96. Buck Owens & His Buckaroos

Buck Owens & His Buckaroos are a country and western band from Bakersfield, California. Alvis “Buck” Owens, Jr. is a guitarist and singer from Sherman, Texas. In 1937, the Owens family moved to Arizona after sustained droughts and high winds forced a move away from the family farm. Owens married and moved west to Bakersfield, California in 1951. For the next several years, Owens performed in local clubs, and worked as a session guitarist for Capitol Records in Los Angeles. After years of trying, his singing and songwriting career languished, and Owens moved to Tacoma, Washington, taking a job at radio station KAYE in Tacoma, Washington. During a live on-air program, he met guitarist and fiddler Don Rich, and began a fruitful partnership that lasted until Rich’s untimely death in 1974.

The characteristic sound of the Buckaroos slowly evolved. While in Tacoma, Owens made his first appearance on the Billboard country charts with “Second Fiddle”, notable for the use of fiddle and steel guitar, and without the saccharine orchestration typical of many country hit songs. Owens and Rich eventually switched to electric guitar, and assembled a quintet with drums, bass and steel guitar to complete the classic Buckaroos lineup. Beginning in 1959, Buck Owens enjoyed a remarkable string of country hit songs; in 1963 “Act Naturally” became his first of fifteen consecutive #1 hit songs during the sixties. He became a household name during the seventies while hosting the corny variety show Hee Haw with banjo/guitar player Roy Clark. By 1980, he essentially retired from recording, focusing on his many business ventures. Buck Owens was inducted to the Country Music Hall Of Fame in 1996.

buck-owens-carnegie-hall

Buck Owens (1929-2006), rhythm guitar, vocals

Don Rich (1941-1974), lead guitar, vocals
Doyle Holly (1946-2007), bass guitar, rhythm guitar
Tom Brumley (1935-2009), steel guitar
Willie Cantu (b. 1946), drums

buckowensfan.com — Fan Website

Amazon.com Link to “Buck Em! The Autobiography of Buck Owens”, by Randy Poe
Amazon.com Link to “Buck Owens – The Biography”, by Eileen Sisk (an unauthorized tell-all biography)

Although Hee Haw made Owens a household name, the lesser known “Buck Owens Ranch Show” from 1966-1968 best represents the band in its prime. Here are three episodes currently showing on YouTube:

Old television programs are much more natural and unpolished. In a word, better.

Bakersfield, California

Buck Owens is considered a founder of the Bakersfield sound, an antidote to the lush “countrypolitan” Nashville sound of the fifties and sixties. His influence within country music can be traced directly to Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam, among many others. The contemporary Nashville sound is a hybrid music, featuring some aspects of the Bakersfield sound, with extensive production techniques.

Buck Owens’ impact on country music is clear. Less discussed is Owens’ influence on rock music, and how he fits in the history of California popular music. In this passage, my friend Corry Arnold discusses the Buckaroos impact on the Grateful Dead:

“Buck Owens influence on Jerry Garcia and the Grateful Dead is no less fundamental. Owens and his Buckaroos played clean, rocking music that was the blueprint for Workingman’s Dead, and Garcia specifically mentioned Owens’s inspiration many times. The biggest success of the Bakersfield musicians was Merle Haggard, and some of Haggard’s songs (“Mama Tried” and “Sing Me Back Home”) also made it into the Grateful Dead repertoire. People interested in some of the roots of Garcia’s twangy Fender sound of the early 70s would do well to listen to Buckaroo guitarist Don Rich.

Owens’s influence on Garcia doesn’t stop with Merle Haggard and Don Rich. Old Garcia pal Pete Grant recalls driving somewhere with Jerry Garcia in mid-60s and hearing Owens’s 1964 song “Together Again.” The pedal steel guitar solo by Tom Brumley was so beautiful that Grant and Garcia agreed on the spot that they had to learn pedal steel. Grant learned before Garcia, as it happened, but the Buckaroos music was one of the signposts for the future Garcia, even if it lay dormant for a few years (and I should add that the New Riders occasionally played “Together Again”).”

— Corry Arnold

“Buck Owens And The Buckaroos, March 9, 1968”, by Corry Arnold, Lost Live Dead Blog

The anecdote gives insight to the young Garcia, who played both banjo and guitar, and was a devotee of both bluegrass and country music. The joys of “Together Again” are subtle at first glance, but a closer listen hears Brumley soloing throughout the song. To me, steel guitar ballads sound like a cat rubbing against your ankles, looking you in the eye and braying for her dinner. “Together Again” is first class kitty music.

One can imagine the two young musicians marveling at the Buckaroos’ precision as something to emulate. Ironic, considering The Grateful Dead, and other San Francisco rock bands of the late sixties, were considered anything but tight or precise, but during the late sixties and early seventies the Dead played a complement of country songs in the Buck Owens style, clean and swinging.

Other California rock bands profiled in this blog are direct descendants of the Buckaroos. Creedence Clearwater Revival, who would be considered a country band today, spent their formative years touring the San Joaquin Valley and have that Central Valley sound. Chris Isaak grew up in Stockton, four hours north of Bakersfield, also shares the California sound: smaller bands with sharp, twanging guitars, well enunciated singing of songs with simple themes, and a basic, swinging beat. California music tends to be unsentimental, with minimal displays of melisma and overwrought emotion.

Buck Owens and Don Rich’s voices overlap one another beautifully. Several Buckaroos songs are punctuated with stop time passages, and possess a brightness matched only perhaps by early Beatles songs. Songs like “Hello Trouble” and “Love’s Gonna Live Here” shine with cheer and lightness that bely the song’s subjects. A little research into Mr. Owens suggests he may have courted and welcomed that aspect of life’s excitement.

The argument for Owens’ influence extends to the surf guitar music of southern California that succeeds him, and even Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers, who spent the bulk of their career in Los Angeles, after migrating from Florida. Included for your consideration are a list of twenty fine Buck Owens songs.

Buck Owens & His Buckaroos Song Notes:

1. Most of these songs can be found on either 21 #1 Hits: The Ultimate Collection or Buck Em! The Music Of Buck Owens (1955-1967), The exceptions are:

“Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache)” can be found on Buck Owens.
“Crying Time (Live)” can be found on The Best of Austin City Limits – Legends of Country Music.
“Love’s Gonna Live Here (Live)” can be found on Carnegie Hall Concert.
“Pick Me Up On Your Way Down” can be found on Sings Harlan Howard.
“If You Ain’t Lovin’ You Ain’t Livin'” and “High On A Hilltop” can be found on Sings Tommy Collins.

2. The Owens family had a donkey named Buck. One day, at the age of 4, young Alvis Jr. walked into the house and announced that from now on, he would also be known as “Buck”.

3. Reportedly, The Buckaroos never rehearsed.

Buck Owens & His Buckaroos Songs:

Act Naturally, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★★★
Above And Beyond (Alt), Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★★★

Love’s Gonna Live Here, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★★
Together Again, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★★

Second Fiddle, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Hello Trouble, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Foolin’ Around, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Pray Every Day, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Together Again (Live), Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Cryin’ Time, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
High On A Hilltop, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Excuse Me (I Think I’ve Got A Heartache), Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
I’ve Got A Tiger By The Tail, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★
Buckaroo, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos ★★

Cryin’ Time (Live), Buck Owens & His Buckaroos
Under Your Spell Again, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos
Made In Japan, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos
Pick Me Up On Your Way Down, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos
If You Ain’t Lovin’ You Ain’t Livin’, Buck Owens & His Buckaroos

Related Songs:

Streets Of Bakersfield, Dwight Yoakam

Act Naturally, The Beatles ★★

Foolin’ Round, Patsy Cline

145. The Drifters

The Drifters are a vocal group from New York, New York. Originally assembled in 1953 as a supporting group for singer Clyde McPhatter, the Drifters brand has one of the more complex histories in pop music history. After McPhatter’s brief tenure as lead singer, the group persevered with modest success until 1958, when manager George Treadwell replaced the entire group. Still recording with Atlantic Records, the second generation Drifters enjoyed a brief peak of popularity, which produced a memorable series of pop standards. By the mid-sixties, their star had faded, but the strength of the original material allowed The Drifters to become a perpetual nostalgia act, often with more than one version of the group in business.

Drifters2-500x371

Wikipedia Biography of The Drifters
Soulwalking.co.uk Biography of The Drifters

Notable Lead Singers For The Drifters

Clyde McPhatter (1932-1972), vocals
Johnny Moore (1934-1998), vocals
Ben E. King (b. 1938), vocals
Rudy Lewis (1936-1964), vocals

Only In America

The Drifters have a few great songs that define their legacy. My favorite song may be the one they never released until over forty years later. The Drifters version of “Only In America” was shelved by Atlantic Records, while a cover version of the song by Jay & The Americans, was sold to United Artists and reached #25 on the pop charts in 1963.

Here Comes The Night, Joel Selvin’s book about the life of record producer Bert Berns, also serves as a comprehensive history of the New York pop music industry of the fifties and sixties. Selvin tells the story of “Only In America” as follows:

With “Up On The Roof” and “On Broadway”, Leiber and Stoller once again reprieved the Drifters from slipping off the charts entirely. It had two long years since “Save The Last Dance For Me”. In April 1963, they returned to the studio with the Drifters and another Mann-Weil song they had remodeled. Originally “Only In America” was more an angry, straightforward protest song (“Only in America, land of opportunity, do they save a seat in the back of the bus just for me”). The civil rights movement was reaching crisis proportions. New harrowing headlines came daily from the South. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was arrested and placed in solitary confinement on the day of the session a thousand miles away in Birmingham, Alabama. Leiber and Stoller, from their rarified, socially advanced perspective, as only two smart-ass, New York Jews could, recast the song as a coolly ironic send up (having black people sing lines like “Only in America can a kid without a cent get a break and maybe grow up to be president”).

(Jerry) Wexler was predictably blunt in his assessment. “Are you guys nuts?” he said. “They’ll lynch us.”

The world was not ready to hear black people sing “Only in America, land of opportunity.” Leiber was way too hip for the room. Leiber and Stoller still liked the track immensely. They took off the Drifters vocals and replaced them with Jay and the Americans. White people singing the same song eliminated all irony, turning the record into the kind of cornball sentimentality that Leiber and Stoller previously assiduously avoided. Wexler hated the record so much, he was happy to sell the track to United Artists for something he was never going to release and didn’t even mind as the thing scooted up the charts. Not much anyway.

— Joel Selvin

Also discussed in the Coasters profile, Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller had a knack for distilling the realities and dreams of young Americans into simple, uplifting songs. The brilliant “Only In America” was forty-five years ahead of its time. I recently shared this on Facebook, and one of my friends shared that his father played this song (the Jay & the Americans version) in the mornings as encouragement for his sons to pursue their dreams.

Amazon.com Link to “Here Comes The Night”, by Joel Selvin

“50 Years Later, A Drifters Song Has Its Day”, by Ryan Zummallen, Long Beach Post, November 2008

Save The Last Dance For Me

My father’s parents emigrated from Scotland around 1920, and never returned. My father had only met a couple of his Scottish relatives until he arranged a visit to Scotland in 1998, where they “rolled out the red carpet”, and cousins Ruby and Dick hosted a family get-together at their lawn bowling club in Clydebank. Dad also used the vacation as an opportunity to play golf, and brought me along with my then brother-in-law John. We traveled around Scotland for a few days before working our way back into town for family gatherings.

At the time, I was actively drinking, an on-or-off practice I never mastered, and eventually quit doing. My father was a teetotaler, and generally disapproved of my drinking habit. So we stayed away from night life for the most part, but John and I sneaked out twice during the vacation for drinks and laughs. Both times were memorable experiences, though the second one was a bit scary, with the potential for real danger. But the first night out was happy and fun, and maybe a little strange, too.

