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Professor Knowall

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As seen yesterday, the epochal "Circle" album became a million-seller and recognised from both the country and
rock music press for its historical significance - which has grown over the years and particularly in the last few years.
The band had, by 1972, eclipsed the competition (e.g. the Byrds) as a "crossover" act, reaching country and bluegrass audiences even as their folk/rock listeners acquired a new appreciation for pioneer country musicians such as Roy Acuff and "Mother" Maybelle Carter. The NGDB succeeded with the "Circle" because they were willing to meet traditional country and bluegrass music on their terms and being respectful to the music veterans, rather than behave as
arrogant, blow-in smart-arse rock musicians ... but also showing their instrumental abilities.

During the year and a half that followed the success of the "Circle", Les Thompson left the group, reducing the NGDB
to a quartet. Their next album, Stars & Stripes Forever, issued in 1974, was a peculiar live album, mixing concert performances, including past hits Buy for Me the Rain' and 'Mr. Bojangles' with "Circle" collaborations (fiddler Vassar Clements - another veteran whose career had been revived to a new younger audience thanks to the "Circle" - was a guest performer) and dialogue. From the album, the 'Battle Of New Orleans', penned by Jimmy Driftwood (whose version is also worth a listen), was a huge # 1 single in 1959 for Johnny Horton (see post # 308). The NGDB also recorded a funky version of the song for their 1975 studio "Symphonion Dream" album, but I much prefer the fun up-tempo live version from 1974 -


The next NGDB album, "Symphonion Dream", released in 1975, featured guest appearances by country rock greats,
Linda Rondstadt and Leon Russell. Actor Gary Busey also played some percussion instruments. Their first pure studio recording since the "Circle", "Dream" is another very different earful sort of diverse, psychedelic country/bluegrass (hence my description of "funky" for the 'Battle Of New Orleans' version on this album). This odd mixture made the pop charts, not the country charts. However, 'Hey Good Lookin' - yet another Hank Williams classic, after the 2 featured yesterday - was a killer duet with Linda Ronstadt that goes down as the best from the album. The accompiament provided by the NGDB, including a pedaless steel guitar, deliberately had a retro, early fifties sound, honouring the Hank Williams original. Despite the inevitable inferior sound compared to the studio recording, I kinda like this live performance to look at -


Another superb cover from the occasionally brilliant, if inconsistent, 1975 album "Symphonion Dream" (the NGDB was still hanging on to its west coast cool counter-culture imageso as to not lose their college student and hip urban market at this time), the ethereal 'All I Have To Do Is Dream' was made famous by the Everly Brothers (see post # 393) -


in 1976, Jim Ibbotson left the lineup and was replaced by John Cable on guitar and Jackie Clark on bass. The band shortened its name to "The Dirt Band" and the group's sound became more pop and country rock oriented. In 1977, they became the first American group to tour the USSR, playing 28 sold-out concerts and a televised appearance watched by an estimated 145 million people. They also appeared on the second season of the PBS music program Austin City Limits.

Saxophonist Al Garth, drummer Merel Bregante, and bassist Richard Hathaway were added to the lineup in 1978. By now, the group, with Jeff Hanna as producer, had became a much more mainstream pop/rock outfit with a smoother sound. From 1975 to 1982, the band mostly charted only in the pop, not country charts. Their records were far less eccentric, although they continued to be popular - but to a more mainstream market. 'An American Dream', penned by Rodney Crowell (clearly influenced by Jimmy Buffet's laid back Gulf-Country sound) is from the 1979 album of the same name. Featuring backing vocals from Linda Ronstadt, it reached # 13 in the pop charts but only # 58 on the country charts - ironically, by today's standards, it would absolutely be considered as a country song, not pop -


Keyboardist session player Bob Carpenter (who occasionally sat in with the band from 1975 on) contributed to their 1978 album "The Dirt Band" and joined the band permanently in 1980. By 1982, however, they were back to their country roots, renamed back to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Jim Ibbotson was playing with them again. "Let's Go", released in the middle of 1983, heralded their return to country music, as a largely acoustic band. This album not only re-established their country credibility, it heralded a long run of success in the country charts.

The NGDB released 'Dance Little Jean' in 1983, the second single from the "Let’s Go" album, reaching # 9, the bands very first top 10 hit on the country chart. Jimmy Ibbotson wrote this totally sentimental, feel good song, hoping the lyrics would repair his marriage (which it did ... temporarily). This live performance is from the iconic country music venue, Church Street Station in Orlando. Most good country songs have usually sad or outright tragic themes. This is the absolute opposite. Even from the catalogue of feelgood country songs, they don't come more sentimental and sweeter than this -


We leave off for now in 1983 with the NGDB having left behind its now dated "quirky" west coast counter-culture image
in 1977 and then a mainstream pop/country rock group from 1977 to 1982 (The Dirt Band era) to finally totally embrace country genre (not only musically, but culturally) from 1983. This led to their greatest run of commercial success - but that's for tomorrow.
 
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Professor Knowall

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It’s noticeable that what was always categorized as soft rock or country rock songs in the early 1970s was re-categorized in the 1980s and 90s as country music. As Hip Hop, rap, grunge and even metal dominated the music charts and radio airwaves in the post 1970's rock and roll era, artists like the NGDB amongst others, turned to the country world, the one remaining genre in which clear, straight- forward, well written songs which told meaningful real life stories, still mattered. The 1980's saw the NGDB hit the height of their commercial success, with their great all round musical expertise and that smooth eighties sound to go with those well written songs.

NGDB's first # 1 hit, released in 1984 as the lead single from their album "Plain Dirt Fashion", 'Long Hard Road (The Sharecropper's Dream)', written by Rodney Crowell, is told through the eyes of the son of a sharecropper, who was forced to work long hours for little pay and tells of how his dreams take him to a better life. Anyone who has followed this history for a while would know by now (if they didn't already) that sharecroppers, of whom there were many millions, both black and white, in the South in the first half of the 20th century, before economic and technological changes forced a big majority to migrate to the cities (particularly the big industrial northern cities like Detroit and Chicago). Sharecroppers comprised the poorest of the poor, many in subsistence level dire poverty. A big number of our country music heroes worked real hard on their developing their musical talent to escape out of this grinding poverty (as outlined in the potted histories of so many in this thread). Yet, as established stars, many sang about the richness of their family upbringing even amongst all tthe poverty. So it is here, the lyrics are a nostalgic tale about a man reflecting on his childhood and
the things he misses from his childhood - even though he knew he had to get away to succeed -


Written by Kix Brooks (of Brooks and Dunn fame) and Dan Tyler, 'Modern Day Romance', was the lead single from the NGDB album "Partners Brothers and Friends". It was their second # 1 hit, spending a whopping 15 weeks there. If the lyrics don't seem so modern now to us, keep in mind this was in 1985, but even if no longer modern, it's still relevant.
For a very frequent traveller, it's a most relatable - perhaps a bit too uncomfortably relatable, which makes it a first
class song -


Jeff Hanna and Jimmy Ibotson wrote 'Partners, Brothers & Friends', the title track of NGDB's 1986 album, and the third single. It reached # 6. The subject of this NGDB song is ... themselves - it's an upbeat, toe tapping celebration of their being together 20 years, through many ups and downs and the bonds between the band members forged along the
way. The video has a couple flashbacks to their early days as well as an extended diner food sequence, one of the
hazards when on the road -


Songwriters Donny Lowery and Don Schlitz wrote 'Stand A Little Rain', the first single on the group’s greatest hits album, "Twenty Years of Dirt". It reached # 5. The song, which stand with contrast with their previous carefree hit 'Partners, Brothers & Friends', kinda sums life up in 3 chords because although we all want every second of every day to go the
way we want, that simply isn't possible, all of us have to stand a little rain occasionally - and sometimes stand a deluge.
But the song still ends optimistically, promising a 🌈 at the end -


Bernie Leadon, a founding member of The Eagles, played in the band from 1986 to 1988 filling a vacancy by longtime member John McEuen.

Jim Photoglo and Wendy Waldman wrote 'Fishin’ In The Dark', the group’s third #1 single and their most enduring big hit. The idea for the song happened when Photoglo visited Nashville and experimenting with chords, started playing the two together and laid down the song’s music. Waldman had finished reading "A Prairie Home Companion" by Garrison Keillor and just wanted to write a piece about fishing - or so he said. In 1987 the band released the album "Hold On" and the single went straight to # 1. If the song was released in 1971 it would've been # 1 on the pop charts for the simple
reason it’s a clever, well written and catchy song, regardless of genre or style - played by a band of experienced
first class musicians. It's also very swing danceable, like so many eighties country tunes -


All up, the NGDB secured 16 Top 10 hits between 1983 and 1989, including the 3 # 1 singles: 'Long Hard Road (The Sharecroppers Dream)', 'Modern Day Romanc' and 'Fishin' in the Dark'. From 1990 onwards, there are no more top 10 hits. But by now, the NGDB had become an institution in the country music scene, with plenty more to contribute. And though I had originally planned to conclude their history today in order to travel to S.A. tomorrow, this has now been delayed a day, so I'll be back tomorrow with more NGDB history from 1989 onwards.
 
