Sunday, August 19, 2007

The Best Songwriting Week Ever?

Don't sleep—this guy is one of the baddest living songwriters.

Just a little more on music here, folks.

I don't suppose you'd find it much of a surprise that a large number of Black folks are not fans of Country Music. It doesn't take a whole lot of digging to suss out the reasons for the often visceral dislike for the genre.

For a lot of African Americans, the music represents pain, and the purveyors of said pain—for the most part, the beneficiaries of Jim Crow, or Southern Whites. For that group, Country Music is beloved, and for the Blacks who had to live through the hell that was Jim Crow—even after migrating away from hotbeds of that music, it still reminds them of something that was enjoyed by the oppressor—making it anathema to the oppres-ee. My own mother and father's reactions to Country Music were quite telling—but not isolated. If something came on TV, or the radio that had the sound of a banjo in it, off that device would be turned. “CLICK!” I remember watching an episode of “The Beverly Hillbillies” as a child, and that episode featured a cameo by the Bluegrass duo, Flatt & Scruggs. About five seconds into their musical number—“CLICK!”—off it went. The sound of keening pedal steel would raise the tension in our house measurably. Mama and Daddy's being born and having spent a large chunk of their lives in a Klan-infested corner of North Carolina would forever skew their outlook on seemingly benign things to me, but deep, resonant issues for them.

And with any near absolute, there are exceptions. There were three “Country” musicians who my father not only appreciated, but actually liked. One was Johnny Cash—he was just...“different” from the others, according to Daddy. Deeper discussion of Cash with Papa revealed that it was Cash's proud egalitarianism, and open eschewing of the close-to-the-bone, redneck tendencies of the dominant Country Music culture. Another guy he appreciated was George Jones, who my father called “Country's Sinatra”, for his way of putting a song across emotionally.

And the last one...was Willie Nelson. Daddy in an earlier life sang in a seminal group of the early Rock era, and in that capacity found himself along with his group, listening to demos, and auditioning songs that they'd perform. He was something of a “head” when it came to appreciation of songwriting, and he had a deep appreciation of Nelson's craft.

“Fuck 'Country', that dude's just a helluva pop songwriter. He's damn good.”, Daddy would say.

It wouldn't be until my adult years when I would hear more of Nelson's music, often covered by others, that I would come to realize what Daddy had known for years—that Willie could seriously rock the bells when it came to laying notes and words to Staff paper.

Willie wrote so many songs that could be called “Country Standards” (and eventually plain, old standards) of the post-Rock-and-Roll era, that it could well be said that he was the pre-eminent Nashville scribe of that period from 1958 to around 1965.

What song of Willie's was it that moved my father into his camp? It was the plaintive, yet trenchant and ironic evergreen, “Funny How Time Slips Away”—particularly the cover version (the Country hit was by Billy Walker) by the stratospheric tenor, Joe Hinton in 1964.

But here's the “crazy” part—the song was originally written in the late winter of early 1961 and taken to Country hit status by the then-star Billy Walker. And in the same week Nelson wrote “Funny”, he wrote another all-time classic. From the Country D.J./Icon Ralph Emery's book “50 Years Down a Country Road”:

“When I first came to Nashville, I moved into a trailer out in Madison with my wife and our three kids.” Willie explained. “Hank Cochran, who encouraged me to move here and signed me to Pamper Music, was just moving out of the trailer. As soon as he was out, we were in. Every day I made the drive in to the Pamper Music office in Nashville, and I wrote songs in my head all the way.

One of those weeks I remember turning in three songs, and two of them were 'Crazy' and 'Funny How Time Slips Away'. Those two songs have been pretty good to me. 'Funny How Time Slips Away' is my most recorded song.

That week stands out in my mind for something else, though. I was real worried about how I was going to come up with twenty-five dollars for the oil bill.”

Yeah. You read right. Willie Nelson wrote “Funny How Time Slips Away” and “Crazy’—which he would offer to Patsy Cline later that year—in the same WEEK!

Writing ONE hit song in your life as a professional is a million-to-one shot. Writing two is I imagine , more than twice as unlikely, odds-wise. Now imagine writing not just two hit songs, but two STANDARDS in the same ever-lovin' week? How do you do that? They're not soundalikes—but they do both plumb the depths of recent loss of one's love in a jazzy, bluesy way. Both songs stand mightily on their own as standards of the highest order, and you just have to stop, tip your cap to the ol' “Red-Headed Stranger” and as we say 'round the way, “recognize”. I was absolutely stunned when I stumbled across the chronological tidbit about the songs in Emery's book.

And the guy was worrying about how he was gonna pay to heat the damn house that week as well? Wow. I have nothing but respect for great songwriters. It's such an intriguing craft. An ethereal talent. Like picking up water with a fork for even the decent ones doing it. It reminds me again of that post of Jesse's about being a professional. If this ain't it, I dunno what is.

I mean, I've never heard of two songs of that caliber being written in such a short span of time, and I consider myself quite the music “head”. So props to you, Willie for that phenomenal week. If you'd never done anything beyond that, you'd still be a wonder—but damned if you didn't. Here are YouTube videos for both tunes—listen, and enjoy both the art of the performers and the art of the songcraft itself.

And by all means, feel free to add in comments any anecdotes you may have about great songwriting feats.

Funny How Time Slips Away—as performed by Joe Hinton

Crazy—as performed by Patsy Cline