Bethpage Public Library, July 28, 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 come to the city, baby,/you will find me there.”
“Lovesick Blues” (Hank Williams, 1949).
How does a Tin Pan Alley flop turn into a country classic? The answer isn’t “It gets sung by Hank Williams.” It’s more complicated than that, and the main guy in the story is Rex Griffin, a little-known country star who died in 1959.
Don’t trust Wikipedia, which says that, back when it was called “I’ve Got the Love-Sick Blues,” the song “first appeared in the 1922 musical Oh, Ernest.” That show, an early adaptation of Oscar Wilde’s The Importance of Being Earnest (1899), dates from 1927, five years after Elsie Clark made the first recording of the song (lyrics by Irving Mills, music by Cliff Friend). That record was made on March 22, 1922; the song was heard in a Manhattan revue at the Boardwalk Club in June of that year, and was recorded again by Jack Shea the next month. Anna Chandler may conceivably have sung the song at the Boardwalk Club—she’s pictured on the cover of the sheet music, also published in 1922—but it’s unclear. There’s also no record of her having been involved in Oh, Ernest that I can find.
No matter—Clark’s version doesn’t seem to be available online, but a folk version of the same song was soon available in Emmet Miller’s 1925 version, probably already significantly different from Clark’s New York version. (Warning: Miller was a blackface comedian, and the song is preceded by some spoken comedy that’s offensive to modern ears.) It’s possible that it was this version which inspired Griffin’s take, 14 years later, especially for its use of the yodel.
(Fun fact: Miller’s Okeh recording was produced by Ralph Peer, who two years later—working by then for the Victor Talking Machine Company—would host the Bristol Sessions and launch commercial country music as we know it today.)
Rex Griffin’s 1939 version sounds much more like Williams’ 1949 version, in that it takes the chorus from the Mills/Friend version and makes it the verse, and then takes the original verse and makes it the chorus. His version lacks the kinetic energy of Williams’ version, and it’s no wonder that Griffin’s lackadaisical take didn’t scale the charts the way Williams’ would a decade later.
“I Fall to Pieces” (Patsy Cline, 1961)
This song was written with the idea of Brenda Lee singing it, but Lee wasn’t the one who originally recorded it. That would be Jan Howard (1929-2020). wife of Harlan Howard at the time and a capable country singer in her own right; she was the demo artist for dozens of Howard’s songs, during and even after their marriage.
Part of the reason for the song’s epic slog from release to the top of the charts was that on June 14, 1961, just as the song began to really take hold, Cline was involved in a near-fatal car accident. Her brother was driving, and she wasn’t wearing a seatbelt, which was not then standard equipment. Another car crashed head on into theirs, and she was hurled into the windshield, suffering a broken wrist, a dislocated hip and extensive facial injuries. Two of the three people in the other car were killed.
She was hospitalized for the next six weeks, preventing her from performing “I Fall to Pieces” in live shows or on The Grand Ole Opry and slowing its ascent, but she emerged from the hospital with her first No. 1 hit.
Here’s Cline’s legendary recording. For contrast, here’s Howard’s demo, which has a nice swing and an appealing simplicity, though it will never replace Cline’s classic version. And here’s Hank Cochran doing his own song, demonstrating that it can work for a man as well as for a woman.
“It’s Not Love (but It’s Not Bad)” (Merle Haggard, 1972).
Written by Hank Cochran and Grady 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 Cochran 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 lived long enough to watch 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.
“Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do?” (Hank Williams, 1950).
Williams seems to have really liked the line “My hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue,” because, after using it to end the first verse, he reuses it to end the last verse.
