Swinging Doors (Merle Haggard/a honky-tonk gig)

My first trip through the South was in the fall of 1985. I started hitchhiking from Chapel Hill, planning to hug the coast till I reached Mexico. That afternoon I saw my first roadkill armadillo while walking the last five miles into Southport, North Carolina. On the edge of town I passed a gas station and a skinny old guy came running out, gestured to the guitar I had slung over my shoulder, and asked, “Can you play that thing?”

I averred as to how I could, and he hired me to play at his bar that night. Actually, “hired” is a bit of an exaggeration, but he said if I wanted to play he’d fix me up with a band and give me a few bucks along with a meal and a place to sleep. So that was my first country bar gig. The band was a local guy who played Chet Atkins style guitar and his son on drums, and there may have been a bass player as well by the end of the night. They were all pretty good, and I sang every country song I knew, then got out a harmonica and played “Bright Lights, Big City,” and that tore up the room–apparently they’d ever seen anybody play amplified harp live in a bar.

It was a kick for a kid from Cambridge, Massachusetts — I was way out of my home turf, but they treated me like a country singer, I played the part, and it worked fine. A bunch of guys were there from the military base, an older man offered to take me out fishing on his boat the next day, and sometime around midnight the waitress gestured at the half-dozen tired-looking forty-something-year-old women at the bar and said, “You could have any of them, if you want…” Which I didn’t, but it felt honky-tonk.

I’d gotten into Merle Haggard thanks to Bill Morrissey, who considered Merle one of the greatest songwriters around, and his songs were the foundation of my country repertoire. I’d picked up a greatest hits set, and it was a thrill to play songs like “Swinging Doors” in their native habitat and be accepted as legit. This was Merle’s first top five country hit back in 1966, and I also recall playing “Silver Wings” and “Emptiest Arms in the World,” along with some Johnny Cash, and maybe a couple of Lefty Frizzell numbers.

I crashed on the waitress’s couch that night and considered sticking around a few days, but figured I’d had the best time I was likely to have in Southport, so the next morning I said my goodbyes and hitched on down the coast to Myrtle Beach.

A few years later, I got to meet Merle when we were filming a segment on Jimmie Davis for River of Song, a documentary about music along the Mississippi River. By that time I was a hardcore fan–I’d actually cemented a multi-year relationship by responding to my date’s query, “What do you think about Merle Haggard?” by saying, “Merle Haggard is God.” And I’d amassed a pretty fair collection of his LPs. But nothing prepared me for how good he was live. It was a comfortably loose show, with great playing and singing, and Merle doing imitations of other singers, and Bonnie Owens adding harmony, and since the gig was in Shreveport, James Burton was hanging out backstage. It was a night to remember, and he’s still one of my all-time favorites.

Urge for Going (Joni Mitchell/Dave Van Ronk)

The ultimate fall-into-winter song, by Joni Mitchell, arranged by Dave Van Ronk. I tend to be more optimistic about this season, so my standard autumn song is Bill Morrissey’s “My Baby and Me,” but I always loved the way Dave did this — plus, my Vancouver buddy Monte Jones had a gorgeous harmonica part for it, which he played often with me and a couple of times with Dave… and I wish he was around to play it now.

This was one of Mitchell’s early masterpieces, though she only recorded it as the b-side of a single and a lot of her fans have never heard it. Tom Rush recorded the best-known version as the title song of one of his albums, and it’s nice, but Dave’s is the killer. He recorded it for Polydor, on an album that had some of his most ornate production and greatest song choices, but didn’t sell and soon went out of print, though it’s now available for digital download (thanks to  the hoopla around the Coen Brothers’ movie). He also recorded a solo version, which is even better, as the last song on his final album, …and the Tin Pan Bended and the Story Ended. A perfect, elegiac ending.

When I was studying with Dave in the mid-1970s, not many young people were aware of his work, but Joni Mitchell fans sometimes recognized his name because she had said he was the only person who sang her songs better than she did. None of them agreed, of course, but I think I understand what she meant: Dave’s rough growl counteracted the prettiness of the melodies, forcing listeners to hear the power of the poetry.

Dave first met Joni, then still named Joni Anderson, when they both appeared on a television program Oscar Brand was hosting in Winnipeg, called Let’s Sing Out. It was 1965, nobody south of the border had yet heard of her. He used to tell a funny story about that meeting, which is in our book, The Mayor of MacDougal Street, but the short version is that he was blown away by her writing, her singing, her playing, and her brilliance. He saw her again in Detroit, working in a duo with her husband Chuck, who was one of the few people on the folk scene other than Dave doing Brecht/Weill material, and then she moved to New York and they became fast friends.

Dave thought Joni was the greatest songwriter to come out of the folk revival — not necessarily more talented than Dylan, but in his class for talent and much more serious about the craft. For a while he recorded at least one of her songs on every album, including a version of “Both Sides Now” that was supposed to be his big radio hit but couldn’t compete with Judy Collins. (It may not have helped that he insisted on calling it “Clouds” — when Joni first sang it for him, he told her that was the dominant image and should be the title. She compromised, keeping her song title, but calling the album Clouds.)

