He’ll Have to Go (Ry Cooder/Jim Reeves)

I spent a month or so hitchhiking around Scotland in the summer of 1989, partly because I was headed to Africa and wanted to familiarize myself with the work of Jim Reeves. I’d heard that Reeves was hugely popular in both places, but all I knew of his music was this song, which I’d learned off a Ry Cooder album. So I figured I should know more, and Scotland was the place to go.

That proved to be theoretically but not practically right: Reeves was indeed popular in Scottish country-western bars, but I got distracted and ended up visiting castles, hitchhiking north to Orkney, and sleeping in stone circles rather than learning his music. I also spent a pleasant few days visiting Belle and Sheila Stewart, the great Scots traditional singers, but their tastes in country ran more to Hank Williams.

So I fell back on the Cooder version, which fitted well with my plans to study African guitar, because he played it in a sort of Caribbean rumba rhythm.

That was probably the high point of my interest in Cooder, and I have to say it was always more interest than love. I loved the idea of his albums, especially in the Chicken Skin Music period when he was mixing odd assemblages of musicians from disparate traditions and choosing unlikely material to do with them. That was my first taste of Hawaiian slack-key guitar, and also my reintroduction to Flaco Jimenez, whom I’d first heard on my treasured Doug Sahm and Band album. Flaco played on this song, and Bobby King was singing gospel back-up, and it was a really nice arrangement… but there was something kind of emotionally flat about it. I listened to those albums a bunch of times and recall them with appreciation, but my heart is with other stuff.

As for Jim Reeves, I clearly listened to his version of this, since I just checked and find I sing his lyrics rather than Cooder’s variant, as well as that great low note (which he sings gorgeously and I attempt with infinite pleasure). But I don’t recall any of his other songs, which just proves how out of step I am with a lot of parts of the world, because for a lot of people Reeves was the greatest singer the US ever produced, and they live in some surprising places. For instance Norway, Kenya, South Africa, and India… and I’ve got a story about that:

In 1981 I was hitchhiking from Bombay (now Mumbai) to Madras (now Chennai), and somewhere out in the middle of nowhere I got stranded and was walking along a hot, dusty road beginning to wonder where I’d get some water. Eventually I saw a little village, but it was just a cluster of houses and a bit off the road, so I was debating whether to go over, and then a little boy came running out to me. I had my guitar slung over my shoulder, and he’d spotted it and said I had to come meet his father. So I went along with him, and his father invited me into their house and gave me a cup of tea. Then he proudly showed me his record collection: it consisted of pretty much every record Jim Reeves had made, and nothing else.

So that’s that. Wherever I went in Africa, I played this song, and people always recognized and enjoyed it, though by the late 1980s the fave was Don Williams. They like pretty singers over there.

Oh, and one more thing… I went to Africa in a large part to learn how to fingerpick these kinds of rhythms, and I’m very happy with how that worked out, and how nicely that style fits songs like this.