Program Notes:  Tennessee Walt’s ‘Three Chords and the Truth: Country’s Greatest Songwriters’

Bethpage Public Library, April 23, 2023

1.  “Always on My Mind” (Johnny Christopher, Mark James and Wayne Carson, 1970).

People are often surprised to learn that Nelson didn’t write this song, and that it actually had been recorded by a number of famous singers in the decade before Nelson 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.)

Johnny Christopher
Mark James
Wayne Carson

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, Elvis Presley 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, and Elvis Presley’s.  Personally, I’ll take Nelson’s every time.

2.  “Hobo Bill’s Last Ride” (Waldo O’Neal/Elsie McWilliams, 1929).

Yes, homelessness and railroads have been linked for about as long as there have been railroads.  (There’s always been homelessness.)

The striking thing about McWilliams’ lyrics, which sets it apart from many of the hobo lyrics of the Great Depression, is that it’s completely uninterested in assigning blame.  This is not a Marxist take on homelessness or poverty, not a Calvinist take, a conservative take nor a liberal take—it simply digs deep into the sadness of its story.  We learn nothing about Hobo Bill himself, except perhaps that he likes the sound of a train whistle; where he’s bound doesn’t matter, any more than where he’s coming from—all he is, as the song concludes, is “a railroad bum who died out in the cold.”  We don’t even learn what caused his death, only that it took place in the worst possible circumstances.

Elsie McWilliams, 50 years later

The song doesn’t ask us to blame the government, the rich, society or even Bill himself.  It simply tells us how he died, and lets us know how sad the story is.

(Attribution note:  Waldo O’Neal is credited as the author of this song, but many years later Elsie McWilliams gave an interview in which she talked about working on it.  My guess is that she helped tailor O’Neal’s song for Rodgers’ unique needs.)

Here’s Jimmie Rodgers’ iconic original, and two later versions by Rodgers acolytes:  Hank Snow’s cover is from 1951, and Merle Haggard’s from 1969.

3.  “My Rough and Rowdy Ways” (Elsie McWilliams, 1929).

This is one of the most iconic Jimmie Rodgers songs, expressing the central persona of his songs: a cheerful, charming sinner who admits to his own weaknesses readily and even with a touch of pride.

From his first hit, “Blue Yodel No. 1” (“T for Texas”), Rodgers had portrayed himself as a guy who, while not meaning any harm as such, could be dangerous to himself and others.  By 1929 the violent edge of “T for Texas” had largely been sanded off, but a Rodgers song still wasn’t the moralistic sermon-in-music that the Carter Family so often offered.  In his songs drinking, womanizing and even violence were basic to human nature—as they would be for the subsequent 90 years of country music.

The Father of Country Music

One of the reasons for the Carters’ popularity was that they spoke to the better angels of their audience, to the people who kept on the sunny side and were sure that the circle could be reforged.  Rodgers presented his audience with a different face, but one that they recognized: a man who resisted sin, but often lost the fight and had a lot of fun losing.  He was a man they could imagine being, because—for many of them, at least—they were.

Here’s Rodgers yodeling his way to perdition, and a terrific cover by Merle Haggard from 1969.  And a nicely swinging 21st-century take by Anna Nalick.

4.  “Make the World Go Away”  (Hank Cochran, 1963).

Hank Cochran was one of country’s great poets of anguish.  His first big hit was “I Fall to Pieces” (1961), a piercing chronicle of despair, and he returned to this subject again and again, including in this chart-topping hit.

Hank Cochran

It’s characteristic of Cochran that, while there’s clearly a story here of some sort, he isn’t interested in it.  What intrigues him is the depth of the singer’s despair, not how he got to that point.  Boy met girl, boy got girl, boy lost girl—and then it gets interesting.

The lyric is entirely centered on the past—not on the events of the past, though, but rather the emotions:  “Do you remember when you loved me?”  “Just say you love me like you used to.”  The repeated plea “Make the world go away” really means “make this world go away,” in favor of a world of the past that has, of course, irretrievably vanished.

Ray Price’s original version (1963) is beautifully sung, but is almost a Nashville Sound parody, with swooping strings, swooning chorus and Price’s flamboyantly schmaltzy performance.  By comparison, Eddy Arnold’s definitive performance (1965) is far simpler and more introspective (and also slower).  Cochran’s own version (also 1965) has a jauntiness not heard in either Price’s or Arnold’s—a jauntiness that doesn’t really seem to fit the song.

