My dad’s 98th birthday would have been today. For a conservative, military man he was amazingly open, as my friends could tell you. He was against my music until he wasn’t, and then he supported me wholeheartedly. The Vietnam years were rough on us, but we still had the Orioles and the Redskins to talk about until the world settled down again. He didn’t tell me until he was in his sixties that he used to play the last set on drums with a jazz band in Memphis, hitchhiking from the base during wartime. Or that he was engaged to my Mom, hadn’t seen her in months, called her from New York to tell her he’d be a few days late coming home to North Carolina because “Basie’s at the Village Vanguard for the week”. He was a good guy, and I miss him.
My dad was a fine baseball player, played against major leaguers during the war. He washed out of flight school because he broke his nose illegally playing baseball on the weekends for $5 a game. The way I finally reached him about music was like this: “Would you have played minor league baseball if it wasn’t for the war?” “Yes, I’d already been scouted by the Pirates.” “Would you have made the majors?” “Probably not, I could field, but I was small and never would have been more than a banjo hitter.” “But you would have played anyway?” He looked at me for a long time and then said: “Yes, I would have.” He never bugged me about music again.
He was an engineer, and well, I’m not. We did not see things the same way. In addition I was undiagnosed ADD and I remember “Son, pay attention!” as a mantra of my childhood. But eventually he figured it out. We were working on my car one day, something I’m completely inept at, and I was struggling with something and he reached over and flipped a switch or something and it was working. I said: “How come I didn’t inherit that from you?” and he said: “I don’t know, son. How come I can’t write a damn song!”
These albums are not necessarily my favorites or even the best albums by these bands, but they are albums that affected me so profoundly that I can actually remember thinking differently before and after I heard them. They’ll be listed roughly in the order they came to my attention.
Rubber Soul – The Beatles I was 15 and had just moved and was at a church social my parents made me go to with people I hated, and then somebody put Rubber Soul on the stereo and my life changed. I kept putting it on the stack even after somebody said: “Who’s the jerk that keeps putting that album on?” I bought it the next day and I was no longer alone. I like the British version better because it has more songs, but it doesn’t start with “I’ve Just Seen a Face”
2. HighTide and Green Grass – The Rolling Stones my friend Larry Prather sat behind me in Chemistry. When I told him I didn’t really like the Stones, he loaned me this to take home for the weekend. I had bought my own copy by the time I gave it back.
Larry and I also began writing our own lyrics, about things in our own lives, and putting them to Beatles and Stones and other pop songs of the day, the first time I had ever done that, and while we were doing it mostly for humour, it was great practice for the rest of my life.
The second band I was in played mostly Rolling Stones songs, or as many as we could fit in. I always tell people I learned electric guitar listening to the Stones.
3. Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band – The Beatles Somebody told us that the Old Beatles were good and the new Beatles weren’t, so Bill McKay and I talked John Ranes into buying it first and then we went over to his house and listened to it every day after cross country practice. We played it from side one to side two every day for months, a ritual, the Sgt Pepper cult. Mom said: “CoachPreston is working you extra hard, you’re getting home so late.” We had never heard anything like it.
To be honest, while I still like the album, it’s hard for me to hear what we heard then. The songs are good, but only a couple are among my favorite Beatles tunes. But it opened our minds up to possiblities.
4. Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits I was part of the “Dylan can write, but he can’t sing” school. Then one day I went to the Naval Academy to get my college physical and this album was in the hospital’s tiny BX for 99 cents. I couldn’t pass it up, and found out I loved just about everything about Dylan. I thought one way before listening to him, and another after.
There’s actually more to the story. I didn’t have any friends who liked Dylan to turn me onto him. Every weekend we used to drive to EJ Korvette’s on Ritchie Hwy because they had a record department and weekly sales that were the best deal in town. And every couple of months, they’d have an All Label sale. I was there one Saturday Morning just after “John Wesley Harding” had come out and Dylan’s face kept staring at me from the cover. And I loved the story on the back. But it was his face that kept me coming back until I bought it, feeling stupid because I was buying something I was sure I wouldn’t like. And I loved it, every bit of it. It was all mysterious and wonderful.
But even then, I was convinced that the ‘new Dylan’ was good but not the rest. And then I saw that album for 99 cents and I was hooked for life. So an Honorable Mention Most Influential to “John Wesley Harding”.
I hadn’t owned Greatest Hits for many years, had bought everything else and didn’t need it, until about 15 years later I bought what I thought was a used Tim Buckley album that instead had Dylan’s GH inside. I put it on that night and I swear I could remember thinking one way before I first heard it and another afterwards.
5. The Psychedelic Explosion (several records) We were at least a year behind the West Coast in pop culture, and when Gene Munger went to visit family in Seattle, Gene came back with albums full of the new psychedelic music that was different than what we were hearing on Top Forty Radio, our only outlet (that we knew of) at the time. I could list any of four or five albums here, but the first song to break through to me was Moby Grape’s “8:05” and it was the first album I bought from the West Coast wave. I still love “8:05”.
After playing Moby Grape over and over, I bought Quicksilver Messenger Service’s first album and loved it too, especially side one with “Pride of Man” and “Dino’s Song”, written for their lead singer Dino Valente, who was in jail when the record was made. You might remember “Get Together” which Dino wrote for the Youngbloods under an assumed name (or maybe his real name). The funny thing is when Dino eventually rejoined the band, I lost interest, mostly because I hated his voice. Nicky Hopkins played in this band for a while. When I moved into my first place of my own, we played their 27 minute version of “Who Do You Love” from their next album as the first song as we moved in, always an important choice.
Gene Munger then tried to convince me to like the Dead’s first album, which I hated then (and many people still do). He was so convinced it would kick in that he gave me his copy to take to college with me where I played it at first out of obligation to Gene, and then because I did indeed fall in love with it. You have to like a garagey kind of rock, but I do, and “Cold Rain and Snow”, “Golden Road”, and “Morning Dew” still knock me out.
6. The Byrds Greatest Hits Still one of my favorite albums, even though I own all the other Byrd albums too. Pure pop with Dylanish lyrics. Great songs, singing, guitars, lyrics, all made for the radio and my heart.
Honorable mention to Retrospective, the Buffalo Springfield, who were influencing me at about the same time.
7. 64 Motown Greatest Hits is a cheat chronologically because it didn’t come out until 1975, but it’s a stand-in for the radio, which I still listened to, especially in the car. And the radio of my youth was filled with Motown. I had a Temptations best in high school, later a Miracles best, a Marvin Gaye best, a Stevie Wonder best, a Four Tops Best. And at Davidson when I first got there, soul reigned supreme and they hated Dylan and psychedelic. Individually, none of those albums had a particular influence, cumulatively the songs sure did. So here’s to Motown! (I wore this one out when I did buy it. Hitsville USA is a great box CD from many years later.)
