Program Notes: Tennessee Walt’s ’60 Years in a Distant Country’

May 22, 2021

“The Elliptical Song”  (Tennessee Walt, 2017)

This song violates one of the most sacred rules of storytelling:  Specificity is better than generality.  Don’t write “Enter a MAILMAN,” write “Enter TOM, a mailman.”  Don’t say “The room was a mess,” say “Chairs were overturned, unwashed dishes and glasses were everywhere, there was broken glass by the window and an unidentifiable liquid soaking into the rug.”  In writing his opera Patience, W.S. Gilbert cannily changed a single word in the following exchange and made it significantly funnier:

            DUKE:  Envy me?  Tell me, major, are you fond of candy?
            MAJOR:  Yes, very.
            COLONEL:  We are all fond of candy.
            SOLDIERS:  We are!

Gilbert’s change:  At the last minute he replaced the word “candy” with the word “toffee.”

Detail is powerful, generalities are flabby.  That’s the rule, and yet this song goes entirely the other way.  We never learn who the narrator is, to whom the song is addressed or what their backstory is.  (It sound like it’s a man singing to a woman, because it’s being sung by a man here, but it would work perfectly well the other way around, without changing a word.)  It’s not really a story at all, just the skeleton of one.

When this song manifested itself in my head, it was in the current form, and for a while I tried to rewrite it into a more detailed story—but it didn’t sit right with me, and I gave it up.   It was several years later that I encountered the work of the great country songwriter Billy Joe Shaver and saw the powerful way in which he strips his stories down to the nub in such songs as “Because You Asked Me To” (1973) and “Black Rose” (1973).  It’s not the normal way, but there’s a power in the absence of detail—it lets the listener fill in the details for him/herself.

Read my blog essay on Billy Joe Shaver, especially if you know his work.  It’s all about the power of the absence of detail.

“Let’s Save Some Time”  (Tennessee Walt, 2018)

George Clooney was born 18 days before I was, on May 6, 1961, in Lexington, Kentucky.  He’s not a role model for me in the sense that I want to do what he does or become what he is; but I’m impressed by the diversity of his accomplishments and his impressive good looks—not in the style of Tom Cruise, who’s a year younger than George and me but looks decades younger, but in the style of Cary Grant, looking his age … but making it look great.  He turns up in one or two other songs I’ve written as an icon of optimal aging.

“Leaving on Her Mind” (Tennessee Walt, 2021)

The original germ of this song came from a line in a Loretta Lynn song.  The line is “loving on your mind,” but for just a moment I heard it as “leaving on your mind.”  By the time I copied it down, it had turned into “leaving on her mind,” and the rest is history.

“Aruba”  (Tennessee Walt, 2021)

I’ve never actually been in Aruba, and in general am not a vacation-resort kind of guy.  I don’t care for beaches, except as places for long walks.  I spend my vacations in northern Michigan, in a cottage my family has had since 1895 (it’s referred to in the final verse of the song).  I’m using it here as an emblem of the ineffably desirable elsewhere, which everybody has in one form or another.

“Things That We Don’t Say”  (Tennessee Walt, 2018)

A longtime friend of mine has said, and I agree, that nobody really understands a marriage except the people that are in it.  Even if you’re close to both people, and hear both sides in detail, you still don’t really know; even if you’re the child of that marriage, you still don’t really know.  You have to be there, and there’s only two people that are.

My outside analysis of the marriage that this song is about is that the two people grew apart, in the classic sense.  One of them matured and took on responsibility and worry; the other remained youthful and exuberant, at least in spirit, despite the passing years.  By the time I got to know them, they were living essentially separate lives in the same house.  I think they both regretted it, but felt that it was too late to change anything.

I’m pretty sure that this won’t be happening in my marriage; no signs of it yet, in any event, 20 years in.

“I Don’t Know Where I’m Going”  (Tennessee Walt, 2021)

This is one of my least autobiographical songs.  I virtually always know where I’m going, because it really bugs me when I don’t.  I always travel with a map, but also write out a set of directions beforehand—the map is just a backup.  I have the map and the written-out directions, even if I’m traveling with someone who knows how to get to wherever we’re going. 

On a metaphorical level, of course, I have no more idea where I’m going than anybody else does. 

