March 13, 2021
“Honky Tonking” (Hank Williams, 1947)
Williams actually recorded and released this song twice in consecutive years, once for the low-budget, no-royalties Sterling Records in 1947 and again for the far more professional MGM Records in January 1948. Sterling didn’t have much distribution, so the MGM recording is the version almost everybody knows today.
There’s a third version, though, a live performance on radio, that I particularly love. Williams always puts a little mustard on the first word in “honky-tonking,” stretching the “N” as much as possible and making the “K” as short as possible, but he really goes to town in this one. Clearly he’s having a lot of fun with it. (And/or has had a few drinks to liven things up.) I don’t imitate his performance here, though, because it would probably leave me unable to sing for the rest of the day.
In none of these versions does he sing the original lyric for the third verse:
We’re going to the city,
to the city fair,
We’ll get a quart of whiskey
and get up in the air!
Producer Fred Rose thought that was a little too strong for radio play, and substituted the blander “If you some to the city, baby,/you will find me there.”
“On a Bus to St. Cloud” (Gretchen Peters, 1995)
This lovely song is best known in its original recording, by Tricia Yearwood, which was deservedly a big hit. I prefer the 1996 recording by Peters herself, for its simplicity—Yearwood’s version is beautifully sung, but its lavish production works against the wistful nature of the material. Besides which, I always like simple better than lavish.
Sometimes I love a song for the lyrics, and certainly Peters writes a beautiful lyric here. A series of small snatches of experience adds up to a cumulative sense of loss and regret that builds to the powerful release of the final “And you chase me like a shadow, and you haunt me like a ghost.” Beautifully done.
And yet it’s a musical choice that sticks with me. The unexpected A-minor chord in the third line of the chorus (on the word “face”) really gets me, every time.
“Big Daddy’s Alabammy Bound” (John D. Loudermilk, 1961)
The original of Loudermilk’s song is Boots Randolph’s version. more R&B than country. However, the song has been embraced by dozens of country artists, including Loudermilk himself. My personal favorite is Wanda Jackson’s version, but Chet Atkins offers a cool instrumental version that’s also fun.
The striking thing about this song is its swaggering tune, which makes up for the fact that the song isn’t really about much of anything. In the first verse we learn that a troublemaking guy is ducking across the state line to escape arrest … and in the rest of the song we learn the same thing, again and again. But it’s so much fun that we don’t care.
I’ve made one revision to the lyrics. I’ve heard a number of fine versions of this song (the live one by The Browns is also great—be sure to stick around for the cute ending), with different singers with different accents, but none of them can make “patrol” rhyme with “criminal.” So I’ve revised that second-verse couplet to rhyme “FBI” with “guy.” At least to my accent, that’s a better rhyme!
“My Wife Thinks You’re Dead” (Junior Brown, 1993)
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.
“I Thought I Heard You Calling My Name” (Lee Emerson, 1957)
Colter’s 1976 version of Emerson’s song is a favorite of mine, and the source of my interpretation—not Porter Wagoner’s original version from 1957, despite the fact that he’s a male singer. It may be because his take has a lot of the Nashville Sound trimmings that annoy me so much in country of the 1950s. Colter’s version is simpler and more emotionally direct, which I always appreciate.
There are basically two kinds of sad country songs: One explores how a bad relationship went bad; the other dispenses with how we got here, and dives deep into the emotional state of affairs—be it anger, sorrow, regret, relief or whatever. Emerson goes straight for the second kind, and produces a classic. Anyone who’s ever had a breakup (and how many of us haven’t?) can understand the specific experience that this song is about.
“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. That one also took words and music from earlier versions by other people.
“Why Can’t She Be You?” (Hank Cochrane, 1962)
Patsy Cline’s version is the classic, of course, but I like Cochrane’s own version very much, in a different way. He’s not the staggering vocal virtuoso that Cline is, of course, but then who is? And I think he captures the intention of the lyric in a way that Cline doesn’t (understandably, since he wrote the song).
As I read the song, the first verse starts out with a smirking, self-satisfied tone: The singer is boasting to his ex that she’s already been replaced by a better option, bragging that he takes her to the same places and, unlike his ex, she gives him the kind of passionate love he never got from her. The last line—“Why can’t she be you?”—comes as a surprise, as the singer’s bravado breaks down under the weight of the truth: He still loves his ex.
The rest of the song is the singer arguing with himself, trying to sell himself on all the ways his new girl is better than his old one (the second and third verses’ “she does all the things that you would never do” isn’t necessarily sexual, but it could be)—arguing and losing. The last line is starker and more wounded each time, and the song ends on a note of despair.