Our first destination was Inverness, the northernmost city in the United Kingdom. Golfers generally travel there to play the famous golf courses in nearby Nairn and Dornoch. We stayed at a bed and breakfast inn in downtown Inverness for three nights, while driving each day to play golf. On one of those nights I dragged John out for beer, cigarettes and a little local flavor.

We found a pub nearby with live music and settled in. The band performed on a stage about ten feet above the pub floor, and were quite loud, making small talk a bit cumbersome, especially for west coast Americans trying to decipher the Scottish brogue. Nevertheless, we soon struck up a conversation with four Scots, two unattached men and a married couple. They were friendly and talkative, and in the case of the married husband, very drunk. We learned he had been on a bender for over twenty-four hours, but to begin with, he was still pretty lucid when we started to chat. He was a successful businessman, and helped manage a significant local establishment. He was a nice fellow, but in bad shape. Early in the evening, we talked about golf, where he admitted that though he was not an accomplished player, he felt he could “putt for Scotland”.

His wife was charming, and quite attractive. As her husband’s energy started to fade, she stayed close by, but seemed rather unconcerned, as if this was a common occurrence. He was really drunk, and starting to list, but was hanging in there as best he could for the conversation with the visiting Americans.

I had given up worrying about the fading husband, and was chatting with the others when over the din of the music, I heard him sneeze with a mighty “Whoosh!”. Looking over, as he pulled himself back upright, I noticed his nose now featured the longest snot string I had ever seen in my life. And neither he nor his friends seemed to notice. I expected that his wife or friends would notice, but they were enjoying themselves, and had kind of tuned him out. And for two or three minutes that seemed to last an eternity, this poor man stood there drunk and unaware that he had snot hanging from his nose down below his waist. I casually turned to my brother-in-law and whispered “I think that might be the grossest thing I’ve ever seen”, and we shared a private laugh between ourselves. I can’t remember whether he fixed the problem, or it just dropped eventually.

Although he managed to stay upright, at that point of the evening he was politely coexisting while the others yelled at one another over the music. By then the center of attention was the man’s lovely wife, who was holding court while everybody stood around her in a circle. At some point, it occurred to me that their friends were perhaps a bit too friendly and attentive, and inspired by the spirits of the night, I did something I rarely do — I broke into song:

“So don’t forget who’s taking you home,
And in whose arms you’re gonna be,
So darlin’, save the last dance for me.”

I must have done well, because afterwards all three of them applauded enthusiastically, and urged me to keep singing. I demurred, as I was overcome by shyness, plus I didn’t know the words and melody well enough to sing the whole thing. By midnight, we left our friends for the evening, and walked back to the inn, but I’ll never forget the night I serenaded the beautiful woman with the great song that came to mind and means so much.

The Drifters Songs:

On Broadway, The Drifters ★★★★
Up On The Roof, The Drifters ★★★★
Only In America, The Drifters ★★★★

Save The Last Dance For Me, The Drifters ★★★
White Christmas, The Drifters ★★★

Under The Boardwalk, The Drifters ★★
This Magic Moment, The Drifters ★★
Ruby Baby, The Drifters ★★

Money Honey, The Drifters
The Bells Of St. Mary’s, The Drifters
There Goes My Baby, The Drifters
Whatcha Gonna Do, Clyde McPhatter & The Drifters

Related Songs:

A Lover’s Question, Clyde McPhatter ★★
Lover Please, Clyde McPhatter ★★

Stand By Me, Ben E. King ★★★
Spanish Harlem, Ben E. King ★★★
I (Who Have Nothing), Ben E. King ★★
Don’t Play That Song (You Lied), Ben E. King
Amor, Ben E. King

On Broadway, Neil Young

Only In America, Jay & the Americans ★★

White Christmas, Bing Crosby ★★
White Christmas, Darlene Love

This Magic Moment, Jay & the Americans ★★

Ruby Baby, Dion ★★★

Money Honey, Elvis Presley

6. Paul Simon

Paul Simon is a singer, songwriter and guitarist from Queens, a borough of New York City, New York. Simon’s father Louis was a professor at the City College of New York, and a part time bandleader, who gradually gave up his musical aspirations to support his family. Like many New York boys growing up in the forties and fifties, Simon’s first love was baseball, but he took a greater interest in music during elementary school. Simon met longtime collaborator Art Garfunkel in sixth grade; by eighth grade Simon was writing songs that the two would sing together. Success came early for the duo; as teenagers the two had a hit song. Billed as Tom & Jerry, “Hey, Schoolgirl” was a top 50 national hit in 1957.

After high school, Simon and Garfunkel each attended college, and only performed occasionally. Simon graduated from Queens College with a degree in English, while Garfunkel received a degree in mathematics from Columbia University. Simon continued to write songs, performing them solo, or with Garfunkel and other musicians. In 1964, the duo had a successful audition with Columbia Records, and recorded an album of folk songs titled Wednesday Morning, 3 AM. Sluggish sales prompted Simon to leave and pursue a solo career in England, but he returned a year later when an electrified version of “The Sounds Of Silence” became a surprise #1 hit. Simon & Garfunkel reunited and became one of America’s most beloved folk rock groups, with four acclaimed albums, culminating with the Grammy Award winning Bridge Over Troubled Water in 1970.

Here Paul and brother Ed Simon play the finger picking standard “Anji”, originally by British guitarist Davy Graham:

Paul Simon (b. 1941), guitar, songwriter, singer, bandleader
Art Garfunkel (b. 1941), singer

Solo Career

Bridge Over Troubled Water is Simon & Garfunkel’s most diverse album, with Simon beginning to experiment with different rhythms and instrumentation. At the height of their career, Simon & Garfunkel disbanded, and both men pursued solo careers. Though Art Garfunkel had success as both a singer and actor, it was Paul Simon who embarked on a long, influential career that includes dozens of literary and music awards, plus the grand distinction of being a member of Saturday Night Live Five-Timers club.

Paul-Simon

As an independent songwriter, with no affiliation to a specific group of musicians, Paul Simon traveled far and wide to create different musical backgrounds. He traveled to Jamaica to record “Mother And Child Reunion” and Muscle Shoals, Alabama to record “Loves Me Like A Rock”. He traveled to South Africa and Brazil to record compelling native rhythms, and returned to New York to complete the tracks with lyrics and studio musicians, the songs for the albums Graceland and Rhythm Of The Saints. The talents of New York’s finest studio musicians are featured throughout his career.

An artist of uncommon stamina and longevity, Simon created what is considered his greatest work (Graceland) in his mid-forties. His most recent album, the highly acclaimed So Beautiful or So What from 2011, includes “The Afterlife”, my favorite song in the last few years. Simon also “reunites” every now and then with Art Garfunkel to play Simon & Garfunkel songs. Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel were inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1990, and Simon was inducted as a solo artist in 2001.

An incomplete list of New York City’s best studio musicians, a small subset of those who contributed to Paul Simon’s music:

Steve Gadd (b. 1945), drums
Richard Tee (1943-1993), keyboards
Bill Lee (b. 1928), bass
Eric Gale (1938-1994), guitar
Joe South (1940-2012), guitar
The Brecker Brothers (Michael (1949-2007) and Randy (b. 1945)), core horn section
David Sanborn (b. 1945), saxophone

Emory University: Paul Simon Brings a New Verse to the Ellman Lectures, Sept. 25, 2013

Songwriting

“No, the early songs, I can’t say I really like them. But there’s something naive and sweet-natured, and I must say I like that about it.

They’re not angry. And that means that I wasn’t angry or unhappy. That’s my memory of that time; it was just about idyllic. It was just the best time of my life, I think, up until recently, these last five years or so, six years…This has been the best time of my life. But before that, I would say that that was.”

— Paul Simon

Simon is somewhat dismissive of his early work; I like the Simon & Garfunkel songs better than he does. Songs like “I Am A Rock”, “Homeward Bound” and even the playful “At The Zoo” are among my favorite Paul Simon songs. Taken together, Simon & Garfunkel’s earliest music paint my imagined portrait of life growing up as a schoolboy in New England; I feel the chill of their winter, and the warmth and happiness of life there. An older person still appreciates, and often longs for younger days. Songs about winning or losing love, and wanting to be home, ring true forever. Like emptiness and harmony, I need someone to comfort me. It’s hard not to reminisce fondly, even if life didn’t go according to plan.

For the first time in ten or so artists, I passed on reading a full biography of Paul Simon. I’m very familiar with his music, and sensed I would not learn much. Besides, Bob Dylan is up next and I have to study and prepare. That’s not a knock on Simon; Dylan is a complex character with a vast library of music. This is as good a place to point out that Simon may prefer his post-Garfunkel music because he, like virtually all young folk songwriters, was so influenced by Bob Dylan, that he was not satisfied until he broke free and found a more authentic voice.

I reviewed Simon’s long interview in Paul Zollo’s “Songwriters on Songwriting”, and used a few quotes to facilitate a discussion.

Amazon.com Link to “Songwriters On Songwriting”, by Paul Zollo

“As soon as your mind knows that it’s on and it’s supposed to produce some lines, either it doesn’t or it produces things that are very predictable. And that’s why I say I’m not interested in writing something I’ve thought about. I’m interested in discovering where my mind wants to go, or what object it wants to pick up.

It always picks up on something true. You’ll find out much more about what you’re thinking that way than you will if you’re determined to say something. What you’re determined to say is filled with all your rationalizations and your defenses and all of that. What you want to say to the world as opposed to what you’re thinking. And as a lyricist, my job is to find out what it is that I’m thinking. Even if it’s something that I don’t want to be thinking.

I think when I get blocked, when I have writer’s block (though I never think of it as writer’s block anymore), what it is is that you have something to say but you don’t want to say it. So your mind says, “I have nothing to say. I’ve just nothing more to say. I can’t write anything. I have no thoughts.” Closer to the truth is that you have a thought that you really would prefer not to have. And you’re not going to say that thought. Your mind is protected. Once you discover what that thought is, if you can find another way of approaching it that isn’t negative to you, then you can deal with that subject matter.”

— Paul Simon

I’ve used this philosophy for the blog, especially the last couple of years. After reading and listening to music for a few weeks, I write whatever emerges. No thought is given to organization until the profile is in progress; at some point I find the logical path to a satisfactory conclusion. For the second time in the last six months (Neil Young post), I’ve had writer’s block, not knowing how to start. I’m out of my league; I can’t possibly offer insight or reasonable analysis of Paul Simon’s fifty-plus year career, impossibly long and diverse to capture in a couple thousand words, even if I had the formal musical training. I can write down a list of songs I like, and the ones I like best, but even then I’m having yet an inner crisis over the concept of attaching a rating to songs. Recently, I’ve had like-minded critics and analysts question assigning a value to artistic expression. Another friend said recently that ranking songs was against her principles. The closer I get to finishing this project, which began over four years ago, the more I feel the rating exercise is misguided at best, and at times I feel sheepish and stupid evaluating my favorite musicians and songs in numerical terms. But I am nearly done, compelled to finish what I started, and show how my calculating mind thinks. Though the ratings connote some hierarchy of music, my words nearly always champion the artists and their brilliance.

Simon On Beginning And Ending Songs

“Because how you begin a song is one of the hardest things. The first line of a song is very hard. I always have this image in my mind of a road that goes like this (motions with hands to signify a road that gets wider as it opens out) so that the implication is that the directions are pointing outward. It’s like a baseball diamond; there’s more and more space out here. As opposed to like this (motions an inverted road getting thinner.) Because if it’s like this, at this point in the song, you’re out of options.

So you want to have that first line that has a lot of options, to get you going. And the other thing that I try to remember, especially if a song is long, you have plenty of time. You don’t have to kill them, you don’t have to grab them by the throat by the first line.