“Stage Left” (Tennessee Walt, 2015)

The title of this song was suggested by my lovely wife.  “Stage Left” is a theater expression—“stage left” means to your left as seen from the stage, as opposed to “audience left”—but it’s also an evocation of an empty stage, which is appropriate to a song about the death of an actor.  Frankly, I think I like the title better than the song, and I like the song.

To learn more about Phil Gellis (1957-2012), see my memorial essay on him.

“A Pod in the Basement”  (Tennessee Walt, 2016)

To my surprise, a significant number of people hearing this song have asked me afterward, “Did you say ‘pod?’”

Apparently they’re not familiar with the classic Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956), in which space aliens are secretly replacing people in a small town with duplicates growing in, yes, pods in the basement.  More people seem to be familiar with contemporary soap operas, in which any character may turn out to have a previously unknown twin (always, conveniently, identical and not fraternal).

Ralph Peer

If you’re not familiar with the movie, check it out—it’s cool.  The 1978 remake is better acted and far more sophisticated in its filmmaking, but the original has a creepy vibe that still works today.

“What Might Have Been”  (Tennessee Walt, 2015)

The idea of what might have been is, of course, a chimera.  The great romance that you missed out on might have been a lifelong idyll, or it might have led to a soul-searing divorce.  The dream job you almost got might have made you happy forever, or might have disillusioned you in the first year and ruined your life in the second year.

No matter.  The song isn’t really about what might have been, but about the idea of what might have been.  That’s something we can all identify with.

“The Last Country Song” (Tennessee Walt, 2021)

Needless to say, this song is only in the loosest possible sense autobiographical.  True, I have written the occasional deeply desolate song—“The Loneliest Place in the World” (2019) comes to mind—but I’ve never done so because I myself was in despair, or even at a time when I was.  I know a lot of songwriters and have been a lyricist since the 1970s and, if there’s one thing I know about songwriting (or playwrighting, or novel writing, or poetry writing, or acting, or singing), it’s that any artists worth their salt can use their imaginations to create the emotional state about which they’re writing.  Some of the saddest songs in the world have been written by deeply happy people.

Still, it’s a funny notion, isn’t it?

“Me and the Telephone” (Tennessee Walt, 2019)

The only part of this song that’s in any sense autobiographical is the bridge:

            “Every time the telephone rings
            it’s people want to sell me things.

Some candidate who’s, oh, so pure
            needs my support for sure.”

This is my life in a nutshell.  Otherwise, not so much.

“Thee Little Words” (Tennessee Walt, 2018)

No relation to the Kalmar & Ruby song of the same name, which you can hear right here, or the 1950 movie (allegedly) about Kalmar & Ruby, which lifts its title from the song.

My lovely wife basically likes this song, but resents the line “she’s always fiddling with her phone,” pointing out (quite accurately) that she fiddles with her phone way less than most people of her generation.  Quite true, but I plead poetic license:  “She sometimes fiddles with her phone” just isn’t as good a line.

“Footsteps”  (Tennessee Walt, 2019)

My old friend Izzie from Massapequa thinks this song is about George W. Bush, and dislikes it on that basis.  It’s arguable that the first verse is about W, but if I had to pick a model for it (which I don’t, and the following answer has only just occurred to me for the first time), I’d go with Ron Reagan Jr.; I think W generally votes the way his father did.

For the second verse, almost any billionaire’s child would do.  The third verse, maybe Julian Lennon.  The fourth verse … well, that’s me.

“Long, Long Road” (Tennessee Walt, 2019)

For the record, it’s about 950 miles from Bay View, Mich., to New York via highways.  It’s much shorter as the crow flies, but Lake Erie and especially Lake Huron make that route problematic for drivers.  This song was begin in western Pennsylvania and finished in eastern Pennsylvania; I was indeed racing against the sun, but I lost—as one always does, when eastbound.  By New Jersey I was driving in the dark—which might just be a song title, come to think of it.

“Standing Still” (Tennessee Walt, 2019)

This is probably the least-country song in the show—which means that it would fit right in with present-day Nashville, meaning pretty much any time in the past 50 years.  I like it, though, because it’s about the difference between the fireworks of one kind of love and the deep satisfaction of another kind.  I’ve known both kinds in my time, and they’re both great, but I’ll go with the second one every time.

“Just Another Trainwreck”  (Tennessee Walt, 2021)

There’s a song by this title to be written, one that’s a parody of country and folk songs of the 1920s and 1930s, an impressive number of which were about train wrecks.  This particular song isn’t about trains in the least.

