But I’m not engaging in rhetorical excess. I think that Swift’s first three albums, Taylor Swift (2006), Fearless (2008) and Speak Now (2010), are easily better than any other country artist’s best three albums in the new century, and rank with some of the best country albums of all time. Kristofferson (1970) is a better album than Fearless, I’ll admit, but not by much—and that’s setting the bar awfully high. And I revere Kris Kristofferson, but I’m not sure that, in his whole career, he’s put out three albums that are as good as the three Swift had put out by the time she turned 20. The Silver-Tongued Devil and I (1971), yes, absolutely—but then what?
What Swift did in her country years was exactly what Hank Williams did, what Loretta Lynn did, what Kristofferson and Willie Nelson did. She took emotionally powerful stories, mostly from her own life, and set them to music with wit, passion and a recklessness that has been missing from Nashville since … well, at least since the 1970s.
I don’t say this easily, because to me most of contemporary country is an artistic wasteland, having ceded to hip-hop the artistic courage, the emotional freedom and the simple sincerity that characterized the best country of the 1920s through the 1950s. I stumbled across Swift in 2009 while making a survey of contemporary country, looking for artists who spoke to me the way Williams, Tubb, Snow, Lynn, Nelson and Kristofferson did. By and large, that survey was depressing; it convinced me that my rejection of country during my youth in the 1970s and 1980s was largely reasonable.
But I kept an open mind, and this teenage girl from Pennsylvania gave me hope for the whole thing. I don’t write the way she does (I’m a 59-year-old man from New York), but she’s one of the reasons I write. She proves that you don’t have to be a dead white Southerner from the 1930s or earlier to be a great country songwriter.
And that she was a voice for young women in Nashville, a city which has precious few of them, doesn’t mean that she doesn’t “sound like country.” Country used to want to sound like the real world and, last I heard, young women were real people. Country music is what doesn’t sound like country any more.
Swift is a good-enough singer, not a great one, and her songs are often overproduced. Not all her songs measure up to her best (whose do?). Her recent detour into pop music has been deeply disappointing. But I’m hoping that she comes back to country, because it needs her desperately.
“My Wife Thinks You’re Dead” (Junior Brown, 1995)
I’ve been performing this song for almost five years now, but finally have an arrangement that I like.
It’s tough doing Junior Brown songs on a piano, because his style of writing is heavily influenced by his choice of instrument, the so-called “guit-steel,” an instrument of his own design which mounts a guitar and a steel guitar on the same body. Most of the time I’ve seen him, he’s been accompanied by only a drummer, serving as his own backup band.
This gives his shows (and his records) a really distinctive sound, but it also means that he uses audial texturing and rhythmic patterns that can’t really be captured on the piano. I love his work, and particularly his humorous side (and our shared appreciation for Ernest Tubb), but this is the only one of his songs I’ve ever tackled; now that I’ve finally figured this one out, maybe I’ll turn my attention to some of his other great songs.
Here’s Brown’s original version of this song. After that—after you’ve appreciated how great a song it is—watch his music video. Don’t start with the video, because you’ll be laughing too hard to hear the song.
“Waiting on a Train” (Citizens Band Radio, 2007)
Written by Jason Jannuzzi, this song from the New Jersey-based band came to my attention when I saw them open for a Loretta Lynn show in New Jersey about five years ago, and it’s still a favorite of mine. Their version is considerably different from mine, but I have a lot less to work with.
This is my favorite of their songs, but they have lots of other good ones. Check them out at their website, http://www.worldofcbr.com.
“If You Don’t Like Hank Williams” (Kris Kristofferson, 1976)
“Hey, did you know that, back in 1976, Kris Kristofferson wrote a song that mentions Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift?”
Now, obviously that didn’t happen. Kristofferson’s song mentions only people who were alive and professionally active in 1976. Most of them are people who are still well known today, and obviously I could have simply done the song as he did it. The thing is, the meaning of that song would be different today.
Kristofferson’s point, as I take it, is a broadside against musical snobbery—against those in other fields who look down on country, but also against those in country who look down on other fields. Kristofferson, a Rhodes scholar with a wide experience of the world through his years in the military (he left the Army as a captain), had tastes that were broader than those of any other mainstream country star of the era, with the exception of Johnny Cash. When he offers shout-outs to Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell and the Rolling Stones, he’s telling his country audience that there’s a whole other world of music out there and that, if they write off those artists because they’re not country, they’re as stupid as people who write off Hank Williams because he is country. And you know that they can do.
Today, though, that list feels different. Of the 17 people on Kristofferson’s list, only Hank Williams was dead in 1976. Today more than half of them are dead, and the survivors are geriatric. Kristofferson’s song was about the richness of the contemporary musical world; to sing the same lyrics today would be a broadside against the contemporary musical world, to suggest that most of the great musicians are dead, and that no one who started his/her career after the 1960s is worth listening to. I don’t think Kristofferson would make that case; I certainly wouldn’t.
So I’ve expanded the song from two verses (and a coda) to four verses, allowing me to get in 21 artists. I’ve kept all the people from Kristofferson’s two verses who are still alive (like him, I’m a big fan of all of them), and replaced the dead ones with contemporary artists (and one dead team of comic-opera creators) whom I admire. My field is wider than his, encompassing classical music, Broadway and pop, but I don’t have to worry about getting played on country radio. (I suspect that Kristofferson probably likes Lady Gaga and Taylor Swift as much as I do. Gilbert & Sullivan? Not so sure.)
For the record, though, here’s Kristofferson singing his song (and his band offering literal shout-outs to their personal favorites—including “my cousin!”—at the end), and here are his original lyrics:
I dig Bobby Dylan and I dig Johnny Cash.
I think Waylon Jennings is a table-thumping smash.
Hearing Joni Mitchell feels as good as smoking grass,
and if you don’t like Hank Williams, honey, you can kiss my ass.
‘Cause I think what they’ve done is well worth doing,
and they’re doing it the best way that they can.
You’re the only one that you are screwing
when you put down what you don’t understand.
I dig Roger Miller, Merle Haggard and George Jones,
Shotgun Willie Nelson and them rocking Rolling Stones
Anything new them Eagles do is better than their last,
and if you don’t like Hank Williams, honey, you can kiss my ass.
‘Cause I think what they’ve done is well worth doing,
and they’re doing it the best way that they can.
You’re the only one that you are screwing
when you put down what you don’t understand.
Forgot to say John Prine, Neil Young, Lyle Lovett (God bless him), Chris
Gantry, Jerry Jeff Walker, and David Allen Coe…