This is particularly marked because it wrecks the structure. In the first quatrain, the rhyme scheme is AAAA (“do”/”shoe”/”blue”/”do”), and that’s also the case with the second (“do”/”coo”/”through”/”do”). The third changes the rhyme scheme to AABB (“be”/”me”/”clue”/”do”), but even then the structure dictates that the first three lines of each quatrain are fresh, and the fourth one is “Why don’t you love me like you used to do?” When “My hair’s still curly and my eyes are still blue” turns up again in the third line of the final quatrain, it’s a remarkable choice—and the best explanation is that Williams just thinks it’s too funny to use only once (I agree).
This was already an interesting song structurally, because it takes an unusual approach to its two verses and two choruses. (Each verse is two quatrains, the chorus is the same couplet each verse: “Ain’t had no loving, like a-hugging and a-kissing, in a long, long while—/we don’t get nearer or closer or further than a country mile.”) Normally each verse would be two quatrains and then the chorus, but Williams nests the chorus within the verse, between the two quatrains, which I’ve literally never seen before.
It’s also possible to view the song as having four-line verses, in which case it goes verse-chorus-verse, verse-chorus-verse. Still highly unusual.
Williams cultivated a reputation as an uncalculating “natural,” but in reality he was a canny songwriter who was a master of his craft and knew how to take even familiar material and repackage it to be fresh and appealing. This song is ample proof of that.
“I’ve Run Out of Tomorrows” (Hank Thompson, 1959)
I sing this one much more as a ballad than Thompson does. His Western Swing style, and the prevailing Nashville Sound production model, made even sad songs bouncy, and this profoundly desolate song comes across in their recording as almost jaunty.
Nothing against Thompson’s style, and in fact I like his performance more than I do his recording: The inappropriate jauntiness seems to me to come from the arrangement and the production, more than from the vocal performance.
There are a lot of Nashville Sound recordings that I consider just about perfect. My objection to this school of production (primarily originated by Chet Atkins of RCA and Owen Bradley of Decca) is that it takes the same approach to pretty much every song that comes its way. That’s not the approach I take: In doing my piano arrangements, I try to make my work compatible with the framework provided by the songwriter and his/her song, not what’s commercially viable or what my personal predilections may be.
As is my rule in directing plays (which I’ve done for many more years than I’ve devoted to country music), I think the time to consider my personal tastes, commercial marketability and contemporary values is when deciding whether to stage a particular play or perform a particular song. If I think a particular play will be offensive to a modern audience or if a particular song isn’t one I’m comfortable singing, I go on to something else. There’s no shame in that—no play has a right to be staged, and no song a right to be sung.
If I do decide to stage a play, though, or to sing a song, I think it’s incumbent upon me to respect the work in question for what it is, and not to direct or present a performance that does violence to the original author’s work, that makes it something other than what it was intended to be. Stage directors and cover artists have this at least in common: We’re interpretive artists, and our job is not to turn the work into what we wish the creator had made, but to present an interpretation of it that’s consistent with the creator’s intentions.
(I’ve also written both plays and songs, and I appreciate it when others present my material with that same respect and courtesy. In directing or performing my own work, of course, I’m only incidentally an interpretive artist—essentially the resulting performance is part of the act of creation, because I’m both the creator and the interpreter.)
Neither Thompson nor his longtime producer, Ken Nelson, had written “I’ve Run Out of Tomorrows.” If they didn’t feel like recording a despairing ballad, or felt that there wasn’t a market for such a song, I’d have encouraged them to find some other song to record, one that they felt comfortable treating the way the songwriters intended it to be performed.
(I note, of course, that Thompson’s recording of “I’ve Run Out of Tomorrows” was a No. 7 hit on Billboard’s country charts, so their sense that a jaunty dance tune was what the public wanted seems to have been on the money. That’s not my point, though. I still think I do the song more appropriately than they did.)
“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—so he made that the final verse. 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.
“Send Me the Pillow that You Dream On” (Hank Locklin, 1949).
Two words for any woman who ever receives a request like this from an ex in real life: “restraining order.”