And, for fun, here’s a 1975 version by Donny and Marie Osmond, gleefully over the top.  (For obvious reasons, this song had never been done previously as a male/female duet and, so far as I know, has never been done that way again.)

As a special, not-to-be-repeated bonus, here’s Johnny Paycheck’s “Help Me, Hank, I’m Falling,” a 1965 song that’s about … well, Hank Cochran.

John Dee Loudermilk

5.  “Big Daddy’s Alabammy Bound” (John D. Loudermilk, 1962).

The original of Loudermilk’s song is Boots Randolph’s version, more R&B than country.  However, the song has been embraced by dozens of country artists, including Loudermilk himself.  My personal favorite is Wanda Jackson’s version, but Chet Atkins offers a cool instrumental version that’s also fun.

The striking thing about this song is its swaggering tune, which makes up for the fact that the song isn’t really about much of anything.  In the first verse we learn that a troublemaking guy is ducking across the state line to escape arrest … and in the rest of the song we learn the same thing, again and again.  But it’s so much fun that we don’t care.

I’ve made one revision to the lyrics.  I’ve heard a number of fine versions of this song (the live one by The Browns is also great—be sure to stick around for the cute ending), with different singers with different accents, but none of them can make “patrol” rhyme with “criminal.”  So I’ve revised that second-verse couplet to rhyme “FBI” with “guy.”  At least to a New Yorker’s ear, that’s a better rhyme!

6.  “Sweet Dreams” (Don Gibson, 1956).

Just 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 tried 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 over all.

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 from 1975.  They’re both great.  (No surprise, Gibson’s runs 2:17 without rushing; McEntire’s runs 3:09, almost a whole minute longer.)

Don Gibson

7.  “I Can’t Stop Loving You”  (Don Gibson, 1957).

This is a strangely structured song, basically chorus-verse-chorus.  Gibson rarely wrote long songs, but even for him this is a short one.  And it’s a song in which nothing happens:  The whole point of the song is that the singer is stuck in the past, adrift in an endlessly recirculating stream of memory.

The key to my performance (at least as I intend it to be) is a difference of emphasis—of rhythm—in the first line of the chorus.  In the first verse, coming out of a brief, three-measure introduction, the emphasis is, as it usually is, on the downbeat:  “I can’t stop LOVING you.”  “What can’t I stop?  Loving you is what I can’t stop.”

The verse offers an apparent solution to his anguish—“they say that time heals a broken heart”—but the solution doesn’t work for him because time doesn’t pass.  He’s stuck in an endless repetition of a particularly agonizing moment:  “Time has stood still since we’ve been apart.”

Out of this surges the second chorus, with a different accent:  “I CAN’T stop loving you.”  It’s a fierce rebuke of “they,” an insistence on the undeniability of his own experience.  “Why don’t you stop loving her?”  “I can’t stop loving her.”

I don’t expect an audience to track this sort of thing—it’s not overthinking in a singer, but it would be overthinking in most audience members.  But that’s what’s in my head.

Here are the two classic versions of this song, one by Kitty Wells and the other by Ray Charles.  My favorite is Wells’, but I know I’m in the minority.  Charles is an all-time great artist, but his embrace of the elevator-music Nashville Sound as “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” sets my teeth on edge.  They’re modern sounds, all right, but they’re not in country music; I’m not an expert on western music, but they don’t sound like cowboy songs either.

Billy Joe Shaver

8.  “Black Rose” (Billy Joe Shaver, 1973).

In my head, the story of this Shaver song is about a man who is involved in a relationship with a neighbor’s niece who is compulsively unfaithful—it reminds me of the movie “Black Snake Moan” (2006).  However, it could be about a lot of different things; I think Shaver intended different people to find emotional power from seeing it 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.

Two versions of this one, too, by Waylon Jennings and by Shaver himself.

9.  “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 in 1995.  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.

Gretchen Peters

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 frenzied 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. 

10.  “Crazy Heart” (Fred Rose/Maurice Murray, 1951).

This song seems to be the singer giving the cold, hard facts of life to a romantic buddy, but my personal theory is that this is an internal monologue—the brain talking to the heart, the judgment talking to the imagination, all happening between the ears of this poor sap.

Either way, the key point here is the resignation of the lyric:  The singer knows that the woman is gone for good, but that whomever he’s addressing is still in love with her.  He’s not trying to convince his listener to forget and move on—he knows that’s impossible.  All he can do is give him permission to be heartbroken, and to be there for him while he’s doing it.  Pretty darn sad, if you think about it.

The Hank Williams original remains the definitive recording, but here’s a nice Western Swing version by the Sons of the Pioneers, from 1957.  And a bizarre, rambling, high-energy take from Jerry Lee Lewis in 1958 (not released until many years later). 

Proud “Pappy”: Fred Rose (left) and Hank Williams

11.  “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive” (Hank Williams/Fred Rose, 1952).

Obviously, the fact that Williams died barely a month after this song was released has lent a darker, more ironic tone to what was intended as a novelty song, an exercise in comic pessimism.

The great Chet Atkins, still years away from his ascent to the helm of RCA’s Nashville office, is the lead guitarist in Williams’ recording, and he later remembered the session (held on June 13, 1952) as harrowing due to Williams’ faltering health:  “We recorded ‘I’ll Never Get Out of this World Alive,’” Atkins recalled, “and, after each take, he’d sit down in a chair. I remember thinking, ‘Hoss, you’re not jivin’,’ because he was so weak that all he could do was just sing a few lines and then just fall in the chair.”

Steel guitarist Don Helms, however, was also there, and he rejected the suggestion that Williams had any foreboding sense of doom:  “Hell, he was 28 years old,” Helms said.  “When you’re 28, you think you’ll live forever.”

Here’s Williams’ original version, and two subsequent takes:  Jerry Lee Lewis makes nonsense of the song (but, oh, such entertaining nonsense) with a rockabilly version, while Steve Earle takes it even bluesier than Williams does.

12.  “I Guess Things Happen That Way”  (Cowboy Jack Clement, 1958).

Either you like choruses going “Ba-doop-a-doop” or you don’t.  I don’t, which is why I love this song but not Johnny Cash’s original recording.  The chorus imposes a tongue-in-cheek quality on the song which nothing else about it justifies.

I have a sneaking suspicion that Cash felt the same way, because his performance absolutely ignores the chorus—to the point, in fact, that it sounds as if the chorus has been overdubbed, which it may have been.  Cash sings the song absolutely straight, with a mournful tone that fits the words and melody (but not the accompaniment) perfectly.

Suffice it to say that my favorite take on this song is Cowboy Jack’s version, which is from 2004.  Simpler, more wistful and nary a ba-doop to be heard.

Johnny and Jack (Cash and Clement, not Wright and Anglin)

13.  “The One on the Right Was on the Left”  (Cowboy Jack Clement, 1966).

I love this song, but it’s a pretty depressing one, if you think about it, because it so neatly captures one of the worst things about our country today.

It’s a song about a conservative, a liberal, a moderate and a nonconformist (in Cowboy Jack Clement’s original, he’s a Methodist who burns his driver’s license and ends up getting drafted; in mine he’s a populist who forgets to vote and ends up driving an Uber).  Together they’re better than the sum of their parts, an amazing band whose musical gifts vault them to national fame … but they break up in dissension because their political views clash and they can’t get past that.

I grew up in a house where my Republican father and my Democrat mother didn’t agree on much of anything, politically speaking, but our family worked.  I’m a centrist (which means that I’m more conservative than my liberal friends, more liberal than my conservative friends and rarely in agreement with anybody), and I’ve made music and theater with people of every ideological stripe from Trump voters to Bernie boosters, and it’s worked out.  We’ve all come away happy with the results and, yes, friendly with each other.

That’s the way our country has always worked.  Not long ago Sen. John McCain (R.-Ariz.) and Sen. Ted Kennedy (D.-Mass.) were ideological opponents who were personal friends and, surprisingly often, colleagues in pushing bills that they could both support.  Nowadays I see less of that.  It’s hard enough to find Democrats who agree with other Democrats, Republicans who agree with other Republicans, let alone ones who reach across the aisle to shake hands.

I don’t think any of us are better off for that.

Here’s Cash singing Clement’s song.  Enjoy!

14.  “Busted” (Harlan Howard, 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.

Harlan Howard

Here’s Johnny Cash singing the song, plus—for the fun of it—a bizarre, genre-crossing version by the great Wanda Jackson, which is really its own thing, defying traditional genre labels.

15.  “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age” (Cindy Walker/Bob Wills, 1949).

I don’t take Wills’ songwriting credit seriously, and neither should you. In those days top singers or bandleaders 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.

Cindy Walker

I’ve tweaked the lyrics some here because … because … well, because I think the original lyrics were kind of dated and not as sharp as they might be.  And I added an extra verse because I thought a song this much fun deserved three verses.

For the record, here are the lyrics to the song as you hear it today; the ones in bold face are the ones written by me:

Don’t be ashamed of your age.
            Don’t let the years get you down.
The people you once knew,
they still remember you—
            that’s why you can’t go back to your hometown.
Don’t fret about the gray in your hair.
Just think of all the fun you’ve had puttin’ it there.
            As for that old book of time, you’ve never skipped a page.
            So don’t be ashamed of your age,
            brother, don’t be ashamed of your age.

Don’t be ashamed of your age.
            Don’t let the years get you down.
To learn a new thing every day
has brought you quite a way—
            it makes you kind of glad you stuck around.
Don’t think about the lines on your face;
a little character is no disgrace.
            The sun shines warmer, so they say,
            when it’s later in the day,
 So don’t be ashamed of your age,
 sister, don’t be ashamed of your age.

Don’t be ashamed of your age,
            don’t let the years get you down.
Why, life ain’t begun
until you’re 41
            that’s when you really start to go to town.
Don’t wish you were a lass or a lad.
Just think of all the mistakes they haven’t had.
            Why, it’s only now that you
            have learned a thing or two,
so don’t be ashamed of your age,
brothers, don’t be ashamed of your age,
sisters, don’t be ashamed of your age!   

And here are Walker’s original lyrics, with the ones in bold face being the ones I thought needed improvement, mostly because of outdated gender attitudes or because I wasn’t doing the song as a male/male duet:

Don’t be ashamed of your age.
            Don’t let the years get you down.
That old gang you knew,
they still think of you
            as a rounder in your old hometown.

Don’t mind the gray in your hair.
Just think of all the fun you’ve had puttin’ it there.
            As for that old book of time, you’ve never skipped a page.
            So don’t be ashamed of your age, 
            brother, don’t be ashamed of your age.
Listen, Mr. Smith, Mr. Brown,
Don’t let your age get you down.

            Life ain’t begun
            until you’re 40, son—
That’s when you really start to go to town.

Don’t wish that you were a lad.
Why, boy, you’ve lost more gals than they’ve ever had.
            And, listen, you’ve graduated from that ol’ sucker stage,
So don’t be ashamed of your age,
brother, don’t be ashamed of your age!

Which plays better?  Judge for yourselves, because you’ll find the original lyrics on both the Bob Wills version and on the Foley/Tubb version, the latter being the one I love best.

(Tommy Duncan is the singer on the Wills version.  The freakish shouting and hooting over the song is Wills himself.  They’re why I can’t listen to Wills for any length of time, despite the amazing caliber of his musicians.  It’s like he heckles himself.)

16.  “Green, Green Grass of Home” (Curly Putman, 1965).

It’s kind of strange that this song is an acclaimed classic, recorded by hundreds of singers, since basically it’s an M. Night Shyamalan kind of song, defined by its twist ending.  Once you know what the twist is, there’s not a lot more about the song to intrigue you—the first two verses are a deliberate string of cliches, and the third verse nothing more than functional—let alone to inspire you to seek out performances by a wide variety of singers.  But history says that I’m wrong about that, because this is one of the most successful country songs ever written.

Here’s the original recording, with Johnny Darrell singing a fairly straightforward version.  That one led to the Porter Wagoner recording, which is the one that “made” the song, and led to nearly all of the later versions.  (It’s also the first one to use recitation for the big reveal—Darrell sings it.)  The Jerry Lee Lewis version breaks the song out of hardcore country (and out of outright pathos), but is most significant as the one that inspired the Tom Jones recording, which made the song a pop hit as well as a country classic.

Personally, I like Darrell’s best, because I almost always dislike recitation except in comic songs; I also like its use of the harmonica and his strong-but-restrained telling of the story, without the florid melodrama of many other versions.  Wagoner’s is also excellent, if you don’t mind recitation.  Lewis’ seethes with energy that he knows he shouldn’t let go, but he doesn’t know anything else to do with it.  Jones has a terrific voice, of course, but his mannered delivery doesn’t work for me, he’s not any good at recitation (he’s from a musical background that doesn’t have any tradition of it) and the sweeping chorus and the Mantovani-style orchestra backing him are simply silly.

And, just to round things out, here’s Curly Putman (not “Putnam,” please!) singing his own song.  That he uses recitation doesn’t necessarily mean that he intended it to be done that way—his version is from 2010, long after the recitation became the standard way of performing the song.  To judge by the Darrell version, I’d guess that Putman originally intended it to be sung.

Bobby Braddock (left) and Curly Putman

17.  “He Stopped Loving Her Today”  (Bobby Braddock/Curly Putman, 1980).

This is one of the most difficult songs to perform that I’ve ever attempted.  The tune isn’t challenging, and the words are clear and to the point.  The problems involve storytelling and tone.

Initially this song seems to be written from a God’s-eye perspective, looking down on the man and woman of the story with a sense of detachment.  Late in the second verse of a two-and-a-half-verse song, however, the narrator suddenly pops up in the story:  “I went to see him just today.”  And suddenly we have to reassess what we’ve heard.  Who is this guy?  What’s his relationship to the man he’s singing about?  Who’s he telling the story to?  And what’s his take on the story he’s telling?

My first answer was that the singer is an acquaintance, even a friend of the old man who died, probably one of long standing—he seems to have been an observer to the whole arc of the story, and he’s close enough to have been in the old man’s house and to have attended his viewing.  That makes him an old man, telling some third party (his wife, perhaps?) about the death of somebody he’s known for a long time.

As I continued working on the song, though, I was struck by the lines “She came to see him one more time;/we all wondered if she would.”  Who is “we?”  This sounds more like people gossiping about a couple of other people that everybody knew but maybe nobody knew well, and that spurred me to notice that the earlier verses are antiseptic, without an obviously personal viewpoint.  “He kept her picture on his wall” could mean “I saw her picture on his wall,” sure, but it could also mean “Somebody told me he’d kept her picture on his wall.”  And he might have gone to the viewing not as a friend, but out of simple curiosity.

About 18 months into work on this song (the two-year postponement of this show gave me, willy nilly, the chance to dig deeply into it), I decided that (to me at least) this feels like a guy sitting at a bar with a few drinking buddies, chewing over a story he’s talked through many times before, but that now had come to an end.  That accounts for the lack of personal details—most obviously, the lack of names—and also for the wild tonal lurch of the final verse.

Most people writing about this song seem to have missed the black humor of “This time he’s over her for good.”  It’s a sardonic, emotionally remote kicker to the story, one that doesn’t fit with the singer and the dead man having been friends—it feels like a punch line for a story shared by people who weren’t personally involved in any way. 

George Jones: Hated the Song

I’m not sure if this was what Braddock and Putman (or George Jones and producer Billy Sherrill) had in mind.  Braddock and Putman worked on this song, on and off, for years, and had particular difficulty with the ending, so it’s possible that the different tone of the last verse came about because it was written significantly after the rest of the song, after the songwriters had lost their personal connection to the story.  But this is the only reading that makes sense to me. 

Here’s the George Jones classic, which presumably needs no introduction.  Johnny Cash did a nice, stripped-down version—his voice is failing, but that kind of fits the song’s narrative structure—somebody who’s been watching this guy for so long must be pretty old by now.  And Leann Rimes’ version is the slowest one I’ve ever heard, but it has an elegiac beauty which appeals to me.

18.  “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (Bobby Braddock/Curly Putman, 1968).

The thing I’ve never gotten about this song is the artists who have covered it since Wynette made the original version: Liz Anderson, Rosanne Cash, Norma Jean, Peggie Little, Dolly Parton, Dottie West etc.  Other than a couple of parodies (notably Billy Connolly’s 1975 takeoff), everyone I’ve ever heard of who recorded it was, yes, a woman.

People seem to regard this as an iconically female song, like Loretta Lynn’s “Don’t Come Home a-Drinking” (1967) or Wynette’s “Stand By Your Man” (1968).  I don’t see why, though.  Don’t fathers love their children?  Is a wife whose husband leaves her automatically more heartbroken than a husband whose wife leaves him? 

In at least one way, the song works better for a man:  When I sing it, I change a single word in the lyrics, changing “Me and little J-O-E will be going away” to “You and little J-O-E will be going away.”  This reflects the fact that, more often than not, courts give custody to the mother in a divorce—but it also makes the song sadder, the heartbreak more understandable.  Losing your spouse and your child is worse than simply losing your spouse.

I have absolutely no trouble connecting with the emotional content, and it amazes me that more male artists haven’t covered it.

Here’s Wynette’s classic version.

19.  “A Boy Named Sue”  (Johnny Cash, 1969).

This seems like it would be a pain in the neck to memorize, but in reality it’s not that hard.  It’s long, but it’s a classic country story song—if you follow the story, you won’t get mixed up.

Here’s Cash singing the song.  And, just for fun, here are two answer songs: the raunchy “Father of a Boy Named Sue,” written and performed by Shel Silverstein, author of “A Boy Named Sue,” and Jane Morgan’s hilarious “A Girl Named Johnny Cash.”

Oh, and the song that kept Cash and “A Boy Named Sue” from No. 1 on the Billboard Top 40 for three straight weeks in 1969?  It was the Rolling Stones with “Honky-Tonk Women.”

Johnny Cash (left) yuks it up with Shel Silverstein

20.  “One’s on the Way”  (Shel Silverstein, 1971).

OK, for those too young to understand this song, here are the references Silverstein makes in his lyric:

“Liz” is actress Elizabeth Taylor (1932-2011), who did indeed fly to France for a haircut at least once.

“Jackie” is former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis (1929-1994), who in 1971 was living in Manhattan and was frequently seen at the city’s hottest nightclubs … rarely if ever accompanied by her elderly-and-ailing husband, Greek billionaire Aristotle Onassis.

A “discotheque” was a nightclub that featured dancing, but with recorded music rather than a live band.  They still have them, of course, but it’s been decades since I’ve heard the word itself used.

“The White House social season” in 1971 was under the auspices of first lady Pat Nixon, and was not in fact glittering or gay:  The Nixons preferred socializing with small groups of friends, and held large gatherings (outside of state dinners for foreign leaders) only infrequently.

“Topeka” was and is the capital of Kansas; it’s used in the song as a quintessentially real place, as indeed it is.  In 1971 it had approximately 125,000 residents, about the same as today.

“Raquel Welch” (b. 1940) was one of the world’s biggest film stars and sex symbols in 1971.  In the late 1990s Playboy declared her to be No. 3 on its list of the “100 Sexiest Stars of the 20th Century.”  In 1971 she starred in Hannie Caulder, a western.  The million-dollar pact referred to must be the seven-year, seven-picture deal she signed with Twentieth Century-Fox in 1965.  It’s unlikely that she ever received $1 million for a single film, at least not in the 1970s.

“Debbie” is actress/entertainer Debbie Reynolds (1932-2016).  She had been a major Hollywood star in the 1950s, primarily appearing in musicals.  As the Hollywood musical waned in the 1960s, however, her career waned with it; by 1971 she was doing mainly stage work and nightclub appearances, especially in Las Vegas (as the song notes).

“Newlyweds” probably refers to The Newlywed Game (1966-1974), a game show that pitted newlywed couples against each other, testing each spouse’s knowledge of his/her partner.

The striking thing to me about the song is not its humor, which is a Silverstein trademark, but its empathy with struggling working-class women in the American heartland, a world away from the East and West Coast media stars mentioned in the verses.  Silverstein, a Jew who grew up in Chicago, never lived in that world, but his song demonstrates clearly that he understood it.

Here’s Loretta Lynn in her definitive recording from 1971, and Norma Jean (backed by the Jordanaires) in a fairly similar version from 1972.  And, for a different take, here’s Carol Channing bringing her one-of-a-kind voice (and minor country star Rita Remington) to a version unlikely to be mistaken for anybody else’s.

21.  “The Gambler”  (Don Schlitz, 1979).

OK, just for fun, let’s dissect the central metaphor/moral of this classic song. 

The metaphor is simple: Life is a poker game.  But what are we supposed to learn?  According to the fourth verse of the song, that would be a) when to hold ‘em; b) when to fold ‘em; c) when to walk away; d) when to run; and e) never to count your money when you’re sitting at the table.  (Obviously, a) and b) are pretty much the same as c) and d).)

However, the fourth verse doesn’t actually tell us anything useful, such as how to know those things.  It just tells us that we’ve got to know them. 

It’s in the fifth verse that the gambler offers some actual advice, couched (of course) in metaphorical terms:  a)  The secret of survival is knowing what to throw away and knowing what to keep; b) every hand’s a winner and every hand’s a loser; and c) the best that you can hope for is to die in your sleep.

Don Schlitz: gambler, philosopher and songwriter

I take the metaphor expressed in a) as meaning that we all have a wide variety of things in our past—people, experiences, feelings, attitudes, opinions—and some of them strengthen us and make us better people, while others weigh us down and make us worse people.  The former are what to hold, and also what to keep; the latter are what to fold and what to throw away.

To me, b) means that most things in life are neither intrinsically valuable or intrinsically worthless, and whether you’re a winner or a loser depends mainly on what you make of those things.  In poker, this means that you can bluff a poor hand into a winner, or misplay a great hand into a loser; in life, it’s about learning the right lessons and appreciating the things that matter the most.  The winners in life aren’t necessarily the people who live the longest, or who have the most money, the most land or the most children—the winners are the people who make the most of what they do have.

As to c), it’s a pretty grim truth, but it’s a truth nonetheless:  Ultimately we all die, and there’s no avoiding that; the best we can hope for is to die without pain and suffering, for ourselves or for others.  And it’s only after our life is over that it can be seen in perspective and judged—not by us, perhaps, but by others.  Which is why you never count your money while the game is still going on, because what counts is where you stand at the end of the game, not in the midst of the action.

It’s a nice touch, of course, that the gambler himself dies in his sleep in the final verse.

22.  “Live Forever” (Billy Joe Shaver, 1993).

It’s no secret that I’m a huge Shaver fan—despite the fact that he was by any standards a loose cannon, a quick-to-anger, paranoid drunk with an exaggerated sense of his own importance and a general hostility toward the rest of the world.  In 2007 he was charged with aggravated assault after shooting a man outside a tavern in Lorena, Texas—not the usual kind of thing for a 67-year-old man, but Shaver was not the usual kind of 67-year-old.  (He pled self-defense and was acquitted.)

He wasn’t wrong, though, in thinking that he was a generational songwriter, a uniquely gifted guy whose songs couldn’t have been written by anybody else.  His songs either shaped country music in the 1970s and beyond … or ought to have.

Four for the Road: (From left) Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson.

Shaver was an incredibly hard guy to deal with, prickly and positively eager to take offense.  Recording a Shaver song meant having to deal with Shaver, and the big names don’t like having to deal with arrogant guys that nobody’s ever heard of.  Nevertheless, the list of people who recorded Shaver songs is an honor roll of the biggest names there were:  Bobby Bare, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Alison Krauss, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Elvis Presley.

Here’s Billy Joe singing his song.  And here’s the Highwaymen singing the same song, which they used as the finale to their 1995 tour.  Think about that one:  Cash, Jennings, Kristofferson and Nelson, four of the top songwriters of their generation, get together to do a show … and they decide to finish with a Billy Joe Shaver song.  And I can almost hear Shaver saying, “At last those knuckleheads are showing some sense.  But I can sing it better than that.”)

If it’s good enough for them, though, it’s good enough for me.  And a song about songwriting is a great way to end a show like this.

p.s.—Again, read my blog essay on Billy Joe Shaver, especially if you know his work.  I think I’m onto something about how his particular songwriting style works.


3 thoughts on “Program Notes:  Tennessee Walt’s ‘Three Chords and the Truth: Country’s Greatest Songwriters’

  1. Pingback: Program Notes: Tennessee Walt’s Three Chords and the Truth: Country’s Greatest Songwriters | Tennessee Walt

  2. Pingback: Program Notes:  Tennessee Walt’s ‘Three Chords and the Truth: Country’s Greatest Songwriters’ | Tennessee Walt

  3. Pingback: Program Notes:  Tennessee Walt’s ‘Three Chords and the Truth: Country’s Greatest Songwriters’ | Tennessee Walt

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