Cigarettes and Coffee Blues (Lefty Frizzell)

I have Bill Morrissey to thank for turning me into a Merle Haggard nut, and making me realize how close country  music — especially the strain popularized as “honky tonk” — is to blues. Of course, to a large extent it came out of blues; Jimmie Rodgers was primarily a blues singer, with an obvious debt to Lemon Jefferson; Hank Williams was primarily a blues singer, at least to my ears; and Merle Haggard was clearly a blues singer, to the point that he wrote a song called “White Man Singin’ The Blues.” I’d add Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn, and Waylon Jennings, and… you get the idea.

And, reciprocally, a lot of Black singers were deeply influenced by white country music — not just all the ones who covered country hits, from Dinah Washington to Ray Charles, Solomon Burke, and Etta James, but blues singers like Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, who both named Jimmie Rodgers as one of their main influences, and Muddy Waters, whose 1941 repertoire list included a half-dozen Gene Autry hits.

I’ve sometimes tried to emphasize that overlap, for instance on my version of Hank Williams’s “You Win Again,” which I flavor with some Lightning Hopkins licks. But in a lot of cases, I have the original voice in my head and just want to do the best I can with a song that for one reason or another caught my ear and said, “Give me a try.”

Which brings me to “Cigarettes and Coffee Blues,” which isn’t a blues in the classic sense, but qualifiesin honky-tonk terms. I got it off an album of Lefty Frizzell hits, which I’d bought because Merle listed him as a major influence. I liked the way he sang, but honestly never listened to him as much as I thought I should…  and when I just went back and checked out his version of this one, it’s very different from what I remembered. I also hadn’t noticed (or hadn’t remembered) that it was composed by Marty Robbins. (I just checked out his version; I don’t think it holds a candle to Lefty’s.)

This feels to me like a nice example of Nashville formula songwriting: I figure someone (presumably Robbins) thought, “There are all those songs about ‘My baby left me, so I’m getting drunk,’ but not everybody gets drunk, so let’s try a twist on that, and have the guy sit up drinking coffee. Of course, that twist had already been tried, very successfully with “Black Coffee,” a terrific 1949 hit for Sarah Vaughan — though, as it happens, my favorite version is by Percy Mayfield — which also mentions smoking cigarettes, both directly and obliquely: “I’m moonin’ all the mornin’, moanin’ all the night,/ And in between it’s nicotine, and not much heart to fight.”

So maybe Robbins was just reworking a pop hit. In any case, it’s a nice song.