Beyond the fact that this is one of the all-time classics of fetishist songwriting, note the economy of it: There are only 16 lines in the song, which is short to begin with; six of them are the title line; four of them are “so, darling, I can dream on it too”; and there’s a repeated chorus. In total, therefore, the song has only eight original lines.
Here’s Locklin’s RCA version, from 1958. For contrast, we also have the incredibly slow version recorded by the Everly Brothers, and a rare female version, sung by Loretta Lynn. And, finally, a duet from Willie Nelson and Hank Snow.
I wasn’t there for Hank Locklin’s 1950s and 1960s performances, but I imagine that his fans threw, well, throw pillows, not full-size pillows.
“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 figure 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.
“Get Yourself a Redhead” (Hank Penny, 1946).
This is an exceptionally cynical song about the relations between the sexes, redeemed only by a setting that makes it pretty clear that it’s tongue-in-cheek.
And it leaves out two of my favorite kinds of women, gray-haired and white-haired ones. Perhaps Mr. Penny and Mr. Duncan couldn’t come up with a negative thing to say about either.
In any case, here’s Penny singing “Get Yourself a Redhead.” If there’s a cover version by anyone else (myself excepted), I’m not familiar with it..
“Sugarfoot Rag” (Hank Garland, 1949).
This song started as a 1949 instrumental, with the lyrics added for a cover version the following year; to my mind it’s best as an instrumental, but it was the one with words that sold a million copies. (Supposedly it was an extrapolation from the finger exercises that Garland used to warm up before playing.)
The piano and the guitar are very different instruments, and I’m nowhere near, as a piano player, what Hank Garland was as a guitarist. However, I’ve tried to translate from one instrument into the other, and capture some of the spirit of the Garland version.
Here’s Garland going to town on the instrumental, and here’s the Red Foley version, with Vaughn Horton’s words. (Yes, I’ve tweaked the words, changing “listen to the fiddle play the ‘Sugarfoot Rag’” to “hear the piano play the ‘Sugarfoot Rag.’” Seemed to make more sense.) And, just for fun, here’s a virtuoso version by Junior Brown, who plays both the guitar and the steel on his “guit steel.” He may not be as great as Hank Garland, but he’s close.
“Lost Highway” (Hank Williams, 1948)
It’s rare for a cover to be the definitive version of a song, but Hank Williams’ version of “Lost Highway” tops Leon Payne’s in just about every way.
The swinging style that Payne brings to the tune is fun in its way, but Williams brings a stark simplicity to his version that seems to suit the song better than even its creator’s version did. He flattens out the tune just a bit, and it works. There’s a sort of apocalyptic acceptance to Williams’ take that has a religious feel to it; Payne’s undercuts the moral of the final verse by making being a lost soul seem kind of, well, fun.
“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, regardless of instrument.)
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, F and G; 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, arrived early and caught her with another man; then he’s 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. And, as a bonus, a fun live version by Emmylou Harris from 1982. (This is no relation to the John Lennon song of the same title from Double Fantasy; I have no idea if he was aware of Snow’s song, which was an oldie by the time he was becoming a musician.)
“Lady’s Man” (Cy Coben, 1952).
One of the reasons I’ve always loved Hank Snow is for his deadpan sense of humor. A lot of country stars are pretty dour, so Snow’s laid-back, Canadian humor has charmed me first I since came across him.
Coben wasn’t strictly a comic songwriter—the Beatles covered his “Nobody’s Child” (1949), for example, another song originally sung by Snow—but he did more than his share of funny songs. Here’s Snow doing “Lady’s Man” and, just for kicks, Mac Wiseman doing Coben’s goofy “Johnny’s Cash and Charley’s Pride” (1969).
“A Fool Such as I” (Hank Snow, 1952).
It’s not unusual for songwriters to vary their choruses from verse to verse, sticking in one or two different lines to keep it fresh. Sometimes it’s because they can’t decide which version is cleverer. In “Me and Bobbie McGee,” for example, Kris Kristofferson ends the first verse with an iconic chorus:
“Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose.
