Voorhies Hall, Bay View, Michigan * July 22, 2022
1. “Honky Tonk Heroes” (Billy Joe Shaver, 1973).
The story goes that in late 1972, after repeated efforts to corner Waylon Jennings and play his songs for him, Billy Joe Shaver had had enough. Knowing that Jennings was going to be recording at Tompall Glaser’s “Hillbilly Central” recording studio in Nashville, Shaver showed up uninvited and told the receptionist that he was there to see Jennings and wasn’t going to leave until he did. Told that Jennings was too busy to see him, Shaver said he’d wait and sat down. At the end of the day, when the office closed, he left … but was back the next morning. After two days of this, the irritated receptionist prevailed on Jennings to see Shaver, however briefly.
Jennings offered Shaver a deal: He’d listen to one of Shaver’s songs and, if he liked it, he’d listen to another one; the first one he didn’t like, though, Shaver would have to leave quietly. Shaver agreed, and played Jennings a song—which Jennings liked. That won Shaver a second song, which Jennings also liked. And then a third. Soon Jennings had Glaser out to listen as well, and they began to sketch out an album. The result was Honky Tonk Heroes, Jennings’ 1973 album that’s entirely devoted to Shaver songs—and that many consider Jennings’ best album.
The story may be true, it may not be true, but so it goes.
The phrase “honky-tonk heroes,” like the parallel “honky-tonk angels,” is not complimentary, and the fact that various people treat them as honorifics—notably Columbia Records, which titled the third volume of its 1990 label retrospective Honky Tonk Heroes, and its 1993 Loretta Lynn/Dolly Parton/Tammy Wynette trio album Honky Tonk Angels—only shows their ignorance. A honky-tonk angel is a nightclub/barroom floozy, one step above a prostitute; and a honky-tonk hero is a guy who talks big in a bar but is useless in the real world.
When Billy Joe Shaver writes of “lovable losers, no-account boozers and honky-tonk heroes like me,” in short, he’s not bragging.
Here’s Waylon Jennings’ original recording (note the Jimmie Rodgers lick that opens the track), and also Shaver’s own live recording. And, for extra value, a 2000 all-star version with Shaver himself joining Jennings, Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. My choice: The Jennings recording has a charming jauntiness to it, and a mean harmonica riff or two.
Note that the Jimmie Rodgers guitar lick which opens the song (and Jennings’ album) is unique to that album—when Shaver performs his own song, it doesn’t have that lick. Most likely this homage to “the Father of Country Music” was the idea of either Jennings or producer Tompall Glazer (both Rodgers buffs), not the songwriter.
2. “You Don’t Know Me” (Cindy Walker/Eddy Arnold, 1956).
This song is credited to Walker and Arnold, because Arnold supposedly had given Walker the gist of the idea for the song. I have my doubts; in those days top singers often insisted on getting a share of the songwriting credit (and, hence, the songwriter’s royalties) as a condition for recording a song. Songwriters didn’t like it, but knew that half of a big pie was usually bigger than all of a small pie—or no pie at all.
In any case, this is one of the best-written songs ever, short, simple, emotionally powerful and with a classical unity of structure: It’s an interior monologue with the singer meeting his/her loved one on the street; it takes off into his/her regrets … but then comes back to their parting, and the realization that the whole song has taken place in the course of a brief meeting, heavily freighted for the singer and meaningless for his loved one. It’s sad and beautiful and, all in all, a perfect song.
Here’s Arnold’s original version, with all the Nashville Sound trimmings; not at all country, but an all-time great recording. And, for contrast, Walker’s performance of her own song, from her 1964 vanity album. She wasn’t a bad singer at all.
3. “Folsom Prison Blues” (Johnny Cash, 1955).
Discussion of this song and its predecessor tends to focus on the unlikely fact that nobody except Cash—including Gordon Jenkins, who had written “Crescent City Blues” in 1953—seems to have realized that “Folsom Prison Blues” was based so closely on the earlier song, despite it being a No. 4 country hit in 1955.