Nonetheless, it’s a country song of a type that would have been readily recognized by country fans back then.  In Jimmie Rodgers’ day they were called “my-gal-done-me-wrong songs”; in Ernest Tubb’s time they were “crying in my beer songs”; Rachel Marron famously called them “somebody’s-leaving-somebody songs”; in the 21st century, Taylor Swift specialized in “breakup songs.”

It’s all the same thing, and it’s a rich subgenre, including self-pitying songs, pleading songs, guilty songs and, as in this case, sarcastic kiss-offs.  I’ve written several of them, but this is maybe my best to date.

“The Last Parade” (Tennessee Walt, 2018)

As I analyze this song (and, yes, I almost always have to analyze them afterward to figure out what’s going on in them), it’s about a subject that has fascinated me for the past 45 years at least: the pace of change in the world since the turn of the last century, and the struggles of people to adjust to the new status quo even as the next one is emerging.

Technologically, for example, my great-grandmother (born in 1888) grew up in a world in which cars and recorded music were the big new thing; my grandmother (born in 1912) grew up in a world in which airplanes, movies and radio were the big new thing; my mother (born in 1933) grew up in a world in which television and air conditioning were the big new thing; I (born in 1961) grew up in a world in which nuclear weapons, space travel and computers were the big new thing; my nephews and nieces are growing up in a world in which social media is the big new thing.  God only knows what will be the big new thing their children will grow up with, but it will be something.

The thing is, all of these overlap.  My grandmother lived into the dawn of the computer age, so she had to adjust to airplanes, movies, radio, television, air conditioning, nuclear weapons, space travel and computers along the way.  This is pretty remarkable, if you consider that the world of 1700 A.D. was pretty recognizably the same world as the world of 500 A.D.  As a species, we’ve had our adaptability tested over the past 121 years like never before.

Socially the differences are immense.  My father (who was of the generation this song is about, though he was a few years too young to fight in World War II) lived from 1930 to 2008, and in that time what it meant to be white, Black, Asian, Latino, male, female, American, Christian, Jewish, Republican, Democrat, conservative, liberal, gay, straight, bisexual, rich, poor, urban, suburban or rural changed enormously.  He handled some of it well and some of it less well, but that he handled it at all is astounding to me.

Every generation is the greatest generation; the challenges are different, as are the way we cope with them, but life isn’t uniquely demanding on any one generation—and, of course, the dividing lines between generations are purely arbitrary and vary from family to family or even within families.

“Cry Like a Man”  (Tennessee Walt, 2017)

There are many other songs by this title.  Here’s one by the Sliders and here’s one by Dan Penn, covered by Christy Moore.

“Almost Ready” (Tennessee Walt, 2021).

The note in my book read “Almost Ready to Love Me.”  When the song showed up, a year or two later, it had added the word “again,” and that made all the difference.  I like this one very much.  And it has an unvoiced chord halfway through the chorus, which is a departure for me, in a good direction—I’ve been a lyricist since my early teens, but I’m still learning to be a composer.

“Ready for Another Heartbreak”  (Tennessee Walt, 2018)

I’ve performed this publicly a couple of times, but not very well.  This is the first time I’ve ever really felt able to play it the way it should be played.  Rockabilly piano exists in the shadow of Jerry Lee Lewis, and is a very challenging form; by rockabilly standards this setting is tame and lacking in exuberance, but it’s way better than it was the last time I did the song, three years ago.  One thing the pandemic has given me is a lot of time to work on my piano-playing.

“(It Isn’t That I’m) Getting Old”  (Tennessee Walt, 2021)

The chorus of this song. “It isn’t that I’m getting old, it’s that I’ve gotten smart,” is a catch phrase that I’ve used in conversation for many years now—I think I originated it, but maybe I heard or read it somewhere, I’m honestly not sure.

One of the nice things about getting old (and there are surprisingly many of them) is that you realize that you don’t have to do things that you don’t want to do, things you used to do because you wanted to look cool or you didn’t want to look scared or whatever.  Broadly, you realize that other people’s expectations and opinions of you aren’t as important as you thought they were, back in the day.

That may not sound like much of a consolation, if you’re a young person reading this, but I assure you that, in years to come, you’ll find that it is.

“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.


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