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Professor Knowall

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In 1989, as a reflection of the changing times and in a seeming attempt to make sure everyone got the point that
the band was once again mining its country roots, they made "Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume 2" (aka "Circle 2"), reuniting with surviving country and bluegrass veterans from the original album such as Roy Acuff and adding a whole roster of new players, including Johnny Cash, Chet Atkins, Emmylou Harris, Ricky Skaggs, Roger McGuinn and Chris Hillman. The album won the Grammy for Best Vocal Performance (duo or group) and the CMA's Album of the Year
Award in 1989.

My favourite from that album is the simple, but joyous, 'You Ain't Going Nowhere'. Bob Dylan wrote it in 1966 as part of the legendary (and fortunate) "Basement Tapes" with The Band. The Byrds first (officially) recorded it in 1968 on their seminal country influenced (thanks to Gram Parsons) "Sweetheart of The Rodeo" album (see post # 560). Dylan himself didn't (officially) record it until 1971 - with some altered melody lyrics. There's long been discussions over the meaning
of the lyrics in both versions, and I won't go into any detail here except to provide 2 key clues - Dylan was on crutches, recovering from a broken leg in a motor-bike accident and he was eagerly anticipating the imminent arrival of his girlfriend back from Europe. The Byrds vocalist/guitarist, Roger McGuinn and vocalist/bassist Chris Hillman performed
this with their former rivals of the early 1970's, the NGDB, for the "Circle II" album. I have no idea why the clip here has scenes of Mindanao in the Phillipines, but Jerry Douglas' dobro opening is just perfect and the rest lives up to the start -

The Byrds' original 1968 recording of 'You Ain't Goin' Nowhere' caused a minor controversy between the band and
its author. Dylan's original demo of the song contained the lyric, "Pick up your money, pack up your tent", which was mistakenly altered in the Byrds' version by McGuinn, to "Pack up your money, pick up your tent". Dylan expressed mock-annoyance at this lyric change in his 1971 recording, singing "Pack up your money, put up your tent, McGuinn / You ain't goin' nowhere." McGuinn finally replied in the 1989 "Circle II" at the same line with "Pack up your money, pick up your tent, Dylan ...".

This beautiful collaboration with country folk and pop country music great John Denver, was also on "Circle 2". Given their common backgrounds in folk music in the 1960's, it was inevitable the NGDB and Denver would cross paths and they'd previously performed together at several folk festivals. It really doesn’t get more beautiful than this underrated piece. The haunting 'And So It Goes' showcases John Denver’s in both voice and spirit. The pairing of the NGDB with John Denver was a perfect match while Denver was still here with us -


Here we have the NGDB again reprising the anthem of the on-going tradition of country music, 'Will The Circle Be Unbroken', which concluded "Circle II", just as it did in the original 18 years earlier. Again, they had a few handy helpers ... being another bunch of absolute country music legends and the finest Nashville instrumentalists. This time, they had the foresight to make a video of the occasion, which names the participants as they have their turn. These include a few from the original album including Earl Scruggs and even Roy Acuff was still performing here -


By this time, the NGDB was working alongside any number of country/bluegrass crossover artists whose career paths were made easier by the first "Circle" record, including John Hiatt, Mary Chapin Carpenter, and Rosanne Cash. Their next several albums saw them never veering very far from their country/bluegrass roots. The group continued to record a new album every year or so, including a 1990 concert album, "Live Two Five", celebrating their 25th anniversary as a band , and the self-explanatory "Acoustic". In 1999, they returned with "Bang Bang Bang". John McEuen rejoined the band in 2001. This was then followed by the third installment of the "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" trilogy in 2002.

The sons of NGDB co-founders, Jeff Hanna and John McEuen, Hanna–McEuen was a duo comprising first cousins Jaime Hanna and Jonathan McEuen. Both sang, played guitar and mandolin. Hanna also played harmonica, while McEuen also played banjo. So for "Circle 3", in a case of a highly fruitful nepotism, their father's roped them to record 'The Lowlands'. This was written and first by performed in 1972 by bluegrass performing brothers, Andy and Gary Scruggs, sons of the greatest ever banjoist, Earl Scruggs. Gary Scruggs was responsible for convincing Earl to go see the NGDB at their first Nashville concert, which directly led on the first "Circle" album, as we saw 2 days back. This rendition shows the musical genes of Jaime Hanna and McEuen were well and truly passed on to the next generation -


Also on "Circle 3" is an outstanding rendition of 'Catfish John' with Alison Krauss. Written by highly regarded country music songwriters, Bob McDill and Allen Reynolds and first released on McDill's album, "Short Stories", it was most notably covered by Mississippi delta born singer, Johnny Russell in 1972 (until the NGDB with Alison Krauss came along). The lyrics of this song evokes the old South and especially the delta, with its riverbanks and ricefields - but also recalls the Jim Crow era of segregation and suffering of African Americans. Besides the outrageously talented Alison Krauss (who has already appeared once before here in post # 567 doing a duet with Robert Plant of the Mel Tillis written 'Stick With Me Baby), Jerry Douglas on his dobro really adds to the magic of this version -


After "Circle 3", the band earned an additional Grammy for “Earl’s Breakdown,” which they recorded with Earl Scruggs, Randy Scruggs, Vassar Clements and Jerry Douglas. Meanwhile, both 'Mr. Bojangles' and 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken' were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame. They brought out an album of all-new material, "Welcome to Woody Creek", in 2004. However, in a blow to the band, Jimmy Ibbotson left after the record and tour, finally having had enough of the road. They celebrated their 43rd anniversary with the stellar 2009 "Speed of Life" album, recorded live in the studio with some of Nashville's finest musicians providing instrumental and vocal help.

There's still one more event to complete the NGDB history (to date), but I'll save that for tomorrow.
 
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Professor Knowall

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The NGDB took a moment to acknowledge their incredible history by filming a 50th anniversary concert event at the motherchurch of country music, the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Guests for that Circlin’ Back special included early band member Jackson Browne, Sam Bush, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, John Prine, Jerry Douglas, Byron House, Jerry Jeff Walker, and longtime Dirt Band member Jimmy Ibbotson. The concert aired as a nation-wide PBS Pledge special in 2016 and won a Emmy for Special Event Coverage.

Though there's no public access to the PBS video yet without paying, the event was too significant to ignore here and there are passable (albeit not top quality) videos on YouTube. Once again we have the superlative singer and instrumentalist, Alison Krauss, whom we left off with yesterday. Given the NGDB's important role through the trio of "Circle" albums in working with and promoting pioneering and veteran country music artists, the song choice here of 'Keep On The Sunnyside' is most apt, being a song the "first family of country music", the Carter Family, first popularised this song way back in 1928 (see post # 118). Krauss, with the NGDB, again give a terrific rendition-


Jeff Hanna said veteran folk singer songwriter and all round musician legend, John Prine, was one of the first He asked to perform with them again at the Ryman 50th anniversary concert. Prince had performed 'Grandpa Was A Carpentar' with the NGDB on then"Circle 2" album back in 1989. Here, Prine reprises this same song, which he wrote in homage of his own grandfather and appeared on his 1973 "Sweet Revenge" album. He seems to be really enjoying himself here -


This selection has been chosen for the fact we have the whole original line-up of the NGDB on stage together, including Jackson Browne, 50 years after they had first formed, performing the Jackson Browne written 'These Days' (the original NGBB version which we saw 5 days back back on post # 674). This is the last time all the originals performed together. The clip starts with an introduction reminiscing about the time when Browne joined the band (albeit for a relatively brief period), 5 decades earlier when the band still in their formative phase -


This being a history series, I think I have to conclude with one last final rendition of 'Will The Circle Isn't Great', even though the amateur video/sound quality is far from great. Here we have founding members, Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter and John McEuen. They are joined by Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro, Byron House on bass, Vince Gill on guitar, Jackson Browne on vocals, Alison Krauss on vocals, Jerry Jeff Walker on guitar and Jimmy Ibbotson on guitar at the final song of the 50th anniversary concert in 2015 -


John McEuen left the band (again) in 2016, once all the 50th anniversary promotions and subsequent obligations had been fulfilled. Today, the NGDB consists of Jeff Hanna, Jimmie Fadden, Bob Carpenter (for years known as “the new guy,”) and Jim Photoglo, a friend of the band whose credits include co-writing their huge hit, “Fishin’ in the Dark”, as well as touring and recording with Carole King, Dan Fogelberg, and Vince Gill. Newest members Jaime Hanna and Ross Holmes also brought years of experience to the band. Hanna toured and recorded with The Mavericks and Gary Allan, while Holmes toured and recorded with Mumford & Sons and Bruce Hornsby.

The original band of long haired, counter-culture, layabout blow-ins from Long Beach, California introduced and revived the careers of forgotten country pioneer performers to a generation of new, young urban audiences, made bluegrass cool and have fully done their part in ensuring the circle of country music will remain unbroken.

I'm already on the road again (will mainly be in South Australia this time) and won't be back until just after Easter, so there'll be yet another respite from this history (in which I hope I've haven't made too many errors lately - I don't even have time to proofread) The next in line, a singer songwriter great who was promised at the end of Kristofferson's feature, will (hopefully) be presented then ... and there's a big clue to his identity in this post.
 