Nothing ain’t worth nothing, but it’s free.
Feeling good was easy, Lord, when Bobbie sang the blues,
Feeling good was good enough,
good enough for me and Bobbie McGee.”
In the chorus to the second and final verse, however, the second line becomes “Nothing left was all she left for me.” Both lines feature clever wordplay; with only two verses, there was no danger of the chorus getting stale, but I think Kristofferson simply couldn’t make up his mind which he liked better. So he used both.
Some kind of record is surely scored by Bill Trader, however, in his chorus for “A Fool Such as I.” Trader alters not a single line, not a single word, but a single letter! And yet the change is significant. If you were listening closely, you may have noticed that the first chorus goes:
“Now and then there’s a fool such as I am over you.
You taught me how
to love, and now
you say that we are through.
I’m a fool, but I’ll love you, dear, until the day I die.
Now and then there’s a fool such as I.”
In the second verse, he changes only a single letter:
“Now and then there’s a fool such as I am over you.
You taught me how
to live, and now
you say that we are through.
I’m a fool, but I’ll love you, dear, until the day I die.
Now and then there’s a fool such as I.”
Great, isn’t it?
Also, as a grammatic purist, I’d like to thank Mr. Trader for not calling his song “A Fool Such as Me.” Country music would have let him get away with it, but it wouldn’t have been the same.
Here are two versions of this song, by Hank Snow and Elvis Presley. Hard to argue that Presley doesn’t have the better voice, but I prefer the Snow recording.
“The Old Log Train” (Hank Williams, 1952).
It’s true, this song affectingly describes Williams’ loss of his father, who wasn’t dead at the time. I think, however, that in a broader sense the story is true.
Williams lost his father very young, even though his father didn’t die. Lon Williams was hospitalized for eight years with a brain aneurysm when Williams was 7, and never lived with the family again. Even before then, he was often away from home for work, and the family moved frequently to accommodate his duties as, yes, a log-train operator. Williams saw his father very occasionally after his hospitalization, but the two never again had a real relationship. His loving but controlling mother was the only parent he ever knew.
I believe that this song is an expression of lost innocence, a recollection of the last time in which he lived in a stable, conventional family. The song is an evocation of a classic American life, with a respectable, hard-working father and a mother who loves her husband and has a hot dinner waiting for him when he comes home from work.
Williams would never experience that again, at his mother’s boarding house (some say it was a bordello) or at home with Audrey Williams, a thoroughly non-domestic woman. As his health deteriorated and his second marriage hit the rocks, the 29-year-old Williams saw those long-ago days as a golden age and, as he says in the last verse, a precursor of heaven.
Nobody has ever told me that the first sound Williams remembered hearing as a child was the log train’s whistle, but, if it was, that wouldn’t surprise me.
It’s a wildly uncharacteristic song for Williams—the opening line, “If you will listen, a song I will sing,” reveals a tentativeness completely foreign to his usual persona and, I suspect, reflects his knowledge of how outside his normal line this deeply personal song is. It’s not about romantic love in any way, and has no drama—he calls it “this story,” but it’s not a story, just a memory. It’s entirely possible that, had he lived another five years, this song would have remained an outlier in his repertoire; but it might also have heralded a new, more introspective Williams that anticipated where country music would go a decade or more later.
Almost certainly Loretta Lynn hadn’t ever heard this song before writing “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (it wasn’t found and copyrighted until 1982, a decade after Lynn’s song was recorded), but the structure of the songs is very similar—both are memoirs in which the future singer is an observer, not a participant, and both songs find virtue in hard work and conventional gender roles. The implicit comparison to the show-business lives of the singer/songwriter favors the parent, not the child—except in that the songwriter can use his/her art to give the parent a legacy in art.
