In my endeavor to release myself from the pressure of keeping up with every single new release this year, I’ve retreated back to nostalgia and simplicity a lot lately. I’m having a blast with ‘Fifteen Favorites,’ and the following is something as simple as that feature. Simply put, this will be my way of discussing – and unlike other features here, recommending – older songs that I’ve been listening to lately. I’m an album person mostly, but this will be a fairly loose way of recapping what has been in my listening rotation and hopefully unearthing forgotten gems or hidden deep-cuts that may not receive as much (or any) love today.
Anything and any artist is eligible, though this feature won’t concern itself with material released within the past three or so years (which, yes, means that if this moves into next year, songs from 2018 will then be eligible, and so on and so forth). My hope is to offer somewhat of an insight into my listening habits while also covering as many eras as possible. It’s meant to be fun and random, but also kind of purposeful, if that makes sense. Oh, one last one thing. Unlike basically any other feature here, this is meant to be a loose examination of these songs filtered mostly through loose anecdotes and other fun facts, rather than an in-depth, critical one. Background and context will be the more important discussion points here.
OK, OK, one more last thing. I’d be remiss not to mention that, for those who’ve been following this blog since its earliest days, you may remember something similar to this called the Melting Pot, which now exists as its own sub-feature for a variety of topics here. If you’ve been following me specifically for years, you may remember that my former co-writer at Country Music Minds, Andy, had a feature similar to this called Classic Cuts. That, as well as my fondness for my WNIA Radio days, is the main instigator and inspiration behind this feature. Anyway, onward!
Townes Van Zandt, “Rex’s Blues” (written by Townes Van Zandt)
Truthfully, I’ve been spinning the studio version of this lately, but I want to revisit Live at the Old Quarter at some point soon. It’s just such a perfect fall album, and perfect for night-time listening or when you just want to sit and think about things. Despite Townes Van Zandt’s relative lack of commercial appeal throughout his career, I always liken the album as something of a revisit with an old friend. This version is one I’d recommend first.
Anyway, “Rex’s Blues” is basically about the founder of the titular venue for that aforementioned album, but it’s not really a personal song meant as a tribute or anything like that. If anything, it’s got my favorite opening line of any Van Zandt song ever: “Ride the blue wind high and free, she’ll lead you down through misery / And leave you low, come time to go / Alone and low as low can be.” I’ve always interpreted it as a strong desire for life itself yet also an inability to pace one’s self, thus ending things before they even begin. Pretty tragic when considered through Van Zandt’s perspective, but I think it’s one of his few songs with an overall optimistic sentiment, even despite the turbulence to get there. Steve Earle and James McMurtry have also recorded great versions of this song.
Patty Loveless, “Timber, I’m Falling in Love” (written by Kostas Lazarides)
Here’s the thing: I still buy CDs. I love ‘em. They’re easier to store than vinyl and less of a pain in the pa-tooty to get going with, and I have the freedom of ownership that digital doesn’t allow. I also love wandering the few places that seem to carry them these days as part of the thrill of the hunt. I didn’t necessarily need it, but I bought a Patty Loveless greatest hits at, of all places, my local Goodwill store recently, and it accompanied my weekend listening alongside these songs and new albums from James McMurtry, Connie Smith, and Sturgill Simpson. “Timber, I’m Falling in Love” isn’t quite my all-time favorite Loveless song, but it’s close, and a jam and a half with a great melody and an expressive hook to boot. It was also Loveless’ first No. 1 song, and helped to extend one of the strongest discographies in country music history ever. It’s never a bad time for a Patty Loveless song. Fun fact: songwriter Kostas claims to have written this with his dog, Sonny.
Nanci Griffith, “Beacon Street” (written by Nanci Griffith)
I wasn’t expecting the first edition of this series to be a tribute to fallen legends, but it only seems right given the heavy week country music has had. Nanci Griffith’s biggest radio hit was a top 40 song, and yet her impact on the genre extends far beyond it. As I recently pointed out, she was a songwriter who got to push her brand of challenging, beautifully alluring country-folk alongside other offbeat poets like Lyle Lovett and Robert Earl Keen Jr. and find some exposure from it. Thankfully, both Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss recognized talent when they heard it, as they made hits out of Griffith’s own “Love at the Five and Dime” and “Outbound Plane,” respectively.