Professor Knowall

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Just in case anyone here was wondering where I've got to, I returned from my South Australian travels 3 days back, only to be struck down by a vicious gastro bug, which I've just got over - only to be unexpectedly called back to NSW for a week, so no more history until the week after next. So for now, I'll just leave you with the latest offering by Charley Crockett -
 

Professor Knowall

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I'm back again - for a week, but before I get into the next history instalment, I can't ignore the sad passing of Naomi Judd, of the 1980's country superstar mother-daughter duo from Kentucky, The Judds, who sang in the tight Appalachian harmony tradition (refer to The Louvin Brothers # 294-295, The Browns # 368-369, The Everly Brothers # 393-399). After suffering for years from anxiety/depression, Naomi took her own life just the day prior to when she and her daughter Wynonna were inducted in the Country Music HoF. I won't delve any further into their history for now,
saving it for later (if I ever get that far), but here is the report/obituary from the NYT -
And an example of their neo-traditional music that blazed so brightly in the 1980's before Naomi's ill-health intervened -
 

Professor Knowall

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John Prine. Great writer, great musician and great person. Saday another one lost to Covid. ... this interview with Sarah Kanowski from the ABC Conversations podcast is a beauty. Listen to it online or download the file and listen to it later.
John Prine — from Paradise to Nashville
Now this is a most prescient post for this thread - I'm going to refer back to this when the time comes.
Now, finally, that time has (finally) come. Until some unexpected travel intervened, I had originally intended to feature John Prine straight after Kris Kristofferson, due to Kris "discovering" Prine performing in a Chicago live music venue
and then taking him to New York City for a record contract and also to thematically group these two great songwriters together. And as Cliff said above, not just a great song-writer but great musician and person. And for his history, you can't do better than the ABC Conversations podcast linked above by Cliff - a history of his early years straight from the horses mouth.

A key aspect for me was that though he was born and raised in suburban Chicago and was influenced by the Folk music movement of the time and Bob Dylan in particular, he also identified with his Kentucky family heritage, was brought up listening to the Grand Ole Opry and idolised Hank Williams. This infused his own folk writing and performing with layers
of country music.

Prine wasn't born in the South but in a blue-collar Chicago suburb in 1936. His father, Bill Prine, a factory worker, would take John and his brothers out to the honky-tonks and play the jukebox. Pine later recalled - “He was a big guy – six-two, 250 pounds. He would go into bars and announce that if anybody thought about doing anything like fighting, they should get it over with, so he could have a good time.” Though the Prine family grew up in Chicago, Bill Prine drilled into the kids they were also from somewhere else - Paradise, Kentucky, a small coal-mining town where Bill grew up before moving north to find work. Prine recalled - “One time I went to school and they asked us all to find out where our roots were. It’s goin’ around the class, and the kids were going, ‘I’m Swedish-German’ or ‘I’m English-Irish.’ They got to me and I said, ‘Pure Kentuckian.’ ” (In 1971, Prine released “Paradise,” a song that became a country classic, covered by everyone from Roy Acuff to the Everly Brothers).

The family spent its summers in Paradise, where bluegrass was big, leading Prine to study Doc Watson–style Appalachian fingerpicking with his older brother, Dave. It wasn’t until he heard Dylan that he saw a future for himself as a song-writer - “Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash hooked up (for Nashville Skyline), that’s when I thought, ‘Man, there’s something there where their two paths crossed. My stuff belongs right in the middle".

But before he could pursue songwriting, Prine was drafted into the Army in 1966. He got lucky by being sent to West Germany instead of Vietnam, working as a mechanical engineer - “drinking beer and pretending to fix trucks.” He spoke later of how lucky he was, with many of his initial draft camp returning from Vietnam in wooden boxes. After coming back from Germany, Prine returned to his day job as a mailman. On his postal route, he worked out songs like 'Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore' – a comical indictment of misguided patriotism – and 'Sam Stone', about a vet who gets hooked on morphine during his service and comes home a different person.

Prine’s career took off fast. A couple of open-mic appearances got him a residency at the Fifth Peg in 1968, and then n 1969 a $1,000 p/w (big money back then) regular gig at Earl of Old Town, the center of the Chicago folk scene. The club was across the street from the Second City theater, and Bill Murray and John Belushi (who later helped Prine secure a slot as a musical guest during the second season of "Saturday Night Live") frequented his sets. Roger Ebert, then a young Chicago Sun-Times writer, stopped by one night in 1970 and wrote an article titled “Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in Few Words.” Then in 1971, Steve Goodman brought Kris Kristofferson to the Earl. Kristofferson later recalled - “By the end of the first line, we knew we were hearing something else. It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene”. Kristofferson soon invited Prine to New York City and introduced him onstage in front of an industry-heavy audience at New York’s Bitter End club. The next morning, Atlantic Records offered Prine a $25,000 contract. “This was my first night in New York, so it was like Oz to me,” Prine later said.

Prine's first self-titled album, released in 1971, containing songs he had written over the previous 5 years, wasn't a top seller. Both his somewhat raspy vocals and music was regarded as too country sounding for the folk/pop markets but too folk for the traditional country market. It's now regarded as a classic album with a string of great, cleverly written songs, showing a maturity and perspective of life seemingly well beyond his age of 24.

The first song off of his first album, 'Illegal Smile' introduced the world to Prine’s clever humor and inclination to storytelling through song. Juxtaposing a hard-knock life with the narrator’s ability to smile through it all, Prine said that the track is about the fact that, ever since he was a child, “I had this view of the world where I can find myself smiling
at stuff nobody else was smiling at
.” Who else besides John Prine could have the wit and wherewithal to sing the line -
“... A bowl of oatmeal tried to stare me down, and won ...”? It’s clever in the dryest way possible. Most of his fans have concluded that the song is about drugs. Prine said it was simply about his ability to find the funny in things that other people couldn’t. Whether you believe him or not, there’s no question it’s a sublime song -


'Hello In There' is the spirit of country music in a nutshell. Prine has always been capable of reaching out his hand and pulling people out of the dumps, but he really sounds like he’s sharing memories with listeners one-on-one on his front porch with this song. Whether it’s John and Linda in Omaha, Rudy at the factory or Davy from the war, we get an insight into the blood, sweat and tears of life. Rather than focus on youth or rebellion like most rock-edged songwriters in the 1970s, Prine employed a much wider human canvas. At a time when young people were shunning their elders, Prine took an emotional turn in the other direction. He had a special affinity for neglected old people. For someone in only their mid-20s to so perfectly capture the loneliness of old age was jaw-dropping back in 1971, and it’s still extraordinary to this day - “Ya know that old trees just grow stronger / And old rivers grow wilder ev’ry day /
Old people just grow lonesome / Waiting for someone to say, ‘Hello in there, hello
.'" -


There are few lyrics as sobering as this one from John Prine’s 'Sam Stone' - “...There’s a hole in daddy’s arm, where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin’, I suppose ...". Also from his 1971 self-titled debut album, this acoustic song lays bare the horrors of war long after combat has ceased - about the first Vietnam War era song to do so. Although Prine never served in the Vietnam war, he could empathise with the boot camp buddies who returned from the killing fields broken and traumatised by their experiences on the front line - only to be "welcomed" back by hostile protestors who hurled abuse and spat at them. Few recognised their condition as PTSD at the time, but Prine was the one artist
who seemed to feel their pain. This is their song. The protagonist succumbs to a drug addiction after his severe wartime injuries, and his children’s innocent, simplistic view of their father’s darkest demon just hits you like a barreling train. Speaking of which, there’s another powerful, slightly more vivid allusion to locomotives when Prine describes the cenre
of his main character’s universe, the rush you get from taking heroin -
“...And the gold rolled through his veins / Like a thousand railroad trains...” -


Prine wrote 'Paradise' after many visits to his parents old hometown in Kentucky and witnessing the devastation caused by strip mining around the Green River in the eastern part of the state. He was originally reluctant to record the song, which references Muhlenberg County, because he “didn’t think anybody would be able to pronounce Muhlenberg.” Fortunately, he did, and the song has since been covered by numerous artists, most notably Lynn Anderson in 1976 -


'Your Flag Decal Won't Get You To Heavan Anymore' had plenty of meaning in its relation to the Vietnam War, but it still feels especially pertinent today. “... Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for...” Patriotism won’t get you extra points with the man upstairs, but pacifism just might, at least per John’s reasoning. It’s a song about peace, and we can never have too many of those. Prine always had a way of making the chaotic calm and the overwhelming digestible. This time, he did it with a not-so-subtle swatch of protest -
"... “Your flag decal won’t get you into heaven anymore / It’s already overcrowded from your dirty little war..."


More on this great song-writer/musician and his insights into the human condition tomorrow.
 
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PatsFitztrick

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Excellently written again, Prof. Thank you.
I found John Prine by the tourist route, when I fell in love with Bette Midler's version of "Hello In There" on her debut album.
And I'm still a huge fan of them both.
 

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In 1971, in a front-page Sunday Magazine review, the major and influential big-city daily The LA Times reviewed John Prine's debut self-titled folk-country album, proclaiming it an instant classic and placed him in the company of Bob Dylan and Hank Williams as one of the nation's greatest songwriters. But as it happened, Prine didn’t become a superstar in
the commercial sense. The debut album, “John Prine,” never even reached the Top 100 of the pop charts and the only substantial airplay any of those 13 early songs received was via cover versions by Bette Midler (as PatsFitztrick pointed out above) - 'Hello in There' and by Bonnie Raitt -'Angel From Montgomery'. John’s biggest obstacle was a ragged voice that sounded just too country for pop radio and too pop for country radio. His songs also had a politics of their own - left wing in many like his anti-war material but then seemingly conservative in his sympathetic treatment of old people and troubled returned serviceman (both unpopular sentiments with the left wing youth of that era who often verbally abused and even physically assaulted injured or troubled Vietnam vets).

