East Hampton Library, August 7, 2021
1. “Night Train to Memphis” (Roy Acuff, 1942).
It’s impossible to say for sure who did what on this song, since it has three co-writers: Owen Bradley, Marvin Hughes and Beasley Smith. However, Bradley and Hughes were both best known as musicians, while Beasley was a words-and-music songwriter, so likely the words are primarily Beasley’s work. Bradley and Hughes knew each other well—Hughes was the longtime music director at WSM, home station of “The Grand Ole Opry,” and at this point Bradley was a sessions pianist who worked on WSM shows regularly. There’s no piano on this recording, but perhaps Bradley came up with the tune and Hughes did the arrangement, or vice versa.
The shouting band members is a characteristic of the song, and gives it both period charm and a party atmosphere. This wasn’t characteristic of Acuff’s Smoky Mountain Boys, though, and possibly this was the idea of Hughes and/or Bradley.
2. “Busted” (Johnny Cash, 1963).
It’s hard to imagine a genre other than country in which a song like this (written by the ridiculously gifted Harlan Howard) could become not only a hit, but also a standard. Its treatment of poverty, hopelessness and the economic realities of American life for way too many people might fit in either country or folk, but the tightness of the songwriting and the focused intensity is country to its bones.
3. “Loving Her Was Easier” (Kris Kristofferson, 1971).
It was unusual for Kristofferson to have a first recording of one of his own songs in this period, at a time when he was as hot a songwriter as Nashville has ever had. Within a year of Kristofferson’s release on his second album, The Silver-Tongued Devil and I, this one was covered by Eddy Arnold, Bobby Bare, Anita Carter, Skeeter Davis, Waylon Jennings, Roger Miller, Ray Price and others—but, for once, Kristofferson did get there first.
Notice that this song flies in the face of country-music convention, because it’s an anti-story song. There’s clearly a story here, but we don’t get it. Kristofferson’s interest is not in what went wrong in this relationship, though clearly something did. He’s interested in the emotion of the aftermath—the loneliness and sense of loss that drives almost all of Kristofferson’s greatest songs,
Here’s Kristofferson’s version from The Silver-Tongued Devil and I. It’s good, but to my taste it’s overproduced, with too much in the way of Nashville Sound frou-frou—lush strings and woodwinds. I’ve heard Kristofferson play the song live, with no accompaniment but his own guitar, and it was perfect. I can’t find that online, but here’s a much more stripped-down version from a live performance in 1972 with a four-piece band. There’s a lot less going on than in the album version … and yet, somehow a lot more. (Ignore the onscreen text, I’d suggest—go to another screen and just listen.)
There are many great covers, and I’d encourage you to seek out others. To get you started, here are two 1971 versions, one by Waylon Jennings and another by Anita Carter. (Jennings is appealingly understated, and his singing is beautiful, but it has a slight swing to it which doesn’t seem to fit the song; Carter’s version is too fast and the gender-flip doesn’t quite work, but the arrangement is strong, and her voice is not to be denied.)
4. “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 since I first 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).
5. “I Heard That Lonesome Whistle Blow” (Hank Williams/Jimmie Davis, 1949).
In some circles Jimmie Davis (1899-2000) is best known for things that have nothing to do with his talents as a musician: for living to be 101 years old, for being a “three-century man,” for serving as governor of Louisiana from 1944 to 1948 and again from 1960 to 1964, and for being the “copyright holder” for the classic “You Are My Sunshine” (1940), which everybody knows he didn’t write. (Most credit Paul Rice, though there’s support for other candidates as well.)
However, Davis’ 1951 performance of this song on Sun Records shows him to have been a fine singer even when well past his prime. It doesn’t have the virtuoso quality of Williams’ own 1951 performance, but it has an appealing Cajun quality; even more so is Davis’ 1964 performance, which show his age (65), but fits the material well. Davis may have never become a really major artist, but he’s an agreeable presence on records.
He’s also an interesting songwriter. This song has some classic Hank Williams qualities, but it’s doubtful that Williams would have ever written it himself. Prison songs and train songs weren’t really his thing (this song is an obvious antecedent to “Folsom Prison Blues”(1955), by Johnny Cash). Williams’ recording is bluesier than almost any of his other songs, and it makes the song pop out of his greatest-hits collections. Davis’ bent for Cajun music and blues is clearly felt, and the song is the better for it.