She hit a snag with her commercial run around the late ‘80s, but found an artistic rebirth through 1993’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, a collection of songs penned by songwriting legends like Townes Van Zandt and John Prine, and from there, her golden run boasts some quiet masterpieces. Fun fact: 1995’s Flyer features Darius Rucker … back when he was part of Hootie and the Blowfish. Anyway, “Beacon Street” has always been a quiet favorite of mine, a track that finds a character haunted by a lost love on the titular street who replays the end over and over again even despite wanting to find a fresh start. It’s a good reminder that while we can run from our ghosts of the past, we can’t hide from them. Terrific mandolin work, too.
Tom T. Hall, “I Love” (written by Tom T. Hall)
I went to bed Friday night energized by the new music released that day, and woke up the next morning to find that Tom T. Hall had passed away. And so while Friday consisted of all new material for my ears, that day I needed a close friend to reassure me. Sadly, most of Tom T. Hall’s albums are out of print and unavailable even online, but literally any greatest hits compilation will do, as will In Search of a Song, a 10/10 classic album.
As for what to say … well, I’m at a loss. Hall’s songs didn’t deal just with conventional country song topics like cheating and drinking; they dealt with the everyday life of common folks. And Hall told those stories with the precision of an observer, the wit of a great humorist, and the honesty of somebody who has lived everything he’s written about. I’ve chosen to highlight one of his biggest and simplest hits for this feature, a checklist ode to things he loves that’s filled with so much warmth and underplayed sincerity, that it feels more like a moment of reflection and thanks rather than the silly little song it’s always been billed as. To paraphrase a quote from his masterpiece autobiography, The Storyteller’s Nashville, I don’t want to say goodbye, but rather just view Hall as a person who’s still around but someone we don’t hear from much anymore. The songs live on for him.
The Everly Brothers, “Bird Dog” (written by Boudleaux Bryant)
If you know your country music history, you’ll know that rock ‘n’ roll almost destroyed country music … and yet the Everly Brothers didn’t really have anything to do with that. Their management and songs came from Nashville, and their main strength – the brother duet – was a country music tradition extended for the (then) modern age. Actually, it was arguably the Beatles that halted their commercial run, but what a run it was. Any of their singles are sure to bring a smile to your face, and while “Bird Dog” isn’t one of their absolutely essential songs, it’s always been a personal favorite, if only for its pure infectiousness and self-aware silliness. Phillip Everly died in 2014, and just this past week we lost Don Everly, truly ending an era. Thankfully, the songs their daddy taught them will live on.
Emmylou Harris, “Easy From Now On” (written by Carlene Carter and Susanna Clark)
This Carlene Carter and Susanna Clark-penned tune has seen its share of covers – my own first exposure to it was through Miranda Lambert’s 2007 Crazy Ex-Girlfriend album – but Emmylou Harris is the artist to truly immortalize it, as she’s known to do. I’ve already written about her important contributions to and legacy within country music, and this song of desperation (that isn’t too far removed from Nanci Griffith’s own “Beacon Street” from before) has always been a quiet favorite. I love the subtle frustration that creeps into wanting to truly start over while shedding away the hurt caused by this ex-lover, especially when carried by a master interpreter like Harris. “It’s gonna be easy to fill the heart of a thirsty woman, and harder to kill the ghost of a no-good man” is one of my favorite lines ever.
Keith Urban, “You’re Not My God” (written by Paul Jefferson and Keith Urban)
As a child of the 2000s, I have to admit to finding Keith Urban’s brand of pop-country a compellingly consistent listen throughout the decade. Things took a rocky turn around the mid-2010s and, sadly, haven’t gotten better, but again, his older material is always worth a revisit. I won’t try to argue that it’s essential or anything, but the man had solid guitar chops and knew how to write a melody and hook. He rarely went dark with his material, though, which is what makes “You’re Not My God,” a track from the pretty great Golden Road album, so interesting. Despite the title, it’s not an overtly religious song, nor is it inaccessible to certain audience members. Instead, it’s a compelling statement on greed and how it destroys otherwise good people. For as much as I enjoy Urban’s uptempo hits – particularly for his brand of sunnier charisma – this song proves that he could have punched a little higher at times.
Also, back in the day when the hidden track was considered an art form (and oh, how I miss it), a little ditty called “One Chord Song” came attached to this that, admittedly, is a pretty fun way to waste a few minutes.