There was soon so much acclaim for Prine in the music community and press that he was widely hailed as the “new Bob Dylan” (the same way Bruce Springsteen would be a few years later). When these 3 artists met backstage at a Dylan show, Dylan wisecracked about how strange it felt having one new Bob Dylan on his left and another on his right. But Dylan was one of Prine's biggest boosters. He once described him as “pure Proust existentialism" (though I find listening to Prine far more interesting than reading Proust). Time now to get back to his music, starting with one more track from his 1971 debut album - and if one could consider a single song for a John Prine signature song, this would probably be the popular choice.

You won’t find very many 25-year-old male musicians writing from the perspective of an older woman, but Prine had a gift for storytelling that knew no bounds. Singing with grizzled vocals over rousing organs, Prine pleads with angels on 'Angel From Montgomery' to be saved from a loveless marriage, lost dreams and a life devoid of purpose. With lines
like “... If dreams were lightning and thunder was desire / this old house would’ve burned down a long time ago... ” and “... How the hell can a person go to work in the morning / and come home in the evening and have nothing to say ...” it’s understandable why Prine was so often compared to Bob Dylan throughout the course of his career. Originally included on Prine’s 1971 debut album, it drew fresh attention when Bonnie Rait released an incredibly sympathetic cover, an absolute knockout, on her 1974 album, Streetlights -


Prine's next album, 1972's "Diamonds In The Rough", again displayed the Appalachian "high lonesome" influences from his first LP and its bluegrass accompiament shows his love of traditional Kentucky music. From the album, 'Souvenirs' has lines laced with bittersweet nostalgic poetry and more world-weariness than any 26-year-old (the age Prine was when he wrote it) has a right to. What makes it all the more extraordinary is that Prine wrote it in just 20 minutes in the back of a cab on the way to a gig, simply because he thought he needed to write a new song every night to stop the crowd from losing interest -
“... broken hearts and dirty windows / make life difficult to see /
that’s why last night and this mornin’ / always look the same to me
...”


For people who love Prine’s music, there’s some small solace in listening to his songs about death, which have the same sense of mischief and acceptance as the ones about broken marriages (e.g. 'Mexican Home' or 'He Was in Heaven Before He Died'). In 'Please Don't Bury Me', the narrator is dead, and as angels explain to him how it happened, they also recap his last wish - to not be dropped into a cold grave, but to be put to practical use, as an organ donor - “I’d druther have ’em cut me up / And pass me all around". A kind of recycling anthem from his 1973 terrific third album, “Sweet Revenge" -


Prine has said that even as a child he always liked old people. This might be because of his grandfather was a musician who played guitar with such country artists as Ike Everly and Merle Travis, while his father was a tool-and-dye maker. Prine learned the guitar at the age of 14 from his grandfather and his older brother This track ranks among the most sentimental of his career. He evokes a time gone by when he speaks of his grandfather with reverence and love and
a vivid portrait in song of the strange little details that make up a person’s life. For example, Grandpa “... voted for Eisenhower ‘cause Lincoln won the War... ” (both were Republicans). There’s been stranger reasons why people vote
the way they do. There’s also a telling detail of the church described, with “... hearing aids in every pew...” This song originally appeared in the 1973 album "Sweet Revenge" Prine later reprised the song with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band on the 1989 "Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Vol 2" and then rerecorded it for his 2000 album "Souvenirs" -


The 1975 "Common Sense" album sound shocked the folk/country community with its reliance on husky vocals and booming drums, showing Prine was not an artist whose work could be pigeonholed. Prine returned to form with his acclaimed, stripped back to basics 1978 album, "Bruised Orange". From the album, 'Fish And Whistle' is an almost
chipper song with a lively melody, and a wry look at life and the afterlife. He seems to talk to both God and the listener about the slings and arrows of life, saying “You forgive us, and We’ll forgive You / We’ll forgive each other until we both turn blue.” He sings about getting a job scrubbing parking lots at only 50 cents an hour - but never mind, in the end all is forgiven and he'll just go whistling fishing in the heaven. In order to echo the title, there is a recorder or tin whistle doing cartwheels around the melody and lyrics. This was also rerecorded in 2000 for the "Souvenirs" album -


That's all for today. Tomorrow will have a couple more from the 1978 "Bruised Orange" album and then follow Prine's music into the 1980's and '90's.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Kris Kristofferson said about John Prine some 50 years ago - "He's only 20 some years old and he writes like he's 120 years old". That shows out in his songs right from the start of his career, both in the lyrics and subject matter. Prine seemed to possess insights into the struggles of life (e.g. the loneliness of old age, of mature age women stuck in bad marriages) beyond what one would expect of a young man. Today start's with a couple of more selections from John Prine's accaimed, 1978 acoustic "Bruised Orange" album.

In 'That's The Way The World Goes Round', Prine managed to channel an unwavering hope in a way that doesn’t sound trite or tone deaf. He sees the good in people in a way that might enrage others, but ultimately Prine always brings us back to our common humanity via stories of the everyday. This track has two verses - In the first, the narrator describes a drunk who “... beats his old lady with a rubber hose...” and in the second, the narrator gets stuck in a frozen bathtub (it’s hard to explain) and imagines the worst until a sudden sun thaws him out. Both verses illustrate the refrain - "... that’s the way the world goes round...". Even when circumstances are bad in Prine songs, he favors optimism and acceptance -

One fan who was touched by the song’s lyrics hadn't even been born yet. Her name is Miranda Lambert, who recorded a rockin’ version of the song in 2009 for her "Revolution" album.

One more from 1978's "Bruised Orange". Prine was sharpest as a songwriter when he peels off the protective layer around real life. 'Sabu Visits the Twin Cities Alone' launches from the teen Indian actor who starred in movies like Elephant Boy and The Thief of Bagdad in the 1930s and '40s - the chorus refers to “... the jungles of East St. Paul...” which was the hobo areas along the old train tracks on the East Side of St. Paul - a double reference to Sabu’s Hollywood promotion tours. But pry deeper and the song turns into a rumination about Prine's life on the road. Prine didn't stray into this sort of territory too often in the early part of his career, but songs like this set him up for the '90s and later -
"... The roadie got the rabies and the scabies and the flu..." -


With 1979's "Pink Cadillac" album, Prine took another unexpected left turn and recorded an electric rockabilly, produced at the famous Sun Studios in Memphis by the label's legendary founder Sam Phillips and his son Knox. "Pink Cadillac" was a tribute to Prine's love of rockabilly and the first-generation rock & roll.

Somewhat frustrated and disillusioned with the pressure and interference of his record company trying to make his sound more commercial, in 1984 Prine formed his own record company, Oh Boy Records, giving him the freedom to dive even deeper into traditional country music, collaborating with bluegrass musicians and finding influence in the genre's past. His fans, supporting the project, sent him enough money to cover the costs, in advance, of his next album. The label's first release was 1984's "Aimless Love", and under his own imprint, Prine's music thrived, as 1986's country-flavored "German Afternoons" earned a Grammy nomination in the Contemporary Folk category.

Few songs in John Prine’s back catalog have been recorded quite so many times as 'Speed of the Sound of Loneliness'. Listening to the original, you can see why. Written about the breakdown of a marriage, with such overpowering, rapid-fire force, it’s intense enough to be almost painful to listen to, much less imagine what it felt like going through, especially in lines like “... How can a love that’ll last forever / Get left so far behind...”. One of Prine's more personal reflections. Originally recorded for Prine’s 1986 album "German Afternoons", he later revisited it with Nanci Griffith on her 1993 album Other Voices, Other Rooms -


After 1988's "John Prine Live" Album, his first concert set, he released 1991's Grammy-winning "The Missing Years", co-produced by Howie Epstein of Tom Petty's Heartbreaker. This album featured guest appearances from Bruce Springsteen, Bonnie Raitt, and Tom Petty and was Prine's biggest commercial success to that date, selling nearly 250,000 copies. After making his film debut in 1992's John Mellencamp-directed "Falling from Grace", Prine returned in 1995 with "Lost Dogs and Mixed Blessings", also produced by Epstein, which earned him another Grammy nomination. It contained one of Prine's best songs.

A dark-as-night story about death, myth and fate that is too interwoven to let you pull out any verse that adequately conveys the song’s depth and purpose, this song is Prine at his lyrical best. 'Lake Marie' is one of the most literary songs in any genre, taking listeners through an epic tale about abandoned babies, crumbling marriages and even a double homicide. But it’s not just the series of events that make 'Lake Marie' so shocking and visceral, it’s the decidedly upbeat music behind the lyrics and the layers of questions that only a truly great song (or any piece of art, really) can conjure. 'Lake Marie' presents just enough information to leave us wanting more, trying to piece together a story with a meaning that's wide open for interpretation. It's a dazzling piece in which Prine interweaves stores of myth and fate and death with more depth and more poise than most songwriters could even dream of. Bob Dylan has called it one of his favorite songs of all time. It’s not hard to see why -


Prine had become known as something of a Nashville hellraiser, but his life changed after he married Fiona Whelan in 1993, 5 years after they met at a party in Dublin. He became a father for the first time at the age of 48, and Fiona, his third wife, became co-manager of Oh Boy Records, his independent record label. In 1998, while Prine was working on an album of male/female country duets, he was diagnosed with a squamous cell cancer on his neck. He underwent surgery and radiation treatment and in 1999 was well enough to complete the album, which was released as "In Spite of Ourselves", featuring contributions from Emmylou Harris, Lucinda Williams, Trisha Yearwood, Patty Loveless, Connie Smith, and more.