Here is Williams’ demo for his song. And, for comparison purposes, two songs highly reminiscent of it in style and content: Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1971) and Peter Allen’s “Tenterfield Saddler” (1972). No, Allen isn’t remotely country; I’ve been told that he acknowledged Lynn’s song as the inspiration for his, though, so why not? For that matter, here’s a Tennessee Walt song on much the same theme, from a live performance a couple years ago. I’m not conscious of Lynn having inspired mine, but the subconscious is a powerful thing.
“I’ll Think of Something” (Hank Williams Jr., 1974)
I really do miss the Hank Jr. of the brief period (1970-1975) between his decade as a Hank Williams imitator and his 45 years (and counting) as a Southern-rock party animal. What’s distinctive about this period (and missing from nearly all his subsequent work) is its simplicity, subtlety and nuance.
This is a song on a classic country theme, a guy who’s lost his sweetheart and doesn’t know where to go from here. Sometimes the result is a song about getting drunk, sometimes it’s a song about looking for a brand-new sweetheart, sometimes it’s a song about getting the sweetheart back, sometimes it’s a song about killing her, but almost always it’s a song about doing something.
Not here. Songwriters Bill Rice and Jerry Foster place the singer in a place of uncertainty, staggered by loss and unable to see a way forward. And the song doesn’t get him any closer to an idea of what to do about it—from its tenuous opening to its ambivalent finish, it’s not a story song at all, simply an exploration of the emotional experience of loss. It’s a great song for its very uncertainty and lack of resolution, and Hank Jr. sings it well. So does Mark Chesnutt, in an excellent 1992 cover, but I prefer Hank Jr. Which isn’t something I say often.
“If the Shoe Fits” (Hank Williams III, 1999)
OK, I’ll admit that I had to search quite a bit before finding a Hank III song that I liked, let alone one that I could play. I don’t share his fascination with punk rock, and the things about him that interest me are the very things I think he’s turned to punk to escape from. But I like this one.
Can I play it? Well, sort of, but not the way he can. His version is heavily about the instruments he’s got to work with, which I haven’t got. But I make do.
“Cold, Cold Heart” (Hank Williams/Ted West, 1951).
The lyrics to “Cold, Cold Heart” are thought by some to have been written by Paul Gilley. I find this argument less than persuasive. There’s convincing evidence that Gilley had written a song called “Cold, Cold Heart,” but it may have been a different song—it’s not a particularly original title. See my blog post on this for more.
Regardless, in this song Williams appears to blame his problems with his wife, Audrey, on her first husband, James Erskine Guy, or perhaps one of the other men in her life. This is the only time I know of in which he took that tack, and it didn’t keep him from marrying, as his second wife, another woman who’d been married before.
“Cold, Cold Heart” is a classic, and has been recorded numerous times. Here are six versions, starting with …
* T. Texas Tyler’s “You’ll Still Be in My Heart.” I’ve heard this online, but I can’t find it now. Here’s a jaunty cover by Ernest Tubb, though; I’m always up for an E.T. song, but this doesn’t give a good feel for the Tyler version, which was more of a ballad. That said, Williams’ lyrics (or Gilley’s?) are much better than Buddy Starcher’s cliched words for the Tyler song, in part because he turns Starcher’s AABCCBDDEFFE into a simpler, cleaner ABCBDEFE (“There was a time/when you were mine,” for example, becomes a nonrhyming “I try so hard my dear to show”).
* Williams’ 1951 classic, which speaks for itself. Note, though, that Williams’ version is surprisingly brisk for a song that’s so emotionally freighted. Williams was a master of the moderate tempo—his beat is always steady and neither fast nor slow. He’s able to deliver dramatic intensity (as in this case) without milking the song, and to deliver humor without rushing. He’s known as a songwriter, but his skills as a singer are underappreciated.
* Tony Bennett’s pop version, with Percy Faith leading the band. This was recorded only a few months after Williams’ original. How bizarre is it that Bennett is still alive, and still working, 70 years later? That said, I detest this version, which is full of melodramatic flourish and lacks any real emotion.
