Desert Island Singles: “Lovesick Blues” by Hank Williams and His Drifting Cowboys (1949)

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This is by far the oldest song I’ve nominated as a Desert Island Disc. The previous record-holder was from 1966.

When I was a snotty know-it-all country music-hating fourteen-year-old, if you had told me that one day I would admire a Hank Williams song this much (or at all), I would have laughed in your face. Funny what a difference forty-some years can make. But this is a remarkable song, which shows the ingenuity of Williams and the timelessness of this song (though it was published the year before Williams was born).

“Lovesick Blues” was written by Irving Mills and Cliff Friend, and published in 1922. It was first performed that year in a musical called “Oh! Ernest.” (I suspect there’s a reason no one has ever heard of the musical “Oh! Ernest.”) It was recorded a few times, most notably in 1925 by blackface minstrel singer Emmet Miller, and in 1939 by country singer Rex Griffin. Williams listened to both versions and started performing it in 1948 on the popular “Louisiana Hayride” radio show. According to radio producer Horace Logan, “the crowd went crazy.”

Williams decided to record the song just before Christmas 1948, over the protests of his band and record producer. Its release was delayed till mid-February 1949, due to some uncertainty over the song’s publishing rights: Williams told his producer that he bought the rights from Griffin. The single sold 50,000 copies in the first two weeks, quite an accomplishment in 1949. It was Williams’ first number-one hit on Billboard’s country-western charts, where it remained for sixteen weeks.

(Turned out that Irving Mills stepped up and claimed he still owned the song. Months later Williams’ managers ironed out an agreement with Mills to share the rights. One wonders if Mills would have bothered to step up if Williams hadn’t scored such a hit.)

“Lovesick Blues” became Williams’ signature song, which he used to close his shows. It also garnered him the stage nickname of “The Lovesick Blues Boy.” On its strength Williams made his debut at the prestigious “Grand Ole Opry” on June 11, 1949, where he became the first performer to receive six encores. He remained with the Opry till 1952. In 2004, “Lovesick Blues” was added to the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. It’s been covered by dozens of artists including Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Linda Ronstadt, Slim Whitman, Glen Campbell, Merle Haggard, Charley Pride, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and LeAnn Rimes.

With the heartbreak in his masterful delivery and the tight performance of the Lonesome Drifters, Williams turned a cast-off song from a forgotten musical into a classic of country music. A Desert Island Single to be sure.

I got a feelin’ called the blues, oh, Lord
Since my baby said goodbye
Lord, I don’t know what I’ll do
All I do is sit and sigh, oh, Lord

That last long day she said goodbye
Well, Lord, I thought I would cry
She’ll do me, she’ll do you, she’s got that kind of lovin’
Lord, I love to hear her when she calls me sweet daddy

Such a beautiful dream
I hate to think it’s all over
I’ve lost my heart, it seems
I’ve grown so used to you somehow
Well, I’m nobody’s sugar daddy now
And I’m lonesome, I got the lovesick blues

Well, I’m in love, I’m in love, with a beautiful gal
That’s what’s the matter with me
Well, I’m in love, I’m in love, with a beautiful gal
But she don’t care about me

Lord, I tried and I tried to keep her satisfied
But she just wouldn’t stay
So now that she is leavin’
This is all I can say

I got a feelin’ called the blues, oh, Lord
Since my baby said goodbye
Lord, I don’t know what I’ll do
All I do is sit and sigh, oh, Lord

That last long day she said goodbye
Well, Lord, I thought I would cry
She’ll do me, she’ll do you, she’s got that kind of lovin’
Lord, I love to hear her when she calls me sweet daddy

Such a beautiful dream
I hate to think it’s all over
I’ve lost my heart, it seems
I’ve grown so used to you somehow
Lord, I’m nobody’s sugar daddy now
And I’m lonesome, I got the lovesick blues

Desert Island Discs: “Red Headed Stranger” by Willie Nelson (1975)

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Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” perhaps is the strangest blockbuster country produced, a concept album about a preacher on the run after murdering his departed wife and her new lover, told entirely with brief song-poems and utterly minimal backing. It’s defiantly anticommercial and it demands intense concentration — all reasons why nobody thought it would be a hit. – Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Allmusic

I’ve quoted someone before about how country music seems to endure a vicious cycle of having its authenticity tainted by commercial compromise; dumbed down and lamed up, like it seems to be today. Then its authenticity is redeemed, however fleetingly, by an “underground” roots movement. This is exactly what happened with the “outlaw country” movement, which led to the release of one of the best albums of any genre in the 70s: Willie Nelson’s 1975 release “Red Headed Stranger.”