In fact, you have to wait for the audience — they’re going to sit down, get settled in their seat…their concentration is not even there. You have to be a good host to people’s attention span. They’re not going to come in there and work real hard right away. Too many things are coming: the music is coming, the rhythm is coming, all kinds of information that the brain is sorting out.

So “You Can Call Me Al”, which was an example of that kind of writing, starts off very easily with sort of a joke: “Why am I soft in the middle when the rest of my life is so hard?” It’s a joke, with very easy words. Then it has a chorus you can’t understand. What is he talking about, you can call me Betty, and Betty, you can call me Al? You don’t know what I’m talking about. But I don’t think it’s bothersome. You don’t know what I’m talking about, but neither do I, at that point.

The second verse is really a recapitulation of the first: A man walks down the street, he says…another thing. And by the time you get to the third verse, and people have been into the song for long enough, now you can start to throw abstract images. Because there’s been a structure, and those abstract images, they will just come down and fall into one of the slots that the mind has already made up about the structure of the song.

So now you have this guy who’s no longer thinking about the mundane thoughts, about whether he’s getting too fat, whether he needs a photo opportunity, or whether he’s afraid of the dogs in the moonlight and the graveyard, and he’s off in, listen to the sound, look what’s going on, there’s cattle and…”

— Paul Simon

Describing what makes a song enjoyable is a complicated proposition. I have my favorite subjects — love, God, work, nature, beauty: the small handful of life’s most precious things. Good songs can have simple words, or be complex and literate. There are good songs using only one or two chords, with monotonous melodies that compel the listener into a trance-like groove. There are good songs with elaborate chord structures and unusual melodies, that must be listened to several times to even begin understanding. How the singer “phrases”, accenting and punctuating the words within the melody to tell the story, is essential, a reason why I generally prefer an author’s original version. It’s also why I gravitate to “plain” singers over the wailers and belters of the world. By singing at a medium volume, and not yelling every word, allows the plain singer to emote more effectively, to enunciate each word, and accent the song with higher or lower volume where appropriate. Many of my favorite artists are great songwriters who don’t have particularly strong voices, but they sing with finesse. John Lennon, Paul Simon, and Jerry Garcia are among those who interpret a song well.

Ambiguity

I like songs whose words can be interpreted in more than one way. The classic example I often use to illustrate this is Van Morrison’s “Have I Told You Lately”:

“Have I told you lately that I love you,
Have I told you there’s no one above you,
Fill my heart with gladness,
Take away my sadness,
Ease my troubles, that’s what you do.

There’s a love that’s divine,
And it’s yours and it’s mine,
And it shines like the sun.
At the end of the day, we will give thanks
And pray, to the One.”

— Van Morrison

The song can be viewed as either romantic love or religious devotion. This type of ambiguity is a rare and wonderful trait. Paul Simon’s practice of letting his subconscious participate lends itself well to lyrics open for interpretation.

Mini-Concert

Let’s look at a couple of Paul Simon performances. My favorite song on Graceland has always been “Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes”, featuring the South African singing group Ladysmith Black Mambazo. Performed in concert, the song displays the singing group’s grace and agility:

In the fall of 2003, Simon & Garfunkel embarked on the elaborate “Old Friends” tour, in which they assembled a fine orchestra, and invited their heroes, The Everly Brothers, to participate for a few songs each evening. First, here is Simon & Garfunkel performing “The Boxer” as a duet on the David Letterman show. Note the inclusion of the song’s “missing verse”.

And here, with the full orchestra, Simon & Garfunkel perform “I Am A Rock” in 2003:

In 2007, Paul Simon became the first recipient of the Library of Congress Gershwin Prize for Popular Song. The concert to commemorate this occasion included a performance of Simon’s “Loves Me Like A Rock”, featuring the Dixie Hummingbirds on vocals and Stevie Wonder on piano and vocals. Complete with false start, “Loves Me Like A Rock” begins around the eight minute mark of this fifteen minute video:

Ever since I saw this video, “Loves Me Like A Rock” is the song that makes me think about Mom. What a great, unselfish person she was. And boy, did she ever love me love me love me.

The Afterlife

“After I died, and the makeup had dried, I went back to my place.
No moon that night, but a heavenly light shone on my face.
Still I thought it was odd, there was no sign of God just to usher me in.
Then a voice from above, sugar coated with Love, said,

Let us begin.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.”

In the first verse, Simon introduces the topic — he died, so what happens next? One good thing is he gets to go back to his place. I like the rhyme of “usher me in” with “let us begin”. We now know that heaven requires a bit of paperwork before entry is granted.

“OK, a new kid in school, got to follow the rule, you got to learn the routine.
Whoa, there’s a girl over there, with the sunshiny hair, like a homecomin’ queen.
I said, “Hey, what you say? It’s a glorious day, by the way how long you been dead?”
Maybe you, maybe me, maybe baby makes three, but she just shook her head…

You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.

Buddah and Moses and all the noses from narrow to flat,
Had to stand in the line, just to glimpse the divine, what you think about that?
Well it seems like our fate to suffer and wait for the knowledge we seek,
It’s all his design, no one cuts in the line, no one here likes a sneak.

You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.
You got to fill out a form first, and then you wait in the line.”

In the self-explanatory second and third verses, Simon addresses the two great mysteries in life. There’s always the magnetic appeal of a beautiful woman. And while you’re waiting in line, notice that no one is exempt from final judgement. After a short, shimmering instrumental passage, Simon returns with the final verse.

“After you climb up the ladder of time, the Lord God is near.
Face to face, in the vastness of space, your words disappear.
And you feel like swimming in that ocean of love, and the current is strong.
But all that remains when you try to explain is a fragment of song…

Lord, is it ‘Be Bop A Lu La’ or ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’?
Lord, ‘Be Bop A Lu La’ or ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’?
‘Be Bop A Lu La’.”

Assuming I have time to think about life before I die, I’m sure to swim in that ocean of love and reminisce about the great times I’ve had. Words to describe my gratitude will not suffice. Life’s a struggle, but when my time gets near, I’ll give up battling and just swim.

It seems like a throwaway, but “Lord, is it ‘Be Bop A Lu La’ or ‘Ooh Poo Pah Doo’?” is the key statement. After four beautifully constructed verses of rhythmic, literate prose, he finally distills what he wants to say. Finally, he decides on ‘Be Bop A Lu La’.

Paul Simon Song Notes:

Most of these songs are easy to find. The exceptions are:

1. “Hearts And Bones/Mystery Train/Wheels (Live)” can be found on iTunes Festival: London 2011 — EP.

2. “Paranoia Blues (Alt)” can be found on Paul Simon.

3. “Something So Right (Live)” can be found on Paul Simon In Concert: Live Rhymin’.

4. “The Afterlife (Live)” is the official YouTube performance as presented in the blog.

5. “The Sound Of Silence (Alt)” can be found on The Columbia Studio Recordings — 1964-1970.

6. “Scarborough Fair/Canticle (Live)” and “I Am A Rock (Live) can be found on Live 1969.

7. “The Sound Of Silence (Live)” can be found on Live from New York City, 1967.

8. “A Hazy Shade Of Winter (Live)”
“I Am A Rock (Live)”
“At The Zoo (Live)”
“Baby Driver (Live)”
“Homeward Bound (Live)”
“The Sound Of Silence (Live)”

can be found on Old Friends: Live On Stage.

9. “Homeward Bound (Live)”
“The Boxer (Live)”
“Fakin’ It (Live)”
“The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy) (Live)”
“Anji (Live)”
“America (Live)”

can be found on the unauthorized live recording 59th Street Bridge Songs: France 1970.

Simon & Garfunkel Songs

Homeward Bound, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★★★

The Sound Of Silence (Alt), Simon & Garfunkel ★★★★
The Boxer, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★★
America, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★★
I Am A Rock (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★★★

At The Zoo, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★
The Sound Of Silence, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★
Mrs. Robinson, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★
Scarborough Fair/Canticle, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★
I Am A Rock, Simon & Garfunkel ★★★

Bridge Over Troubled Water, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Baby Driver, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Peggy-O, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Wednesday Morning, 3 AM, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Anji, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Fakin’ It, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
A Hazy Shade Of Winter, Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Scarborough Fair/Canticle (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
I Am A Rock (live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
The Sound Of Silence (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Homeward Bound (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
The Boxer (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★
Anji (Live), Simon & Garfunkel ★★

El Condor Pasa (If I Could), Simon & Garfunkel
The Only Living Boy In New York, Simon & Garfunkel
Kathy’s Song, Simon & Garfunkel
Richard Cory, Simon & Garfunkel
Cloudy, Simon & Garfunkel
The Dangling Conversation, Simon & Garfunkel
Flowers Never Bend With The Rainfall, Simon & Garfunkel
A Simple Desultory Phillipic (Or How I Was Robert McNamara’d), Simon & Garfunkel
Old Friends, Simon & Garfunkel
Bookends Theme, Simon & Garfunkel
Sparrow, Simon & Garfunkel
Somewhere They can’t Find Me, Simon & Garfunkel
Bleecker Street, Simon & Garfunkel
Patterns, Simon & Garfunkel
The Sound Of Silence (Live), Simon & Garfunkel
A Hazy Shade Of Winter (live), Simon & Garfunkel
At The Zoo (Live), Simon & Garfunkel
Baby Driver (live), Simon & Garfunkel
Homeward Bound (live), Simon & Garfunkel
Fakin’ It (Live), Simon & Garfunkel
America (live), Simon & Garfunkel

Paul Simon Songs:

The Afterlife (Live), Paul Simon ★★★★★

Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes, Paul Simon ★★★★
Late In the Evening, Paul Simon ★★★★
The Afterlife, Paul Simon ★★★★

Mother And Child Reunion, Paul Simon ★★★
Me And Julio Down By The Schoolyard, Paul Simon ★★★
Under African Skies, Paul Simon ★★★
Graceland, Paul Simon ★★★
Something So Right, Paul Simon ★★★
Born At The Right Time, Paul Simon ★★★
Loves Me Like A Rock, Paul Simon ★★★
Dazzling Blue (Video), Paul Simon ★★★

Take Me To The Mardi Gras, Paul Simon ★★
Slip Slidin’ Away, Paul Simon ★★
She Moves On, Paul Simon ★★
50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Paul Simon ★★
That Was Your Mother, Paul Simon ★★
Dazzling Blue, Paul Simon ★★
Hobo’s Blues, Paul Simon ★★
Diamonds On The Soles Of Her Shoes (Alt), Paul Simon ★★
Something So Right (Live), Paul Simon ★★
Homeless, Paul Simon ★★
Hearts And Bones, Paul Simon ★★

Father And Daughter, Paul Simon
The Boy In The Bubble, Paul Simon
Gumboots, Paul Simon
You Can Call Me Al, Paul Simon
Crazy Love, Vol. II, Paul Simon
Still Crazy After All These Years, Paul Simon
Kodachrome, Paul Simon
Train In the Distance, Paul Simon
Duncan, Paul Simon
Paranoia Blues (Alt), Paul Simon
Proof, Paul Simon
Can’t Run But, Paul Simon
The Coast, Paul Simon
Born At the Right Time (Demo), Paul Simon
Getting Ready For Christmas Day, Paul Simon
Rewrite, Paul Simon
One Man’s Ceiling Is Another Man’s Floor, Paul Simon
St. Judy’s Comet, Paul Simon

Related Songs:

Angi, Davy Graham ★★

Bridge Over Troubled Water, Aretha Franklin ★★

7. Elvis Presley

Elvis Presley was a singer and guitarist from Tupelo, Mississippi. He was the only child of Gladys and Vernon Presley; his twin brother was stillborn. The family moved to Memphis, Tennessee when Elvis was thirteen years old. He was a shy and reserved young man, yet he dressed flamboyantly. His teachers considered him an average music student, but Elvis loved the popular music he heard on the radio, especially the rhythm and blues music on radio station WDIA, where future legends Rufus Thomas and B.B. King were popular on-air personalities. Elvis also loved gospel music, and attended monthly all-night programs where both white and black gospel singers performed. Once Elvis overcame his shyness, he started to sing in small contests and in school talent contests, which earned him admiration among his peers. After high school, Elvis worked a series of jobs, showing neither flair nor desire for any occupation. Curious to hear what he sounded like, Presley paid the Memphis Recording Service a few dollars to record a couple songs, singing and accompanying himself on guitar. Although Elvis was disappointed with the results, the recording service, also known as Sun Records, took note of the young man’s attempts, and invited him back for an audition.

