People ask me what kind of lyric I like. This kind. Where the words are veiny. Cut them, they'd bleed. Items are in no particular order, though some hammered steel from St. Townes will more than do for a start. Press play in your head.
Living on the road, my friend, / Is gonna keep you free and clean / Now you wear your skin like iron / Your breath as hard as kerosene—“Pancho and Lefty”
Kerosene breath. Harder than hard liquor. In the word according to Townes, the freedom of the road comes at cost of a flint shell. And Lefty’s not free anyway. He's owned by the guilt of selling out his pistolero comrade. He can scrub his conscience with kerosene, turn hide-tough as an armadillo, but never get the dust out of his mouth that Pancho bit down south. People call this song enigmatic and it does take some listens to figure out. Part of the draw as far as I’m concerned. The lyric repays your effort. Turns out, the story’s right there, just worked deep into that stoic telling. The drift-down fall of the refrain melody sings the melancholy of a world that can’t be trusted. Even the old federales are lying. Steve Earle says Lefty the road-wanderer was Townes himself and in a deep-buried way that's probably so. But what I always like is being told the story, not hearing somebody’s sleeve feelings.
East of Giant’s Tomb there’s plenty of room, there’s no fences and no walls / And if you listen close you’ll hear a ghost down by Sandy Gray Falls / Through the tops of the trees you’ll hear in the breeze the echoes of a mighty yell: / “I’ll be damned, we’ll break this jam, or it’s breakfast in Hell!”--Slaid Cleaves, "Breakfast in Hell"
I suspect Cleaves writes with pen on paper like anybody, but I imagine him writing with stonecutter tools. His great story ballads are chiseled, not penned. Why does he take all the pains that he does, all for so little worldly payout? I wonder about that sometimes. It makes me think of a passage in Cormac McCarthy: "That country had not had a time of peace of any length at all . . . But this man had set down with a hammer and chisel and carved out a stone water trough to last ten thousand years. Why was that? And I have to say that the only thing I can think is that there was some sort of promise in his heart."
Dark waters rise and thunders pound / The wheels of war are going round / And all the walls are crumbling / Shelter me lord underneath your wings—Buddy and Julie Miller, “Shelter Me”
David's harp electrified in an apocalyptic hymn. Chaos at every turn. Mayhem all plural, even the thunder. There’s a William Blake quality in the imagery: strangeness, deceptive simplicity, cosmic sweep. Why does the lord have wings? And against flood and fire how much shelter will wings even offer? Stark half-lines alternate in call and response with the groaning guitar as the spirit sings in both faith and terror. The friction at the heart of the song scrapes back and forth, back and forth. While the whole thing rides on top of some of the wildest drumming ever recorded. Nothing fancy in this lyric word-wise and there doesn’t need to be. Its current is ocean deep.
Scarecrow and a yellow moon, / And pretty soon a carnival on the edge of town, / King Harvest has surely come.—Robbie Robertson, “King Harvest (Has Surely Come)”
Golden song from what is for me the definitive Americana recording, The Band’s second album. The holy grail of American roots music. “When you’re lost in that song you’re floating through a whole vast American story”: Greil Marcus. Robertson’s mind was full of Steinbeck when he wrote the lyric, he’s said, and I believe it. The whispered chorus is magic. The guitar lead on the out is too.
I never thought I'd live to love the coal dust / Never thought I'd pray to hear the tipple roar / But, Lord, how I wish that grass could change to money / Them greenbacks fill my pockets once more—Jean Ritchie, “The L & N Don’t Stop Here Anymore”
The outer world swept into the holler then swept away. Now kudzu, grass, and rust reclaim old railcars and the company store. Ritchie’s voice here is male—and why not? It’s a dumb-down of the art to conflate singer and song. Ritchie’s last verse is her miner’s sorrowful, compromised prayer. Bad as the old life was, he got hooked on the paycheck. Then the mines played out. The song is about human nature, not politics. Yet it’s also worth a stack of books on sustainability or whatever you want to call it. The melody has the ancient tones of the ballads Ritchie learned at her mother’s knee here in Kentucky.