For collectors of weird versions of country songs, here’s Bobby Darin giving this one the “Mack the Knife” treatment.
6. “The Night the Ernest Tubb Show Came to Town” (Stoney Edwards, 1975).
Yes, that’s what I said: This song was recorded in 1975, but not released until 2009. So almost nobody had ever heard it until then … but, nonetheless, a 1983 adaptation of the song became one of the early country-music video hits, and in 1985 a new adaptation made it onto the Billboard charts in a recording by Johnny Cash.
There’s a lot to be said about the history of this song (these songs, actually), and I’ve said it in an essay on my country-music blog on TennesseeWalt.com. Check it out right here.
For now, though I’ll just say that what I like about the original song (my favorite of the three) is that it’s about a vanished time, before the internet, before satellite dishes, even before television itself. Today top country stars go on tour and play arenas in major cities, maybe hit some state fairs, but they don’t go to small towns that much. They don’t need to, because the people in small towns (or even on isolated farms) can see them on television or on the internet, download their songs and, if they like, drive a few hundred miles on interstate highways to see one of those arena shows. Talk to audience members at The Grand Ole Opry (which I’ve done), and you’ll have proof that this happens.
Go back to, say, 1950, though, and that wasn’t the case. The biggest names in country—Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Red Foley, Eddy Arnold, Roy Acuff—toured the small towns of the South, the Midwest and beyond, playing high-school gyms, church halls and the like. And their visits weren’t a run-of-the-mill occasion, they were milestones that people remembered for the rest of their lives. The song has it right: Crop failures came and went, murders happened every now and then, but when Ernest Tubb came to town, live and in person … well, people remembered that.
That’s what this song is about. It’s an unusual song about an unusual subject, but I like it all the more for that. Check out the Stoney Edwards recording, and I think you’ll agree.
7. “Thank God and Greyhound” (Roy Clark, 1970).
I’ve made a tiny change to the lyrics of this song, which was written by Larry Kingston and John Edward Nix. I’ve changed their line “Now we’re here at the station and you’re getting on” to “Now we’re at the bus station, and you’re getting on.” This is for clarity: These days most of us don’t board buses at a station, but at a stop; and if you’re “here at the station and you’re getting on,” it’s a train station.
I added this song to my repertoire after Roy Clark’s death on November 15, 2018, because I thought I ought to have a Clark song in my book, even though I don’t really care for most of his stuff. He deserves it, because he’s an important guy in 1970s-1990s country, primarily for his role as the longtime co-host of Hee Haw (1969-1997), in which capacity he gave innumerable musicians their first national exposure.
It took some digging to come up with this one, but I’m glad I did—it’s great fun to sing (who doesn’t like a song that changes gears in midstream?), and audiences always seem to like it.
Here’s Clark saying goodbye in a breakup song that’s as pointed as anything Taylor Swift has ever written.
8. “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!
9. “On the Wings of a Dove” (Ferlin Husky, 1960).
Country has some interesting people involved in its history. That definitely includes Bob Ferguson, who besides writing this No. 1 hit song for Ferlin Husky, was among other things a U.S. Marine, a record producer, a movie producer, a comedian (as Grandpappy Eli Possumfoot), a forest ranger, an author, an anthropologist and tribal historian of the Choctaw nation. He oversaw the unearthing of the first sabretooth-tiger skeleton ever discovered east of the Mississippi—in downtown Nashville, to be exact—which is why Nashville’s hockey team is called the Predators.
Anyway, a lot of non-country fans know this song from its performance by Robert Duvall in his Oscar-winning performance as a country singer in Tender Mercies (1983).
Here are three versions: To begin with, Husky’s gospel-tinged original from 1960 (I love the jangling piano, and wish I could play well enough to include it in my version—but not a chance). Then we have Duvall’s version, from the movie; he’s not much of a singer (Gail Youngs helps out to good effect), but I actually like this arrangement better than the lavish treatment on Husky’s recording. (Notice that Duvall includes the first verse that Husky’s version omits.)
And, finally, one from the Loretta Lynn/Dolly Parton/Tammy Wynette trio album, Honky-Tonk Angels, from 1993. Just because I like it, overproduced though it is. (They include the missing verse, of course, because they want to have three solo verses.)
10. “I Don’t Think She’s in Love Anymore” (Charley Pride, 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.