The title song from the album, 'In Spite of Ourselves' once again proves Prine’s prowess as a songwriter, storyteller and performer alongside folk darling Iris DeMent. The song appears on Prine’s first album of duets with exclusively female partners (the second being his 2016 release "For Better, or Worse"), but while the p reveals a hilariously cynical and defeated approach to love, 'In Spite of Ourselves is all about how love prevails not because of our best qualities but, more honestly (and humourlessly) in spite of some of our worst habits. DeMent sings about her undies-sniffing, beer-chugging, “wacked-out weirdo” with nothing but love, providing an insight into how most relationships really work in real life - no roses, chocolates and sweet nothings here - but a love song nevertheless, even with the comedy -


In 2000, Prine re-recorded 15 of his best-known songs (partly to give his voice a workout following his treatment, but primarily so his record company, Oh Boy, would own recordings of his earlier hits) for an album called "Souvenirs". Perhaps many at the time naturally thought that Prine, now in his mid-fifties and re-recording his earlier songs, would, like so many others artists, their creative youth behind them, now rely on his catalogue of past works to see him through middle age on a gradual but inevitable career decline. If so, they couldn't have been more wrong - as we will see tomorrow when the last stage of Prine's career sees his star shine brighter and even more revered than ever.
 

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Professor Knowall

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As a songwriter, Prine was known to be quick. In the early days, he would sometimes dash off a song while driving to a club. In March 2005, at the request of Poet Laureate Ted Kooser, John Prine became the first singer/songwriter to read and perform at the U.S. Library of Congress. Interviewed by Kooser, Prine said - “Sometimes, the best ones come together at the exact same time, and it takes about as long to write it as it takes to sing it. They come along like a dream or something, and you just got to hurry up and respond to it, because if you mess around, the song is liable to pass you by".

Then Prine released his "Fair & Square" album to rave reviews from Billboard Magazine, Rolling Stone and The Washington Post, amongst others. "Fair & Square" debuted at # 7 on the Internet Album chart and recorded the fastest rise to # 1 in the history of Americana radio. In 2006, "Fair & Square" won the Grammy for Best Folk Album. Just after the release of the album, Prine, in his always understated way, said - “It was just time. I had a bunch of songs. I'd started recording them, and it turns out, I liked them pretty well. So, now, I get to get them all just the way I like them - and then I get to let them go out to meet the world".

Every Prine song paints a picture, and 'Some Humans Ain't Human' reveals a portrait of the unkind. Prine songs are invariably empathetic and sympathetic - but this song is the exception to prove the rule. At 7 minutes, this track from “Fair and Square” is the longest on any of his studio albums. A cloud of slide guitar keeps this soft waltz afloat and allows Prine to express his disapproval of, if not contempt for, so-called humans who lack empathy for others. There’s a couplet clearly about president George W Bush and the Iraq war of that time, and Prine noticed that some audience members were surprised by it “I never tried to rub it in anybody’s face, but I thought it was pretty clear that I wasn’t a closet Republican.” he told the Houston Press. In his trademark dry wit, Prine tells us some people's hearts are made of “a few frozen pizzas,” and that they are just “... some ice cubes with hair / A broken popsicle / You don’t want to go there...”


Now for a song that Prine didn't write - but, as he explains in the preamble, he wish he did! 'Some answers are out there waiting for you somewhere. Others are already inside you, waiting for you to discover yourself. Prine contemplates the logistics of those questions on his appropriately harmonica-heavy (it’s the instrument of the road after all) interpretation of Blaze Foley’s 'Clay Pigeons'. In the preamble, Prine explains how Merle Haggard's rendition of "If I Could Only Fly" alerted him to the song-writing of Blaze Foley and hence led him to this song. Given that I'm not likely to cover the blighted life of Blaze, a friend and disciple of Townes Van Zandt, but like Townes, suffered from addiction and was then murdered at age 39, this provides the perfect excuse to present this great song, as recognised by Prine, who included it in his 2005 "Fair & Square" album. The prevailing theme of loneliness is found between the lines, just like many of Prine's own great songs -
“... I’m tired of runnin’ ‘round / Lookin’ for answers to questions that I already know ..."


In 2007, alongside singer and guitarist Mac Wiseman, Prine released the album "Standard Songs for Average People" (a very Prine like album title), a collection of the 2 musicians' interpretations of 14 folk/country classics. "In Person & On Stage", a collection of performances from various concert tours, appeared in 2010. In 2013, Prine had part of one lung removed to treat lung cancer. After the surgery, he was put through an unusual workout to build stamina - he was required to run up and down his house stairs, grab his guitar while still out of breath, and sing two songs. It worked - 6 months later, he was touring again. In 2016, Prine issued a follow-up to "In Spite of Ourselves", titled "For Better, Or Worse", another set of duet performances of classic country tunes. This time around, Prine's vocal partners included Kacey Musgraves, Alison Krauss, Miranda Lambert, Susan Tedeschi, Lee Ann Womack, Kathy Mattea, and Prine's frequent collaborator Iris DeMent. This became Prine's first big top-selling album, reaching # 2 on the country chart.

The release of "The Tree of Forgiveness" in 2018 ensured that Prine's career would end on an all-time high. Produced at the historic RCA Studio A in Nashville by Dave Cobb, it proved to be the fastest selling album of his entire career, a genuine major chart hit across the board, reaching # 5 on the pop chart, # 2 on the country, # 2 on the rock and # 2 on the indie charts hit # 1 on the folk chart. It earned 3 Grammy nominations and Album of the Year at the Americana Music Association Awards. Prine, after 5 decades, never one to prioritise chart success ahead of what he wanted with us music, now, at age 71, found himself more popular, revered and commercially successful than ever before - even, and especially with a new young market (another example of modern day young people preferring old over new).

Prine's wife Fiona had booked him long-term into a Nashville Hotel so that he could concentrate on bringing the lyrics of the record to life. When the album was released, he said - "She knows that after so many years on the road, I function better in a hotel. That way, if I wanted to write at 3 in the morning or 3 in the afternoon I could. There was no pressure". The result was a collection of some of the best songs of his career. As such, the lyrics of 'When I Get To Heaven' couldn't have been more apt -
"When I get to heaven, I’m gonna shake God’s hand / Thank him for more blessings than one man can stand / Then I’m gonna get a guitar and start a rock ’n’ roll band / Check into a swell hotel; ain’t the afterlife grand?”

Maybe Prine is up there right now, enjoying his rock and roll band and his swell hotel (I also love his use of that old word "swell").

Not many artists can say they wrote some of their best songs in the last 3 years of their career - especially when that career spans 5 decades! But John Prine, as it is abundantly clear, wasn’t most artists. For those 5 decades, Prine’s lyrical storytelling has been virtually unmatched, combining searing and witty lyrics with careful instrumentation, and 'Summer’s End' is no exception, capturing an overwhelming sadness seasoned with hope in this song from his last album. The lyrics could read like a musing on death, an invitation from an estranged family member to mend broken ties, a note from a longtime lover or partner post-conflict, or, if you’re of the spiritual type, even the call to return to one’s rightful home with God.

Come on home,” Prine sings over and over - “... The moon and stars hang out in bars just talking / I still love that picture of us walking...” It’s not flashy, but in an era where flashiness rules, it’s quietly beautiful, and leaves the door wide open for a listener’s interpretations. The track is both saturated in melancholy and unwavering in hope as a well-loved season of life comes to a close. And the song’s simple chorus beckoning the listener to “come on home / You don’t have to be alone” is made even more powerful by Prine’s accompanying music video revealing the devastating effects of the opioid crisis in middle America -


'I Remember Everything' is the last song Prine ever recorded; produced at the RCA studio in Nashville with haunting simplicity by master producer Dave Cobb – just voice and guitar. It was released in June 2020, 3 months after his death and became his first # 1. Perhaps his most beautiful song, Prine lyrically leafs through snapshots of his life, contentedly reflecting the images and memories with meticulous attention, charm and significance, capturing tiny details, from blades of grass to pools of butterflies and out of tune guitars. Unvarnished and atmospheric, it stands as the perfect expression of John’s life as a singer, writer, family man and poet and stands as the perfect goodbye from one of the great artists of our time -


In 2019, Prine was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame with a speech by Bonnie Raitt. Although not having top-selling albums until almost the end of his career, within the creative community, in fact, Prime was long held as a superstar - acclaimed over the years by John Lennon, Elton John, Bernie Taupin, Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Randy Newman, Merle Haggard, Pete Townshend, Elvis Costello, Neil Young, Leonard Cohen and Emmylou Harris. More recently, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Conor Oberst and Margo Price are among the dozens of top-level artists who toured or recorded with him. Prine twice won a Grammy for best folk album. All up, Prine won 4 Grammy awards from 13 nominations, including a lifetime achievement award in 2020. His body of work remains an American - and world - treasure.