It’s been called the “Sgt. Pepper” of country music. It’s a minimalist, stripped-down, unified “concept album,” a blend of disparate styles, evocative originals, and classic songs from country’s past. It’s a story of heartbreak, betrayal, savagery, repentance, and redemption, with deep emotions coming through in every vocal, every instrumental. It’s nothing short of a miracle that this album got released; Willie’s new label Columbia thought it was only a set of unfinished demos. But despite the executives and the focus groups it got released, topped the charts, and changed the course of country music.

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The album was inspired by the “Tale of the Red Headed Stranger,” a song written by radio DJ Carl Stutz and newspaper editor Edith Lindeman. Originally written for Perry Como but never recorded by him, it was eventually given to Arthur Smith and his Cracker-Jacks in 1954, and Nelson used to play it as a disk jockey on his program in Fort Worth.

“Red Headed Stranger” tells the story of a preacher, a fugitive who kills his wife and her lover. It begins with the Stranger describing his love for his wife whom he suspects is unfaithful.

It was the time of the preacher when the story began
Of the choice of a lady and the love of a man.
How he loved her so dearly, he went out of his mind
When she left him for someone she’d left behind.

And he cried like a baby
And he screamed like a panther in the middle of the night
And he saddled his pony
And he went for a ride.

The infidelity is revealed.

And I couldn’t believe it was true, oh Lord,
I couldn’t believe it was true.
And my eyes filled with tears and I must’ve aged in years,
And I couldn’t believe it was true.

The lovers are discovered.

But he found them that evenin’ at a tavern in town
In a quiet little out of the way place.
An’ they smiled at each other when he walked through the door
An’ they died with their smiles on their faces
They died with their smile on their face.

The Stranger feels remorse.

Love is like a dying ember
And only memories remain
And through the ages I’ll remember
Blue eyes crying in the rain.

He moves on, and commits another murder.

The red headed stranger had eyes like the thunder
And his lips, they were sad and tight
His little lost love lay asleep on the hillside
And his heart was heavy this night

The yellow haired lady came down to the tavern
And looked up the stranger there
He bought her a drink, and he gave her some money
He just didn’t seem to care
She followed him out as he saddled the stallion
And laughed as she grabbed at the bay
He shot her so quick they had no time to warn her
She never heard anyone say:

Don’t boss him
Don’t cross him
He’s wild in his sorrow:
He’s ridin’ and hidin’ his pain.
Don’t fight him
Don’t spite him
Just wait till tomorrow:
Maybe he’ll ride on again.

The Stranger continues southward, and there is a chance meeting.

She saw him that evening in a tavern in town
In a quiet little out of the way place.
And they smiled at each other as he walked through the door
And they danced with their smiles on their faces
And they danced with a smile on their face.

The Stranger lets down his guard to seek redemption and love.

Don’t know why, but the one I love left me,
Left me lonely and cold and so weak.
And I need someone’s arms to hold me
Till I’m strong enough to get back on my feet.

He declares his vows with his deceased wife broken, his grief is lifted, and he is free.

You told me once that you were mine alone forever
And I was yours till the end of eternity
But all those vows are broken now and I will never
Be the same except in memory

A brighter face may take my place when we’re apart, dear:
Another love, with a heart more bold and free
But in the end, fairweather friends may break your heart, dear
And if they do, sweetheart, remember me

The story ends years later where the Stranger has found redemption with his new love and a young boy, presumably their grandson.

And in the shade of an oak down by the river
Sat an old man and a boy
Settin’ sails, spinnin’ tales, and fishin’ for whales
With a lady they both enjoy.
Well, it’s the same damn tune, it’s the man in the moon
It’s the way that I feel about you
And with no place to hide, I looked in your eyes
And I found myself in you.

I looked to the stars, tried all of the bars
And I’ve nearly gone up in smoke
Now my hand’s on the wheel, I’ve something that’s real,
And I feel like I’m goin’ home.

“Red Headed Stranger” is both forward-looking and an archive of country’s past. Willie found a way to weave some lesser-known classics into the tapestry: Fred Rose’s “Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain,” which became Nelson’s first number-one hit and one of his signature songs; Eddy Arnold’s “I Couldn’t Believe It Was True”; Hank Cochran’s “Can I Sleep In Your Arms”; the hymn “Just As I Am”; and the ragtime/barrelhouse instrumental “Down Yonder.” All fit seamlessly with songs written and co-written by Willie and his band.

When this album came out, I was eighteen and still thought myself too hip for country music. Fortunately my parents played it in the living room and I grew to appreciate it. Willie is a storyteller who transcends categorization. This is an album that rewards attention and repeated listenings, and is nothing short of genius.