Cline’s vocal performance is unforgettable (her little melisma on the second syllable of “ne-VER got from you” is just perfect), but it’s one-note: She begins the song miserable and ends up miserable. In Cochrane’s version the song has more shape and subtlety to it.
“I Guess Things Happen That Way” (Cowboy Jack Clement, 1958)
Either you like choruses going “Ba-doop-a-doop” or you don’t. I don’t, which is why I love this song but not Johnny Cash’s original recording. The chorus imposes a tongue-in-cheek quality on the song which nothing else about it justifies.
I have a sneaking suspicion that Cash felt the same way, because his performance absolutely ignores the chorus—to the point, in fact, that it sounds as if the chorus has been overdubbed, which it may have been. Cash sings the song absolutely straight, with a mournful tone that fits the words and melody (but not the accompaniment) perfectly.
I would say that the songwriter probably was appalled to hear what the producer had done to his song, but Cowboy Jack Clement was both the songwriter and the producer, so he was presumably OK with it. Go figure.
“The Silver-Tongued Devil and I” (Kris Kristofferson, 1971)
Yes, there really was a Tally-Ho Tavern (great name for a place to chase women), but it wasn’t called that. During his pre-stardom years Kristofferson worked there as a bartender, and was also a regular customer. His drinking in those days was considerable, as was his womanizing, both of which are referenced in the song.
One of the things I love about this song is the way it doesn’t hit you over the head with what it’s about. Kristofferson, being a former professor of English literature, is probably familiar with “The Secret Sharer” (1909), a short story by Joseph Conrad which may have inspired this song. It follows a similarly oblique path.
I had some trouble learning this song—my lips kept saying “the silver-haired devil,” even when my brain was getting it right. Those who’ve seen me may be able to understand this error, but I assure you that this isn’t a Freudian slip.
Anyway, here’s Kristofferson singing the song in its original recording. Classic, both for the song itself and also for his ruefully humorous performance.
“For the Good Times” (Kris Kristofferson, 1968)
Four versions of this classic song for you; I could have offered a hundred, because it’s been a favorite of generations of singers.
To begin with, a strange recording by Bill Nash, in 1968, which was nonetheless the first recording. Nash’s version is bizarrely fast and includes some weird extra verses in the form of a musical square-dance call, plus an over-the-top ending. It went nowhere, maybe because it was on the tiny Acme label or maybe because it was incomprehensible and willfully ill-conceived.
It’s understandable that Kristofferson would want there to be a more conventional recording, and he made one himself, two years later, on his debut album, Kristofferson. Not a square-dance call to be heard.
That album was a critical favorite, but not a hit at the cash register. That had to wait a few months, until Ray Price sang the song later in 1970. It became a No. 1 hit (Price’s first since 1959), and that success propelled it to a win at the 1971 Country Music Association Awards as both Best Song (for Kristofferson) and Best Single (for Price). Personally, I think Price’s version—with a backing of ridiculously lush strings—sounds like a parody of the excesses of the Nashville Sound, but it sold a lot of records.
If I have to have the Nashville Sound, I’ll take Al Green’s version, which is more restrained and far more nuanced.
I’m not generally in love with my own arrangements, which are typically a compromise between the way I hear them in my head and the way I’m actually capable of playing them, but there’s a little touch to this one that I like: The song is in ¾, waltz time, but it’s usually (and rightly) done so slowly that there’s no obvious waltz quality to this song of regret and loss. However, I use just a touch of waltz in the introduction and at the end of each verse, following the words “for the good times,” as a romantic evocation of the better, more dance-filled days—the good times—that are gone forever. Maybe I’m the only one that notices, but I like it!
“Here Comes That Rainbow Again” (Kris Kristofferson, 1981)
This one is based on a scene from John Steinbeck’s classic novel The Grapes of Wrath (1939), made into an equally classic movie by John Ford the next year. As mentioned, Kristofferson was an English-literature professor, and a number of his songs draw inspiration from literary sources that might escape the notice of the average country fan.
According to Kristofferson, Johnny Cash (who made an excellent 1985 recording of the song) told him that this might be his favorite song by a writer of our time. I wouldn’t go that far, but its powerful evocation of human solidarity and compassion literally brings tears to my eyes—it took hours of rehearsing before I could get through it without breaking down.
Here’s Kristofferson’s own version; Cash’s version; and an odd-but-appealing video clip in which the maker has superimposed the Kristofferson recording on stills from the scene as it appears in Ford’s movie.
“It’s a Good Night for Singing” (Bob Livingston, 1976)
The only thing I don’t love about this song is its title: There’s not a 100% overlap between country fans and musical-theater fans, but there are a lot of us who have a foot in both camps, and for us Rodgers & Hammerstein got there first with “It’s a Grand Night for Singing,” from the movie State Fair (1945). Took me forever to get past that in singing the song.