Elvis-Presley

What happened next is a well known part of popular music history. Sun Records owner Sam Phillips invited the enthusiastic young singer to record several times, trying and failing to create distinctive music. On July 5th, 1954, during a break in another unfruitful session, Elvis picked up his guitar and started goofing around, playing Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup’s “That’s All Right (Mama)”. Bassist Bill Black and guitarist Scotty Moore joined in for a few bars, until Phillips stopped them and said, “Start over. Let’s record that.” The next night the trio recorded an energetic version of Bill Monroe’s bluegrass number, “Blue Moon Of Kentucky”, which became the “B” side of Elvis’ first single. Just three days later, “That’s All Right” made its radio debut on Memphis radio station WHBQ, on Dewey Phillips’ “Red, Hot & Blue” radio program. The response was immediate, and the song was played several more times that evening.

The Elvis Presley Trio:

Elvis Presley (1935-1977), singer, rhythm guitar, movie star
Scotty Moore (b. 1931), lead guitar
Bill Black (1926-1965), bass

Some Key Contributors:

D.J. Fontana (b. 1931), drums
The Jordanaires (1948-2013), vocal group, background vocals

Chet Atkins (1924-2001)
, guitar, producer
Floyd Cramer (1933-1997), piano
Hank Garland (1930-2004), guitar
Jerry Reed (1937-2008), guitar, songwriter
Jerry Leiber (1933-2011) and Mike Stoller (b. 1933), songwriting team
Doc Pomus (1925-1991) and Mort Shuman (1936-1991), songwriting team

Sun records released four more singles by Elvis Presley, who began to attract a significant regional following. He was controversial for his sexually suggestive movements during his performances, and very popular among young women. Despite Presley’s popularity, plus the development of other “rockabilly” stars Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis, Sam Phillips had financial problems, and sold Presley’s contract to RCA Victor records for $40,000. In 1956, with the financial backing and promotional might of RCA Victor, Elvis Presley became an enormous television and music star, a household name and a cultural icon.

Elvis starred in thirty-one full-length feature films to capitalize on his immense popularity. Between the movie career and an untimely stint in the U.S. Army from 1958-60, Elvis’s music career was somewhat derailed; he was often asked to record songs of debatable quality, his management valuing songwriting royalties over artistic expression. Still, the hard working singer/actor produced an impressive library of good music, especially between the years 1956 and 1962. In the late sixties, Elvis changed his priorities and added a final, mature phase to his music career, a nice complement to his early groundbreaking work.

Throughout his years of fame and fortune, Elvis developed a growing prescription drug habit, which eventually took his life in 1977. While researching Elvis Presley, I read Dave Marsh’s book “Elvis”, as well as parts of Peter Guralnick’s “Careless Love”, the second volume of his exhaustive biography, which details Presley’s painful descent into drugs, megalomania and death.

Amazon.com link to “Elvis”, by Dave Marsh
Amazon.com link to “Careless Love”, by Peter Guralnick

Memphis, Tennessee

“The country fan did not ask that his star continue to appear impoverished or reject the trappings of success. Nor was the country star obliged to make statements of regret at his estrangement from the workaday world. (Those are the demands of bohemian audiences.) What the country fan wanted was something impossible: that the pampered, expensively clad, luxuriously transported, well-endowed and shrewdly invested star should maintain the same mentality that he and the fan originally shared, that his view of the world should not be altered by the loft of his perch. The effect was pernicious and pathetic not only because it prevented the star from ever making explicit criticisms of the conditions that kept his audience impoverished but because it kept the audience from ever seeing the truth about the human consequences of a change in economic status. The result was a culture that was steeped in vicariousness and utterly passive — and as more Southerners moved into urban America, seeking work during and after World War II, these attitudes came to epitomize working-class attitudes to all culture.

Elvis was a product of this culture of passivity, but he was also a well-informed voice in opposition to it — one of the few who spoke with the real credibility of an insider, neither a patronizing, moralistic leftist reformer nor an equally patronizing moralistic right-wing demagogue. What Elvis did was suggest, especially for younger listeners, that there were more attractive options than the limited ones they already knew about, and that these options were reachable without essential compromise. Although few ever took Elvis up on even a portion of his implicit challenge many permanently honored and revered him for his personal breakout.”

— Dave Marsh, “Elvis”

Elvis Presley was not in my childhood experience. Neither of my parents expressed an interest in Elvis. Part of this was timing; my parents had graduated from college in 1952 and 1953, were newly married and focused on building a life together. Dad was working for the Lincoln Electric Company training salesmen while moonlighting as a writer, trying to write the great American novel. Mom was an underutilized housewife, taking care of the domestic chores. They followed Dad’s career to Cleveland and Chicago before changing course, dropping everything and moving to the San Francisco Bay Area in 1956.

My mother mentioned on several occasions that the fifties were dark days, an oppressed, unimaginative period in life, where accusations of communism were loudly publicized and creative thought was stifled. In the early fifties, the types of entertainment offered for mass consumption were tightly controlled. By the time Elvis Presley became widely known, he was pretty much a corporate product. The television networks eliminated his lascivious on-stage persona and made him politically correct. That Elvis was a popular teen idol singing simple country songs, was probably another reason that Elvis did not interest my parents. If my folks were from Memphis or Nashville, where country and blues music originated, and had heard the great early Sun Records singles, they might have been fans. In my family, he wasn’t even a blip on the radar. I never heard them mention him once.

My self-taught Elvis education began in high school, when I learned the big hits like “Hound Dog” and “Heartbreak Hotel”. Once I was out of college, and getting serious about filling holes in my musical education, I bought a copy of The Sun Sessions LP and a nifty set of a dozen gold-tinted singles to commemorate what would have been Elvis’ fiftieth birthday. Since then, I’ve gone all in, purchasing the three big box sets, The Complete 50s Recordings, The Essential 60s Recordings, and The Essential 70s Recordings. However, the true essential recordings are the Sun sessions from 1954 and 1955; beyond that, there are a wide selection of good songs between about 1956 and 1962, first class productions featuring excellent musicians and Elvis’ friendly, confident voice.

The phenomenon of Elvis could only happen in Memphis, a culture steeped in both country and gospel music, but also near Clarksdale, Mississippi, the home of the delta blues. Elvis has been accused of being a racist, capitalizing on the songs of black men by singing them for a white audience. I don’t see it that way at all; I’d argue the opposite is true. He was a poor kid from the poor side of town, who loved music regardless of a man’s color. That’s why he’s so important, the greatest progressive force in pop music history. He’s largely responsible for breaking the color barrier. Whether he had personal prejudices is irrelevant; I have no evidence to suggest he did.

“How Did Elvis Get Turned Into A Racist?”, by Peter Guralnick, New York Times, August 11, 2007

The Jordanaires

Originally from Missouri, the Jordanaires were a gospel quartet who also had a long career providing background vocals for popular music artists. Elvis liked their sound, and used them regularly for both live and studio performances from 1956-1972. Their distinctive sound was also used by such artists as Patsy Cline (“Crazy”, “I Fall To Pieces”) and Ricky Nelson (“Lonesome Town”, “Poor Little Fool”). They are one of my favorite singing groups, along with The Beach Boys and the Franklin sisters, Aretha Franklin with her two sisters Erma and Carolyn. Their rich sound helped Elvis create a second phase of his recording career. After the early rockabilly music, there was the Nashville “countrypolitan” music with the Jordanaires and pianist Floyd Cramer, followed by the Memphis blue-eyed soul music of the late sixties.

The Final Years

Here’s Elvis on his great “comeback” TV performance in 1968, singing his Sun Records classic, “Trying To Get To You”:

I can’t imagine anything worse than being physically addicted to barbiturates, and needing them to fall asleep each night. Peter Guralnick’s book “Careless Love” is a detailed account of Elvis’s life — it portrays someone desperately in need of a medical withdrawal from the stimulants and sedatives that became a daily part of life. In many ways, Elvis and Michael Jackson were similar. Both were huge stars, the biggest pop star in the world for a number of years. Both suffered from addictions to prescription medication that ultimately took their lives. Both were rather childlike as adults; Elvis enjoyed bedtime “pillow talk” with younger women, more than he enjoyed full bodied affection. And both were profligate spenders. Elvis bought jewelry and automobiles for friends and acquaintances he wished to impress or control, and jet airliners to travel wherever he wished. By 1975, Elvis was essentially broke, and between his spending and longtime manager Tom Parker’s excessive gambling habit, they needed Elvis to keep hitting the road, heading to Las Vegas, generating revenue, and performing the same program to fans who adored him, despite the listless recitation of old hits, and the occasionally insane, mean-spirited, drug-fueled rant.

Finally, here he is in June, 1977, just a couple months before his death, on a “good” night where Elvis musters the energy to sing the high notes in “Unchained Melody”. You can hear him whisper “I got this” before the finale, indicating he does not want the other singers to help:

Elvis Presley Wikiquotes
Link to SNL Skit “Waikiki Hockey”, starring Wayne Gretzky

Elvis Presley Song Notes:

Most of these song notes will be easy to find on various compilations available on iTunes.

1. The following alternate versions of songs can be found on The Essential 60s Recordings. In particular, the first three songs are beautiful, unadorned takes that equal the released versions:

“In The Ghetto (Take 4)”
“Suspicious Minds (Take 6)”
“Kentucky Rain (Take 9)”
“Big Boss Man (Take 2)”
“(Marie’s The Name Of) His Latest Flame (Alt)”

2. The following alternate versions can be found on The Complete 50s Recordings:

“Blue Moon Of Kentucky (Alt)”
“I Want You, I Need you, I Love You (Take 16)”
“Loving You (Take 12)”

3. “Shake, Rattle & Roll/Flip, Flop & Fly (Live)” can be found on Platinum
— A Life In Music
.