Why Country Music Was Awful In 2013

“Driving your pickup truck down a dirt road under the moonlight to pick up your girl who wears tight jeans, and then getting drunk on a river bank..I love a dumb party song every once in a while (including some of these!), but when they’re the only flavor available, they get old very, very fast.”- Grady Smith, Entertainment Weekly


Desert Island Singles: “Me Neither” by Brad Paisley (2000)

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Darling, I’ve been standing here just watching you all night
And I think I’ve even caught you watching me a couple times
If I don’t ask I’ll never know
This may sound dumb but here we go:
Do you believe in love at first sight?

Me neither!

Click here for more.

Desert Island Singles: “Goodbye’s All We’ve Got Left” by Steve Earle (1987)

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I picked up cassettes by Steve Earle and Dwight Yoakam on the same day in 1986. Both were their major-label debuts, and both were in constant rotation in my car’s tape deck all that summer long. I was filled with renewed, though short-lived, hope for the future of country music.

Earle’s album was “Guitar Town,” and it stands as one of the greatest debut albums I’ve ever heard. “Goodbye’s All We Got Left” was the fourth single release in early 1987, and it hit the Top Ten in both the US and Canada.  He captures the devastation of the just-been-dumped experience as well, if not better, than any country artist ever has.

And like Earle: yes, I too can smell it when a heartache’s comin’.

I don’t think it’s gonna get any better
So maybe you could just write me a letter
And I could open it up when I’m stronger
Another ten or twelve years, maybe longer
I guess I just don’t feel much like bad news today
Goodbye is all we’ve got left to say

Desert Island Discs: “When The Roses Bloom Again” by Laura Cantrell (2002)

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Not long after its official origins in the early 1900’s, country music quickly began to endure the vicious cycle of having its authenticity tainted by commercial compromise, then redeemed, however fleetingly, by some “underground” roots movement.  And it’s a relief to hear so many of those redeeming qualities in the voice of Laura Cantrell, a city gal who celebrates country tradition in her music even as she augments it. – Michael Sandlin

It is a telling commentary on modern country music that some of the finest new voices are coming out of “nontraditional” locales. Mind you, these voices do not receive any significant airplay, but they are there for those looking and listening hard enough to find them. Toss aside your commercial, cookie-cutter discs. Pick up some Laura Cantrell and be reintroduced to great country music. – MZ

I’ve banged on several times about the state of “commercial compromise,” as Michael Sandlin describes it, that “new”/”pop” country music currently endures. It would seem that a colossal roots revival is what it will take to redeem its authenticity, one that I don’t see on the horizon just yet. But this album is a confident step in the right direction: “When The Roses Bloom Again” by Laura Cantrell.

I first heard Laura on a song from her first album, “Not The Tremblin’ Kind.” The song was “Little Bit Of You,” which I’ve featured elsewhere on this blog. My initial thought from the first album was that she put me in mind of Nanci Griffith and Emmylou Harris, two of my favorite “new traditionalists.” As it played along, though, I also heard a great similarity to Norah Jones and Aimee Mann. I was reluctant to pick up this, her second album, fearing there would be no way it could live up to the standards set by the first. Was I wrong. “When The Roses Bloom Again” took everything that was great about its predecessor, and made it greater.

Born in Nashville, Laura set off to New York to attend Columbia College. While pursuing an impressive career in banking she hosted a radio show for thirteen years, “The Radio Thrift Shop,” on community radio station WFMU in Jersey City. This led to two years hosting a show on BBC Radio Scotland, which led to performing, which led to recording, which led to touring. And in more recent years, Laura’s been a contributor to The New York Times and Vanity Fair.

Laura is an archivist, a new traditionalist, and a song interpreter with genuine love and respect for the greats of country. It’s almost impossible to rank any one song over another, but here are some of the most memorable.

Jesus, Jesus
Won’t you tell me how to do it?
You know I wouldn’t trust the world
Half as far as you threw it

But if it’s true what they say
Someone must pay
I’ll bear my share of pain
But I won’t take all the blame
If it’s all the same to you

And I never thought much about it
How it all might change one day
I just let myself feel good about you
Way back in the early years

Those early years, those heady days
They rolled from one into the other
Then walked away
I was so naïve but I felt so strong
Way back in the early years

Is happiness your main consideration?
You won’t escape the pain and obligation
A break is what you want, but you won’t get it
Our love can last, but only if you let it

Don’t break the heart that needs you
There’s nowhere you can go but down if you do
To turn your back on someone will make you sorry
I can guarantee you
Don’t make the fatal error of thinking you’ll find someone better
‘Cause you won’t
Don’t break the heart that needs you
Don’t, don’t, don’t

Some you’ll remember for something said or done
Some you’ll ignore the way they hit and run
Some memories painful, some memories best to forget
But, over and over, you find you guided your steps

Through all the temptations
All, all the relations
All, all the sad faces
None with the vaguest idea

Laura Cantrell is one of the best things to happen to country music in years. “When The Roses Bloom Again” is a great place to start to discover her awesome and heartfelt songs. A Desert Island Disc to be sure.

