Program Notes:  ‘Tennessee Walt’s 61 and Counting’

Online, May 21, 2022

1.  “A Song about You” (Gayden Wren, 2019).

A year or two back, I noticed that in 2020 a country singer named Sam Grow had premiered a song called “Song About You.”  I haven’t heard it, so I don’t know if it’s anything like mine.  For the record, I debuted mine during a show at the Manhattan club Don’t Tell Mama in July 2019; so, if one of us stole the song, it was him.

Probably not, though, because a lot of songwriters have specific other people to whom they return again and again in their songs, to the point of obsession.  For Hank Williams, “you” was usually his first wife, Audrey Williams—according to his second wife, Billie Jean, he was driving with her when he was inspired to write a song … about Audrey.  (Granted, that song was “Your Cheating Heart”; I didn’t say that it’s always love songs you write.)  For Hank Williams Jr., it’s his father.  For John Lennon it was Yoko Ono.  For painter Andrew Wyeth, it was Christina Olson.  Creative people are like that.

This song may or may not be about a particular person in my own life.  It’s really about the phenomenon of coming back to another person again and again, trying to use your art to work out your relationship with him or her.  It’s natural, if you think about it:  Human beings use their thought processes to analyze their relationships, and for songwriters—or painters, poets, playwrights or whatever—creativity is the reflexive channel into which our thought processes flow.  It’s more surprising, perhaps, when a creative person doesn’t use his or her art to explore those relationships.

The obvious answer song is “Not Another Song About Me”; maybe someone will write it sometime.

2.  “Aruba” (Gayden Wren, 2020).

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

3.  “The Eclipse” (Gayden Wren, 2017).

I usually recount the origin of this song prior to singing it, because I always worry that, if I don’t, people won’t understand what’s going on in the song, and the governing metaphor—as I understand it, with the singer himself being eclipsed—won’t be understood.

I did only an abbreviated version this time, though, so for the record:  Back in August 2017, there was a total eclipse of the sun over most of America.  Unfortunately the eclipse wasn’t total where we were, in northern Michigan; you needed to be a good bit further south.  One of the best places in America to see it, as it happened, was Nashville.

The eclipse was on a Monday afternoon.  The Sunday before we attended church in Petoskey, and during the announcements the minister asked us to forgive him because he wouldn’t be around afterward for the coffee hour, because he was leaving right after the service to drive to Nashville for the eclipse.  Well, the eclipse was Monday at 2, and at about 1:00 the sky clouded over and stayed that way.  At 2 I said to my wife, “Glad I didn’t go to Nashville.”

I didn’t think any more about it at the time, but two weeks later, as I was driving south on I-75, I found this song running through my head.

I assure you, the song has no autobiographical basis whatever.  I’ve never been involved with a woman in Nashville, and I look forward to revisiting the city the first chance I get.

4.  “Sisyphus”  (Gayden Wren, 2021).

The last thing to come to me on this song was the title, which may be the best thing about it. 

As I mentioned in the show (or plan to—the talk portions of a show don’t always go the way I expect them to), I was working on my blog essay on Billy Joe Shaver and happened to mention that Shaver’s “Because I Asked You To” is an example of a classic country-song subgenre, songs in which the singer promises to say, do or be whatever his lover wants him to.  It occurred to me that I’d never written a song like that, so I thought I’d try to do so.

The next day, walking to the grocery store (a longish hike, good for writing), the central idea of the rock came to me.  I had the first verse by Hazen Street, the second by Steinway Street and the third by 31st Street; the final one briefly stumped me—I wasn’t sure how I could top the third verse—but, after I’d run my errands downtown, I started home and found that the final verse had emerged into my subconscious.  The song was done.

At that time, though, I thought it was called “Great Big Rock.”  “Sisyphus” occurred to me only a week or so later, but it was worth the wait.

And, yes, it’s a country song, not a rock song.  (Get it?)

5.  Tell Me Why” (Gayden Wren, Thursday)

It’s too soon to say whether I like this song or not; it occurred to me literally two days ago, and as late as yesterday afternoon I was still working out the piano part and rewriting the bridge. 

