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 HomeI will use Gram Parsons Homepage as a lyrics source.
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
"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 pinesThis 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 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
I started out younger at most everything"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
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.