* Aretha Franklin’s 1964 version is in the Ray Charles school of country, which is to say not country at all. All the same, her voice is not to be denied. She also changes the order of the verses, for reasons which I can’t explain.
* In the current century, Norah Jones’ 2002 version makes a good case for the song as a cabaret classic. I find this too fast for my taste, but respond to its simplicity and intimacy. Cabaret is supposed to be like this, but too often isn’t.
* Hey, pictures! There are only three-and-a-half surviving songs’ worth of Hank Williams live on television, and here’s one of them. This is from 1952—and, interestingly, he takes the song much more slowly than on the record.
“Jambalaya” (Hank Williams, 1952)
Louisiana is in the South, but it’s not like anywhere else in the South. Hank Williams was from rural Alabama, only a few hours’ drive from New Orleans, but he might as well have been from a different planet. He had two stints on The Louisiana Hayride, a Grand Ole Opry wannabe out of Shreveport, La., but he wasn’t a Louisiana guy, and that comes through when he tries to lay on a little Cajun in the lyrics.
He did know a good party song when he saw one, though, and he and Moon Mullican turned out a doozy with “Jambalaya,” sometimes known as “On the Bayou.” If your foot isn’t tapping when you listen to this song, you must not be paying attention.
Here’s Williams’ recording, a No. 1 country hit in 1952. Mullican’s recording lacks the propulsive power of Williams’ take, but is a nice showcase for Mullican’s deft piano playing. (You’ll also notice different words; possibly he and Williams didn’t agree on exactly how the song should go.)
Want to combine Williams’ propulsive drive and Mullican’s virtuoso piano playing? Well, check out Jerry Lee Lewis doing his thing six years later.
“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 into my idea book, it had turned into “leaving on her mind,” and from there … nothing happened for more than two years, until one day the whole thing came together in a half an hour or less. Love it when that happens.
“I’m a Liar” (Tennessee Walt, 2021)
I love unreliable narrators, characters who tell you a story that you can’t necessarily accept at face value. My songs “That’s Just Some Guy” (2017) and “The Eclipse” (2018) are both examples of this form.
Who could be more unreliable, though, than a narrator who, the first words out of his mouth, tells you “To tell you the truth, I’m a liar.” It’s a paradoxical statement that undercuts itself, and you can’t take anything he says subsequently as gospel. That said, I think this song is essentially truthful and, as such, very sad.
Is it autobiographical? Well, whatever I said, would you believe me?
“A Song About You” (Tennessee Walt, 2019).
Back in April I noticed that a country singer named Sam Grow had premiered a song called “Song About You.” I haven’t heard it, so I don’t know if it’s anything like mine. For the record, I debuted mine during a show at the Manhattan club Don’t Tell Mama in July 2019; so, if one of us stole the song, it was him.
Probably not, though, because a lot of songwriters have specific other people to whom they return again and again in their songs, to the point of obsession. To Hank Williams it was his first wife, Audrey Williams—according to his second wife, Billie Jean, he was driving with her when he was inspired to write a song … about Audrey. (Granted, that song was “Your Cheating Heart”; I didn’t say that it’s always love songs you write.) For Hank Williams Jr., it’s his father. For John Lennon it was Yoko Ono. For painter Andrew Wyeth, it was Christina Olson. Creative people are like that.
This song may or may not be about a particular person in my own life. It’s really about the phenomenon of coming back to another person again and again, trying to use your art to work out your relationship with him or her. It’s natural, if you think about it: Human beings use their thought processes to analyze their relationships, and for songwriters—or painters, poets, playwrights or whatever—creativity is the reflexive channel into which our thought processes flow. It’s more surprising, perhaps, when a creative person doesn’t use his or her art to explore those relationships.
The obvious answer song is “Not Another Song About Me”; maybe someone will write it sometime.