Again, this isn’t autobiographical—most of the time it’s hard for me to trace how an idea gets into my head, but in this case it came from a young friend of mine telling me about a troubled relationship and saying, “somehow I never seem to get this thing right.  Well, hardly ever.”  I wrote that down in my idea book about five minutes after she said it, which wasn’t long ago.

If you listen to the people around you—spouses, friends, relatives, neighbors, random people on the train—there are song ideas popping up all around us.

6.  “Stanley’s in His Garden” (Gayden Wren, 2018).

I think it was in 2016 that I first was subjected to one of Stan Bergman’s lengthy discussions about his garden … and found myself unaccountably fascinated.  It was the middle of the first Trump campaign, and the world seemed to be going to hell, and both Stan and I were really upset about this.  But what he really wanted to talk about was his garden.  He showed me his map of his current garden, and the sketched-out diagrams for what he was planning to do next year, and I found myself as caught up in it as he was.

I don’t really care about gardening—didn’t then, don’t now.  I think what caught me up was the implicit optimism of the whole thing.  I wrote the words “Stanley’s in his garden” in my song book.  Then, one day in 2018, I flipped through the book, saw that note, checked the corresponding spot in my brain, and there was this song, virtually as you hear it today.  Without my giving it any attention at all, it had sprung up, blossomed and produced something beautiful out of nothing.

As long as that still goes on—in our soil and/or in our minds—there’s still room for hope.

7.  “The Loneliest Place in the World”  (Gayden Wren, 2019).

As I said, there are certain traditional subject matters associated with country.  One of them is a lonely guy in a bar, wallowing in self-pity.  I don’t drink, and can count the number of times I’ve been in a bar on the fingers of both hands.  Am I writing from personal experience?  Absolutely not.

Even so, I say that “Pass me a glass of yesterday” is as country a line as anyone ever sang.

8.  “The Guns Have Gotta Go” (Gayden Wren, 2022).

Unlike most other things I do in my life, I don’t have a lot of control over my country songwriting.  I can sit down and write a play, a blog essay, a book chapter or even a musical-theater song pretty much on demand, but that process doesn’t work at all with country songs.  With country songs, I have to take what comes—if it’s not in my head already, there’s no way to get it there.  Some ideas take years to bring themselves to fruition, others never have yet done so, but I can’t speed the process.  What I get is what I get.

When this song turned up, I viewed it with some trepidation, as I know that most country fans feel differently about gun control than I do.  I don’t like the idea of alienating my fans, and I sat on this song for several months before debuting it—in fact, this is only the second time I’ve performed it live. 

That said, I read the newspapers, and I’m sure that’s where this song came from.  The things that it’s about happen so often in this country that they occupy a space in all of ours heads—and anything that’s in my head long enough is likely to turn into a song.  Even one that isn’t really entertaining or inspiring or anything like that, a song like this one.

The tune for the verse is lifted from a very old country tune called “The 8th of January,” dating back probably to 1815, the year of the Battle of New Orleans, which took place on that date.  Most people know the tune from Jimmy Driftwood’s 1958 version, “The Battle of New Orleans.”  More people know Johnny Horton’s version, which is more elaborate, but I’m partial to Driftwood’s bare-bones version, literally written as a history lesson by Driftwood, who was an Arkansas schoolteacher.

The lyrics originally came into my head with that tune; I considered changing it to something new, but nothing really came to me—and the tune seems to fit the lyrics really well.  Sometimes it’s best to leave well enough alone.

9. “You’re Counting Too Much on That Smile (Gayden Wren, 2016).

A lot of cheating songs are angry, often comically so.  Others are simply sad, though, and those ones are never funny.  This one falls squarely in the latter category.  The problem here is twofold, and neither aspect is fixable:  a)  The issue is not what his lover is doing, but who she is; she couldn’t change that even if she wanted to, which he doesn’t think she does.  And b), though he knows the score, he’s still attracted to her, and the approaching end of their relationship is still a tragedy to him.

Like I said, sad and definitely not funny.

10.  “Michigan” (Gayden Wren, 2019).

I wrote this song in about five minutes in July 2018, while driving north on Rt. 31 in Petoskey, Michigan, on my way to Bay View.  I wasn’t at all thinking about writing a song—I was arriving in Bay View for the first time that summer, and was running over my list of things to do to get settled in—but these things happen.