How To Have A #1 “Pop Country” Hit Song, In Four Easy Steps

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1. Download the song that is currently #1 on the pop charts.

2. Save this file into an archive.

3. Wait fifteen years.

4. Open the file and remix the song. Add only a fiddle and pedal steel.

Voila. You created the #1 “pop country” hit fifteen years from now.

Desert Island Singles: “Blame The Vain” by Dwight Yoakam (2005)

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I’ve documented heretofore my views on “new country.” And I’ve mentioned that, if it weren’t for new wave in the late ’70s, I would have written off rock’n’roll. Similarly: if it weren’t for the “new traditionalists” that had their brief moment in the sun in the late ’80s and early ’90s, I would have written off country music completely.

DY is one of those new traditionalists. He’s variously been called the Elvis Costello, the Warren Zevon, and the Quentin Tarentino of country music. Johnny Cash once famously pronounced Yoakam his favorite up-and-coming male artist. And his longtime friendship with mentor Buck Owens is well known.

Dwight proves that one can exist and thrive outside of the “mainstream.” His well-documented blend of three to five different musical styles continues to work because, simply, very few other artists do it. The man’s lyrics are rarely discussed, his formulations are evocative and intelligent. Plus, he rocks. Watch out though, because you’ll be grooving and then suddenly some massive steel guitar will be wailing. – J.M. O’Connell

Two decades into his career Dwight Yoakam is still the man who is too country for Nashville, and on “Blame The Vain” he shows he’s got too much strength and soul to let anyone hold him down — this is inspired stuff from a rebel who has plenty to offer.- Mark Deming

“Blame The Vain” is the title track from his 2005 album. DY had jumped ship from long-time home Warner/Reprise, tried his hand at starting his own short-lived label, and finally released it on indie label New West. (A few years later he was back with Warner, and released the critically acclaimed “Three Pears.”)

Never mind that Yoakam looks like a goofball without his cowboy hat: this is country music for intelligent people.

I blame the vain for what we wear,
And I blame the blind when we can’t see.
I blame it all on someone else,
Till there’s nobody left, then I just blame me.

I blame her mind for the thoughts we share,
And I blame her heart for the time we cared.
I blame it all on how we used to be,
Till she’s finally gone, then I’ll just blame me.

So go ahead and blame,
Anything that you want.
‘Cause it all ends up the same,
When everything that you’ve been claiming is wrong.

Oh and don’t you know that blame,
Is always never enough.
It just keeps you in the game,
Till you’ve only got yourself left to bluff.

So I blame the vain for what we wear,
Yeah, and I’ll blame the blind when we can’t see.
I’ll blame it all on someone else,
Till there’s nobody left, then I’ll just blame me.
Till she’s finally gone, then I just blame me.

Sad to note the passing of George Jones.

One of my dad’s favorites. Dad would do his songs as “set pieces” at jam sessions. Even as a snotty-nosed rock’n’roll teenager, I knew George Jones was a talent worthy of respect.

We sang this one as the recessional at Dad’s funeral last year:

An appropriate question today:

Sad to note the passing of Stompin’ Tom Connors.

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I think everyone in Canada can sing at least one of his songs. From CTV:

Canadian country legend Stompin’ Tom Connors, whose rousing songs of Canadian life covered everything from Sudbury nickel miners to P.E.I. potato farmers, has died at the age of 77.

One story has it that in 1964, at the age of 28, Connors found himself at the Maple Leaf Hotel in Timmins, Ont., short five cents for a beer. He made up the difference by playing a few songs, and that turned into a 14-month contract.

He was known as “Stompin’ Tom” for tapping his boot on a wooden board in rhythm to his playing, and was rarely seen in public without his signature black cowboy hat.

Connors made a point of writing songs about Canadians, and as a result his music transformed him into a cultural icon. Some of his songs have become closer to national anthems, most notably “The Hockey Song.”

If Gordon Lightfoot is Canada’s Johnny Cash, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say that Stompin’ Tom is Canada’s Merle Haggard.

I wouldn’t be true to Name-Brand Ketchup without featuring Stompin’ Tom’s “The Ketchup Song.”