Dylan once said that Smokey Robinson was our greatest living poet and I thought he was just blowing smoke at the interviewers. That was before I really listened. I might have argued for Chuck Berry instead, but I got Dylan’s point.
The only reason I wasn’t more of a fan earlier was that all the cool kids at my high school liked Motown, which immediately made me suspicious. But the songs were too good to deny.
Gene Munger (who talked me into playing acoustic guitar and writing) used to play folk-rock versions of “Tracks of My Tears” and “You Can’t Hurry Love” at our first shows. Also “Wouldn’t It Be Nice?” but that’s another band and another story.
8. Who Knows Where The Time Goes – Judy Collins This was my introduction to Sandy Denny’s “Who Knows Where the Time Goes”, still one of my favorite songs, as well as Leonard Cohen (“Bird on the Wire” and “Story of Isaac”) and Ian Tyson (the wonderful “Someday Soon”) and her own great “My Father”. I was a freshman at college and missing my friends and played “Who Knows Where the Time Goes” over and over. I can remember thinking how fast time went by. Hah.
“Wildflowers” has her pop hit of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now”, then my introduction to Joni’s music, and Cohen’s “Suzanne”. It came before “Who Knows Where The Time Goes” but I didn’t get it until later.
9. The Band I bought “The Band” the same day I bought “Abbey Road”, a good day in my life. I had “Music From Big Pink” and liked it and of course they had backed Dylan, but they inhabited the songs of this album, one of, if not the, first Americana albums. It’s another album I played so much that I have to separate the songs from their original context or I don’t hear them anymore, I know them so well.
10. Sweet Baby James – James Taylor “Fire and Rain” still knocks me out. The whole album is clean and focused. I was a sophomore in college, about to drop out, not yet playing guitar or singing, but writing lots of lyrics that I thought were poems and Taylor’s spare, honest lyrics spoke directly to me.
Tom Rush’s eponymous album at least should get an assist because it introduced me to the music of both James Taylor and Jackson Browne, as well as two fine Canadian songwriters: David Wiffen (Driving Wheel, covered later by Roger McGuinn) and Murray Mclauchlan’s great “Child’s Song”, my favorite song about leaving home.
11. Blue – Joni Mitchell “A Case of You” and “The Last Time I Saw Richard” still speak to me, as does the sentiment of “All I Want”: “All I really really want our love to do/Is to bring out the best in me/ and in you too”. A major influence on me lyrically.
12. Astral Weeks – Van Morrison The first time I heard “Madame George” (or anything from Astral Weeks) I was lying on the floor of a friend’s house listening to WGTB late at night, and as I let the music wash over me, I thought it was too short at 9:46. I already had “Moondance” and loved it, but this was different, not pop music, but mesmerizing. A great album as Van reveres his past and predicts his future in simple songs brilliantly played. No hits here, though my friend Frank Mirenzi once came home and played “Madame George” 8 straight times, trying to decipher its meaning to him.
13. Young Man’s Fancy – Neil Young The year I was 21 and learning to play guitar and sing, Lee (Daktari) Cadorette and I shared a cottage in Arnold, MD, the first time any of our friends had a place of our own. Lee bought this bootleg, still one of my favorite albums, but especially then, between “After the Goldrush” and “Harvest”. I never liked “Harvest” much because I liked the versions from “Young Man’s Fancy” so much better.
I already had all of Neil’s albums, plus CSN&Y and the Springfield stuff. After “After the Goldrush” and “Young Man’s Fancy” all my lyrics sounded like Neil for a long while.
I learned to play guitar and joined a band simultaneously when Kevin Ranes taught me the three chords to “Helpless”. We spent the whole first practice on that song, Kevin being very picky so the rest of the band wouldn’t know I knew one song. The next week was Traffic’s “Feelin’ Alright”, with two of the same three chords, and after that I was off.
Meanwhile, I bought 2 songbooks, a Dylan and a Neil Young, and used them as instruction manuals, while Gene Munger and I started playing together, Gene using my lyrics to write songs at first before I added my own music.
14. Lou Reed I learned to play guitar at 20, and I didn’t sing between the ages of 12 and 20, when Gene Munger talked me into forming a duo with him and beginning to sing some of my own songs. But after that amount of time, I really couldn’t sing. And then one day I had this album on and I had an epiphany: “I can do that!” I thought as I listened to his form of talk/singing and then I did.
I already had all of the Velvet Underground albums, so Lou Reed had been influencing me for some time. As a freshman in college in summer school, I roomed next door to an arch-conservative senior who turned me on to at least two albums that summer: Dylan’s “Highway 61 Revisited,” which I still didn’t have, and “The Velvet Underground & Nico” (the one with the Warhol Banana Peel cover.
My voice changed when I was 12, only I didn’t know it. Before that I sang in choirs and choruses, did solos occasionally, and probably would have stayed in it for life. My music teacher at school also didn’t notice my voice had changed, and she had me do our class solo soprano, which I wasn’t anymore. I was so embarrassed. I couldn’t find the notes and I didn’t know why. As I sat down, she said: “It’s ok. Some people aren’t meant to sing.” Devastating. I didn’t really believe her, I always knew I could sing, but I didn’t sing another note until I was 20, just to spite her. My stubbornness sometimes works for me, sometimes against.
This is what Gene Munger did for me. He would get a show at the local coffeehouse, play the first few songs himself, then play a couple of songs we wrote together, bring me up to sing 2-3 songs in my new Lou Reed-like voice, and then I’d leave Gene alone on stage before the audience figured out I couldn’t sing. And then he’d play another one we wrote together before returning to his own songs. I was protected and I got better and I”m forever grateful.
15. Aquashow – Elliott Murphy I bought Elliott Murphy’s “Aquashow” and Springsteen’s “Wild, Innocent, and E Street Shuffle” the same day, and after listening, walked to my room and wrote “By the Water,” an 8 min. song in about the time it takes to sing it. It was good enough to record with Lloyd Maines 25 years later and was once listed among the “Best Songs You’ve Never Heard” on Amazon.uk. That’s inspiration.
What these guys did was complete my lyric education by showing me what was missing in my writing. They wrote about their friends. When I was in high school, I had written short stories and a novel about my friends, the secret to their popularity. So far, I had learned to write about the end of relationships well, now I added my friends to the mix and “write about what you know” became wider.
Aquashow influenced me at the time more than Wild because Bruce was writing about a more urban setting, and Elliott had the “White Middle Class Blues” like I did.
“Last of the Rock Stars”, “Hometown”, “Don’t Go Away”, “Sandy”, “Incident on 57th St”, “Rosalita”!!! I heard all those songs for the first time the same day, in the same hour! It was an overload but an epiphany for my writing.