Who keeps on trusting you when you've been cheating / And spending your nights on the town / And who keeps on saying that he still wants you / When you're through running around / And who keeps on loving you when you've been lying / Saying things ain't what they seem / God does but I don't / God will but I won't / And that's the difference between God and me—Lyle Lovett, “God Will”
That’s maybe not the only difference “between God and me,” but the man so single-mindedly bears down on the betrayal that it’s all just the one thing. The set-up for the chorus is masterful. You’re expecting a pity party thrown by the usual long-suffering faithful heart when, slam, that door bangs shut, the cliché is exploded, and the footwipe is nobody’s fool. So fed up he delivers some steely-eyed theology.
If we could just get off that beat little girl / Maybe we could find the groove / At least we can get a decent meal / Down at the Rendezvous / 'Cause one more heartfelt steel guitar chord / Girl, it's gonna do me in / I need to hear some trumpet and saxophone / You know sound as sweet as sin / And after we get good and greasy / Baby, we can come back home / Put the cowhorns back on the Cadillac / And change the message on the cord-a-phone—John Hiatt, “Memphis in the Meantime”
The Tennessee writer Peter Taylor contrasted Nashville and Memphis as if they were Athens and Sparta, and here John Hiatt does something similar. Country vs. soul. The front of the beat vs. the back. Heartfelt steel guitar vs. sin-greasy sax. I always thought Hiatt was singing "jumping-ass saxophone," but I looked the lyric up and it's officially "TRUMPET and saxophone." Good either way. To hell with enunciation. Beyond its rush of wit, the song is about something bigger than mere styles. It’s about the groove vs. the rut. Any kind of rut. A nice touch is the anticipated return home—with a fresh message. And the song is not only about finding the groove; it’s got a groove. The words dance all around that syncopated Cooder guitar.
Midnight fell on Franklin Street / And the lamppost bulbs were broke / For the life of me, I could not see / But I heard a brand new joke / Two men were standing upon a bridge / One jumped and screamed you lose / And just left the odd man holding / Those late John Garfield blues—John Prine, “Those Late John Garfield Blues”
It’s a lurching waltz, not a juke-joint shuffle, when everybody’s dancing those late John Garfield blues. Prine’s song is a powerful mood piece, very dark, but it’s not a relentless beat-down. Despite the desolation, part of the song’s power comes from the rueful humor of the bridge joke and “going away to the last resort.” The singer is just barely holding on, but what he’s holding on with is his gallows humor.
“The way she did what she did what she did to me reminded me of you.”—Delbert McClinton, “B Movie Boxcar Blues”
A great song for a lot of reasons. One is that it contains McClinton’s all-time moment of wry comedy. The road pilgrim offers his serial philandering in tender tribute. A lot of would-be funny songs suffer from the look-how-clever-I’m-being syndrome, but McClinton always delivers with a light touch. With cool. “Squeeze Me In” and “Monkey Around” are some other nuggets in this vein.
Never would of gone to that side of town if it hadn't been for love / Never would of took a mind to track her down if it hadn't been for love / Never would of loaded up a forty-four, put myself behind a jailhouse door / If it hadn't been, if it hadn't been for love—Michael James Henderson, Chris Stapleton, “If It Hadn’t Been for Love”
A murder ballad from the murderer’s point of view. Could’ve been written today or a hundred years ago. Has that timeless resonance. It’s also a love song, but there are no twining roses. The refrain insists over and over in mournful complaint, it was love. So he had to kill her. Step by step he keeps tracking back through the curse of it all, but not in remorse for the murder, the reason you might expect. His one satisfaction, the keening chorus reveals, is that at least she’s lying still. The song is 100% sentimentality-free.
Well now, everything dies, baby, that’s a fact / But maybe everything that dies someday comes back / Put your makeup on, fix your hair up pretty / And meet me tonight in Atlantic City—Bruce Springsteen, “Atlantic City”
Another persona song, stone true to its voice in every detail, racket boys to Chicken Man to “little favor.” And what a chorus, with its driving staggered beat, charged with all the currents of hopeless hope running through the four verses. All hell’s breaking loose and hell central is Atlantic City. So where’s the loser going? He’s taking his dead luck and his cold love on a bus to Atlantic City. For one big night in the face of doom. The version by The Band on Jericho is one for the ages. My notion of Americana is pretty elastic: stretches from the latest Alejandro Escovedo back to Depression blues and balladry. With stops along the way for the likes of a Springsteen in Nebraska mode.