That said, I love Jerry Jeff Walker’s recording of Bob Livingston’s song. It’s got a great lazy dreaminess to it, capturing the feeling of being up way too late, so tired that there’s no point in going to bed, and just sitting around feeling dopily good. Or, if you will, grand.
It’s been some years since I was there (it’s a young man’s kind of feeling), but I remember it well.
“Evil on Your Mind” (Harlan Howard, 1966)
If you’re like me, hearing this song—especially in its original recording, by Jan Howard—will evoke another song: Nancy Sinatra’s No. 1 hit “These Boots Are Made for Walking” (1965), written by Lee Hazlewood. In their feminist message, in their rebuke to an unsatisfactory husband and, especially, in their characteristic DA-da-da-DA-da, DA-da-da-DA-da, the two songs are strikingly similar.
Did Harlan Howard simply rip off Hazlewood’s song for his wife to sing? Possibly, but probably not: “Evil on Your Mind” was released on March 4, 1966, and probably recorded at least a month before then. “These Boots Are Made for Walking” had been released in late December 1965, and didn’t make it onto the Billboard charts until January 22, 1966. While it is certainly possible for a skilled songwriter like Howard to get a song written, recorded and released in only six weeks, it would have been difficult.
More likely is that Howard had written his song prior to the release of Hazlewood’s song, but producer Owen Bradley—who, as head of Decca’s Nashville office, kept a keen eye on the charts—recognized an opportunity, fast-tracked Jan Howard’s recording and produced an arrangement that deliberately evoked the earlier song, which by the end of February was a huge hit, sitting at No. 1 on the Billboard Top 40.
If Bradley thought that this was the way to make a hit … he was right. “Evil on Your Mind” made it to No. 5 on the country charts, Jan Howard’s most successful song.
“I Don’t Think She’s in Love Anymore” (Kent Robbins, 1982)
Not a lot to say about this great Charley Pride song, which speaks for itself—its combination of anguish and wry humor is what makes it a favorite of mine—so let’s talk about baseball.
Music and baseball were the loves of Charley Pride’s life, and for a while it looked as if he’d find his home at Yankee Stadium, not at the Opry. A pitcher with considerable talent, he played with the Memphis Red Sox (a Negro Leagues team) in 1952, and the next year was signed by the New York Yankees, who assigned him to their Class C team (today we’d call it their rookie-league team) in Boise, Idaho.
He injured his arm, however, and was cut by the Yankees. Unwilling to give up his dream, Pride returned to the Negro Leagues, signing with the Louisville Clippers—who soon traded him and a teammate, Jesse Mitchell, to the Birmingham Black Barons for a team bus.
Pride clung to his baseball dream into the early 1960s, playing for assorted Negro Leagues and minor-league teams and trying to get a shot at the big leagues: The last team for which he tried out was the New York Mets in 1962—after which he apparently decided that, if you weren’t good enough to make the ’62 Mets (still the worst team in major-league history), you didn’t have much of a future in the game.
By then, though, he had some other irons in the fire: While he was playing for a semipro team in Helena, Montana, and working in a lead smeltery, the team manager realized that, besides batting .444, his new recruit could sing. He offered Pride double the salary (a princely $20 a game) to sing a few numbers before each game to help draw crowds. Nightclub managers, booking agents and record-company executives could all turn up in the ballpark crowd, as did baseball-loving country stars Red Foley and Red Sorvine—and things started happening. A star was born.
Pride had always been confident that he’d make it as a singer, and had pursued musical opportunities all along, but he’d been more than willing to wait a decade or two if he could spend them on the ballfield. As it turned out, he would spend most of those years on the stage or in the recording studio—for which we’re all better off.
“Lucille” (Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum, 1977)
Listen to the great recording of this song by Kenny Rogers, and you’ll hear everything that makes country country.
In particular, you’ll hear one of the greatest openings to any song ever, country or otherwise:
In a bar in Toledo,
across from the depot,
on a barstool she took off her ring.
How can you change the radio dial after hearing those words? There are a lot of ways the story could go from there, but they’re all intriguing. Why is she taking off her ring? Is it because she’s in a bar, or is that coincidental? Is she in a bar because she’s about to take off her ring—is she on the prowl for a man? Has she just spotted a man, and that’s what causes her to take off her ring? Who is she, and what’s her story? For that matter, who’s telling it? Is this a first-person story by someone we haven’t met yet, or a third-person story about her?
There’s more to writing a good song than writing a great opening, but planting the hook early is a great way to start.
(P.S. For my money, the song lives up to its opening.)