16. Late for the Sky – Jackson Browne Jackson Browne had been influencing me for some time before this came out, from listening to “These Days” on the Tom Rush album. Trish Gaffney and I went to see him at the Cellar Door in DC about the time “Saturate Before Using” was released, and sat about 5 feet away from Browne and David Lindley, his sole accompanist that night. I decided to get a job when I lived in LA because Jackson’s “For Everyman” and the new one from the Dead came out the same day and I had to have them. But this album spoke to me the most. I was brokenhearted from love, had lost my closest friend to a car wreck when we were 22, and was writing songs about my past while trying to figure out my future, or something like that. And Jackson had either gone through or was going through the same things. I played it to death.
17. Winterland Night – Bruce Springsteen In 1978 Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band made a series of radio broadcasts across the country. I taped “Passaic Night” from 98 Rock on my Teac A3340S the night he played there, and we played it a lot on the reel to reel (there was a break in the middle of “Rosalita”), but it was when Joe Mirenzi bought “Winterland” on a more convenient LP that it replaced Springsteen’s first three albums for me. It’s about 4 hours worth of music, so we used to have parties where it was the only album played.
Sherry and I played this on the way home from our first Edge City show ever, at Wesley College in Delaware, and it sure sounded great driving home at night on empty roads in the dark. We used to play the version of “Darkness on the Edge of Town” from Winterland before every show, just to remind us what was at stake.
18. Road to Ruin – The Ramones This was the first Ramones album I bought or even heard, as far as I can remember and it just wiped much of the music of the time out of my mind. I loved the Beach Boys melodies, the Spectorish sound, the great cover of “Needles and Pins”, the three great chords, the fuzzy guitar, the energy, “I Wanna Be Sedated” and more. At our first Kerrville, we still didn’t know if we belonged until the first night, very late, we heard “I Wanna Be Sedated” coming through the camp on acoustic guitars.
One of the great pleasures of Sherry’s and my life was getting to know Tommy Ramone (Erdelyi), the drummer before “Road to Ruin”, and the co-producer of “Road to Ruin”. He was playing mandolin in his own group Uncle Monk at the time, and looked like a small Jerry Garcia. He played ‘percussion’ on his knees when we played “27 Voices” and told us it was “cathartic”. He also produced “Tim”, one of my favorite Replacement albums.
19. The Sun Sessions – Elvis Presley When I was growing up, Elvis was just a fat old man who had squandered whatever talent he had. I didn’t like his songs, or him. Then one night Sherry and I were at the 930 Club in DC, early and waiting for the show and instead of the usual headbanging videos, they played Elvis from the 50s and I got it immediately, was riveted to the screen, sorry when the real show started. We bought “The Sun Sessions” and for a few years I used it to warm up my hands every morning. It’s so clean and simple and breathtakingly beautiful. And it has a groove. I now believe that music doesn’t get any better than this (it can, and has, been as good).
After that, I worked my way through his catalog and found there were still good songs in the 60s and 70s, and a couple of good albums, especially from the early 60s. I made a CD called “Elvis for Dummies” to convince my friends.
There’s no nostalgia involved here on my part, since I was too young for his Sun days, and my parents didn’t like him, and I didn’t like him during the most formative days of my music listening. No, I just think it’s great music that sounds timeless to me.
John Fogerty and Creedence were able to capture this sound perfectly on a couple of songs.
My friend Bob Baugh tried to tell me about Elvis in high school, but I wouldn’t listen!
20. Shoot Out the Lights – Richard and Linda Thompson Though I had a Fairport Convention Best Of, I didn’t really listen to Richard Thompson until this album. Then I bought all the rest. One of the influences on our vocal sound. A great breakup album.
21. The Great Twenty Eight – Chuck Berry I’d been influenced by Chuck my whole life, because you can’t play or love rock and roll without him. Or the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. He’s the one who wrote the lick everybody knows. But this album was the first time I studied him, as I continued to step backwards as well as forward for my influences. He writes as well about America as anybody, and after Chuck, you’ll never hear “Subterranean Homesick Blues” the same way again.
If you like Chuck as much as I do, you’ll want to have the Chess Box. He wrote a lot of great songs after his heyday (i.e. came out of prison) though a little darker and you do have to skip “My Ding a Ling”, his last ‘hit’, but it’s great stuff.
22. 20 Golden Greats- Buddy Holly and the Crickets This isn’t the best compilation (that would be “The Buddy Holly Collection” unless you want to go the box set route with “Not Fade Away”), but I sure played it to death in my early 30s. I always liked him, his songs were catchy and covered by the Beatles and the Stones and the Dead, but after my deep dive into Chuck Berry, I dove into the 50s for a while and discovered how much I really love his music.
I also loved the usual suspects: Jerry Lee Lewis, Eddie Cochran, Bo Diddley, Fats Domino, Carl Perkins, Little Richard. Mostly there are greatest hits that serve them well; all are building blocks for a writer. But there are a couple of others I’d like to recommend: Charlie Feathers (who lived in Severna Park, for all you Severna Parkers out there), Johnny Burnette and The Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio (who blaze through songs like “Train Keep a Rollin”, covered by the Yardbirds), and most of all, Bobby Fuller, who you probably mostly know for “I Fought the Law”. But “Never To Be Forgotten” and “Let Her Dance” (both covered by Marshall Crenshaw) are just as good.
I like “Never To Be Forgotten: The Mustang Years” (2 CDs), the most, but this single Rhino disc has the songs I mentioned above and more.
23. Places that are Gone EP – Tommy Keene Tommy Keene’s 6 song EP was named “EP of the Year” by the Village Voice. It was perfect power pop and he was from DC, so my friends and I used to go see him a lot. We liked it so much that we used Steve Carr at Hit and Run Studios where Tommy had recorded his record for all our released music from Maryland. And his lawyer/record co. president, Josh Grier, showed me a lot about record companies and how they work when he came to see us at CBGB’s in NYC. Also, our guitarist Rob Martin liked the guitar work of both Tommy and Billy Connelly and brought that to some songs we were working out together. So this EP influenced me in a lot of ways.
This CD contains all of the “Places that Are Gone” EP and more. It’s the one to look for because it has the Steve Carr recordings plus his other early indie work.. But “Tommy Keene You Hear Me?” has some of the same songs plus his Geffen stuff and some of his later work, and it’s great, too!
“Places that Are Gone” (the original, on Dolphin, recorded by Steve Carr) is one of my favorite songs. Period. He’s got a lot of others that are favorites of mine, too, but “Places” was the hit in my alternate world. It’s why I recommend “The Real Underground” over “Tommy Keene You Hear Me”. “Tommy” goes with the Geffen version, and it’s fine, but the original has a spark.
