The Unbroken Circle is a recurring feature where we discuss classic country songs.
I normally frame a conversation about a song featured in this series with an artist over its writer (unless, of course, the artist is also the writer or a co-writer), but “Green, Green Grass of Home” is a tough song to associate with just one artist. On the surface, a song about a prison inmate facing death row doesn’t sounds like it’d appeal to so many listeners, let alone the many artists that have recorded a version of it throughout the years, or be relatable to their experiences.
But, like with a similar tale in Merle Haggard’s “Sing Me Back Home,” the appeal lies in forcing listeners to see these characters as people first and foremost, no matter what their backgrounds are or how they came to be where they are today; we’re introduced only to the present version of these characters, and we only know them for approximately three minutes. Indeed, with “Green, Green Grass of Home” specifically, we’re made to believe it’s merely about someone revisiting childhood memories, and about the joy that said memories and personal nostalgia can bring as well as the heartbreaking reality that we’ll only ever be able to revisit them in our minds – never to actually relive them again. Only at the end is it revealed that the person walking through these memories is who he is, and just like that, we’ve related to, sympathized, and empathized with a crook.
That’s a similar feeling writer Curly Putnam experienced prior to writing this song. As the familiar tale goes, he struggled in Nashville as a writer before finding his break with Tree Publishing as a song plugger. The inspiration to write this particular song came after watching The Asphalt Jungle, starring actor Sterling Hayden in the lead role: a bank robber who tried to do right but, ultimately, fell in with a bad crowd and resumed his ways, leading to a police chase and, consequently, his capture and death. The kicker? He was within view of his old country home up on a hill, just before the police caught up to him.
The movie stuck with Putnam, and the song was written fairly quickly. The only problem was that, in 1964 – an era responsible for ushering in the lush polish of the Nashville Sound in an effort to combat country music’s traditional image – many within the industry thought the song sounded dated, like something Hank Snow or Webb Pierce would have recorded 10 or 20 years ago. Several artists would prove those industry insiders wrong, however, and the result was something of a domino effect.
Kelso Herston was a guitar player from Alabama who recorded the first version of the song, and when Johnny Darrell – who ran a Holiday Inn on West End Avenue and had just signed with United Artists – decided to record it, Herston produced Darrell’s version. His version did decently well (and ironically enough, he’d had a successful country version of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” … over two years before Kenny Rogers made a huge pop hit out of the song), but Porter Wagoner took it the top five and, at least in country music, has recorded the definitive version of the song by matching his low, weathered tone with that of a character at the literal end of his rope. Plus, Wagoner was a fan of recitations in music, so he chose to recite the last verse of the song rather than sing it, and all subsequent versions of the song afterward have since featured it, too.
From there, the snowball effect continued. Jerry Lee Lewis recorded his own version, and Tom Jones recorded the biggest version of the song (in terms of airplay and royalties), taking it the top of the pop charts in 1967. Many more versions have followed since, though none have captured the success or quality of what came before. As for Putnam, he went on to celebrate more songwriting milestones in country music history. He penned Dolly Parton’s first charting single, “Dumb Blonde” (1967), Tanya Tucker’s “Blood Red and Goin’ Down” (1973), Tammy Wynette’s chart-topping “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” (1968) and a duet between her and David Houston in “My Elusive Dreams” (1967). And though it’s hard to say who “Green, Green Grass of Home” really belongs to, the same can’t be said for another little song he helped pen called “He Stopped Loving Her Today” – George Jones’ career-defining record that will no doubt be a future conversation piece for this series.
Putnam was also elected to the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1996, and recorded his own version of “Green, Green Grass of Home” as part of his 2010 Write ‘em Sad – Sing ‘em Lonesome collection, six years before his death in 2016. And thus, we’ll never know what that character did to end up in jail. Maybe it was something truly terrible, or maybe it was a run of bad luck. Either way, in confronting the uncomfortable and making listeners understand everyday tattered characters, it’s no doubt cemented itself as a classic that, like the memories detailed, can – and will – always be revisited.