11. “Sunday Morning Coming Down” (Ray Stevens, 1969)
One of the great stories from country history relates to this song. It’s been told many times and doubtless embellished; even the two people most prominently featured in it had different recollections of it in later years. That said, at least the outline of what follows is the truth.
One day in early 1969, Johnny Cash and June Carter were sitting on their porch in Henderson, Tennessee, enjoying a pleasant morning by the lake, when they heard a noise that didn’t fit in. Looking up, they saw a helicopter passing overhead. Except that it didn’t pass: Instead it descended and landed on their lawn. The pilot hopped out and came up to the house, and Cash recognized him as one of the janitors at Columbia Records’ studio in Nashville. “Mr. Cash, hey,” he said. “I’ve got a song here I think you should listen to.”
Now, this was before John Lennon’s murder in 1980, and celebrities were more open to the approach of strangers, but it was still a pretty unusual thing. And country stars are constantly being passed demos (cassette tapes then, CDs or digital files now), which they usually discard unheard for fear of subsequent charges of plagiarism. But the sheer boldness of this guy’s approach amused Cash, who was always something of a rebel, and he agreed to listen to the tape.
This story would be a weird little “oddities of being famous” story, except that the pilot was the then-unknown Kris Kristofferson, and the song was “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Cash recorded it later that year, and played it on his nationally broadcast Johnny Cash Show on ABC, and Kristofferson was on his way. By the next year he’d been voted Songwriter of the Year at the Country Music Association Awards.
The story behind the story is that Kristofferson had been trying to get Cash to listen to his music for months, without success. A retired Army captain, Kristofferson was in the Army National Guard, and had periodic duty stints to keep his skills current—including his certification as a helicopter pilot. Up in the sky over Tennessee that morning, it occurred to him that he knew where Cash lived, and that an in-person delivery out of the blue might catch his attention.
Guess it did.
12. “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 set out 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 overall.
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.
I could point you to Patsy Cline’s immortal performance of this song, but you can find that on your own—it’s everywhere. Instead I’ll send you 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.)
13. “That’ll Be the Day” (Buddy Holly, 1956).
No, I’m not switching over to rockabilly, let alone to rock ‘n’ roll. (That’ll be the day, indeed.) But Holly loved country music, and his best songs work well in a country mode.
He might have been a country star, if the great Owen Bradley hadn’t made one of his rare mistakes. Bradley didn’t see the commercial potential in Holly’s rockabilly style and didn’t like his band, the Crickets. He tried to repackage Holly as a mainstream-county artist and, after two singles in this style tanked, Decca canceled the contract. Bradley didn’t make many mistakes in a long career, but that was one.
I will say, though, that there’s a weakness to “That’ll Be the Day” (the title of which came from John Wayne’s catch phrase in The Searchers (1956), which Holly saw and loved). The lyric is structured for a twist ending—throughout the verse, the singer proclaims a scoffing “That’ll be the day,” but in the last line he admits that, if that day ever came, it would kill him. The words “that I die” give the entire lyric a different meaning. However, the tune is so kinetic and forceful—and those pivotal words come and go so quickly—that the cleverness of the lyric is lost. The lyric clearly wants a pause before the twist … but the music is off to the races, and can’t be stopped.
14. “Act Naturally” (Buck Owens, 1963).
Johnny Russell’s song took the long way to success—for years it seemed like it would never get recorded—but after Owens recorded it, the song took off … and then, two years later, took off again, thanks to Ringo Starr and a little band called the Beatles (like Holly, a Decca reject, though that was the London office, so it’s not on Bradley).
It’s rather an odd song, with a fixation on the movie business that rarely turns up in country (though the Bakersfield Sound stars, including Owens, were working next door to Hollywood, and it shows), but it’s fun to listen to, fun to dance to and, yes, fun to sing. So much so that I’m willing to overlook the fact that the title should probably be “Act Natural.”
Here are the two recordings you have to hear: Owens from 1963, and Starr from 1965. (Let’s not obsess over the fact, by this time, Starr was already a movie star. The movies didn’t make him a big star, after all.) And, just for fun, one you don’t have to hear: Loretta Lynn from 1963.
15. “Honky-Tonk Man” (Red Stovall, 1982).
I’ve loved this song since well before I was into country, but I now understand it better. (With some effort: It shares its title with a Johnny Horton hit from a quarter-century before, so it’s a hard song to track down.)