Tommy got the big push for awhile with Geffen, recording on the Isle of Montserrat in George Martin’s studio with Geoff Emerick (the Beatles engineer) producing. He continued making CDs, all at least worth a listen for the sound alone. (Very electric guitars, my folkie friends.) And worth it for some of the titles, considering his past. “Long Time Missing”, “I’m Alive”, “Never Really Been Gone”, all wonderful songs. My DC friends know the story better than I do, so I’ll leave that to them, but I was a fan, and I still play his music.
Little known fact: Tommy Keene auditioned for Ron Flynt’s band 20/20 in L.A. Ron would have to tell you more.
Here’s how good he was: one night many years ago a friend was staying at my house while he worked out his marital difficulties. (Sherry used to call my place “Jim’s Home For Wayward Boys.”) They talked all afternoon, and finally reached a point of reconciliation. Then he found out Tommy Keene was playing that night and we were all going. He called her and explained that now that they’d worked things out, one more night apart might be good for their overall relationship, to think about what they’d accomplished. Or something like that. She thought it was romantic and he went to see Tommy Keene with us.
24. Let it Be – The Replacements; Native Sons – Long Ryders; Gas, Food, & Lodging – Green on Red; The Days of Wine and Roses – The Dream Syndicate
It’s cheating to name four, but the influence on me came not from one album, but a movement, all at once. These four were influential, but so were a lot of others. There were two kinds of bands I liked a lot during this period, punk bands who had moved toward more classic sounds, and classic sounding bands who moved into punk clubs and filtered their music toward punk. I met Troy Campbell of the Highwaymen during this period and we exchanged our EPs.
The Replacements‘ album would be here if only for Paul Westerberg’s stunning “Unsatisfied”, the anthem of a generation in my alternate world. I’m also a big fan of the albums “Tim” (produced by Tommy Ramone) and “Pleased to Meet Me”.
I liked every album The Long Ryders ever put out, including a reunion one a year or so ago. On this one, “Final Wild Son”, “Ivory Tower” (with Gene Clark), and “I Have a Dream” blow me away, but it’s all good. On a future album, they cover NRBQ’s “I Want You So Bad” like the Byrds would have. One of the great pleasures of my life came when The Long Ryders’ Sid Griffin and members of his band The Coal Porters backed us for a couple of songs in a hotel room in Canada (or was it Memphis?) at Folk Alliance. The Coal Porters are different, but great, and anything Sid does on his own is worth getting. In his solo career (I think) he does a great cover of the Flamin’ Groovies’ “You Tore Me Down”, one of the best songs you probably don’t know.
The Coal Porters have done great bluegrassy versions of “Paint it Black” and “Like a Hurricane”.
We used to cover “That’s What Dreams” from this Green on Red album. Also loved the albums “Gravity Talks” and “No Free Lunch”. When we played the Austin Music Network, it was Willie day, and we needed a Willie song, so we borrowed Green on Red’s arrangement of “Funny How Time Slips Away”. We also used to use the electrified version of Danny & Dusty’s “Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door” as our ‘guide’. Danny and Dusty were made up of members of Green on Red, Dream Syndicate, and The Long Ryders. Danny Stuart, Green on Red’s main songwriter and singer, was living in Austin in the mid 80s and invited Sherry and me to visit and stay at his apartment. If we had, we’d have moved here sooner. Danny also introduced us to his booking agent, who helped us get into a couple of clubs we’d been struggling with, so more influence.
My pal Steve Buschel gave me some tapes of Green on Red live in Europe in the 2000’s, and they were great and worth searching out. Leaned more than previously on Chuck Prophet’s great guitar.
This is not my favorite Dream Syndicate album, but they had me with “Tell Me When It’s Over”, the first song on the album, where Steve Wynn channels Lou Reed. As albums, I like “Medicine Show” and “Out of the Grey” and the ‘best of’ does a fairly good job. Steve Wynn has continued recording, both solo and with bands. Start with “What I Did After My Band Broke Up”, which leads off with the great “Amphetamine”.
Other bands that I could have used: NYC’s The Del Lords (rockin’ Woody Guthries), LA’s The Blasters (rockabilly filtered through punk), LA’s Los Lobos (like a Hispanic version of The Band), Australia’s The Saints, (where Chris Bailey channels Van Morrison/ Mick Jagger), and more. REM and the Clash were the forerunners, and “London Calling” is one of my favorite albums.
25. Southern Accents – Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers I could have picked “Damn the Torpedos” because it’s almost a perfect album, or “The Waiting” because the title song was Sherry’s and my “song”, but I picked “Southern Accents” for its slightly flawed ambitions, its insightful songs about Petty’s home, and the great Petty/Dave Stewart collaboration on the psychedelic “Don’t Come Around Here No More”.
There was a record store in Pikesville run by a guy named Howie and he used to like to bet he could play me one song from a record and get me to buy it. Two I remember are Elvis Costello’s ‘Alison’ and Petty’s “American Girl”.
26. Chess Box Set – Willie Dixon When I bought this vinyl box set, I was a casual fan of the Blues, afterwards I was a fanatic, not so much because of these records (though they’re good), but because of where they led me. Willie wrote songs for Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Walter, Bo Diddley, Jimmy Witherspoon, Lowell Fulson, Otis Rush, and more, all favorites of mine. And so this record was my door.
I started working for my pal Geoffrey Himes, who has one of the great record collections, as well as a mini used record store in his garage (I might have bought this there). One of the perks of the job was that I could listen to his vast collection while I worked. So I worked my way through the artists on the Dixon album, and more that Geoff suggested: T Bone Walker, Big Joe Turner, BB King, Buddy Guy, Jimmy Johnson, Robert Johnson, Elmore James and more.
It wasn’t that I didn’t like blues before, I just had rarely gone to the source, where all the good stuff is. My first experience with the blues was just after high school (I think), Paul Butterfield’s “East-West” which we listened to regularly with the usual crowd: Jim Gugliotti, Lee Cadorette, John Ranes, Gene Munger. And then there were the Allman Bros. But while I eventually followed the Dead backwards into some of my favorite blues songs, I never really liked them as a blues band. And as great as Clapton is, I liked the ‘pop’ stuff better with Derek and the Dominoes. I didn’t like Chuck Berry’s blues, just his rock. So it wasn’t until much later that I really listened.
27. 24 of Hank Williams’ Greatest Hits when I bought this I wasn’t a country fan, much less a Hank one. I bought it because I knew he was a great writer and I wanted to study him. I would come home, put Hank on, and cook dinner for Sherry. One day I couldn’t find Hank, and I went crazy, going through all of my records, because I had to hear that album. That’s when I realized I wasn’t studying Hank anymore, I had fallen in love with his music. Once we were at a local club here and our friend Kenneth J. Schaffer introduced the next song as “the greatest song ever written”. I laughed out loud and said: “Pretty big claim, Ken.” He smiled and said: “It’s called ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’” I said: “Oh well, then. Go ahead.”