For a person who always, from his youth, felt an affinity with old people, as shown in his song-writing (e.g. 'Hello In There' from 1971) and always sounded older than his years, was destined not to reach old age himself. In March 2020, Prine's wife Fiona tested positive for Covid and was quarantined in their home apart from him. However Prine, who in 2013 had a part of a lung surgically removed due to cancer, was hospitalized days later, experiencing Covid symptoms. John Prine, at the height of his career and popularity even after 5 decades, died on 7 April 2020 of complications caused by Covid at the age of 73.

John Prine. Great writer, great musician and great person. ...
So said Cliff, and what struck me was the bit about Prine being a great person (the rest was already a given). That's not something we can say about all the great musicians, but here it rings true - as it seems to me his greatness as a person is revealed not just in his life (where so many who met him spoke of his kindness and humbleness) but it's also revealed in his song-writing. Prine told the truth as he saw it with tender wisdom - combining honesty, compassion, empathy and homespun humour. He was incredibly endearing and totally unique. He wrote and sang about the problems of everyday life, about loneliness, the elderly, victims of war and those abandoned by the American dream, but did so with a blend of poignancy, suppressed anger, irony and sudden bursts of humour.

So I've finished tracking John Prine's outstanding career and performing, but I've not yet done with his music. It might take a day or 2 (I've got a very busy weekend), but I have one last "bonus extra" in mind.
 

Professor Knowall

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As I mentioned in his history, the reverence the music community holds for John Prine far outweighs his relatively modest commercial success. He didn’t have any big hit singles under his own name. A few more when his songs were performed by other people, but even there, not that many. Not enough to make him as important figure as he was, and still remains, in the songwriting community. The musicians who know John Prine’s music love John Prine’s music. You can hear that in the covers. They’re not necessarily reverent to his original arrangements, and in some cases they possess a vocal range and strength to bring out elements in a song that Prine's more limited vocals could not - but they are always reverent to the man himself.

After Prine's first chart-topping success, 2018's "The Tree of Forgiveness" album, covers of his songs are perhaps more common now than ever, as contemporaries such as Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson breathe new life into a catalog 50 years deep. However, with many really good covers to choose from, I disciplined myself to choose just 5 (mainly on just subjective grounds). So here's the 5 I came up with -

... I found John Prine by the tourist route, when I fell in love with Bette Midler's version of "Hello In There" on her debut album. And I'm still a huge fan of them both.
Well after that, I couldn't not have this on my final 5! A longtime Prine favorite and frequent cover by countless artists including Kris Kristofferson, Joan Baez and David Allan Coe, 'Hello in There' first featured on Prine’s 1971 self-titled debut. Bette Midler brought it to the attention of a wider audience in her cover, released on her debut album in 1972. Midler’s vocals shine on the delicate piano ballad and vivid story song about loneliness from the perspective of the elderly -


Originally included on Prine’s 1971 debut album, 'Angel in Montgomery' drew fresh attention when Bonnie Rait released an incredibly sympathetic cover on her 1974 album, "Streetlights". She has since said the song is the most important of her body of work. Dozens of artists, including John Denver and Tanya Tucker, have covered it on albums and live shows over the last 50 years, making this easily Prine's most well-known song but Raitt’s version, in particular, is an absolute knockout, uncovering some of the song’s dormant melodies. Her cover not only stands out as the greatest but as the defining songs of her career. Not only did she turn the song into a quiet anthem, her cover helped elevate Prine’s career as an artist. I could write countless sentences about this cover and still not capture its solemn beauty, which has transcended its time and will likely help keep Prine’s name alive for decades to come -


Bonnie Raitt formed a bond with Prine through this cover and has continued redefining the song again and again with her live performances. She has also played it alongside such artists as Lyle Lovett, Rickie Lee Jones, Ruthie Foster and with Prine himself on multiple occasions. On hearing of his death, Raitt compared Prine to Mark Twain for his combination of tenderness, wisdom and “homespun sense of humour”.

Prine, for all his wit and willingness to plunge into social commentaries or raw emotions in his songs, wasn't above writing just an occasional simple, tender, poetical, romantic song - and the king of Texas, George Strait, wasn't above recording one of the best of these romantic Prine offerings, taking his breezy rendition of 'I Just Want To Dance With You' all the way to # 1 in 1998. Prine had previously cut the song for his 1986 album "German Afternoons". Strait gave the song his typical West Texan makeover, with a gentle Western swing 2-step rythm along with plenty of Spanish/Mexican guitar, fiddle and accordion accompiament - a perfect slow number for those big Texan swing dance halls as well as a national
# 1 hit -


Amos Lee released his memorable rendition of Prine’s 'Speed of the Sound of Loneliness' in 2005, in which his whispered vocals are at the forefront of the ballad as he showcases Prine’s vulnerable lyrics. The stripped down track includes delicate plucks of the acoustic guitar, highlighting Lee’s slowed and emotive singing style while reintroducing Prine’s
song from 1986’s "German Afternoons" to the masses -


Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon released his haunting cover of 'Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)' as a B-side to his single 'Towers' in 2012, following its release on the 2010 compilation album "Broken Hearts & Dirty Windows: Songs of John Prine". Vernon’s version transforms Prine’s original into an intriguing musical arrangement with layered vocals that seems to give the sound and even the feel of a small church choir ensemble singing the poignant lines about difficult times while urging not to get angry or bitter -


John Prine was one of the best ever song-writers, right up there with the likes of Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Townes Van Zandt and Kris Kristofferson. He has sadly departed but his music will live on.

I'm about to be sent to the Northern Territory for the next 2-3 weeks, so there'll be yet another break from the history. When get back to it, I have another great singer-songwriter in mind who broke through back in the seventies.
 
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Professor Knowall

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Before I go away for another couple of weeks, I have to mark the passing of another country great at age 86, Mickey Gilley, a versatile singer and actor whose name is synonymous with the 1980's "Urban Cowboy" era that he, more than anyone else, popularised. His career, starting in the 1960's, encompassed much more than just that, encompassing rock'n'roll, soul and traditional country, having 7 # 1 hits in the mid-seventies before striking huge success with the
whole 1980's pop-country "urban cowboy" sound. He was equally, if not more, famous, for his iconic "world's largest honky-tonk" Gilleys in Pasadena, suburban Houston, opened in 1971 before he became a star, with it's bucking mechanical bull that inspired and was the setting for the 1980 movie "Utban Cowboy", spawning hundreds of
imitation nightclubs, including Billy Bobs in Fort Worth.

Gilley performed right to the very end, doing 10 gigs in April before returning to his Branson Missouri home and taking ill.
Gilley's 1980 interpretation of Ben E King's oft-covered soul classic, 'Stand By Me' -
 
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stax on the mull

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This is quite a good country style song from a folkie. Paul Siebel - Nashville Again.

The lyrics at times suggest a wavering resolve and leave doubt about the outcome of the journey of a fellow setting out to revisit a past love. It seems forlorn "here's hoping that she knows me when I stand outside her door" and he's accepting that she might not want him back "if she's found herself a good deal I guess I can't complain" but there's a galloping pace to the rhythm that spurs him towards his destination "but I can't turn back no more".

 
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stax on the mull

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Roger Ebert, then a young Chicago Sun-Times writer, stopped by one night in 1970 and wrote an article titled “Singing Mailman Who Delivers a Powerful Message in Few Words.

That was Prine's first review. Roger Ebert had been sent by the Chicago Sun-Times to review a movie that he wasn't enjoying and he wanted to wash down the taste of some salty popcorn so he left the theatre and went across the street to a bar where he saw Prine playing. Instead of writing up a movie review he wrote up a music review. There are several stories about this night online and parts of the review are quoted - and the original review was available to read for some time around the time of Prine's death, though I think at the moment the link back to the newspapers archive requires a sign in. Worth a read if you can track it down. Prine said he never had an empty seat after that review.

 
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Professor Knowall

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I'm back in town from the N.T. for a week - just enough time to cover another great singer songwriter - one who stands comfortably amongst the songwriting greats like Hank Williams, Townes Van Zandt, Kris Kristofferson and John Prine. Although his writing didn't possess the wit and humour of Prine, he was no less poetical and his music more melodic. Though sometimes entering into social commentary (as Prine often did), his best song-writing explored the inner world of feelings of emotions that so many of us might otherwise hide from the outside world. Like Prine, both heavily influenced by Merle Travis, he became an excellent guitarist (he actually became better with age). But his vocals were always much smoother than the raspy, nasally Prine, which ultimately led to him having much greater commercial success for his own performances. One more thing - unlike nearly everyone in this history, he was no Southerner or of any Southern ancestry - in fact not even an American, but, like the great Hank Snow (see posts # 202-204), a Canadian. But unlike Snow, who became a powerful part of the Nashville establishment, our new artist always proudly kept his domicile in Canada

Gordon Lightfoot was born in Orilla, Ontario in 1938. His mother had an interest in music and recognized her son's talent at an early age; he was singing in church at the age of five and came in second in a local talent competition when he was ten. At 12, Lightfoot began studying piano and voice, learning the rudiments of both pop and classical styles, and after winning a Toronto Kiwanis Festival music contest in 1951, he performed as part of a special concert at Toronto's Massey Hall (widely regarded as Canada's equivalent to New York's Carnegie Hall in terms of prestige). After Lightfoot's voice broke, he taught himself to play guitar and began performing with a folk group called the Teen Timers, and also took up drumming and singing with a barbershop quartet.