Clint Eastwood is a country fan from way back when (on another soundtrack, he duets with Merle Haggard). His voice is way too husky to make him a viable singer, but he brings real conviction to his performances in Honkytonk Man (which also features several real country stars in cameos, notably Ray Price, Marty Robbins and Porter Wagoner). I recommend the film highly—with the warning that it’s pretty dark.
Here’s Eastwood as Red Stovall, with a helping hand from Marty Robbins as a sideman who takes over in midstream as the dying Stovall can’t continue.
16. “Black Rose” (Waylon Jennings, 1973).
In my head, the story of this Shaver song is about a man whose wife is compulsively unfaithful—it reminds me of the movie Black Snake Moan (2006). But it could be about a lot of different things; I think Shaver intends different people to find emotional power from his songs by seeing them in different ways. He’s a great songwriter. If he wanted to write a modern version of “The Wild Side of Life” (1952), with everything explicitly laid out, he could have; he just didn’t want to.
One of the reasons I like it more than “The Wild Side of Life” and any number of other “my girl is a slut” songs in the country repertoire is its take on responsibility. My favorite two lines in the song—“The devil made me do it the first time;/the second time I done it on my own”—are an explicit admission that it’s his fault as much as hers (“fool me once … “), and his prayer is not for her to get her just punishment, but for him to find the strength to resist her charms.
And, no, I don’t know what the Dominicker hen is doing in the song. Poets must have their secrets, and Billy Joe Shaver is nothing if not a poet.
17. “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.
18. “Jackson” (Johnny Cash and June Carter, 1967).
This song was written by Billy Edd Wheeler and Jerry Leiber, and that latter name should be enough to tell you that it wasn’t originally a country song. Leiber, one of America’s all-time-great pop songwriters, is the lyricist (usually with composer Mike Stoller) on such classics as “Hound Dog” (1952), “Jailhouse Rock” (1957), “Yakety Yak” (1958), “There Goes My Baby” (1958), “Stand By Me” (1961), “On Broadway” (1963), “Is That All There Is?” (1969) and any number of others.
According to Wheeler, Leiber’s contribution was essentially editorial—in particular, urging Wheeler to open the song with its strongest line (“We got married in a fever hotter than a pepper sprout”), rather than saving it for the end. Even so, nobody heard it and thought, “Ah, this is a country song.” The original recording was by Wheeler, and the first major version was by the Kingston Trio, with nothing country about it; both came out in 1963 and did no appreciable business.
That all changed in 1967, when Johnny Cash and June Carter recorded it in February and then Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra did a strongly similar version in July. Since then it’s been primarily seen as a country classic.
Billy Edd Wheeler’s version is a kind of low-energy folk take on the song; the Kingston Trio’s version is stylish but not compelling. Cash and Carter light it on fire, and Hazlewood and Sinatra slow it down for a pop version of the same idea—but slowing it down only saps the song of energy. Broadly speaking, the faster this song is, the better it works.
19. “Move It On Over” (Hank Williams, 1947).
People ask me, how do you remember the words to all those songs? The answer is, I practice them a whole lot—three hours a day, five days a week, and often more. But it helps to break them down and see how they’re put together. Often this can reveal useful mnemonics—aids to memory.
“Move It On Over” has three problem points in each verse: One is the order of verses themselves, and two are in the chorus: the “X it on over, Y it on over” couplet and the concluding “Move over, X dog, ‘cause the Y dog’s moving in.” There are seven verses to the song, so that’s 28 problem points. (The “Y dog” isn’t a problem point, because it almost always follows from the “X dog line”—“skinny dog/fat dog,” “short dog/tall dog” and so forth; if you remember the “X dog” line, the “Y dog” line is easy.)
The order of the verses is often challenging in Williams’ list songs, but not in this case, because they make logical sense. Verse 1 establishes that he’s in a doghouse, singing to the dog; Verse 2 explains that he’s there because he’s been locked out of his house; Verse 3 explains why he’s turned to the doghouse; Verse 4 explains why his wife locked him out; Verse 5 admits that she’d warned him as much; Verse 6 predicts that she’ll regret it and apologize; and Verse 7 returns to his immediate dealings with the dog who is the audience for the song.