(Cash later said that, when he recorded it, he’d told Sam Phillips, head of Sun Records, that his new song was based on the earlier one, but that Phillips laughed it off, saying that the song was so little-known that it didn’t matter. This may be so—Phillips knew a hit when he heard one, and Cash’s song definitely was a hit—but it’s hard to believe that the owner of even a small record company would deliberately set himself up for an unwinnable lawsuit. I think this is Cash’s later rationalization for a bad choice that somehow he got away with for 13 years.)
To me, though, there are two more important points. First of all, “Crescent City Blues”—and Beverly Mahr’s performance of it—are remarkably good. That it didn’t score a hit I can attribute only to the fact that Jenkins’ Seven Dreams was a concept album tied together with narration and sound effects that made it less likely to get radio play. But it’s a terrific song, terrifically sung.
The other point is how brilliant a job Cash did of adapting this song about a small-town girl dreaming of the lights of the big city into a song about a prisoner longing for freedom. He changed less than half of the lyrics and left the melody alone, and yet it really is an entirely different song. Cash’s song has absolutely no sense that it’s a pastiche or a knockoff—it has an integrity all its own. I like them both, and that’s not normally the case when someone rips off someone else’s song so thoroughly.
As I said, synthesis is a form of creativity, and “Folsom Prison Blues” is a perfect proof of that.
4. “I’ve Got Stripes” (Johnny Cash/Charlie Williams, 1959).
The funny thing about the attribution of this song is that the credited authors, Cash and country D.J. Charlie Williams, definitely didn’t write it; they either revised it substantially or listened to someone else’s substantial revision, but couldn’t be considered its authors. However, the person generally credited with actually writing it probably didn’t think he had.
Huddie Ledbetter (1888-1949), the great folk/blues artist who performed as Leadbelly, recorded “On a Monday” in 1939, but he was a folk singer who didn’t claim original authorship of most of his songs. In some form, “On a Monday” probably had been around for longer than Ledbetter had. Whoever first created it simply never thought to copyright it. (Cash and Williams weren’t nearly so lackadaisical about it.)
5. “Me and Bobby McGee” (Kris Kristofferson, 1969).
“If it sounds country, man, that’s what it is. It’s a country song.” So says Kristofferson in a verbal aside leading into his 1970 recording of this song.
It’s as if he was able to see the future and anticipate that many people would come to think of his song as a rock song, thanks to Janis Joplin’s 1971 recording, which was her first and only No. 1 pop hit. But Kristofferson didn’t even know that recording existed until after Joplin’s death in 1971, so that wasn’t what he was talking about. He may have been discussing some other recording of the tune that preceded his—say, the poppified 1969 version by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Or he may have been talking about some unrelated song, or even about musical philosophy in general. (His comments are a key reference in the ongoing, never-to-be-resolved debate about what country music really is.)
If he was talking about his own recording, well, yeah, that’s definitely country. But like any truly great song, “Me and Bobby McGee” has been cast into various different modes, and its greatness comes through in … well, in most of them.
Hundreds of possibilities here, so let’s go with five more options, four of them obvious and one less-than-obvious: Here’s Roger Miller in the original 1969 recording—still a very good one; here’s Kristofferson singing his own song in 1970, as a slow, meditative country ramble; here’s Janis Joplin with her iconic 1971 recording, and a typically high-energy, Cajunized version from Jerry Lee Lewis. And, just for giggles, here’s Jennifer Love Hewitt going all emo and whispery, for some reason.
I could say more about this song, but I already wrote a whole blog essay about it, titled “Me and ‘Me and Bobby McGee,” back in 2020. Check it out!
6. “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain” (Fred Rose, 1947).
As anyone who’s read my April 2020 blog post, “That’s Not How It Goes,” is well aware (and you can read it right here if you like), Nelson didn’t actually cover all of Rose’s song. As performed by Acuff in the original recording (and Williams in his cover version), the song had two verses and two choruses; Nelson turned the second verse into an instrumental (I’ve followed him in this). For completeness’s sake, though, here’s that second verse:
Now my hair has turned to silver
All my life I’ve loved in vain.
I can see her star in heaven
Blue eyes crying in the rain.