“Drinking My Baby Back Home” (Charlie Daniels, 1940)
OK, let’s talk process. I submit that what we have here is a representative piece of music by the great Charlie Daniels. It’s characteristic in its big, exuberant sound—hard to listen to Daniels when you’re sitting down—and in its matching party spirit.
Slicing up this particular sample of the Charlie Daniels sound for analytic purposes, I’d say that I detect herein rockabilly guitars, zydeco fiddles, Wilburn Bros. harmonies, honky-tonk piano and R&B drums, topped by a vocal that evokes Jerry Lee Lewis with, at the end, a touch of ur-rap—call it blues shouting, if you will.
What all those elements have in common is that they aren’t anything one guy at a piano can do. Not this one guy, anyway. Jerry Lee in his prime might have had a shot at it, maybe.
So, approaching the song, I had to ask myself, “How can I perform this song in a way that captures some of the spirit of Charlie Daniels, given that his defining characteristic was a sound that is absolutely beyond my capacity to capture?”
You’ll have to decide for yourself if what I figured out works or not; either way, just be thankful that I didn’t tackle “The Devil Came Down to Georgia.”
“Live Forever” (Billy Joe Shaver, 2010)
Here’s Billy Joe Shaver singing his song. It’s no secret that I’m a huge Shaver fan; he was by any standards a loose cannon, a quick-to-anger, paranoid drunk with an exaggerated sense of his own importance and a general hostility toward the rest of the world.
He wasn’t wrong, though, in thinking that he was a generational songwriter, a uniquely gifted guy whose songs couldn’t have been written by anybody else. His songs either shaped country music in the 1970s and beyond … or ought to have.
Shaver was an incredibly hard guy to deal with, prickly and positively eager to take offense. Recording a Shaver song meant having to deal with Shaver, and the big names don’t like having to deal with arrogant guys that nobody’s ever heard of. Nevertheless, the list of people who recorded Shaver songs is an honor roll of the biggest names there were: Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Alison Krauss, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley.
Here’s the Highwaymen singing the same song, which they used as the finale to their 1995 tour. Think about that one: Cash, Jennings, Kristofferson and Nelson, four of the top songwriters of their generation, get together to do a show … and they decide to finish with a Billy Joe Shaver song.
If it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me.
p.s.—Read my blog essay on Billy Joe Shaver, especially if you know his work. I think I’m onto something about how his particular songwriting style works.
“Lockdown City” (Tennessee Walt, 2020)
I wrote this in late March 2020, during the early days of the lockdown, and premiered it on April 3, during the live sound check for my first internet show the next day. Those who were in New York during those days, when every day was gloomy and overcast, and every day’s newspaper brought a new series of horrific images, will understand what I was writing about.
That said, if I had to be locked down, I was fortunate to be locked down where and with whom I was; it made all the difference in those early, daunting days when we none of us really knew what was going to happen.
People assume that most of my songs are about Sara, and they’re wrong—mostly they aren’t. But this one is.
“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 thought 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.
(Incidentally, I seem to be different from most songwriters, who typically say that the first verse they write is the last verse of the song, and then they fill in the blanks. Most of the time I write the first verse first and the second verse second; it’s not unusual for the last verse to come some time after the rest of the song, but it’s almost always the last one I write.)
“The Best Five Years of My Life” (Tennessee Walt, 2019)
My lovely wife and I will celebrate our 20th wedding anniversary this summer, so I want to make clear that this song was written a couple of years ago, and is emphatically not about us.
I like the way it gradually emerges, over the course of the song, what a horrible person the singer is. For obscure reasons, though, my favorite line in this song is “I’ve asked around, and everyone/agrees that you’re to blame.” Not sure why, but it tickles me.
“Sisyphus” (Tennessee Walt, 2021)
The last thing to come to me on this song was the title, which may be the best thing about it.
As I mentioned in the show (or plan to—the talk portions of a show don’t always go the way I expect them to), I was working on my blog essay on Billy Joe Shaver and happened to mention that Shaver’s “Because I Asked You To” is an example of a classic country-song subgenre, songs in which the singer promises to say, do or be whatever his lover wants him to. It occurred to me that I’d never written a song like that, so I thought I’d try to do so.
The next day, walking to the grocery store (a longish hike, good for writing), the central idea of the rock came to me. I had the first verse by Hazen Street, the second by Steinway Street and the third by 31st Street; the final one briefly stumped me—I wasn’t sure how I could top the third verse—but, after I’d run my errands downtown, I started home and found that the final verse had emerged into my subconscious. The song was done.
At that time, though, I thought it was called “Great Big Rock.” “Sisyphus” occurred to me only a week or so later, but it was worth the wait.
And, yes, it’s a country song, not a rock song. (Get it?)