Row of Dominoes (Butch Hancock)

Yet another I learned from Joe Ely. Among the many debts I owe to Joe is that he introduced me to Butch Hancock’s songwriting. Joe and Butch had teamed up way before I heard of either of them, in a band called the Flatlanders, which also included Jimmie Dale Gilmore — another songwriter I first learned about through Joe’s records. They were and are a terrific trio, but Joe was the first one to hit nationally and internationally, so most of us learned about the others from him.

If it hadn’t been for Joe, I would probably still have learned about Butch, because Dave Van Ronk heard him someplace in Texas — maybe the Kerrville festival — and was blown away. I recall Dave telling me he had tried to persuade Butch to come to New York and insisted he’d be the biggest thing to hit the local folk scene since Dylan… which is the kind of advice Butch probably was wise to ignore.

As best I can tell, Butch never cared to tour much anyway. The only times I’ve seen him are once with the Flatlanders at Newport and once when Dick Pleasants, a wonderful Boston folk radio programmer, got the chance to program a city-sponsored Fourth of July concert at the Hatch Shell on the Charles River. Dick brought in Odetta, Rosalie Sorrels, Riders in the Sky, and several other people — and brought Butch’s entire band up from Texas. As I recall, it was a ten-piece group, with back-up singers, a horn section, and a musical saw.

All of which said, I got this, along with “Me and Billy the Kid,” from Joe’s Live at Liberty Lunch album and recorded it on my cassette, Street Corner Cowboy in the early 1990s, and again almost ten years later on my CD, Street Corner Cowboys. (Note the subtly different titles.) The first version had Mark Earley playing lonesome prairie harmonica, and the second had Matt Leavenworth playing lonesome prairie fiddle, and I miss both of them… but I kept playing it on my own, because it’s such a great lyric.

To my way of thinking, Butch’s one major handicap was that he often overwrote — he’d come up with a great chorus and some great verses, but then he’d write more verses and pretty soon he’d have a six minute song that would have been a lot stronger if it were shorter. That’s not a rare disease for writers — I’m sure I’ve succumbed to it myself on occasion — but anyway, Joe seemed to act as a kind of brake: the songs of Butch’s he did were mostly shorter and a few of them were damn near perfect. This one, for example, is just four short verses and two choruses (actually, I just went back and listened, and Joe and Butch sing a different line on the first chorus — so apparently I did a bit more editing.

Anyway, this grabbed me from line one, and just kept getting better: “They say a fool never knows what he misses/ And a wise man never misses what he knows.” That’s damn good.