Acuff may not have liked the verse either, of course. Rose was his partner in the legendary Nashville music-publishing firm Acuff-Rose, and he may have not wanted to insult his friend and partner by cutting a verse. Rose was Williams’ publisher, producer and mentor, so he may have felt the same way. Personally, I’m with Nelson—I think the song is better without the extra verse.
7. “T for Texas” (Jimmie Rodgers, 1927).
This was the song that made Jimmie Rodgers, selling more than a half-million copies, and it defines a heaping handful of classic country themes and subthemes, from trifling women to gun fetishization, from man’s-gotta-be-a-man resolve to lonely despair. Rodgers’ recording was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1985 and the National Recording Registry in 2004.
It was the first of 13 Rodgers songs labeled as “blue yodels,” and rightly so in this case, since it’s basically a 12-bar blues spiked with athletic yodeling. All were credited or co-credited to Rodgers, but it would be more accurate to say that he assembled the songs than that he wrote them. “T for Texas” is filled with lines from other, earlier blues songs, and just because we don’t have sources for some other lines doesn’t mean that Rodgers actually wrote those lines.
Here’s Rodgers’ iconic version, which is better than later versions by Johnny Cash, Bob Dylan and any number of other people.
8. “Musical Chairs” (Shel Silverstein, 1976).
There’s a Tom Lehrer feel to this song, written by the great Shel Silverstein. I think it’s failed to achieve wider popularity only because its primary recording is by Tompall Glaser, a good singer but not an exciting one. If, say, Waylon Jennings or Kenny Rogers had recorded it, I think it would have had a much bigger footprint. I’m happy to give it some exposure now.
Here’s Glaser whooping it up.
9. “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” (Waylon Jennings, 1975).
Jennings didn’t write a lot of songs, but this is a good example of what he could do when he wanted to. (He also wrote its flip side, “Bob Wills Is Still the King.”)
And this is one he had to write, because it’s not the kind of thing professional songwriters write. It’s actually an attack on the type of music that the era’s songwriters were trying to sell. It would be counter-productive for a songwriter to be shopping this song around.
Its critique is essentially the same as the outlaw movement’s critique: The music of the Nashville Sound (which ruled the country airwaves at the time) is boring, repetitive and remote from the roots of country and, especially, the music of Hank Williams. In a word, it’s inauthentic. Jennings doesn’t name any specific artists whom he dislikes or blame any specific labels for the way things are—his sights are trained on the entire Nashville establishment.
Oh, and incidentally: The lines “Ten years on the road playing one-night stands,/speeding my young life away” are a reference to Jennings’ drug habit. Amphetamines, aka “speed,” were and are a hard-to-resist temptation for touring musicians, especially in the era when most tours were still done by car. Doing a punishing string of one-night stands in far-flung towns, it was hard to get up for shows and harder to stay awake on late-night drives to the next town. That’s why Jennings, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and many others resorted to amphetamines—getting a quick, stay-awake-all-night jolt at the cost of a lifelong drug problem.
Here’s Jennings’ original recording, and Alabama singing a pretty faithful version (as you’d expect, since it’s from a Waylon Jennings tribute album). Clint Black takes it in a different direction—including making it “Are You Sure Waylon Done It This Way,” a tribute that would ring truer if Jennings were not himself a guest singer on the track.
And, just for fun, here’s Jennings singing “Bob Wills Is Still the King.”
10. “Take This Job and Shove It” (David Alan Coe, 1977)
OK, let’s make one thing clear: This song doesn’t make sense. Songwriter Coe caught an idea that resonated for anyone who’d ever worked in a job they hated (and not many of us haven’t), but he didn’t turn it into a coherent country song lyric.
The song begins with the chorus, which is repeated twice more. As choruses go, it’s pretty clear: The singer is quitting his job because his woman has left him, and providing for her was the only reason he ever took this lousy job. Fair enough.
He then explains that he’s been working at a factory for almost 15 years, and all that time he’s watched his woman and plenty of other people working there suffer. He concludes the verse not by quitting, but by wishing that he had the guts to quit, kicking off a reprise of the chorus, which now has a different meaning: It’s not an “I quit” manifesto, but rather a wistful longing to do so, without any real likelihood that he ever will—a daydream, not a reality. Nice twist.