28. Austin Skyline – Jimmy LaFave Sherry and I came to Austin for the first time for SXSW in March 1994 with no gig and ended up playing Butch Hancock’s Lubbock or Leave It Jam that Sunday night. The lineup was full of people who now are friends, and when Butch came over to ask if we wanted to play a couple of songs, Jimmy LaFave and Randy Glines were onstage, the first time we had ever heard of Jimmy. I can’t tell you for sure what we played that night, but Jimmy played Joe Ely’s “Because the Wind” and Dylan’s “Every Grain of Sand”. We bought one album while we were in Austin, this one, and one of my biggest memories of that summer was sitting with our friends at night in our spacious backyard, listening to Jimmy. We moved to Austin in August, five months later.
A definite Honorable Mention to this album or albums, Butch Hancock’s great “No 2 Alike”, a 14 cassette series of Butch at the Cactus, that I listened to while I was working for Geoffrey Himes. That led to me going to see Butch at the Roots Cafe Baltimore and going out to breakfast with Geoff and Butch. So I sort of knew Butch, as far as I knew the only person I knew who lived in Austin (Troy Campbell reminds me that he was here, I just didn’t know it), and that made us stop as we walked by Lubbock or Leave It and I said: “I think that’s Butch Hancock’s place.” The Lubbock gang, led by Barbara Roseman, took us in, leading to us playing that Sunday and moving to Austin five months later.
29. American Dreamer – Gene Clark I was always a Gene Clark fan, from the Byrds through “White Light” and “Roadmaster” but it was this 24 song best of that sent me back to his work with the Gosdin Brothers and The Dillard and Clark Expedition. It’s a good start, but if you fall in love with the music by this American original, it won’t be nearly enough.
Then I bought this twofer (41 songs) which began to open up the later 70s and 80s for me. After that I just bought everything I could find, some of which is still just being released. Few artists of Gene’s caliber have been so poorly treated with their catalogs.
Sid Griffin of the Long Ryders (mentioned earlier in this series) and The Coal Porters wrote the informative liner notes for both “American Dreamer” and “Flying High”.
About a decade ago, we were involved in a near death near accident in the snow in Tipton, MO, birthplace of Gene Clark. And as this jeep bore down on us, my last thoughts? “Wonder if anyone will even know we died where Gene Clark was born?” My ‘last thoughts’? Fortunately they weren’t actually my last thoughts, but when we were back in Austin, telling this story at a party at Dickie Lee Erwin’s, and Jon Sanchez walked in, listened for a minute and said: “Tipton? That’s where Gene Clark was born!”
You’ll also want PreFlyte, the Byrds when they were the Beefeaters, which has just been rereleased, remastered and sounds great. Clark’s contribution: about a dozen Beatlish pop songs including “You Showed Me”, a top 10 hit for the Turtles.
30. Live in London – Leonard Cohen How to grow old gracefully (and powerfully). Cohen combines decades of great writing into one great sound. He didn’t used to be able to sing, now his voice is resonant with character.
Leonard’s been influencing me since 1970 when I cut a quote from “Bird on the Wire” from LOOK magazine out and put it where I’d have to see it when I walked out the door. The quote’s still there, and the LOOK cutout lasted until the 2010s, when it fell apart.
“Famous Blue Raincoat”, “Everybody Knows”, “Tower of Song”, “I’m Your Man”, “Hallelujah”, “Hey That’s No Way to Say Goodbye”, “Anthem”, “Bird on the Wire”, “Suzanne”, “Sisters of Mercy” and many more. But that would still leave you needing “Joan of Arc”, “Chelsea Hotel”, “Waiting for the Miracle”, “Love Calls You By Your Name”, “Story of Isaac”, “You Know Who I Am”, “Tonight Will Be Fine” and more.
So if I were you, and I didn’t have any Cohen, I’d buy the two best ofs and three live albums, this one, Cohen Live, and Field Commander Cohen. “Essential” is another fine studio collection that could replace the two best ofs.
Micheles Kindh, Blaskans, Sweden: “The Tom Petty of Folk!” Has been epitomized about Jim Patton who, along with his wife Sherry Brokus, releases a record of songs made over a ten year period. An 18-song American record that really flows like a dream with stories, short stories to listen to instead of reading. Musical audiobook that I listen to that has rare luster in the tunes and lyrical lyrics. Shimmering country and folk rock.”
Michael Freerix, Folker, Germany: “Patton describes Bob Dylan, Van Morrison and Neil Young as his role models, which is easy to understand. He is a songwriter who prefers to tell stories rather than wallowing in private. His strengths are social and psychological commentary on the state of American society…”
Remo Ricaldone, Lonestartime, Italy “Jim Patton and Sherry Brokus represent the classic folk tradition of which the Texan scene is rightly proud in a record path that over the past ten years has produced four records packaged with care and love for the roots. The look back on these prolific years is now condensed in this “Collection: 2008-2018” which is a bit the summary of their career offering almost an hour of music for the beauty of eighteen songs. This album is certainly the best and most comfortable way to enter the crystalline, clear and inspired world of Jim Patton and Sherry Brokus.”
Wolfgang Giese, Music an Sich, Germany: “The focus of the eighteen songs is on the acoustic alignment, acoustic guitars, mandolins, dobro and cello combine to form a dense sound, with borrowings from folk and bluegrass…but also beautiful country songs traditional way sung by Sherry Brokus “Old Country Road”…when listening it becomes clear that the whole mood moves relatively uniformly through the eleven years, certainly also a guarantee that one has always delivered the same good quality. All in all, the music radiates a very warm mood, a mood that looks like sitting with the musicians and good friends and spending a good time.”
Rootsville, Belgium: “Moving from Baltimore to Austin back then, the folk-rock duo Jim Patton & Sherry Brokus were like coming home because they were lovingly received in the music city of Texas. Berkalin Records is also the home of this duo and after a rich career, a collection is now being released with songs from the past 10 years. This “Collection: 2008-2018” contains 18 songs and with “Mystery Ride” it even contains an unpublished track. Jim Patton and Sherry Brokus have sung together for 40 years. They led the folk rock band Edge City from Baltimore to Austin, where they recorded with Lloyd Maines, the guru of the record producers in Texas. In 2008 they released a fully acoustic album “Plans Gang Aft Agley” with producer Ron Flynt. An album that brought it to the top 30 of the Folk charts… Just like “Mystery Ride’, the demo ‘Hole in His Heart’ has never been released and so the fans on this rich collection also get to hear two scoops. Folk songs like ‘Old County Rd’ are good in the ear. Contributors to the album are Ron Flynt, Warren Hood, Rich Brotherton, Marvin Dykhuis, John Bush, Mary Cutrufello, and Scrappy Jud Newcomb. So don’t worry if you’re a layman in the work of Jim Patton and Sherry Brokus, because with this “Collection 2008-2018” you will be right up there, even ‘After the Dance’ … is over.”