Elvis Presley Songs:

Mystery Train, Elvis Presley ★★★★★

Can’t Help Falling In Love, Elvis Presley ★★★★
That’s All Right, Elvis Presley ★★★★
Blue Moon, Elvis Presley ★★★★
Heartbreak Hotel, Elvis Presley ★★★★
Don’t Be Cruel, Elvis Presley ★★★★
Little Sister, Elvis Presley ★★★★
Kentucky Rain, Elvis Presley ★★★★
(Marie’s The Name Of) His Latest Flame, Elvis Presley ★★★★
Good Rockin’ Tonight, Elvis Presley ★★★★

All Shook Up, Elvis Presley ★★★
Are You Lonesome Tonight, Elvis Presley ★★★
Good Luck Charm, Elvis Presley ★★★
Suspicious Minds, Elvis Presley ★★★
Blue Moon Of Kentucky, Elvis Presley ★★★
(There’ll Be) Peace in The Valley, Elvis Presley ★★★
Trying To Get To You, Elvis Presley ★★★
My Baby Left Me, Elvis Presley ★★★
Blue Christmas, Elvis Presley ★★★
It’s Now Or Never, Elvis Presley ★★★
Kentucky Rain (Take 9), Elvis Presley ★★★
Don’t, Elvis Presley ★★★
Return To Sender, Elvis Presley ★★★
Stuck On You, Elvis Presley ★★★
Suspicion, Elvis Presley ★★★

Milk Cow Blues Boogie, Elvis Presley ★★
Baby, Let’s Play House, Elvis Presley ★★
I’m Left, You’re Right, She’s Gone, Elvis Presley ★★
Blue Suede Shoes, Elvis Presley ★★
Jailhouse Rock, Elvis Presley ★★
I Gotta Know, Elvis Presley ★★
Lawdy, Miss Clawdy, Elvis Presley ★★
A Mess Of Blues, Elvis Presley ★★
Such A Night, Elvis Presley ★★
Love Me Tender, Elvis Presley ★★
Fame And Fortune, Elvis Presley ★★
Reconsider Baby, Elvis Presley ★★
She’s Not You, Elvis Presley ★★
(You’re The) Devil In Disguise, Elvis Presley ★★
Guitar Man/What’d I Say, Elvis Presley ★★
U.S. Male, Elvis Presley ★★
In The Ghetto (Take 4), Elvis Presley ★★
Suspicious Minds (Take 6), Elvis Presley ★★
Big Boss Man (Take 2), Elvis Presley ★★
(Marie’s The Name Of) His Latest Flame (Alt), Elvis Presley ★★
Joshua Fit The Battle, Elvis Presley ★★
Wear My Ring Around Your Neck, Elvis Presley ★★
I Want You, I Need You, I Love You (Take 16), Elvis Presley ★★
Burning Love, Elvis Presley ★★

You’re A Heartbreaker, Elvis Presley
I Forgot To Remember To Forget, Elvis Presley
Money Honey, Elvis Presley
Take My Hand, Precious Lord, Elvis Presley
(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear, Elvis Presley
Loving You, Elvis Presley
(You’re So Square) Baby I Don’t Care, Elvis Presley
Here Comes Santa Claus (Right Down Santa Claus Lane), Elvis Presley
I Got A Woman, Elvis Presley
We’re Gonna Move, Elvis Presley
Paralyzed, Elvis Presley
King Of the Whole Wide World, Elvis Presley
Hound Dog, Elvis Presley
Love Me, Elvis Presley
Make Me Know It, Elvis Presley
I Feel So Bad, Elvis Presley
Long Black Limousine, Elvis Presley
Stranger In My Home Town, Elvis Presley
Viva Las Vegas, Elvis Presley
Memphis, Tennessee, Elvis Presley
High Heel Sneakers, Elvis Presley
After Loving You, Elvis Presley
His Hand In Mine, Elvis Presley
Treat Me Nice, Elvis Presley
Ain’t That Loving You Baby, Elvis Presley
(Now And Then There’s) A Fool Such As I, Elvis Presley
Blue Moon Of Kentucky (Alt), Elvis Presley
Loving You (Take 12), Elvis Presley
When It Rains, It Really Pours, Elvis Presley
Young And Beautiful, Elvis Presley
Santa Claus Is Back In Town, Elvis Presley
Trouble, Elvis Presley
Shake, Rattle & Roll/Flip, Flop & Fly (Live), Elvis Presley
Crying In The Chapel, Elvis Presley

Related Songs:

Mystery Train, Junior Parker ★★★
Mystery Train/Crossroads (Live), The Doors

That’s All Right, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup ★★★
That’s All Right (Live), The Beatles ★★

Blue Moon, The Marcels ★★★

Don’t Be Cruel, Cheap Trick

Little Sister (Alt), Dwight Yoakam ★★★

Blue Moon Of Kentucky, Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys ★★★
Blue Moon Of Kentucky (Alt), Bill Monroe & His Blue Grass Boys ★★★

(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley, Red Foley & Sunshine Boys Quartet ★★★
(There’ll Be) Peace In The Valley, Johnny Cash ★★

Good Rockin’ Tonight, Roy Brown ★★★
Good Rockin’ Tonight, Wynonie Harris ★★
Good Rockin’ Tonight (Live), Paul McCartney

Trying To Get To You, Chris Isaak ★★

My Baby Left Me, Arthur “Big Boy” Crudup ★★
My Baby Left Me, Creedence Clearwater Revival Band ★★

Suspicion, Terry Stafford ★★

Milk Cow Blues, Johnie Lee Wills & His Boys ★★★
Milk Cow Blues, Josh White Trio ★★
Milk Cow Blues (Live), The Kinks

Baby Let’s Play House, Arthur Gunter ★★★

Blue Suede Shoes, Carl Perkins ★★★★★
Blue Suede Shoes (Take 2), Carl Perkins ★★★★
Blue Suede Shoes (Take 1), Carl Perkins ★★★

Lawdy Miss Clawdy, Lloyd Price
Junker’s Blues, Champion Jack Dupree

Reconsider Baby, Lowell Fulson ★★

Guitar Man, Jerry Reed ★★

Big Boss Man, Jerry Reed ★★★
Big Boss Man (Live), Grateful Dead ★★

Joshua Fit The Battle Ob Jericho, Sidney Bechet ★★★
Joshua Fit The Battle Of Jericho, Golden Gate Quartet ★★

Money Honey, The Drifters ★★

Take My Hand, Precious Lord, Mahalia Jackson ★★

I Got A Woman, Ray Charles ★★★★
I Got A Woman, Jimmy Smith ★★
I Got A Woman (Live), The Beatles

Hound Dog, Big Mama Thornton ★★★

I Feel So Bad, Chuck Willis ★★★

Memphis, Tennessee, Lonnie Mack ★★★★★
Memphis, Tennessee, Chuck Berry ★★★★
Memphis, Tennessee, Johnny Rivers ★★★★
Memphis, Tennessee, The Beatles ★★

High Heel Sneakers, Tommy Tucker ★★
High Heel Sneakers, The Rolling Stones ★★

(Now And Then, There’s) A Fool Such As I, Hank Snow, The Singing Ranger

Shake, Rattle & Roll, Big Joe Turner ★★★★
Flip, Flop & Fly, Big Joe Turner ★★★
Flip, Flop & Fly (Live), The Blues Brothers

Crying In The Chapel, The Orioles ★★

Rip It Up, Little Richard ★★★

10. Ray Charles

Ray Charles Robinson, better known as Ray Charles, is a singer, songwriter and pianist from Greenville, a rural town in northern Florida. A great American success story, he experienced tragedy in early life, but also benefited from a loving family and community who cared for him and encouraged his musical ability. His story is well documented in the 2004 movie “Ray”. At the age of five, he lost his younger brother in a drowning accident, and also started to lose his sight, probably due to glaucoma. Despite a warm and loving environment at home, his mother thought it best to send her gifted son to the Florida School for the Deaf and the Blind in St. Augustine, where he attended for eight years and became the school’s premier musician. Ray was trained as a classical pianist, but he also liked jazz and blues music, and began to play piano and sing songs at school social events.

936full-ray-charles

Ray Charles (1930-2004), piano, vocals, saxophone, songwriter

Notable Collaborators

David “Fathead” Newman (1933-2009), saxophone
The Raelettes, backing vocal group
Lowell Fulson (1921-1999), guitar, vocals, songwriter

Ray’s mother Aretha died when was fifteen, and he dropped out of school and moved to Jacksonville, where he lived with family friends, and ingratiated himself with the local jazz and blues musicians. A year of seasoning in Jacksonville, followed by a year in Orlando and one more in Tampa, and Charles made the bold decision to move to Seattle, Washington. He quickly established himself on the west coast, and after about three years and a couple a regional hit songs (“Confession Blues”, “Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand”), received his big break when Ahmet and Nesuhi Ertegun signed him to New York City’s Atlantic Records in 1952. The Ertegun brothers gave Charles free reign in the company studios, and during this period Ray “found his voice” and became a key figure in the integration of blues, country, gospel and jazz music. “I Got A Woman” was the first big hit, and “What’d I Say” gave him widespread national exposure. Although his fifties rhythm and blues career with Atlantic may be the most fertile, Charles is best known for his big band interpretations of popular songs with ABC-Paramount Records, especially country and western standards. Throughout he is largely responsible for orchestral arrangements of both the small combo and big band performances; during his later career he collaborated with Sid Feller and other arrangers. Nicknamed “The Genius”, Ray Charles is a self-described “utility player” who produced a diverse and influential library of music.

To write this summary, I used Wikipedia liberally, because it is concise and well done. While reviewing Ray Charles music, I enjoyed reading the biography “Brother Ray” by Ray Charles and David Ritz.

Biography of Ray Charles on HistoryLink.org
http://raycharles.com – Official Website
Amazon.com Link to “Brother Ray” by Charles and Ritz

Everyone Is Not Going To Like You!

The British Broadcasting Corporation (“BBC”) produced a fine documentary on American soul music. Episode 1 of “Deep Soul” devotes considerable attention to Ray Charles’s music and influence. It is a fine documentary, though a bit dismissive of rock and roll as not distinct from its predecessor, rhythm and blues music. Thanks to my friend R.S. for finding this documentary. I would include a link for purchasing this documentary, but I cannot find it for sale anywhere.

Parts 5 and 6 of the documentary are here:

I particularly liked two of the interview clips with Ray Charles. The first occurs around 39:30, when Charles describes the difference between rock and roll and rhythm and blues. It is a short segment, but I noted his ability to get me laughing early in a story. I occasionally have experiences at the movies, where I’ll be the only one laughing in the theater five to ten seconds before the punch line. I love those moments, feeling I’m somehow gifted and different, able to see the tension build first. There’s that sense of urgency and playfulness as Charles winds up the listener with his thoughts. For the few people in his inner circle, I’m guessing Ray Charles could be very funny company, using his sense of drama and timing to tell a story.

Around 47:20, Charles defends the song “I Got A Woman”, which is a hybrid of gospel and blues music. Charles’ song was not universally well liked; in particular, many religious people considered it irreverent. He offers a simple defense of the song, saying that “you do what you do” and “I’m just being myself”, and then says his mother taught me well, and to remember that “everyone is not going to like you!”. He punctuates the point by leaning back in his chair, smiling with his head held high. I found this very moving, and watched it several times over. I waste so much time worrying about what others think, and here is this fearless blind musician, raised in poverty, telling me something I need to remember on a daily basis.

The Expert Opinion

A few nights ago, we were on our way for supplies when number one daughter asks if Grandma and Grandpa can take care of the eight year old twins tonight. It was a festive evening; we were listening to some of Ray Charles’s biggest hits on the way there. I announce it is time for the twins to hear Ray Charles on the way home, something I rarely impose on the family. I’m thinking this should be, at a minimum, funny.

I start out by quietly playing “What’d I Say” as we head back home. About 20 seconds into the song, twin T. makes the call:

“Grandpa John, I think I like this music.”
“Me too, T. This is one of Grandpa’s favorites.”

I turn up the music, and six minutes of bouncing and twisting follows, with Grandpa singing, and the smiling twins receiving an early lesson in call and response. It went so well we also tried and succeeded with “Hit The Road Jack”, another easy one to sing along with. It was great to see the universal appeal. In fifteen, maybe twenty years, I’ll explain what these songs mean, if anyone asks.

The Genius

There are stories of Ray Charles’s intellectual prowess, like his ability to type eighty words a minute while in grade school, or the sense other musicians had that Charles would see right through them, into their souls. He had simple goals — making love, making music, taking care of business, and getting high, when he wanted, on his terms. His music reflects that simplicity. With only a few exceptions, Ray Charles songs are about love and heartbreak. Some of these songs are quite simple; the beauty lies in the sounds: the use of syncopation and volume, different instruments, and especially his expressive singing voice.