I thought at the time that it might be the chorus to a song, or maybe the first of several verses, but so far that hasn’t proven to be the case.  Maybe it will in the future, but for now it’s just a very short song.

11.  “Alanson” (Gayden Wren, 2019).

Writing music is relatively new to me, but I’ve written lyrics regularly for the past 40 years, including song parodies, rock songs, five original musicals and a variety of other incidental work.  In all that time, I’ve been a very disciplined writer, sitting down and banging out the words for my various composers on a tight schedule.

Country songs aren’t that way for me; I’ve tried being disciplined, and it simply doesn’t work.  The songs come to me, in various forms of completeness, when they want to, not when I want them.  I write them down as they occur, the music always right along with the lyrics; sometimes songs show up all at once, sometimes gradually over weeks or months, but it’s always on their schedule, never on mine.  I’d no more promise someone a new song on a particular date than I would promise them specific weather on that date.

Which is a long way of saying that I have no idea why this song is about Alanson, or why it’s a love song.  I have no particular ties to Alanson—I’ve driven through it many times, but I don’t know that I’ve ever stopped there—and I certainly was never involved with a woman from Alanson.  That’s how the song came to me, though, pretty much in complete form, so that’s what it is.

12.  “The Wrong Side of the Bed”  (Gayden Wren, 2018).

This isn’t actually a funny song in the least, but it has that Johnny Cash thing of offering a depressing, ballad-like lyric in the company of a crunchy tune that feels upbeat and funny.  Maybe that’s why I hear Cash singing it, not me, when I hear it in my head. 

Which is OK with me.  I’m a writer and director at heart, not a performer, and I don’t have a conventional performer’s ego.  When I hear my voice, it sounds to me like what it is: a decent enough voice, but not in the same class as that of someone like Johnny Cash. 

If I could hear all of my songs sung in his voice, I would!

13.  Christmas in New York”  (Gayden Wren, 2018).

This is one of my most popular songs, and it began as a single line in my song book:  “Rockette’s Red Glare.”  I knew there was a song in there, and I even had an idea what it was going to be about—an audition for the famous Radio City dancers.  Didn’t seem very country to me, though, and I couldn’t make head or tail of it anyway, so I let it sit for a couple of years.

When I next opened that drawer in my brain, the song as you hear it was waiting for me.  It is at least somewhat country, as it turns out; it’s only incidentally about the rockets; and “Rockette’s Red Glare” is now “Rockettes’ red glare,” a throwaway line from the fifth verse, not the title after all.

And it beautifully expresses my antipathy toward cell phones, especially in any performing-arts situation.  So sometimes it’s good when things don’t work out as planned.

14.  “Making the Same Mistakes All Over Again” (Gayden Wren, 2017).

This was one of the easiest-to-write songs I’ve ever written.  The song came to me in two verses, almost exactly the same as the current first two.  I thought to myself that it needed one more, something of an overview; and, an hour or so later (during which time I was doing other things), I looked back in on it and it had three verses.

It’s nice when that happens.  Doesn’t always.

(Incidentally, I seem to be different from most songwriters, who typically say that the first verse they write is the last verse of the song, then the first, and then they fill in the blanks.  Most of the time I write the first verse first and the second verse second; it’s not unusual for the last verse to come some time after the rest of the song, but it’s almost always the last one I write.)

15.  “1927” (Gayden Wren, 2017).

For the record, the Carter Family may or may not have snuck up the back stairway—and, if they did, it was probably to avoid the mob of wannabes hanging around in the lobby of the Taylor-Christian Hat Company Building.  But the legend says they were ashamed of their clothes, so print the legend.

The Tenneva Ramblers really did break up the night before their audition, though.  Basically Rodgers saw them as his backup band (they’d most recently been playing a North Carolina resort as the Jimmie Rodgers Entertainers, so it’s understandable), while they saw themselves as a string band with a vocalist.  The issue in their quarrel seems to have been whether only one of the two songs they were allotted would include a vocal, or both—and whether the songs would be ones that prominently featured the vocal, or not.  Based on the subsequent obscurity of the Ramblers, and on Rodgers’ subsequent near-deification, it’s safe to say at this point that he won the argument.