Rootstime, Belgium: “Jim Patton and his wife Sherry Brokus have been releasing four acoustic albums in the ten years period between 2008 and 2018. With their latest album ‘Collection 2008-2018’, they have now selected 18 of their best songs from these 4 albums and thus are providing an excellent overview of their folk and rock songs that have been recorded during that decade.”
1 Revolutionary Ways Eric Hisaw 2 Listen to Her Heart (Live 77) Tom Petty 3 My Back Pages Marshall Crenshaw 4 I Saw the Light Little Steven 5 Subterranean Homesick Blues Willie Nile 6 King of the Hill (Early Take, 1987) Roger McGuinn and Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers 7 Rainy Day Women Willie Nile 8 More Yesterdays Than Tomorrows Joe Grushecky and the Houserockers 9 What do You Want Betty Soo 10 Silver Springs Fleetwood Mac 11 Girl in Need Graham Parker 12 I Forgot that Love Existed live Van Morrison 13 Im Not Your Stepping Stone Tom Petty 14 Alive Tommy Keene 15 Let Go live Martin Zellar 16 For Real Tom Petty 17 All this Music Will Fade The Who 18 Dark Night of the Soul Van Morrison 19 Greenville Long Ryders 20 Big Big World Little Pink (Battatia, Mary)
Our two week East Coast tour was wonderful, gave us a chance to connect with people we haven’t seen in a long time. At 1919 in Baltimore, old pals Craig Hopwood (on sound) and Lew Morris (playing a short set, including the great “Crisis to Crisis”) met with new pal Luke Chohany (on guitar and mandolin) (sent to us by Arty Hill) to turn what could have been a shaky evening into a fun one. And Craig’s friend Larry Dennis ran two blocks to his home to bring back his Telecaster to bring us electric guitar as we closed with 27 Voices.
The next night was 49 West in Annapolis, the club that comes closest to a house concert for us. A crowded gathering of old friends. Luke Chohany again joined us and the crowd loved him. David Coe and Christina Van Norman ran sound and Christina joined us on “Fortunate Man”. There were people there we had not seen in forty years, and some who come every time.
Jean Leigh‘s house concert in New Jersey had a smallish crowd, which may have worked to our advantage in this case, since we sold more CDs than donations at the door, and we made friends with just about everyone there. It was also just the two of us, and we prefer to be at least a trio, but that too, worked for the circumstances. More magic.
Jamey’s House of Music, just across the Philadelphia line, in Lansdowne, was the smallest crowd of the tour, but we managed to connect with all six of them, only two of whom we knew before, and we love playing the room. Jamey runs great sound, and here, despite the small crowd, it’s a big place and we could have benefitted from a trio sound. We accomplished that twice, when Donna FalaMcfadden, our friend from Austin 24 years ago, joined us on “Day I Leave This World” and “Fortunate Man”.
Lou and Cindy Etgen‘s house concert was a perfect evening for us: old friends, new friends, and Luke on mandolin and guitar. We can’t thank Lou and Cindy enough for stepping up when we had a cancellation and saving our tour.
And our last stop in Frederick MD at the Brewer’s Alley Songwriter Showcase. Great crowd. Great show, with us, Jeff Talmadge, and amazing Beat poet Rod Deacey. And Ron Goad played percussion with us.
Sherry lost her voice completely the week we started the tour, sang 1 1/2 songs at 1919, had built up to 4 or 5 by the end. So if you caught this tour, you caught Jim singing more than usual, and some songs we don’t usually play.
(these albums are not necessarily my favorites or even the best albums by these bands, but they are albums that affected me so profoundly that I can actually remember thinking differently before and after I heard them. Listed roughly in the order they came to my attention)
the Beatles – Rubber Soul – I was 15 and had just moved and was at a church dance my parents made me go to with people I hated, and then somebody put Rubber Soul on the stereo and my life changed. I kept putting it on the stack even after somebody said: “Who’s the asshole that keeps putting that album on?” I bought it the next day and I was no longer alone. I like the British version better because it has more songs, but it doesn’t start with “I’ve Just Seen a Face”.
the Beatles –Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band –somebody told us that the Old Beatles were good and the new Beatles weren’t so we talked John Ranes into buying it first and then we went over to his house and listened to it from side one to side two every day for months. Mom said: “Coach is working you extra hard, you’re getting home so late.” We had never heard anything like it.
Bob Dylan’s Greatest Hits, Vol 1 – I was part of the “Dylan can write, but he can’t sing” school. Then one day I went to the Naval Academy to get my college physical and this album was in the hospital’s tiny BX for 99 cents. I couldn’t pass it up, and found out I loved just about everything about Dylan. I thought one way before listening to him, and another after.
the Rolling Stones – High Tide and Green Grass– my friend Larry Prather sat behind me in Chemistry. When I told him I didn’t really like the Stones, he loaned me this to take home. I had bought my own copy by the time I gave it back.
The Byrds Greatest Hits – Still one of my favorite albums. Pure pop with Dylanish lyrics. Great songs, singing, guitars, lyrics, all made for the radio and my heart.
John Lennon – Plastic Ono Band – Unlike the others on this list, I’ve only played this album a few times. Its power is in the statement. Listened to it for the first time with Walt Konetzka, in my room at home and we both were blown away by the sheer honesty of the recording.
Van Morrison – Astral Weeks– I’ve loved this album since I first heard the great “Madame George” on WGTB in the early 70s. It doesn’t have his hits, doesn’t have anything resembling one on the album. What it does have is artistic beauty. Originally made to be a song cycle, his label changed the order, but it still has the feel of a song cycle.
Neil Young – Young Man’s Fancy (live bootleg but the recent release of Live at Massey Hall is similiar and almost as good and the sound is great) Lee Cadorette (Daktari to you Austin friends) bought the bootleg and it quickly became the most popular album in the house we were sharing. It’s between After the Goldrush (which we loved) and Harvest and contains the first time we heard most of Harvest’s songs, striking for their purity without a hint of the pop touches that were to come.
Elliott Murphy – Aquashow– I bought this and Springsteen’s Wild, Innocent the same day and they were both a revelation to me that I could write about what I know and the friends I knew. I had done that in short stories when I was in high school, but it never occurred to me to do it in song. I wrote By the Water that same day,an eight minute epic I wrote in about the time it takes to sing it.
Bruce Springsteen – Winterland (live bootleg) – Springsteen’s live shows then were so much more powerful than his albums themselves, and I like this one best, though Passaic Night is pretty great too. We used to have people over and play the entire concert, beginning to end. Sherry and I played this on the way home from our first Edge City show ever, at Wesley College in Delaware, and it sure sounded great driving home at night on empty roads in the dark. We used to play the version of Darkness on the Edge of Town from here before every show, just to remind us what was at stake.