But wait … he’s wishing that his woman would leave him? That doesn’t make much sense, since she’s the only reason he’s at the factory in the first place.
The second verse recounts his contempt for the foreman and the line boss, ending with “I just can’t wait to see their faces when I find the nerve to say … “ and kicking into a final reprise of the chorus. But that chorus is still about his woman leaving him, so is he saying he just can’t wait until she does leave, freeing him to speak his mind? Or is he saying that this isn’t really about his woman but, when he quits, he’ll say that it is?
It’s a truism that people don’t really listen to the lyrics of songs—only to the tune and to a few key phrases. This is a classic case. Most of the record-buyers who made this a No. 1 hit seem to have thought that it was about a guy who quits his job, not about a long-suffering guy who wishes that he could quit but probably never will. Maybe none of them realized the discordant aspect of “my woman just left.” They heard a rollicking tune and the raunchy opening line, and that was enough to make it an anti-workplace anthem.
Oh, and Johnny Paycheck? Not his real name, of course—he was born Donald Eugene Lytle in 1938 in Greenfield, Ohio. He lifted the name from boxer Johnny Paychek (whose actual name was John J. Pacek) in 1964. He claimed it wasn’t in any way a reference to Johnny Cash, but that’s hard for me to believe.
Here’s Paycheck singing his biggest hit, and also David Alan Coe (who wrote the song, and was always irritated by people who thought that Paycheck had written it) doing his own version, which is less idiosyncratic than Paycheck’s version.
11. “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 with 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.
12. “Because You Asked Me To” (Billy Joe Shaver, 1973).
Billy Joe Shaver’s songs are widely admired in country circles, but haven’t often penetrated the pop market. They’re too quirky, too individualistic—and Shaver himself was notoriously difficult to deal with. Dozens of country artists have recorded Shaver songs, but very few pop artists.
This one is an exception, thanks to Elvis Presley, who recorded it in 1975. Of the three most interesting versions, Presley’s clearly features the best voice—even this late in his life, he still had an instrument that couldn’t be denied. Waylon Jennings’ is the most successful, a perfect match between singer and song. And Shaver’s presumably is how he envisioned it being sung, and has a loose-knit charm all its own.
I vote for Shaver, narrowly, but all three are excellent recordings. Take your pick.
(And for a detailed breakdown of this song, read my February 2020 blog post, “Ode to Billy Joe,” which lays out my theory as to what it is that makes Shaver’s songs so distinctive, and uses “Because You Asked Me To” as a case study.)
13. “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 and 1960s. 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.
14. “Texas When I Die” (Tanya Tucker, 1978).
This song was co-written and originally recorded by Ed Bruce, a minor country star of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s who is best remembered today as the co-author and original singer of “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” (1975). That song and this one were co-written by his wife, Patsy Bruce; Bobby Borsters also contributed to “Texas When I Die.”
Tucker’s version, a flamboyant stadium rouser, plays way differently than Bruce’s, which is a loping meditation with, yes, a cowboy beat. The line “’cause I don’t know if they let cowboys in” plays very differently coming from a woman; it’s characteristic of Tucker’s persona (and of Tucker) that she didn’t change it to “cowgirls,” but kept the original lyric and dug into its newly risqué connotations.
Here’s Tucker’s version, a No. 5 country hit in 1978; and here’s Ed Bruce’s version, a No. 52 hit from the previous year. Yes, her version did a lot better, and I’m sure Bruce appreciated the royalty checks—but, I confess, I like Bruce’s version much more. I’ve chosen to perform it in a version that’s closer to hers, because it’s included in this show on her account, but the version I hear in my head is Bruce’s.
And, for the record, New York City has held my attention for 60 years now—and, if it fails to do so for the next 60 years, it won’t be the city’s fault.
15. “Mama Tried” (Merle Haggard, 1968).