But the times, they got hard and tobacco wasn't selling / And old Granddad knew what he'd do to survive / He went and dug for Harlan coal and sent the money back to Granny / But he never left Harlan alive—Darrell Scott, “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”
The title line comes around five times and every repeat has a new context. This is the last verse—set up by the delusional joy of the preceding one. The song unfolds like a Greek tragedy.
He took a hundred dollars off a slaughterhouse Joe / Bought a brand new Michigan twenty-gauge / He got all liquored up on that roadhouse corn / Blew a hole in the hood of a yellow Corvette / A hole in the hood of a yellow Corvette –-Tom Waits, “Gun Street Girl”
The man could beat two sticks together and make a great song. This one, a blues, features Waits’ minimalist guitar-thumping. There is a narrative in the song—the misadventures triggered by a bad-luck kiss—but it wouldn’t matter if there weren’t; the words and images are that alive.
Broken down shacks, engine parts / Could tell a lie but my heart would know / Listen to the dogs barking in the yard / Car wheels on a gravel road / Child in the backseat about four or five years / Looking out the window / Little bit of dirt mixed with tears / Car wheels on a gravel road—Lucinda Williams, “Car Wheels on a Gravel Road”
Fragments of memory from the point of view of a little child. Mostly the kid remembers the exasperated voices of grownups: “Can’t find a damn thing in this place,” “When I get back this room better be picked up.” A sad story of displacement—a family always leaving somewhere--, but the song doesn’t water down its sharp sense impressions by resorting to conventional complaint. The one constant in the child’s life, beyond the sound of tires on gravel, is music—Hank and Loretta on the radio.
Sometimes Ramona calls me up and says come on down here it's getting warm / She runs everybody off and we, you know, it's a snake farm--Ray Wylie Hubbard, "Snake Farm"
Who made the lowdown rock I thought Lucinda Williams was going to after Car Wheels? Ray Wylie Hubbard. The man's rich and greasy roots-groove has just gotten deeper with every album. All anchored by a growling conversational lyric style that's a bit of a magic act. No matter how crafted the phrase, it sounds like he just thought of it. That's great . . . singing. There's a whole lot more to it than notes, people. And humor too, the best kind, because it's all about tone and not jokes.
The scene plays in her head over and over again / There’s a movement beneath the streetlamp and the little 32 gun is in her hand / It barks like a dog, two three four, last call in the shadow / Now Jolee waits for the morning freight, going where nobody knows her name / Run, Jolee, run, Jolee, run—Ray Bonneville, “Run Jolee Run”
The sinister atmosphere is palpable. Jolee runs for her life then, act three, her little gun barks four times to defend it. The story unfolds in a well-crafted linear narrative that drives forward on the deep groove of the slithery rhythm guitar. The created world of Bonneville’s song is as alive as the moans of his harmonica. Props to Stan Campbell for telling me about Bonneville. Honor the songfinders. The biggest and craziest songfinder twist in my life is that it was my son who tipped me to Swordfishtrombones. Will was three when Waits made that record.
A long time ago I left my home / For a job in the fruit trees / But I missed those hills with the windy pines / For their song seemed to suit me / So I sent my wages to my home / Said we'd soon be together / For the next good crop would pay my way / And I would come home forever / One more dime to show for my day / One more dollar and I'm on my way / When I reach those hills, boys I'll never roam / One more dollar and I'm going home—Gillian Welch, “One More Dollar”
He never makes it of course. Welch’s homesick fruitpicker becomes the voice of all frustrated longing. He’s always just a dollar short. The three verses encompass a lifetime. First by the sweat of his brow, then by a desperate gamble, and finally as an old panhandler, he’s forever trying to come by the one more dollar that will take him home. The unkillable lift of the chorus delivers the pathos. An eloquent story in the plainest language.
I've been to Georgia on a fast train, honey / I wasn't born no yesterday / Got a good Christian raisin' and an eighth grade education / Ain't no need in y'all a treatin' me this way—Billy Joe Shaver, “Georgia on a Fast Train”
A man stands up for his dignity. Exactly how he’s been disrespected is left between the lines, but he knows he deserves better. Reminds me of Haze Motes in Wise Blood saying, “Any man with a good car doesn’t need to be justified.”