After graduating from high school, he moved to Los Angeles in 1958 to study orchestration and jazz composition at the Westlake College of Music. While Lightfoot found work singing on demo recordings and commercial jingles in Hollywood, he didn't care for life in California, and returned to Toronto in 1960 to focus his efforts on folk and country music. In 1960, he became a member of the Swinging Eight, the in-house group on the popular Canadian TV series "Country Hoedown", a position he held for 2 years, and formed a duo with fellow singer Terry Whalen called the Two Tones. While the Two Tones were popular enough to play at Canada's famed Mariposa Festival and release an album in 1962, the duo was short-lived, and Lightfoot gave Europe a try in 1963, spending some time in the UK hosting an 8week BBC-TV series, "The Country & Western Show". By this time, he had begun playing occasional solo dates, and had a regional hit in Canada with a moody pop ballad, 'Remember Me (I'm the One)'.

Lightfoot had written perhaps 75 songs, when he was caught up in the country music scene and folk revival of the time; Bob Dylan's music and, in particular, the song 'Dark As A Dungeon'. This song was a turning point for Lightfoot, the first example of what became his unique singing style and the first recording of him playing Travis style, which would become one of his trademarks. This picking style was originated by Merle Travis - who wrote 'Dark as a Dungeon' (see posts # 184-186) and began approaching his songwriting in a new and more personal style.

Lightfoot's sound was centred on his baritone voice and folk-based 12 string acoustic guitar. From 1965 to 1970, master lead guitarist, Red Shea, was an essential component along with bassists Paul Wideman and John Stockfish. Ian & Sylvia Tyson, the popular and talented Canadian country folk duo (albeit largely unknown in Australia), heard Lightfoot performing some of his new material at a Toronto club and were so impressed they added some of his songs to their repertoire. Ian & Sylvia also brought Lightfoot's songs to the attention of their manager, who signed Lightfoot to a management contract in 1965, followed by a recording contract with United Artists. Now it's time to hear his music.

Though Lightfoot was still mostly onknown to the general public, from 1965 onwards a number of major artists began recording his material most notably Peter, Paul & Mary (who enjoyed hits with 'Early Morning Rain' and 'For Lovin' Me') and one of country music's greatest ever, Marty Robbins. The great Lightfoot song 'Ribbon of Darkness' (a metaphor for depression) was a # 1 hit for Robbins (see post # ), in 1965. Robbins commented on his album notes that he sang the song in Lightfoot's style (right down to the whistling), based on a demo recorded by Lightfoot in Nashville in late 1964 that he sent Robbins, hoping he could turn it into a hit. This was a rare occasion when Marty sang a song that wasn't his own or owned by his publishing company - he must have realized what a great song it was when he first heard it -

A few years later, Connie Smith also scored a top 20 hit with her version of this song.

Lightfoot has often cited 'Early Morning Rain' as one of his all-time favorite songs. Although he wrote the song in 1964, it was actually inspired by his time in Westlake, Los Angeles, in 1960. Whenever Lightfoot felt homesick, he would visit L.A. International Airport on rainy days to watch the planes coming into land. A few years later, he was looking after his then 5-month-old son when he suddenly decided his memories of the experience would make a good song. He was right.

'Early Morning Rain' stands as one of his most covered songs. The song was first recorded by his fellow Canadians Ian & Silvia in 1965. That same year, the hugely successful New York folk group Peter, Paul and Mary released the song and enjoyed more success with it than any other artist. It has since become a folk country standard, covered by such legendary artists Bob Dylan, The Grateful Dead, Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis. I've chosen the original Ian & Sylvia Tyson version - not only because it was the first, but I prefer it over the more widely known Peter, Paul & Mary cover -

Although Lightwood would go on to surplant Ian & Sylvia Tyson in popularity on his way to becoming Canada's greatest singer-songwriter, the duo can still lay claim to Canada's unofficial anthem, 1963's 'Four Strong Winds' - not only was it a major hit in Canada and ensured their stardom, but decades later, the song was named as the greatest Canadian song of all time by the CBC-Radio program "50 Tracks: The Canadian Version".

In 1966 Lightfoot released his first solo album, simply called "Lightfoot!", earning favorable reviews and modest commercial success. It's still considered as one of his best (albeit the least sophisticated in production), with a catalog of the best songs he had written over the previous 5-6 years, including one that had, in 1965, provided another hit for Peter, Paul & Mary, reaching # 5 in the AC charts. The lyrics for 'For Loving Me' was inspired by Bob Dylan's 'Don't Think Twice, It's Alright', but was, some decades later, described by Lightfoot as "The most chauvinistic song I ever wrote". Chauvinistic or not, many a rambler could relate to this -
"... So don't you shed a tear for me / I ain't the love you thought I'd be /
I've got a hundred more like you, so don't be blue / I'll have a thousand 'fore I'm through ..." -


In 1967 this song, retitled 'That's What You Get For Loving Me' provided Waylon Jennings with his first top 10 hit.

'Song For A Winter's Night' was released in 1967 on the album "The Way I Feel".
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It’s interesting to compare the original version to the one Lightfoot recorded for his greatest hits package entitled "Gord's Gold"
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in 1975. Only 8 years later, Gordon’s voice was much deeper than he had sounded in the 1960s. This filmed version, in front of mostly young, transfixed college students, shows Lightfoot quietly achieving serious attention from a captivated audience simply through the lyrical quality of his song - in an age before mobile phones -


The title song from the 1968 album "Did She Mention My Name", like 'Song for a Winter's Night', if you take in the lyrics, you can almost feel you're in the exact location, with the same mood and feeling while listening to this song. You know that town you lived in and left (well I do) - and where there was a certain someone left behind there you just can't forget? So here, when the singer catches up with an old home town friend, he asks a few questions about his old home, like if the local team is still winning etc - but there's really only one thing on his mind. The song doesn't answer the question repeatedly asked in the lyrics - but we sure know she lives in his mind. Lightfoot's 12 string guitar adds to the beauty of this gem, which contains some little lyrical pearls along the way -
"... Does the laughter on their faces still put the sun to shame ..."
"... tell her hello from an old friend, there'll be no need to explain ..."


Between 1966 and 1969, Lightfoot recorded 4 studio albums and a live LP for United Artists, and he had become well-known to the point of being a star (especially amongst university students) in his native Canada, where his albums spun off hit singles and he began headlining annually at Massey Hall to sold-out crowds. But in the U.S., where he chose not to base himself (unlike other Canadians such as folk rock star Neil Young and folk jazz star Jodi Mitchell), Lightfoot's songs were best known in the industry only through recordings by others and he was still little known to the wider public. All this was to change in 1970, as we will see tomorrow.
 

PhatBoy

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Playing at pubs and functions in country NSW the proliferation of people who ask for country music has grown exponentially in the last few years.

As it does, my tolerance for what passes as country music today diminishes.

I have a spot in my musical heart for country. I love Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, people of that ilk who sung about badassery and desolation and things like that.

When I first had to learn ‘chicken fried’ for a wedding I thought the bottom of the barrel was on our doorstep: cold beer on a Friday night and a pair of jeans that fit just right - oh wow you’re so unique compared to all the people who hate cold beer and prefer their jeans not to fit.

Recently I had to learn a song called I Wish Grandpas Never Died.

Is that seriously what passes as a popular country song now? It’s literally just an arbitrary list of things that mean absolutely nothing, wrapped in cliche and Americana and it makes me sad that people swallow it so easily.
 

Professor Knowall

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Playing at pubs and functions in country NSW the proliferation of people who ask for country music has grown exponentially in the last few years.

As it does, my tolerance for what passes as country music today diminishes.

I have a spot in my musical heart for country. I love Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, people of that ilk who sung about badassery and desolation and things like that.

When I first had to learn ‘chicken fried’ for a wedding I thought the bottom of the barrel was on our doorstep: cold beer on a Friday night and a pair of jeans that fit just right - oh wow you’re so unique compared to all the people who hate cold beer and prefer their jeans not to fit.

Recently I had to learn a song called I Wish Grandpas Never Died.

Is that seriously what passes as a popular country song now? It’s literally just an arbitrary list of things that mean absolutely nothing, wrapped in cliche and Americana and it makes me sad that people swallow it so easily.
Welcome to my crusade! Roughly about every 6 months or so, I can't help myself and go on a little rant to two on this very subject and about bringing back real country music e.g. I posted this back in December -
Now I'm back from the bush, I've been thinking about this post. I suppose I could throw in Sturgill, Stapleton or Jamey Johnson, but to me the question reminds me how much that authentic country music has been sidelined over the past 20 or so years ... as in truth none of these names have, up until the last 12 months or so, the public stature (or sales) of any of the Highwaymen (to which could easily have been added legends like George Jones and Merle Haggard). This is mainly due to the record companies (now multinational corporations like Sony), marketing straight out pop music as "Country" (e.g. Luke Bryan and Georgia Florida Line) while sidelining authentic country artists by labelling their music as "Americana" ... but the resistance to this has been growing and it seems things are now changing for the better.

Tyler Childers correctly identified the problem - ironically in a speech at the 2018 "Americana" music awards -
As a man who identifies as a country music singer, I feel Americana ain’t no part of nothin. It is a distraction from the issues that we are facing on a bigger level as country music singers. It kind of feels like ‘Purgatory’.”