This seems like a prison song, which is a country subgenre that goes back to even before the Bristol Sessions—think Vernon Dalhart’s “The Prisoner’s Song” (1924), the first country song ever to sell 1 million copies—but it’s actually something else: It’s a beloved-mama song, which has been a staple of country since forever.
It was a favorite song of the Grateful Dead, who played it at Woodstock.
16. “Today I Started Loving You Again” (Merle Haggard, 1968).
To me this classic country song—not a hit at the time, but since then recorded brilliantly by scores of country singers—is actually three songs in one, because the emotion shifts discernibly from verse to verse.
The first verse is a familiar country wallow, the guy who’s lost his gal and, with her, all sense of meaning to his life. He’s tried to get past it, to move on, but it can’t be done.
In the second verse his anger kindles—not at his lost love, but at himself: “What a fool I was … “ “I should have known … “ He sees how pointless his misery is, but even that realization won’t snap him out of it, so he blames himself for being so weak and vulnerable.
With the third verse comes a sense of perspective, and a bittersweet humor—a trace of a laugh at his own folly, and hence possibly some hope of emerging intact. In the first line of the third verse, notice Haggard’s tiny little catch before the last word: “And today I started loving you. Again.” It’s a subtle touch that makes an already-great song just a little greater.
The best musician I’ve ever known once told me (and a bunch of other people) that, if you have to sing the same line a second or third time, you should sing it a little differently each time. Merle Haggard would seem to agree.
Here’s Haggard’s hard-to-top original, along with two great female versions: Connie Smith brings her world-class voice to a bluesy version with a tinge of a swing to it, while Loretta Lynn makes a bold choice, turning things upside down: She and producer Owen Bradley suggest a different, sunnier take on the story: This is about a woman who’s strayed from her love, but despite herself has found her way not only right back where she’s really always been, but also right back where she belongs.
I love a lot of country songs, but there aren’t many that I love more than this one.
17. “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Kris Kristofferson, 1969).
There’s a Gilbert & Sullivan patter song to be made out of all the artists who’ve covered this classic Kristofferson song. Country, folk, rock, pop, gospel or hip-hop alike, they’ve all been in that hotel room, and they all know what Kristofferson is talking about. Nobody had to explain this one to them.
Is this song sexist? Well, in a certain respect, absolutely: The whole point of it is that the specific woman he’s with means nothing to him—this is a song about being alone even when you’re with somebody else, trying to quench that loneliness and only feeling more alone. “Lord, tonight I need a friend,” the singer howls—he needs a friend, but all he’s got is sex. Like Sinatra said, the point isn’t the booze, the broads or the Bibles … it’s just about making it through the night.
Kristofferson’s version is still the definitive one, despite a swing that’s catchier than many subsequent versions. One of them is Sammi Smith’s classic take, which overcame the somewhat awkward gender switch to score a No. 1 country hit and a No. 8 pop hit, winning her a Grammy Award as Best Female Country Vocal Performance. And, as an offbeat chaser, Johnny Cash swinging the song (with a lyric bobble) for a 1972 audience … at a Swedish prison.
18. “On the Road Again” (Willie Nelson, 1980).
This song is unusually short—only two four-line verses and a four-line chorus, with lots of repetitions—because Nelson wrote it (reportedly on the back of an air-sickness bag) for use in the opening scene of Honeysuckle Rose (1980), as part of a montage of a dialogue scene, traveling shots and a band performance. It’s surprising that he’s never expanded it for conventional live use, but he never has.
Many people take the song to be about the joy of driving or of traveling in general, but Nelson’s lyric makes clear that it’s not about the literal road, but rather about the life of a touring musician—like the character Nelson played in the movie and, by extension, Nelson himself. So all the families that sing this song as they head out on vacation are misunderstanding it … unless they’re going to play a few clubs and bars en route.
Here’s Nelson’s original, a No. 1 country hit, a No. 20 pop hit and a Grammy winner as Best Country Song. Neil Young goes for an old-timey feel in his 2014 cover, with a killer harmonica solo. As for the 1981 cover by Alvin and the Chipmunks … well, I suppose they’re trying to be funny. (For our Spanish-speaking fans, here’s the Chipmunks’ Spanish version, “Yo Regresare.”)