Hank Williams – 24 Greatest Hits– when I bought this I wasn’t a country fan, much less a Hank one. I bought it because I knew he was a great writer and I wanted to study him. I would come home, put Hank on, and cook dinner for Sherry. One day I couldn’t find Hank, and I went crazy, going through all of my records, because I had to hear that album. That’s when I realized I wasn’t studying Hank anymore, I had fallen in love with his music. Once we were at a local club here and our friend Ken Schaffer introduced the next song as “the greatest song ever written”. I laughed out loud and said: “Pretty big claim, Ken.” He smiled and said: “It’s called ‘I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.’” I said: “Oh well, then. Go ahead.”
John Coltrane – Afro Blue Impressions (especially My Favorite Things) – Damian Einstein, on WHFS, possibly the greatest station of all time, played something by the Dead that I liked, followed it with Coltrane, and followed that with the Byrds’ Eight Miles High. And I got jazz, or at least Coltrane, and bought the album the next day. I carried it around with me on tape all summer in case I needed to hear it. Coltrane led me to Miles Davis, pre Bitches Brew, which I never liked.
Leonard Cohen – Live in London – How to grow old gracefully (and powerfully). This is one of the newest records on this list. Cohen combines decades of great writing into one great sound. He didn’t used to be able to sing, now his voice is resonant with character.
The Top 19 Most Played Songs on Jim & Sherry’s ITunes, IPods, Iphones, etc. 2015
1 End Of The World Jean Synodinos love & blood
2 These Things I’ve Come To Know James McMurtry Complicated Games
3 Wildflowers [Live] Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers The Live Anthology
4 Keep Me In Your Heart Christine Albert Everythings Beautiful Now
5 Picture Jean Synodinos love & blood
6 Among the Believers Darlene Love Introducing Darlene Love
7 You Got To Me James McMurtry Complicated Games
8 This Morning Jean Synodinos love & blood
9 The Damage Youve Done Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Let Me Up Ive Had Enough
10 Real Renegade Jean Synodinos love & blood
11 Aint Got A Place James McMurtry Complicated Games
12 Runaway Trains Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers Let Me Up Ive Had Enough
13 Out Of My Mind Buffalo Springfield; Neil Young Buffalo Springfield Box Set [Disc 1]
14 A Wasted Life Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Long After Dark
15 How Many More Days Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough
16 The Starry Eyed The Belle Sounds The Belle Sounds
17 Stories We Can Tell Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers Pack Up The Plantation: Live!
18 She Doesnt Love Him Anymore (demo) Jeff Talmadge 2015 6 Song Ideas
19 It’s Too Late To Live In Austin Grant Peeples & The Peeples Republik Punishing The Myth
Your questions premptively answered:
Why 19 songs? Fits on one CD.
Are these the best songs of 2015? No, they’re the songs we listened to the most. Most aren’t even from 2015.
How much music do you listen to during a year? According to ITunes, over 6500 individual songs.
I’m an artist on your list. How will this help me? It will give you exposure to at least a dozen people.
It was a weird year listening to music for me. I liked a lot of new CDs, but only two got played consistently at our house and in our cars: Jean Synodinos’ Love and Blood and James McMurtry’s Complicated Games.
Other things affected our listening: Lee (Daktari) Cadorette told me he thought the Buffalo Springfield Box Set was overrated, which led me to spend a lot of time with the Springfield, to see if he was right. (I played my edited 37 song version of the box set over and over and I felt no pain.)
I spent the first half the 2015 writing a novel, and I spent a lot of time listening to the music of the late 60s, early 70s, where much of the story takes place.
And there’s no special reason for Tom Petty to get so much play, except we must be Petty fans. I especially liked the Live Anthology, the disc of outtakes on the box set, and Let Me Up I’ve Had Enough, which I underrated when it came out.
Also Jean Synodinos’ album didn’t come out until September or she would have been higher up on the CD list.
Top 10 most played CDs
1 Buffalo Springfield Buffalo Springfield Box Set, vol 1
2 The Who Thirty Years of Maximum R&B, vol 1
3 James McMurtry Complicated Games
4 Buffalo Springfield Buffalo Springfield Box Set, vol 2
5 Tom Petty Live Anthology
6 The Long Ryders Best of the Long Ryders
7 Jean Synodinos Love & Blood
8 The Rascals The Ultimate Rascals
9 Tom Petty Playback, disc 6
10 Donovan Donovan’s Greatest Hits
Top Ten Most Played Artists
1 Tom Petty
2 Buffalo Springfield
3 The Who
4 Bob Dylan
5 The Rolling Stones
6 The Byrds
7 The Beatles
8 Bonnie Raitt
9 James McMurtry
10 The Long Ryders
top 25 included Jean Synodinos, Jeff Talmadge, and Jimmy LaFave
Neither of us realized we had played the Long Ryders as much as we did, but we’ve been Sid Griffin fans for a long time.
If you don’t know who the Belle Sounds are, check out last year’s post. The Starry Eyed is that rare song that makes our top list 2 years in a row. Great song, great band.
The Jeff Talmadge song is a co-write with Jim that we played over and over for friends. (One said: “That’s the saddest song ever written!”) Our version, with Sherry singing lead, is on our new, as yet unreleased CD. You can pre-order The Hard Part of Flyinghere.
The picture of Jean Synodinos above was taken by Ron Baker at the fundraising/birthday party we had at NeWorlDeli to master our new CD, where 9 great songwriters joined us.
I mostly listen to downloads or, if I have a CD, I rip it into my computer and listen on Itunes or through my IPod. The difference in the sound doesn’t bother me. I fell in love with music on a transistor radio and nothing can ever sound better than that music did to me.
When I get a CD by someone I’m eagerly anticipating (a James McMurtry or a Steve Earle) I usually play it all the way through. But even then, I’m already looking for the best songs to pull off and keep in my Itunes jukebox. When I purge, I’m often happy with an album that has three or four songs worth keeping.
I have two main databases for music: one, that I consider my jukebox, has my three thousand favorite songs plus a few hundred to decide about. The other is more eclectic, has between 10 and 14 thousand songs, depending on when I purged Itunes last.
It’s a singles world for me, only it’s singles of my own choosing.
So why don’t I listen to more albums all the way through? Well, first, I grew up in an album world where one side of a record was 20 minutes or less. More than that seems long to me, and I’m ready to move on to something else. Second, most albums don’t have great songs all the way through. I’ve digitalized many if not most of my thousands of records, and it’s great to eliminate that song I never liked anyway.