As to the “X it on over, Y it on over” couplets, in the last three verses all begin with S, and they’re almost entirely in alphabetical order: “scratch it on over/shake it on over”; “slide it on over/sneak it on over”; “shove it on over, sweep it on over.” Remember the letter “S” and that “shove” is out of order, and you’re almost halfway home. (This probably isn’t accidental—I myself use the device of alphabetical order to help make a list easy to remember. Look through my narrations for this show, and you’ll see a bunch of alphabetized lists.)
The first verse is easy, because “move it on over” is repeated. The next three verses are less obviously memorizable: “get it on over/scoot it on over”; “ease it on over/drag it on over” and “pack it on over, tote it on over.” I use “Gilbert & Sullivan”—“G and S”—for the second verse, “ED Sullivan” for the third and “P.T. Barnum” for the fourth. (Arthur Sullivan leads to Ed Sullivan because they were both named Sullivan; Ed Sullivan leads to P.T. Barnum because they were both people who made it big in show business despite lacking any marketable talent.)
As to the “X dog/Y dog,” here Williams uses a common songwriter’s device, which is that in a list song you put the funniest one last, the second-funniest one first and then the others in descending order, with the third-best one second-to-last and so on. “Cold dog/hot dog” is unexpected and clever, so it’s last. “Little dog/big dog” captures the attitude of the song, so it’s first. “Good dog/bad dog” plays on a pet owner’s frequent phrase, so that’s second-to-last. Williams seems to have thought “short dog/tall dog” was the fourth-best, “nice dog/mad dog” the fifth-best, “old dog/new dog” the sixth-best and “skinny dog/fat dog” the weakest. I don’t agree (I like “old dog/new dog” and “nice dog/mad dog”), but that doesn’t matter. It’s a way to look at the thing and see it as a structure, not just a barrage of random words.
Incidentally, you’ll notice from Williams’ original recording that, when the band echoes him on the “X dog/Y dog” lines in each verse, they always sing “Move it on over”—they don’t change the words twice in each verse. Most likely Williams would have liked to have them do so, but he (or producer Fred Rose) despaired of getting four instrumentalists to handle so many different lyrics.
(The band was the Cumberland Valley Boys, borrowed from Red Foley for the recording session: fiddler Tommy Jackson, guitarist Zeke Turner, steel guitarist Jerry Byrd and bassist Louis Innis. They were a top band, much better than Williams’ Drifting Cowboys, but their sound was more pop than Williams liked; once he was established and had a say in who backed him on sessions, he went with a more straight-ahead country sound.)
20. “Good-Hearted Woman” (Waylon Jennings, 1972).
This song was sparked when Waylon Jennings, sitting in a motel room in Fort Worth, Texas, and skimming the local newspaper, noticed an advertisement for an upcoming concert by Tina Turner which referred to her as “a good hearted woman loving two-timing men.” This seemed to him to have the germ of a song idea in it, and that night, over a poker game in which Willie Nelson was also playing, the two men worked out the song. (Nelson’s then-wife, Connie Koepke, wrote it down, which was good—the next day, neither man remembered exactly what they’d written.)
I like the song, among other reasons, for the twist in the lyric, which jumps from third person to first person in the final chorus. I don’t know which guy thought of it, but it’s a nice touch.
21. “Always on My Mind” (B.J. Thomas, 1970).
People are often surprised to learn that Willie Nelson didn’t write this song, and that in fact it had been recorded by a number of people a decade before he 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 B.J. Thomas and, yes, Willie Nelson. It’s about Nelson’s life, yes, but it’s about a lot of other people’s lives as well.
Everyone’s heard Nelson’s version, so here’s B.J. Thomas’ version, which was the first one recorded (in 1970), though not released until years later.
22. “Oh, Lord, It’s Hard to Be Humble” (Mac Davis, 1980).
This is Davis’ signature song, and deservedly so. My only criticism is that there are only two verses. C’mon, Mac, couldn’t you stoop to toss us one more?
Here’s Davis in a live performance. Sounds like the audience is having a great time.
2020 was a hard year on the country business. Thanks partly to the coronavirus and partly to other causes, we lost Charlie Daniels, Jan Howard, Charley Pride, Kenny Rogers, Billy Joe Shaver, B.J. Thomas, Jerry Jeff Walker and, yes, Mac Davis. One hell of a year. May they rest in peace.
23. “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.
24. “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?
25. “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.