Is Ray Charles a true genius? I like the way he thinks. A few simple things in life, music and sports and someone warm to snuggle up with, and during some periods of life a bit of partying. Doing things well takes hard work, plus the ability to be happy and productive when you’re all by yourself. My month long education in Ray Charles has been a revelation.

Slate Article about “Ray”

Ray Charles Song Notes:

1. All of these songs are available at the iTunes Music Store. The oldest Ray Charles songs, before signing with Atlantic Records, can be found as follows:

“Confession Blues” by Ray Charles & The Maxin Trio can be found on The Best Of The Blues, Vol. 1.
“Kissa Me Baby” can be found on several compilations, including Greatest R&B Hits of 1952, Vol. 7.
“Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand” can be found on several compilations, including Greatest R&B Hits of 1951, Vol. 4.

2. Atlantic recordings can be found on Pure Genius: The Complete Atlantic Recordings (1952-1959).

3. The ABC Paramount recordings from the sixties are presented less coherently, and some may not be available on iTunes. Try the album called Genius Of Soul for most of the big hits.

4. As usual, I focused my attention on the artist’s early career. There are few if any songs recorded after 1970.

5. I recommend the following individual CDs and albums:

Modern Sounds In Country & Western Music
Ray Charles In Person
The Genius Sings The Blues

6. I am particularly pleased with the related song list, which is quite elegant, and shows the breadth of Ray Charles’s influence and central position in 20th century popular music.

Ray Charles Songs:

What’d I Say, Ray Charles ★★★★★

I Got A Woman, Ray Charles ★★★★
Hit The Road Jack, Ray Charles ★★★★
I’m Movin’ On, Ray Charles ★★★★
Baby, It’s Cold Outside, Ray Charles ★★★★
The Right Time, Ray Charles ★★★★
What Kind Of Man Are You, Ray Charles ★★★★
Lonely Avenue, Ray Charles ★★★★

I Believe To My Soul, Ray Charles ★★★
Hard Times, Ray Charles ★★★
Early In The Morning (Alt), Ray Charles ★★★
Georgia On My Mind, Ray Charles ★★★
I Don’t Need No Doctor, Ray Charles ★★★
Careless Love, Ray Charles ★★★
Busted, Ray Charles ★★★
I Can’t Stop Loving You, Ray Charles ★★★

Losing Hand, Ray Charles ★★
Mess Around, Ray Charles ★★
Mary Ann, Ray Charles ★★
Drown In My Own Tears (Live), Ray Charles ★★
Hallelujah I Love Her So, Ray Charles ★★
Leave My Woman Alone, Ray Charles ★★
Rockhouse Parts 1 & 2, Ray Charles ★★
Talkin’ About You, Ray Charles ★★
I Want a Little Girl, Ray Charles ★★
You Be My Baby, Ray Charles ★★
Early In The Morning, Ray Charles ★★
Joy Ride, Ray Charles ★★
Unchain My Heart, Ray Charles ★★
Born To Lose, Ray Charles ★★
Crying Time, Ray Charles ★★
Let’s Go Get Stoned, Ray Charles ★★
That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day), Ray Charles ★★
You Are My Sunshine, Ray Charles ★★
Makin’ Whoopee (Parts 1 & 2) (Live), Ray Charles ★★
Let The Good Times Roll, Ray Charles ★★
Night Time Is The Right Time (Live), Ray Charles ★★
Drown In My Own Tears (Live), Ray Charles ★★
Tell The Truth (Live), Ray Charles ★★
Tin Tin Deo, Ray Charles & David Newman ★★
Hard Times, Ray Charles & David Newman ★★
Willow Weep For Me, Ray Charles & David Newman ★★
Hallelujah I Love Her So, Ray Charles & Milt Jackson ★★
Talkin’ About You (Live), Ray Charles ★★
Drown In My Own Tears, Ray Charles ★★

Confession Blues, Ray Charles
Kissa Me Baby, Ray Charles
Baby, Let Me Hold Your Hand, Ray Charles
Roll With My Baby, Ray Charles
Heartbreaker, Ray Charles
Don’t You Know, Ray Charles
Nobody Cares, Ray Charles
Ray’s Blues, Ray Charles
A Fool For You, Ray Charles
This Little Girl Of Mine, Ray Charles
What Would I Do Without You, Ray Charles
Ain’t That Love, Ray Charles
Swanee River Rock, Ray Charles
Someday Baby, Ray Charles
X-Ray Blues, Ray Charles & Milt Jackson
One Mint Julep, Ray Charles
You Don’t Know Me, Ray Charles
Your Cheatin’ Heart, Ray Charles
Baby Don’t You Cry, Ray Charles
Take These Chains From My Heart, Ray Charles
Them That Got, Ray Charles
Don’t Set Me Free, Ray Charles
At The Club, Ray Charles
America The Beautiful, Ray Charles
The Danger Zone, Ray Charles
Blackjack, Ray Charles
I Had A Dream, Ray Charles
Fathead, Ray Charles & David Newman
The Genius After Hours, Ray Charles & Milt Jackson
Bag’s Guitar Blues, Ray Charles & Milt Jackson

Related Songs:

What’d I Say, Lyle Lovett ★★★
What’d I Say, John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers ★★

I Got A Woman, Jimmy Smith ★★
I Got A Woman (Live), The Beatles
I Got A Woman, Booker T. & The M.G.’s

I’m Movin’ On. Hank Snow & His Rainbow Ranch Boys ★★★
I’m Movin’ On No. 2, Homer & Jethro ★★★

Baby, It’s Cold Outside, Homer & Jethro ★★★
Baby, It’s Cold Outside, Johnny Mercer, Margaret Whiting & Paul Weston & His Orchestra ★★★

The Night Time Is The Right Time, Creedence Clearwater Revival Band

Lonely Avenue, Van Morrison ★★

Hard Times, Tom Jones & Jeff Beck ★★
Hard Times (Live), The Crusaders ★★

Georgia On My Mind, Hoagy Carmichael ★★★★
Georgia On My Mind, Willie Nelson

I Don’t Need No Doctor, Humble Pie

Careless Love Blues, Josh White Trio
Careless Love, Ottille Patterson & Chris Barber’s Jazz band ★★

Busted (Live), Johnny Cash

I Can’t Stop Loving You, Don Gibson ★★★
I Can’t Stop Loving You (Live), Van Morrison ★★

Drown In My Own Tears, Lulu ★★★

I Want A Little Girl, Big Joe Turner ★★★
I Want A Little Girl, Clark Terry & Oscar Peterson Trio ★★
I Want A Little Girl (Take 2), Kansas City Six ★★

That Lucky Old Sun (Just Rolls Around Heaven All Day), Johnny Cash ★★

Let’s Go Get Stoned, Joe Cocker ★★

You Are My Sunshine, Jimmie Davis ★★
You Are My Sunshine, Albert Ammons ★★★

Makin’ Whoopee, Eddie Cantor ★★★
Makin’ Whoopee, Gerry Mulligan Quartet ★★★
Makin’ Whoopee, Nat King Cole Trio ★★

Let The Good Times Roll, Louis Jordan & His Tympani Five ★★★

Tell The Truth, The “5” Royales ★★

Tin Tin Deo, Dizzy Gillespie ★★★

Willow Weep For Me, Art Tatum ★★
Willow Weep For Me, Stanley Turrentine ★★
Willow Weep For Me (Live), Sarah Vaughan

This Little Girl Of Mine, The Everly Brothers ★★

Trouble No More, Muddy Waters ★★★★
Trouble No More, The Allman Brothers Band ★★★
Trouble No More (Live), The Allman Brothers Band ★★★

Someday Baby, Bob Dylan ★★★★

Your Cheatin’ Heart, Hank Williams ★★★

22. Alison Krauss & Union Station

Alison Krauss is a singer and fiddle player from Champaign, Illinois. She was a precocious child, taking classical violin lessons at age five, but soon directing her interests to bluegrass music. Humorously noted by Wikipedia, “At the age of eight she started entering local talent contests, and at ten had her own band.” Early in life, she was better known as a champion fiddle player, while it took years to fully develop her sweet soprano voice. After appearing as a sideman on two albums, she recorded her first solo album, Too Late To Cry, at age sixteen. Her breakthrough album was her third, I’ve Got That Old Feeling in 1990, which earned her first Grammy award for Best Bluegrass Recording at the age of nineteen.

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Alison Krauss and Union Station:

Alison Krauss (b. 1971), vocals, violin, viola
Barry Bales (b. 1969), bass, vocals
Ron Block (b. 1964), guitar, banjo, vocals, songwriter
Dan Tyminski (b. 1967), vocals, guitar, mandolin
Jerry Douglas (b. 1956), dobro, guitar

Other Important Contributors:

Adam Steffey, mandolin
Alison Brown (b. 1962), banjo, guitar
Robert Lee Castleman, songwriter
John Pennell, songwriter

Though it received critical acclaim, I’ve Got That Old Feeling peaked at #61 on the Billboard Country Music album chart. It took a few more years for Alison Krauss and her band Union Station to achieve commercial success. After a pair of albums, the bluegrass Every Time You Say Goodbye and the gospel I Know Who Holds Tomorrow (with the Cox Family), Rounder Records released the compilation Now That I’ve Found You: A Collection in 1995, which reached #2 on the Billboard Country Album chart. In 1998, veteran dobro player Jerry Douglas joined Union Station, the final change to the band’s roster. Union Station responded with another creative peak, the studio album New Favorite in 2001, with a followup Live album and DVD in 2002. Ms. Krauss and Union Station continue to compose new music and tour, though less frequently than in the past. They are in demand as collaborators, and in the last few years, Krauss has performed many duets, most notably with Led Zeppelin vocalist Robert Plant.

Though never a country music superstar, Alison Krauss enjoys great respect and admiration from her peers. She has won twenty-seven Grammy awards, tied with Quincy Jones for the second most Grammy awards of all time, behind classical musician George Solti. She helped popularize bluegrass music for a new generation, and is the rare bluegrass and gospel artist to transition successfully into both country and pop music.

Wikipedia List of Awards and Nominations Received by Alison Krauss
FuckYeahAlisonKrauss Fan Blog

Three Wonderful Concert Experiences

I’ve seen Alison Krauss & Union Station in concert about ten times. Among those concerts are three great experiences.

1990: A Small Church In Downtown Los Gatos

I was lucky to learn about Alison Krauss early in her career. I’m not sure how I discovered her; rather than a national publication like Rolling Stone magazine, I must have read a review in the San Francisco Chronicle. I purchased a copy of I’ve Got That Old Feeling in 1990, which prompted me to see her in concert if given the chance. For me, it was an uncommon case of love at first listen.

Still sketchy on details, but I learned that she was playing at a church in Los Gatos on a weekday evening in 1990, just a year or so after I began dating my future wife. I called the box office the day of the concert, and discovered the church seated only four hundred people, so we arrived a couple hours early to buy tickets and have dinner in the beautiful old town, at the foot of the coastal range where state highway 17 rises abruptly up to Summit Road and gently down to Santa Cruz.

The church was so spartan, with wooden benches twenty or twenty-five rows deep. It was packed; we were near the back, but close to the stage. There was a buzz as we approached and entered the church; many patrons knew she was special, and that we were lucky to see her in this intimate setting. The band did not disappoint, with their uptempo instrumentals, heartbreaking waltzes and modern bluegrass numbers, all to thunderous applause. It was very exciting.

The highlight of the evening came during the encore, when Alison politely asked, “If everybody promises to be quiet, then we’ll step out in front of the microphones and sing a song.” The enraptured crowd was silent as Alison sang Paul McCartney’s “I Will”, with Union Station standing behind her providing harmony, without amplification. Before or since, I have never seen anybody else do this in concert. In future years, she would often begin an encore with the group singing bluegrass style in front of a single microphone, but never again would we see her in such an intimate environment.