The great thing about the modern world is that anyone can make CDs, no longer tied to the whims of large corporations. The bad thing is that anyone can make CDs, and there are a lot of bad ones out there. If I’m not already familiar with what I’m listening to, I’ll admit I’ve gotten to where I listen to pieces of the first 3 or 4 songs and if they don’t grab me, that’s it. CDs by friends go into a box in my garage because I know I may not have given them a fair chance and I’m more than willing to have my mind changed. Others that don’t grab me go to Goodwill.
I learn about new CDs from friends: Jeff Talmadge came over one day last year, handed me The Belle Sounds new album and said: “Put this on”, and it became my favorite album of the year. I learn from the radio (though less and less these days): mostly Sun Radio from Dripping Springs and Tom Petty’s show on SiriusXM, which sounds to me like an alternate Jim Patton, spinning discs and saying things like: “But have you heard the B side?” And I learn from hearing great songs by songwriters who inhabit the same world we do. It just takes one great song for me to be interested.
I don’t give songs more of a chance because 1) I already have a great collection and it’s tough to break into; and 2) because I’m a songwriter, I don’t want to listen to mediocre material. Garbage in; garbage out.
So two ways I listen are through shuffle play, either my ‘jukebox’ or the larger database. I also form miscellaneous playlists with whatever is new I’m hearing and want to hear again. For years I made miscellaneous tapes for my friends. This is like having a collection of them, eliminating the songs I didn’t like anymore. I also listen to short, 6-8 song versions of new CDs. And I make playlists for all my favorites, my own personal ‘best ofs”. Two years ago I listened to a David Broyles song where he claims all the best Kinks albums were the first ones, so I had to listen again (and again) to see if he was right. Three years ago I decided to study the underrated works of Paul Edward Sanchez, so that’s all I listened to for weeks. Last year, Lee Cadorette said he thought the Buffalo Springfield was overrated, so I listened to them a lot to see if that’s true. Or sometimes, like with The Belle Sounds or K.C. Clifford, I just fall in love with the music and that’s all I play.
I doubt that anyone listens to music the way I do. But because I listen so differently than say, even 15 years ago, I’m curious as to how you listen. Especially since we’re in the process of making our next CD. Do you take the time to stick with a new album all the way through? Do the first few songs make the difference? When we sequence a CD, I always think back to how I would sequence a record. That’s what I was raised on. I made my first homemade tape almost 45 years ago, and there was a side one, and a side two, and I’ve been making them ever since. I remember a lot of records that I didn’t discover the greatness of side two for months. Now I have to ask: do you even get to the songs that are on what would have been ‘side two’? We know that the sequencing still needs a flow, even while we try to make sure our best stuff is up front. And then of course: what’s the best stuff? How do we know?
How about the length of CDs? I like a 30-40 minute album, straight to the point. But CDs can hold as much as 80 min. Do you feel cheated?
And, just out of curiosity, who are you listening to these days? You can find most of what I listen to by checking out our top Itunes lists each year since the beginning of this blog. I’d like to know who you listen to and how you found them.
Recently at a show on the road, an old friend came up to tell me he was sorry about my brother. I didn’t know what he was talking about until he said: “You know, the drugs, ‘Son of My Father’,” which is a song of mine in which “my” brother ends up in the housing projects because of his addiction to drugs. Never happened; not to my brother. In that same song, “my” father goes to jail, something else that never happened.
I once sent my mom a clipping from Bar Harbor ME, thinking she’d be pleased to see us getting articles that far away. But the article ended by saying that the songs, especially “Son of My Father”, were clearly drawn from my own life. After that Mom wanted to follow me around the country, jumping up each time I played that song, shouting: “His father did not go to jail! His brother is not a junkie!”
Once we opened with “Son of My Father” here in Austin and afterwards one of my favorite songwriters said to me: “Is that first song about you? Because it would explain so much.” It might, if it was about me. It’s someone’s story, but not mine.
That doesn’t mean I’m not in it somewhere. Who, growing up, hasn’t sworn they’d never be like their parents? And the bridge, where the character asks what’s the difference between him and his addicted family, well I’m in there too, I guess, though talking to my friends, not my family.
But the point is that even in my most personal songs, everything is a story. I don’t think you can get much more personal than “Ballad of the Oxbow Inn” but even in that mostly true story, I take liberties with events, combine characters, and put in some things that just never happened because they make a better story. A song like “Another Pretty Deep Hole” combines several friends and events into one character.
I’m cautious about explaining too much here because it’s like a magician showing his tricks. In the best songs you do believe the singer and I don’t want to take that away from any of our audience. And it’s what the song means to you as a listener that matters.
Jeff Talmadge and I have a new song that illustrates one way we write and one way we push a song into new dimensions. It’s called “My Hometown’s Not My Hometown Anymore”, and it combines our different hometown experiences into one. Jeff’s small town is literally gone. He showed me pictures of closed and shuttered doors and windows, and tumbleweeds blowing down Main Street. My town, which I usually refer to as Swan Point in my songs, was a small town when I moved there that has been overrun by the suburbs, to where you can’t tell the difference between the suburban landscapes as you drive down Ritchie Highway.
But the experience the character has going back is neither of ours. In one line I sing: “No one knows my name” which is nowhere close to the truth for us. We’ve been playing to sold out crowds in Annapolis (Harbortowne in my songs) mostly to people who went to the same high school around the same time I did and it’s been wonderful. We love them all. When I sing “Everybody here has gotten out or gotten old” , it doesn’t apply to my life at all. But the song is more complicated than that. The place names are from “Swan Point”, but those places have been gone 40 years. The character feels to me like he’s in 1994 or so (the year we moved from Maryland), bemoaning the loss of a world he professed not to care about anyway, wondering if the kids he’s watching will figure it out earlier than he did. And that’s how you get to something new, or one way, anyway.
There are other dangers in taking what songwriters say too literally. I write from memory a lot; those experiences will never die inside me. When I was 22, my closest friend was killed in a car wreck and my first love broke up with me, all within a few months. I don’t need to have more tragedy to write about tragedy. I know what it feels like to be brokenhearted and lonely. In the paraphrased words of Chuck Berry, “I may be old, man, but I can remember!”
And as a songwriter I feel no compunction to be fair. I see each incident as a circle that I move around, writing songs from a different angle, moving on to the next one. Maybe I’ll get to ‘fair’ in the next song, but my latest is called “My Heart’s Turned To Stone” and I didn’t worry about being fair at all.
The Belle Sounds new CD plus their newer EP dominated our listening through 2014: gorgeous, shimmering pop music. Gene Clark’s CD was released a couple of years ago, I think, and is a collection of demos for his great White Light album from the early 70s. John Fullbright is hard to categorize, except as great young songwriter. The Garland Jeffreys CD was gifted to us by Eddie Walker, who wrote “Ordinary Life” on our The Great Unknown CD. Jimmy Lafave’s Trail CDs are his version of the Bootleg Series.