Now cousin Clifford, he got the good land / Right on the highway out by Air Base Road / Looks like a Wal-Mart waiting to happen / I mean to tell you it's a pot of gold / It's in the city limits, zoned commercial / Got city water and a sewer line / What with the base expanding from consolidation / It's worth a fortune and it oughta been mine / Glory glory hallelujah / Right back atcha, don't she look natural? / Don't look at me like there's something growing out of my head / Just cause that old bird's dead—James McMurtry, “Sixty Acres”
Well, just because grandma willed him sixty acres doesn’t mean he has to be grateful. Cousin Clifford got the easy-money real estate. This song is a character study—of a Larry Brown kind of character, not a Larry McMurtry. The anti-hero malcontent on display is just telling the truth as he sees it. He’s got no tooth for farming, no reverence for the old homeplace and, “don’t look at him like there’s something growing out of his head,” no feeling for grandma. The chorus mocks pre-fab formulas of response, and the verses are one phrase after another of Rough South realism. All woven into the chant-like pulse of the song. I’ve heard some songwriters say you should “never make the singer look bad.” Glad McMurtry wasn’t listening.
Did I show you this picture of my sweetheart taken of us before the war / Of the Greek and his Italian girl one Sunday at the shore / We tied our ribbons to the fire escape / They were taken by the birds who flew home to the country / As the bombs rained on the world—Patty Griffin, “Making Pies”
Look how deep a story can be told in a three-minute song. Did I show you this picture? First the one of her nephew, then the one of her sweetheart. Then other pictures: the bakery, Jesus on the church wall, ribbons on a fire escape. Finally the war: the whole monologue snaps into focus. The loss at the heart of the song, Sam’s death in the war, isn’t spoken, yet is all the more there by that fact. The thing too hurtful to say out loud, though it’s communicated in the melody. “You could cry or die or just make pies all days—I’m making pies.” A song that believes--in the listener among other things.
I don't know the black dog's name / When I call him, he won't come / How'd I get this black dog / Lord, I never wanted one / Black Dog don't believe in sin / Think of where the black dog's been / Think of where he's been today—Jesse Winchester, “Black Dog”
Sure, he knows the black dog’s name. It’s his own. The dark, disobedient part of the man’s own nature. The whole album was first-rate, but my brother and I lifted the needle to the groove for this song over and over back in the day.
Do the rivers still run muddy outside of my beloved Casas Grandes? / Does the scar upon my brother's face turn red when he hears mention of my name? / And do the people of El Sueco still curse the theft of Gallo Del Cielo? / Tell my family not to worry, I will not return to cause them shame. –Tom Russell, “Gallo del Cielo”
Only for a very good reason should a song be longer than five minutes. This song has that reason. It’s a whole novel in seven verses and four shrewdly shifting choruses. A border story in Cormac McCarthy chiaroscuro. Hola, my Teresa, does Brother’s scar still turn red?—I love that. A lot of history in fighting roosters. Thomas Jefferson and Queen Elizabeth were aficionados back in the day, but even Louisiana has criminalized it now. An old man down the road here once raised gamecocks for Batista.
Look out kid, don't matter what you did / Walk on your tiptoes, don't try No Doz / Better stay away from those that carry around a fire hose / Keep a clean nose, watch the plainclothes / You don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows—Bob Dylan, “Subterranean Homesick Blues”
Off Bringing It All Back Home, which changed everything. What got brought back home was American rock and roll. Got fused with folk and doors flew open all over the place. You can have your symbolic readings of this song. I like it for the comic word-slinging and because it mocks the wretched do-this-do-that default mode of so much writing.
You know God walked down in the cool of the day / Called Adam by his name / But he refused to answer / Because he's naked and ashamed / Who's that writing? John the Revelator / Tell me who's that writing? John the Revelator / Tell me who's that writing? John the Revelator / Wrote the book of the seven seals--“John the Revelator”
The early bird gets the worm. The second mouse gets the cheese. The wise saws, truisms, proverbs cancel each other out. What we've got is mud. Mud thou art and to mud thou shalt return. Brilliant song off Clark's The Dark. Doesn't hurt to have Welch, Rawlings, and Scott singing harmony either.