After the concert, Union Station set up a table out front with merchandise and did a meet and greet with the crowd. We said hello and bought a couple of the earlier CDs. I noticed they were a very tall band, big people. Krauss is about 5’8″, and both Barry Bales and Adam Steffey were over 6’3″.

Oaks Park, Sellwood, July, 1996

Three albums later and we still love Alison Krauss, seeing her at almost every opportunity. We are married and have moved to Portland, Oregon. Krauss had released the Now That I’ve Found You compilation and was getting famous. Still, we were seeing her at Oaks Park, an old amusement and recreation park, right on the Willamette River, in a part of town called Sellwood. There was an opening act, so when Union Station took the stage, it was getting dark, but it was the middle of summer and very pleasant outside. They played under an old open canopy onto a big lawn that went way back, with the concessions on the side. Perhaps there were a thousand to fifteen hundred people there. I had a couple glasses of wine before the concert and settled in briefly. After a couple songs, I went to the back of the property, had a quick smoke and then returned to our blanket under the stars all aglow. Alison started sounding real good. I can’t remember which song she was playing, but when the band followed with “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You”, I completely lost it and the tears started streaming down my face. The canopy lights were on by now, and I was about 10 rows back, and during the song she saw my tear stained face, and I saw her face hesitate for just the briefest time. Eye contact and recognition for a half second. It was a unique moment in my life.

Down From The Mountain At The Schnitz, February 2002

Most people know the movie “O, Brother, Where Art Thou”, Joel and Ethan Coen’s interpretation of Homer’s Odyssey. The movie featured traditional music by Alison Krauss and other famous folk and bluegrass musicians, selected by producer T-Bone Burnett. The movie and its music were a rousing success, so the musicians organized and toured the country with a variety show of down home string music. At the time we had recently seen Alison Krauss at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall, touring in support of New Favorite. Now she was returning as part of a variety country music show, something we had never experienced.

It deserved to be one of those special evenings of celebration. At the time I would look for special occasions for our parents to enjoy with us. I contacted our ticket broker, and he found us four tickets around the fourth or fifth row, right in the middle of the concert hall. Tickets were a couple hundred dollars apiece; well worth it given the circumstances. My Mom died in 1999, and her Dad in 2000. Concert night was February 13th, 2002, just a year and a day before my Dad died. There was a sense of urgency.

We asked my Dad and her Mom whether they’d like to go, and Dad flew up from California, and we all got dressed up, and had dinner downtown, and sat down close. In particular, my mother-in-law was thrilled, as this constituted her last date night in life. My father was kind, and represented an opportunity to be herself, to be on a proper date, walking arm and arm with somebody safe. Faces were aglow, and everybody was ready.

We didn’t know exactly what to expect, but soon we started to see how the music was presented. Artists would come on stage and play two or three songs, followed by the next artist, and so on. Early in the show, I look over and see Dad tearing up when Norman and Nancy Blake offered a unadorned rendition of “You Are My Sunshine”, one of the simplest songs offered during the two hour jubilee.

It was clear Alison Krauss was feeling ill. She dropped out of some later performances in the show, though early on she and Union Station rocked the house with their syncopated rhythms. I can see Daddy looking at me with raised eyebrows, after Jerry Douglas produced a wild flourish of notes over Union Station’s precise, crazy rhythms. Krauss returned to sing “Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby” a capella, with Gillian Welch and Emmylou Harris. Later, the Nashville Bluegrass Band weaved their string magic on the night. Patty Loveless was there. Ralph Stanley was there, too. Another great evening in life, with Alison Krauss at the center of this brief folk music renaissance.

Alison Krauss Song Notes:

1. The videos are not well organized, and that’s OK. Since she is a relatively modern artist in the context of this blog, Alison Krauss has perhaps the best and most videos of any artist to choose from. I included a disproportionate number of videos from her earliest days, as I tend to like the earlier, strictly bluegrass music better. I enjoy all the videos presented.

2. In the last three weeks, I challenged my wife Cheryl a few times to name a better female performer/bandleader than Alison Krauss. I received no answer, and could not come up with one myself, though we discussed Aretha Franklin as the consensus favorite. The two share the ability to both sing and play very well, with Alison Krauss on fiddle, and Aretha Franklin an underrated piano player. Their instrumental prowess lifts them to the top. Franklin, and singers like Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald are perhaps more influential, but the song list and countdown says Alison Krauss is my favorite female musician. She’s so talented, and so dreamy.

3. “Rich Woman (Live)” by Robert Plant & Alison Krauss is found on Rounder Records 40th Anniversary Collection. A better version of this song.

4. The Live album is excellent, with one reservation. There is too much time allocated for the audience cheering wildly. We get it. We already thought she was the best.

5. “Foolish Heart” is special, as it is the rare song that wasn’t even in the collection when I started the review. After adding it as a one star song, I decided about the third or fourth time through that it is a four or even five star song, which up until this time, hasn’t happened while doing the countdown of artists. Alison Brown plays banjo here, and having the two young female stars together makes it even more notable. “Foolish Heart” is an underrated and largely unrecognized gem.

6. Several times I felt foolish rating Alison Krauss songs, just embarrassed by what I was doing. Maybe it’s that she’s a girl, and such a humble, unassuming person that makes feel like a dope evaluating her life’s work.

7. Alison Krauss has remained faithful to Rounder Records her entire career, which may have made a significant difference in her career arc. Perhaps remaining with the minor label freed her to follow her artistic instincts, rather than attempting to capitalize on talent with grand popularity.

8. Cheryl’s Mom passed away on February 5th this year. We were fortunate to have her for ten extra years after the other parents were gone. But we never enjoyed an evening of entertainment again as much as Down From The Mountain.

Top Ten Alison Krauss Songs, by Jenny Tolley
Essential Alison Krauss Songs, by Kim Ruehl
“The World According to Alison Krauss, by Piers Henru, April 23rd, 2011

Alison Krauss Songs:

Down To The River To Pray (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★★
Endless Highway, Alison Krauss ★★★★
Let Me Touch You For Awhile, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★★
Foolish Heart, Alison Krauss ★★★★

In The Palm Of Your Hand, Alison Krauss & The Cox Family ★★★
The Lucky One, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★
Baby, Now That I’ve Found You, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★
Every Time You Say Goodbye, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★
I’ve Got That Old Feeling, Alison Krauss ★★★
Steel Rails, Alison Krauss ★★★
I’ll Fly Away (Live), Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch ★★★
The Lucky One (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★
Every Time You Say Goodbye (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★
Who Can Blame You, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★★

New Favorite (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
New Favorite, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Jacob’s Dream, Alison Krauss ★★
Dark Skies, Alison Krauss ★★
It’s Over, Alison Krauss ★★
Ghost In This House, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Let Me Touch You For Awhile (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Lose Again, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Cluck Old Hen (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
When You Say Nothing At All (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Oh, Atlanta (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
There Is A Reason (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Choctaw Hayride, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Crazy Faith, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Daylight, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Oh, Atlanta, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
I Will, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
When You Say Nothing At All, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★
Paper Airplane, Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★

Tonight I’ll Be Lonely Too, Alison Krauss
Too Late To Cry, Alison Krauss
Gentle River, Alison Krauss
Sleep On, Alison Krauss
Never Will Give Up, Alison Krauss & The Cox Family
Another Night, Alison Krauss & Union Station
Last Love Letter, Alison Krauss & Union Station
It Won’t Work This Time, Alison Krauss & Union Station
Choctaw Hayride (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station
Ghost In This House (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station
Faraway Land (Live), Alison Krauss & Union Station
Take Me For Longing, Alison Krauss & Union Station
Looking In The Eyes Of Love, Alison Krauss & Union Station
Beaumont Rag, Alison Krauss & Union Station
As Lovely As You, Alison Krauss & Union Station

Related Songs:

Gone, Gone, Gone (Done Moved On), Robert Plant & Alison Krauss ★★
Rich Woman (Live), Robert Plant & Alison Krauss ★★
Please Read The Letter, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss
Polly Come Home, Robert Plant & Alison Krauss

Make The World Go Away (featuring Alison Krauss), Jamey Johnson ★★

Didn’t Leave Nobody But The Baby, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss & Gillian Welch

You’re Still The One (Live), Shania Twain w/ Alison Krauss & Union Station ★★

I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow, The Soggy Bottom Boys ★★★
I Am A Man Of Constant Sorrow, Bob Dylan

Baby Now That I’ve Found You, The Foundations ★★★

I Will, The Beatles ★★★★
I Will (Alt), The Beatles ★★

Beaumont Rag, Doc Watson

Oh, Atlanta, Bad Company (not included in collection)

34. Arthel “Doc” Watson

Arthel “Doc” Watson was a singer and guitarist from Deep Gap, a remote valley in northwestern North Carolina. Though an accomplished singer and guitar player as a young adult, it took Watson many years to achieve national recognition.

“Doc” Watson with his son Merle

Arthel “Doc” Watson (1923-2012), guitar, singer

Doc’s Guitar – The Guitar of Doc Watson Website
New York Times — Doc Watson, Guitar Wizard Who Influenced Generations, Dies at 89

Notable Collaborators:

Merle Watson (1949-1985), guitar, singer
Clarence “Tom” Ashley (1895-1967), clawhammer banjo, guitar, singer

Gaining Recognition

Two key developments worth noting in Watson’s career. Around 1953, while working for a country and western swing band in Johnson City, Tennessee, Watson taught himself to play fiddle tunes on his electric guitar, a skill he later translated to acoustic guitar. Also, around this time, Watson was inspired by Merle Travis to learn how to play two separate parts on the guitar simultaneously.

In the early sixties, a renewed interest in American folk music emerged, and Watson developed a devoted following as an authentic artist. He focused his talents on two instruments, acoustic guitar and banjo. He recorded an album with Clarence Ashley, whose songs “The Coo Coo Bird” and “The House Carpenter” (recorded in 1929 and 1930) are featured in Smithsonian/Folkways influential folk music compilation, Anthology of American Folk Music, edited by Harry Smith (1923-1991). Watson began touring outside his home region, and after a breakthrough performance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, he recorded his first album as a solo artist in 1964.

Amazon.com Link to Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music

The Coo Coo Bird

Doc Watson, who died earlier this year, was one of the last conduits to a past, before recorded music, when songs were passed down orally, from one generation to the next. The recommended list includes many Appalachian songs with their roots in Great Britain. Though recorded music was available, he surely learned songs like “The Coo Coo Bird” from friends and family. I first heard “Coo Coo” twenty years ago, and it remains a favorite.

In the expanded liner notes for the Anthology of American Folk Music, author Griel Marcus discusses the difference between a song and a ballad, followed by a discussion of the cryptic “Coo Coo”:

“Like many of the numbers on the third volume of the Anthology, “The Coo Coo Bird” was a “folk-lyric” song. That meant it was made up of verbal fragments that had no direct or logical relationships to each other, but were drawn from a floating pool of thousands of disconnected verses, couplets, one-liners, pieces of eight. Harry Smith guessed the folk-lyric form came together some time between 1850 and 1875. Whenever it happened, it wasn’t until enough fragments were abroad in the land to reach a kind of critical mass — until there were enough fragments, passing back and forth between Blacks and Whites as common coin, to generate more fragments, to sustain within the matrix of a single musical language an almost infinite repertory of performances, to sustain the sense that out of the anonymity of the tradition a singer is singing his or her own life, as an event, taking place as you listen, its outcome uncertain — separates the song, from which the singer emerges, from the ballad, into which the singer disappears.

In this mood, in this weather, the most apparently commonplace fragment in Ashley’s “Coo Coo Bird” — the verse seemingly most unburdened by any shred of meaning — cannot be meaningless.”