I liked all of Dave’s performances of Mitchell’s material — one of the great pleasures of compiling the CD to go with our book was that I could include a solo version of “Both Sides Now” — but this was always my favorite. So I suggest everyone check it out, and also… there’s now a clip of Joni on the Oscar Brand show singing it, and it’s wonderful. I may even like it more than Dave’s version…

Tequila Sheila (Shel Silverstein/Bobby Bare)

An absurd western outlaw ballad with a trick ending, from the nimble pen of Shel Silverstein, thanks to Bobby Bare. I’ve already paid tribute to Shel’s work in a previous post, so now on to Mr. Bare…

Honestly, I’m not all that wild about Bare’s singing–he’s a solid country singer but not an exceptional one–but damn, did he have great taste in songwriters. I first bought one of his albums because I was on a Shel binge and it had a bunch of Silverstein songs I hadn’t heard, which was true of something like a dozen of Bare’s records. He’d been mostly a singles artist until he recorded a double album of Shel’s songs in 1973, Lullabies, Legends, and Lies, which included “Rosalie’s Good Eats Cafe,” a small-town, late-night classic that clocks in at over eight minutes — maybe still a record for a country song without instrumental solos.

I listened to that first album, and it had a couple of songs I wanted to learn, so I bought another, and then another… and after a while I noticed that along with the Silverstein songs were some great ones by other writers, like Bob McDill’s “Song of the South”:

Cotton in the road, cotton in the ditch,
We all picked the cotton and never got rich.
Daddy was a veteran, a southern Democrat,
Said, “They ought to kill a rich man to vote like that.”

So then it turned out Bare had a whole album of McDill’s songs, and eventually I learned he’d been Billy Joe Shaver’s publisher and persuaded Shaver to stick with the business when no one was recording his songs–though also taking a substantial cut of Shaver’s earnings when Waylon did Honky Tonk Heroes… which, OK, that’s a somewhat ambiguous legacy, but let’s go back from there to his first big hit, “Detroit City,” by Danny Dill and the pre-stardom Mel Tillis; and a couple by the pre-stardom Tom T. Hall, “Margie’s at the Lincoln Park Inn” and “How I Got to Memphis”; and a couple more by the pre-stardom Kris Kristofferson, like “Come Sundown”; and Tompall Glaser and Harlan Howard’s “Streets of Baltimore…” Basically, if you’re looking for good country songwriting–the best of that golden era when writers like Kristofferson and Hall were reinventing the genre–his albums are a good place to find some classics and — more to the point — a lot of less familiar but equally great material.

Which said, he also did all those Shel Silverstein songs, some of which are classics, some profound, some dopey novelties, some just dopey, some outright dumb… and some walk a bunch of those borderlines, like f’rinstance, “Tequila Sheila.” I’m a fluent Spanish-speaker and deeply engaged with Mexican culture, but there’ s something gloriously silly about rhyming “Sheila” with “Pancho Villa…” and the rest feels to me like an absurdist Western in the same tradition as Cat Ballou… and it always worked well in the bars.

(As for the print behind me in the video, it’s a Maillol my parents bought in their courting days and I usually get it out of the way when I’m filming videos, because it’s distracting… but by chance I forgot when I was filming this one, and it felt kind of appropriate.)

Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You)

This is another I learned off Red Steagall’s Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music LP, and the odd thing is I’d never heard it before and have rarely heard it since, though it has been recorded by dozens of major artists, from Elton Britt, Gene Autry, Vaughan Monroe, and the Mills Brothers in the 1940s up through Patsy Cline, Ray Charles, Dean Martin, Della Reese, The Drifters, Brooke Benton, Brenda Lee, Ricky Nelson, Willie Nelson… and so on and on.

The songwriter, Jimmie Hodges, is virtually unknown except for this song, which apparently hit as he was turning sixty after a long career as a producer of musical comedies. He did write some others, but I have been unable to find any recordings of them. From the titles, most sound pretty generic — “Dear Old Girl Of Mine” — or eminently forgettable — “Blackberry Jelly Nellie” and “Ding Dong Dell (The Belle of Chinatown).”

Hodges was apparently born in 1885 and shows up in a few show biz journals in the teens and twenties as a producer of musical comedies, for example 1920’s All Aboard for Cuba, which was presumably a lighthearted reaction to the passage of Prohibition. (A more famous relic of that moment and inclination is Irving Berlin’s “I’ll See You in C-U-B-A.”)

Anyway, I’ve noticed over the years that there are songs you like and then there are songs that like you — sometimes I love a song but it doesn’t work for me as a performer, and sometimes a song that didn’t particularly strike me when I heard someone else play it just feels right to me when I do it myself. This one liked me from the first time I played it: the guitar part fell comfortably under my fingers, the lyrics flowed, and it always got a good response. So I’ve been playing it for over thirty years and that’s that.