And last he reinforced the message, before winning this years 2021 CMA Entertainer of the Year, showing his message has finally got through -
"... It was at the Ryman which is the Mother Church of Country Music and they’re holding the Americana Awards which I feel is a big hindrance in maintaining more true-to-roots country music. And everybody always talks about the state of country music and puts down commercial country and [says] ‘somethings gotta be done’ and ‘we need to be elevating artists that are doing more traditional country’ but then were not calling those artists country artists, they’re getting put into this Americana thing. It is what it is, and I don’t really know how to define what Americana is. We’re our own thing, it’s a new time, and I don’t know what it’s called but I’ve been calling it country, you know? I think a lot of times it’s kind of become just a costume.”
 

Professor Knowall

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By 1970, Lightfoot was a big name in Canada but still a relative unknown in the US. - no doubt not helped by his decision to remain living in Canada. Then along came what would become one of the 3 timeless classics of his career, 'If You Could Read My Mind', and suddenly, Gordon Lightfoot was the name on everyone’s lips and on the voice on everyone’s radio. An amazingly evocative portrayal of the break up of his first marriage, it combines heartfelt poetical lyrics with one of the most powerful vocal performances of his career. The guitar playing, meanwhile, needs to be listened to to be believed. It topped the charts in Canada, but more importantl, peaked at # 1 on the US AC chart, # 5 on the pop chart and entered the Top 30 in numerous other countries including Australia and U.K. Gordon, at age 32, had finally arrived as a major performing star as well as a truly great songwriter.

While Lightfoot rarely wrote about his personal experiences, this song is about his divorce from his first wife with whom he had 2 children - probably why it's so brilliant. While the vocals are raw and emotional, the lyrics exploring the inner turmoil of both parties, the song composition itself is very careful and measured, using subtonic chords - in short, it is both genius guitar playing and the most heartfelt poetic lyrics with so many great allusions. A bulls-eye hit on reality of heartbreak, a deep romantic love that just can’t workout to a happy ending - and the guilt of being with someone who, after some years together, is still very much in love with you - but you know you have to leave them I could go on at length about the genius of the lyrics here as it brings certain memories and feelings back. This song is, for me, as good and personal as it gets -
"... If I could read your mind, love / What a tale your thoughts could tell /
Just like a paperback novel / The kind the drugstore sells /
When you reach the part where the heartaches come / The hero would be me / But heroes often fail
..." -


'Summer Side Of Life' from 1971 is from the album of the same name - his 7th album, less than 7 years after his first. The lyrics point to the naivety of the young soldiers going off to fight in Vietnam, while the music never hints at seriousness. Lightfoot, like many country folk artists, did not do many protest songs but the ones he did were subtle and had meaningful commentary. The album itself was different in style from the preceding ones, including electric instruments and backing singers -


Lightfoot's 1972 album "Don Quixote" is possibly Lightfoot’s most concentrated album of quality songs. With Ry Cooder on mandolin, 2 songs about the sea (a subject in which Lightfoot, who grew up far from the ocean but close to the Great Lakes, developed an increasing fascination), and a protest ditty that was his most folk offering. The title track from his 1972 album 'Don Quixote' was inspired by one of my favourite books (I've read Cervantes' masterpiece several times over). In Lightfoot's hands, 'Don Quixote' seems to represent society’s attitude toward ideals like honour, justice, equality, etc - basically, you have to be crazy to truly believe such nonsense. Lightfoot manages to extend this metaphor - more “progressive” society pays plenty lip service to some of the afore mentioned ideals, but only really cares more about the appearance of such, not the actual reality -


'Ode To Big Blue' is a ballad about the life of a whale - a big blue whale, which may sound a bizarre choice of subject material, but bizarre can sometimes be beautiful and engaging. Here, it’s practically transcendent. Written at a time where they were still being actively hunted and driven to the edge of extinction. The song draws the listener in to be interested in the battle scars of an ocean-bound mammal, which is no mean feat -


Another track from the 1972 "Don Quixote" album, 'Beautiful' is probably Lightfoot's most underrated song. Used in the soundtrack to the controversial road movie "Brown Bunny", it's a song that travels far without going anywhere. ‘Beautiful’ proves that one does not need to follow the usual song structure with choruses, verses, and a bridge, and this is by no means an outlier - many of Lightfoot’s songs are more like poems with rhymes and natural rhythms rather than the traditional form. This song is beautiful - a true love song without any pain, heartache and despair, but the sort of lyrics to hook in the one you desire -


So we leave off in 1972 with Gordon Lightfoot now a major international star and a legend in Canada (where his stardom even outshone the likes of 2 other great Canadians musicians, but both now based in the U.S. - folk-rock legend Neil Young and folk-jazz legend Jodi Mitchell). Interestingly, though Lightfoot had previously charted some singles in the Canadian Country charts, in the early seventies his songs were charted in the Pop and AC charts. To me, though, I have no qualms at all, with the advantage of hindsight, placing his music well within the folk-country genre and belongs in this country music thread. More, of course, tomorrow - including the second of Lightfoot's 3 timeless classic songs.
 

Professor Knowall

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We're now in 1974, the year in which Gordon Lightfoot reached the peak of his popularity, with the second of his 3 all-time, classics, a haunting song with a veiled threat of violence, which became his biggest hit. Though I don't rate it's lyrics as quite as poetical, meaningful or profoundly insightful as 'If You Could Read My Mind' (but that's setting the bar really high), it still another masterpiece of songwriting - and of delivery.

What goes on in a relationship when day becomes night? Apparently a lot, as Lightfoot confessed in this deeply personal hit from 1974. 'Sundown' is a beautifully constructed, highly evocative song that plunges the depths one may go to in order to keep a relationship afloat. As dark as the relationship itself, 'Sundown' has been described by Lightfoot as a “back-alley kind of tune. It’s based on infidelity – I’ve seen both sides of that".

There has always been a sense of mystery about this song. Some have said the lyrics - about the crazy depths that a relationship can take a person to - were inspired by Lightfoot’s one-time volatile relationship with Cathy Smith - who later was involved with comedian John Belushi, and served 15 months in prison for her pivotal part in his death. Lightfoot has never confirmed or denied the theory, but in 2008 he said - “I think my girlfriend was out with her friends one night at a bar while I was at home writing songs. I thought, ‘I wonder what she’s doing with her friends at that bar!’ It’s that kind of a feeling. ‘Where is my true love tonight? What is my true love doing?’ I guess a lot of people really do relate to that. That’s part of romance…that wondering,” - without referring to Smith by name -
"I can see her lying back in her satin dress / In a room where you do what you don't confess /
Sundown, you better take care / If I find you been creeping 'round my back stairs
..."

This song of brooding jealousy became Lightfoot’s biggest ever hit, reaching # 1 on both the U.S. and Canadian pops and AC charts, # 4 in Australia and finally became the first Lightfoot song to be charted as a country song in the U.S. - albeit it only reached # 13 in the still tentative country charts. This makes it a very rare triple cross genre hit in the seventies.

Next up, 'Carefree Highway', Lightfoot uses the open highway as the time honoured country music metaphor of seeking escape in the mind - in this case from his thoughts of a long-ago failed relationship with a woman named Ann. Lightfoot has since explained that Ann was actually a real woman with whom he had a brief but devasting fling when he was 22 - “It was one of those situations where you meet that one woman who knocks you out and then leaves you standing there and says she’s on her way". Yep - that can happen to any of us sometimes. Released as the second single from his 1974 album, "Sundown", it went to # 10 on the U.S. pop chart and again topped the U.S. and Canadian AC charts, his third to do so, as well as becoming his 3rd # 1 in the Canadian country charts -
"... Searching through the fragments / Of my dream shattered sleep / I wonder if the years have closed her mind? /
I guess it must be wanderlust or trying to get free / From the good old faithful feeling we once knew
..."


'The Watchman's Gone' is another from the 1974 "Sundance" album. At first seems to be about the classic country theme of the railway hobo, hopping trains and traveling the land (remember, both Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson hopped freight trains and travelled across the country in their youth). But hobos had to look out for the Watchman. It was his job to catch train hoppers and kick them to the curb. Hobos would wait until he wasn't around then jump on a train to somewhere - anywhere - just to take them away from where they were. But listen to the lyrics and it becomes apparent Lightfoot is using the railway hobo theme as a metaphor for personal freedom - and to watch out for those that are out to impede your freedom -


In 1975, Lightfoot released the excellent album "Cold Shoulder", containing one of Lightfoot’s romantic, dreamy and sensitive, songs 'Rainy Day People'. We’ve all been there, haven’t we? Staring aimlessly out the window, wishing for the rain to gather up and wash away the dirt and debris from our lives. But in truth, the lyrics reveal the song isn’t actually about lovers of rainy days but a moving number about those quiet people you don't hear from every day, but who, having been through there own past troubles, have an uncanny knack always for showing up and being there just when you need them. Released as a single, it became his 4th U.S. and 5th Canadian # 1 AC hit -


From the 1976 album "Summertime Dream", Lightfoot's 4th # 1 Canadian album, 'I'm Not Supposed To Care' is another beautifully crafted Lightfoot song whose elusive lyrics can be interpreted several ways. Is it describing the parting of two lovers? Or of the bittersweet pain of unrequited love? Or is it the farewell of a parent to their now grown up child who is leaving the family home? It can work for all three scenarios -


Tomorrow will follow Lightfoot's career to the present day - and include the third of his all-time classic songs.
 

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