Gonna build me,
A log cabin,
On a mountain,
So high,
So I can,
See Willie,
When he goes,
On by.

“It sounds like a children’s ditty only until you begin to realize the verse is made to refuse any of the questions it makes you ask. Who is Willie? Why does the singer want to watch him? Why must he put aside life and embark on a grand endeavor just to accomplish this ordinary act? The verse can only communicate a secret everybody already knows, or as an allusion to a body of knowledge the singer knows can never be recovered, and Ashley only makes things worse by singing as if whatever he’s singing about is the most obvious thing in the world. The performance doesn’t seem like a jumble of fragments. Rather there is a theme: displacement, restlessness, homelessness, the comic worry of “a people”, as Constance Rourke wrote of Americans as they were before the Civil War began, “unacquainted with themselves, strange to the land, unshaped as a nation.” ‘We Americans are all cuckoos,’ Oliver Wendell Holmes said in 1872. ‘We make our homes in the nests of other birds.’ This is the starting point.”

Greil Marcus

Amazon.com Link to Greil Marcus’ Work

I am impressed by Marcus’ ability to derive so much from the simple lyric, something I lack the creativity to do. I listen to the first verse of “Coo Coo” and hear jealousy, an insatiable desire to follow, to stalk, and to imagine the worst possible outcome.

Another favorite from the Anthology of American Folk Music is Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spike Driver Blues”. Doc Watson covered this song on his album Doc Watson On Stage. Mississippi John Hurt was a beneficiary of the folk music revival. After decades of living in anonymity, Hurt became a popular figure in folk music during his final years.

My Friend Jeff Ward

I learned about Doc Watson from my good friend Jeff Ward. I moved to Oregon twenty years ago, and joined a local golf club. At the time, Jeff worked in the men’s locker room, tending bar and waiting tables. Over the years he was promoted to clubhouse manager, before leaving the club to take a job in a private housing organization. We’ve been good friends since, through our mutual love of music.

In his spare time, Jeff is a fine singer and guitar player, and Jeff’s favorite musician is Doc Watson. Jeff began playing guitar during his third year in college, during a time when he was pestering an old girl friend to go out with him again. She refused him, but gave Jeff an old guitar she owned, something resembling a consolation prize, as a potential hobby to pursue. It didn’t take long for Jeff to lose interest in the girl, but he never put the guitar down. After finishing college, Jeff’s post-graduate roommate owned a few Doc Watson records (including Southbound and The Essential Doc Watson), which Jeff discovered and subsequently devoured.

Jeff now knows dozens of Doc Watson songs, employing both the finger picking and flat picking styles as required. Even Jeff’s plaintive singing style is reminiscent of the great North Carolinian. Over the years, Jeff has expanded his repertoire with many other songs, playing solo and with his folk trio for parties and special occasions.

I learned about Doc Watson in much the same way. Jeff and I began to talk about music, and I took an interest in his favorite musician. I purchased several Doc Watson albums which covered the mid-sixties and early seventies, his most famous work. These songs became an integral part of my collection.

Asking Politely

Before meeting Jeff, I had heard of Doc Watson, but never heard his music, except for this one time.

My senior year in college was a disaster. I was set to graduate, but I screwed up my final basketball season, and was using drugs heavily. I had a lovely girlfriend throughout my five years in college, but entering the last few weeks of school, was questioning the wisdom of not spending time with other women. Although still deeply attached to my sweetheart, I had a few attempted encounters during my final month in school, some which I regret, others that left me wondering and longing. But this experience was just fun and harmless.

I was on my own that evening, and was neither too drunk nor high to keep me at home. I went out looking for action, and found a party of twenty to thirty people in an apartment on the north side of Davis. I walked in and made myself comfortable and made conversation and nobody seemed to mind. Things were going great. People were dancing in the living room, and I distinctly remember dancing with a nice young lady to the “Tennessee Stud”, one of Doc’s most famous and endearing songs. Shortly afterwards, I asked her if she would like to join me in my car for a sniff of cocaine, and she agreed. We enjoyed a small line of late seventies vintage, lactose laden, low grade coke, and while in the car, without ever touching her, asked politely if she would like to fool around with me, you know, make love. She politely responded that she was a virgin, saving herself for a special moment, and though I was sweet, she thought it best to wait. I said thanks anyway, that’s just fine. We returned to the party and enjoyed ourselves for a little while longer, and then I went home. I can’t remember her name.

Fact Checking

During my first couple years in Portland, I attended business school. A fellow student was involved in setting up a radio station for the university. I decided I’d like to try being a disk jockey, so I took a class and got certified and spent about three years playing records on Sunday afternoons for an hour or two each weekend. It was an AM station with a weak signal, and very few people tuned in, but it was a fun experience, something I might try again, if I can get a gig with an FM station.

In late summer 1996, my father made one of his periodic trips to Oregon, to visit and play golf for a few days. He knew Jeff from previous visits; we were all friendly by then. One afternoon we had finished golfing, and were sitting around with Jeff in the men’s grill when my father says, “Oh, did you hear the news? Doc Watson died.”

A prolonged silence followed. “Really? Oh no.” Jeff is in shock, and not saying much at all. This is his man, his hero. I quickly concoct the idea that Jeff should come down to the radio station with me next Sunday, and we should have a Doc Watson Memorial program to celebrate his music.

Jeff and I talk on the phone several times that week, and gather up all our records and CDs. I purchased the 4-CD compilation The Vanguard Years, ensuring we have the most beautiful songs for the show. The following Sunday afternoon, I pick Jeff up at home and we drive into town. Thirty minutes before showtime, he and I are listening to a newfound live version of “Southbound”, and Jeff is openly weeping tears of sadness for this great loss. He composes himself, we walk into the studio, and the show goes off beautifully, without a hitch.

Unfortunately, I didn’t verify that Watson had actually died. My father was notoriously smart, a fount of knowledge, so much so that nobody ever questioned his facts. When we were kids, one friend referred to him as Phineas J. Whoopee, for those familiar with the Tennessee Tuxedo cartoon. However, as he got older, we noticed that he started to lose his ability to remember proper names. He would begin talking about some subject or another, and then ask, “What’s the name of the guy who…yeah, yeah, that’s it.”

A few days afterwards, I checked online, and quickly determined it was another bluegrass great, Bill Monroe, who had died. An honest mistake and much ado about nothing; instead we have this story forever.

An Admirable Man

Doc Watson lived his whole life in Deep Gap, North Carolina. He married Rosa Lee Watson in 1947 and remained married until his death sixty five years later. His whole family played music, and he often performed with them. In particular, Doc’s son Merle was an excellent guitar player, and his traveling companion for many years. Merle died tragically in a tractor accident on the family farm in 1985. Some say Doc was never the same after Merle died.

Both Jeff and I moved out to the country about fifteen years ago. I live among the trees, Jeff lives in a narrow valley where he and his wife tends a large menagerie of domesticated animals, where “the sun comes up about nine every morning, and goes down about three every day.*” He named his mule Tucker after “Tucker’s Barn”, a Doc Watson song.

My parents instilled in their children a love of nature. I live on top of a gentle rise, a southern facing slope, above the trees, in a hybrid neighborhood of longtime residents, a few high tech workers, and those who grow things for a living. The sun and moon cross the sky in full view each day. The deer visit most days, and stay close during fall hunting season. Coyotes and other predators keep the little critters from overrunning the yard. There’s not a lot of interaction with neighbors; we leave each other alone for the most part, and some roads it’s best not to travel down. But I’m a poseur, who never worked the land to live, rather moving to the country for the peaceful existence.

Doc Watson is beloved for his authenticity, as a man and a musician. He led an exemplary life, and his music of simple songs executed with great dexterity. He was among the best practitioners of finger style and flat picking guitar, with a warm, inviting singing voice, that inspired a generation of modern bluegrass, folk and country musicians.

Doc Watson Song Notes:

1. “Tennessee Stud (Live)” and “Shady Grove (Live)” are found on the album Legacy, by Doc Watson and David Holt.

2. The best versions of the other songs should be easy to find. If you have questions, please do not hesitate to contact me.

Doc Watson Songs:

Spike Driver Blues (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭✭✭
Brown’s Ferry Blues (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭✭✭

The Cuckoo, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Southbound, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Southbound (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Roll On Buddy (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Talk About Suffering, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
St. James Hospital, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Alberta, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Banks Of The Ohio (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Sittin’ On Top Of The World, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Tom Dooley, Doc Watson ✭✭✭
Lonesome Moonlight Waltz (Live), Bill Monroe & Doc Watson ✭✭✭

Tennessee Stud, Doc Watson ✭✭
Country Blues, Doc Watson ✭✭
Deep River Blues, Doc Watson ✭✭
Windy And Warm, Doc Watson ✭✭
Black Mountain Rag, Doc Watson ✭✭
Black Mountain Rag (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭
Down In The Valley To Pray, Doc Watson ✭✭
Blue Railroad Train, Doc Watson ✭✭
I Was A Stranger (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭
Shady Grove, Doc Watson ✭✭
Walk On Boy, Doc Watson ✭✭
Omie Wise, Doc Watson ✭✭
Doc’s Guitar, Doc Watson ✭✭
Alabama Bound, Doc Watson ✭✭
Nashville Pickin’, Doc Watson ✭✭
Shady Grove (Live), Doc Watson & David Holt ✭✭
Train That Carried My Girl From Town (Live), Doc Watson ✭✭

Nothing To It, Doc Watson
Intoxicated Rat, Doc Watson
Rambling Hobo, Doc Watson
Blackberry Blossom (Live), Doc Watson
Rising Sun Blues (Live), Doc Watson
Beaumont Rag, Doc Watson
Beaumont Rag (Live), Doc Watson
Tennessee Stud (Live), Doc Watson & David Holt
Bonaparte’s Retreat, Doc Watson
Dill Pickle Rag, Doc Watson
East Tennessee Blues, Bill Monroe & Doc Watson
Way Downtown, Doc Watson

Related Songs:

Spike Driver Blues, Mississippi John Hurt ✭✭✭✭

Brown’s Ferry Blues, The Delmore Brothers ✭✭

The Coo Coo Bird, Clarence “Tom” Ashley ✭✭

Black Mountain Rag (Live), The Byrds

Country Blues, Dock Boggs ✭✭

Tennessee Stud, Johnny Cash ✭✭

Roll On Buddy, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott ✭✭
Nine Pound Hammer, The Kentucky Colonels ✭✭✭✭
Nine Pound Hammer, The Monroe Brothers
Take This Hammer, Big Bill Broonzy

Talk About Suffering, Ricky Skaggs & Tony Rice ✭✭

St. James Hospital, Tony Rice ✭✭✭
St. James Infirmary, Jack Teagarden ✭✭✭✭
St. James Infirmary, Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭✭
St. James Infirmary, Van Morrison ✭✭
St. James Infirmary (Alt), Louis Armstrong ✭✭✭✭

Shady Grove, David Grisman & Jerry Garcia ✭✭✭✭
Pretty Little Miss, Patty Loveless ✭✭✭

Blackberry Blossom, Mark O’Connor ✭✭

House Of The Rising Sun, The Animals ✭✭✭✭
House Of The Rising Sun, Josh White ✭✭
House Of The Rising Sun, Bob Dylan
House Of The Rising Sun, Joan Baez ✭✭

White House Blues, Charlie Poole & The North Carolina Ramblers ✭✭
White House Blues, Merle Travis & Joe Maphis ✭✭

Not Fade Away/Goin’ Down The Road Feelin’ Bad (Live), Grateful Dead ✭✭✭✭

Ground Hog, Frank Proffitt

Tom Dooley, Frank Proffitt
Tom Dooley, The Kingston Trio ✭✭

* Lyric from a modern country standard, Darrell Scott’s “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive”