Saturday, June 7, 2008

The Imperfect Country and Western Song

You know the story.

Steve Goodman writes a song and sends it to David Allen Coe, saying it's the perfect Country and Western song. David writes back that it is not the perfect Country and Western song, because it lacked a list of stereotypical elements of country songs, like Mom and Trains and Prison. So Goodman wrote a new verse, unconnected to the rest of the song but chock full of Mom and Trains and Pickups and Drinkin'.

With all due respect to Mr. Coe, it was that because it was a perfect song, but not a C&W song, not because it was a C&W song that was somehow imperfect. It's structurally well-written ("All the lines are sung in time and every verse ends in a rhyme", as NoFX wrote but didn't actually sing), containing a small narrative, funny and engaging. Perfect songs don't have to be great songs; you can listen to album upon album of John Hiatt songs, for example, and while they'll all be perfectly crafted, they won't all be great like "You Never Even Called Me By My Name" is great. (Some might be. "Memphis In The Meantime" is. Just being fair.)

I have started this to talk about Gram Parsons.

"Huh?", you ask. "You've mentioned three other songwriters just to get to Gram?"

That's the way I think. No apologies.

I think I'll mention more. My line on Patti Smith is that she somehow made great albums without actually making good albums. Gram Parsons, in my opinion, somehow made great songs without making good songs. Which is to say he wrote a lot of great songs, songs that draw you in and hold your ear, but they were generally imperfect.

Gram Parsons recorded only six albums in his life. There are some live recordings released after his death, but we'll concentrate on the ones from his life. They are:
International Submarine Band, Safe At Home
The Byrds, Sweetheart of the Rodeo
The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gilded Palace of Sin
The Flying Burrito Brothers, Burrito Deluxe
Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels, GP
Gram Parsons and the Fallen Angels, Grievous Angel
I will use Gram Parsons Homepage as a lyrics source.

"Hickory Wind" was first released on Sweetheart of the Rodeo, the Byrds' trip through the Country. Gram's vocals are not on the record due to legal and personal issues, relating to him leaving the band. He recorded it again, with Emmylou Harris, in a live in the studio but faked live in a bar track on Grievous Angel.
In South Carolina there are many tall pines
I remember the oak tree that we used to climb
But now when I'm lonesome, I always pretend
That I'm getting the feel of hickory wind
This is a great verse to hear. But pine is not oak and not hickory. It works, because he establishes a strong wood-nostalgia connection here. "Oak Wind" or "Pine Wind" just would not work as well.
I started out younger at most everything
All the riches and pleasures, what else could life bring?
But it makes me feel better each time it begins
Callin' me home, hickory wind
"I started out younger at most everything"?


Thing is, it doesn't have the hallmarks of a "I just don't care anymore" lyric. It almost fits. But it doesn't. The whole verse is great, it's Ecclesiastes. I have the world at my feet and at the end it does not satisfy. But every time I hear that word, I'm tossed out of the experience.

It's not a perfect song. Someone like John Hiatt wouldn't let it out of his notebook. And come to think of it, where's drinkin'? Where's Mom? Where's the pickup? Prison? The train? This ain't a perfect song. It ain't, by Coe's standards, a country song.

But I still sing along every time.


Clay Eals said...

Good to see your Gram Parsons post that began by citing "You Never Even Call Me by My Name" by Steve Goodman. He often doesn't get his due. You might be interested in my new 800-page biography, "Steve Goodman: Facing the Music."

You may be interested to know that the book delves deeply into the genesis of "You Never Even Call Me by My Name," co-written by John Prine, debunking the notion that David Allan Coe had anything to do with the classic final verse. Coe and Prine were among my more than 1,000 interviewees.

You can find out more at my Internet site (below). The book's first printing just sold out, all 5,000 copies, and a second edition of 5,000 is available now. The second edition includes hundreds of little updates and additions, including 30 more photos for a total of 575. It just won a 2008 IPPY (Independent Publishers Association) silver medal for biography.

To order a second-printing copy, see the "online store" page of my site. Just trying to spread word about the book. Feel free to do the same!

Clay Eals
1728 California Ave. S.W. #301
Seattle, WA 98116-1958

(206) 935-7515
(206) 484-8008

Dave Jacoby said...

I'll certainly be interested in seeing it, although I don't know when I'll be able to order. I find it surprising to hear that Goodman doesn't get his due, considering his discography. Seriously, the man who wrote "City of New Orleans", "You Never Even Call Me by My Name" and "Dying Cubs Fan's Last Request" will always be in my pantheon of great songwriters.

I'd be curious to know the real story, but the story as recorded by Coe certainly is fun.