16.  “I’m a Liar” (Gayden Wren, 2021).

What makes this song for me is the narrative voice.  I love songs with unreliable narrators, one which, as you move further into the song, turn out to be about something different than they seem to be at first glance.  I’d had the words “To tell you the truth, I’m a liar” in my song book for years—who could be a more unreliable narrator than one who begins with that declaration?  I knew there was a good song it, and eventually I turned out to be right.

The irony, of course, is that he turns out to be one of the more truthful of my narrators.  He describes a lifelong tapestry of lies and deceit … and does it with complete honesty and, I hope, ends with some kind of sympathy from the listener.

17.  “The Best Five Years”  (Gayden Wren, 2018).

My lovely wife and I will celebrate our 21st wedding anniversary this summer, so I want to make clear that this song, written a couple of years ago, is emphatically not about us.

I like the way it gradually emerges, over the course of the song, what a horrible person the singer is.  For obscure reasons, though, my favorite line in this song is “I’ve asked around, and everyone/agrees that you’re to blame.”  Not sure why, but it tickles me. 

18.  “Jimmy Buffett” (Gayden Wren, 2018).

I’m indebted to my old friend Sally Denmead and her husband, Jonah Winter (also by now an old friend), for the existence of this very popular song.

A few years ago my lovely wife and I were chatting with them at their house in Pittsburgh, and the conversation turned to strange, unaccountable events.  I held the floor for a considerable period recounting my 2010, a year during which—besides the events recounted in this song—I was also misdiagnosed with a fatal disease and, through a bizarre set of circumstances, was widely believed to have murdered my mother.

When I told the story of me and Jimmy Buffett, Jonah said, “There has to be a song in that.”  Sally chimed in to second the notion.  I wasn’t convinced—it seemed odd but not in any way resonant, nothing with enough scope to make up a decent song.  I laughed it off. 

But the next day, as I was driving us home to New York on I-80, my lovely wife dozed off as we passed through the Delaware Water Gap, and I found bits and pieces of the song as it eventually emerged bouncing around in my head.  For want of anything else to do as we headed through southwestern New Jersey (the area where Sally grew up, coincidentally), I thought it over and the song came together in my head.  I sang it to Sara as we unloaded our luggage, and there it was.

Since then it’s scored a hit whenever and wherever I’ve done it, and I owe a percentage of the applause to Jonah Winter and Sally Denmead.  Thanks, both of you!

19.  “The Wind Blows”  (Gayden Wren, 2018).

This happens to be about someone I know—not anybody I was ever in love with, but someone I know.  I’d been thinking about writing a song about her for awhile, but couldn’t get a handle on it until I happened to see a poster for Tim Burton’s underrated film Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children (2016). 

For some reason I was struck by one of the secondary characters in the movie, a young woman who’s so buoyant that, if she isn’t tied down to the ground, she’ll blow away like an escaped balloon.  It gave me the central image that I’d been looking for, and the song came into my head almost unbidden and almost word-for-word complete.

Almost two years later, I was listening to an old cassette tape of songs by the brilliant Philadelphia-based songwriter Paul Nordquist, a tape that at this point is more than 30 years old.  On came a song which included the line “She’s so wonderful her feet don’t touch the ground.”  I was thunderstruck; I hadn’t remembered this song at all—it’s not one of Paul’s classics—but clearly that line had stuck in my subconscious for all those years.

The working of the human mind are endlessly fascinating.

20.  “Bridges Are for Burning”  (Gayden Wren, 2019).

This is another one that came together in a hurry—the best ones usually do—after marinating for a while in my songbook (and, thus, in the back of my mind).

It’s loosely autobiographical, in that it expresses my attitude toward risk-taking (at least of the artistic sort) and my parents’ skepticism about same.  I should emphasize, though, that while my parents viewed my theatrical career with skepticism, they were both supportive of it and of me; both wished I was devoting my life to something more likely to be lucrative, but they could tell what I wanted and they wanted it for me.

(Had they lived to see my late-blooming musical career, I think my father would have been even more perturbed.  My mother was a big fan of country music, though, and might have warmed to the idea.  Sadly, we’ll never know.)

In any event, my mantra as an artist and as a person might be, “After all, until you try, you never really know.”  Because, after all, you don’t.


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