Pancho and Lefty

A cover of Townes van Zandt’s border bandito song “Pancho and Lefty.” Van Zandt was one of the great Texas songwriters of the 1960s-1980s, of roughly the same generation as Guy Clark and Willis Alan Ramsey. I picture this song taking place on the Mexican border near the beginning of the twentieth century at a time when trains and cars overlapped with horses and wagons. We never really get a clear picture of what Pancho and Lefty actually did or how they fell out (though the implication seems to be that Lefty betrayed Pancho), but van Zandt’s terse lines paint evocative, almost cinematic pictures.

Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard made the song famous during the 1980s with their cover of it, and I was first exposed to the song through their version. I later discovered van Zandt’s original and much prefer it, though my own version probably borrows indiscriminately from both. (more…)

King of the Road

Roger Miller wrote many great country tunes, and this may be his greatest. He had a wonderful gift for wordplay. His repertoire ranged from the quirky (“Roses are red, violets are purple/sugar is sweet and so is maple surple”) to the serious (“It’s my belief pride is the chief cause of the decline in the number of husbands and wives”). King of the Road has the adventurous feel of a hobo road trip. It is fun for me musically because of the way it modulates before the bridge. Like many guitar players, I once struggled with barre chords, and this song was one of the ones that helped me overcome that struggle. (more…)

City of New Orleans

This song is an American classic written by the country/folk master songwriter Steve Goodman (also known for David Alan Coe’s quirky country hit “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”). It describes the voyage of the Amtrak City of New Orleans line from Chicago to New Orleans across middle America. Amtrak discontinued the City of New Orleans service for a period during the 1990s, but I believe it is up and running again. Sadly Goodman’s description of “fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders” holds about as true now as it did in the 1960s when the song was written.

Goodman has a wonderful ability to play with you ear in his lyrics. Consider the line in the last verse “The conductor sings his song again/the passengers will please refrain.” To those who have never ridden a train: at each station, the conductor makes an announcement asking the passengers to refrain from flushing the toilets while in the station. Goodman picks up that line (i.e. the conductor’s song) and seems to be asking the passengers to sing along (“refrain” in the musical sense of the word) as the train makes its voyage through the darkness and fades out of our lives.

When Arlo Guthrie covered this song, he changed Goodman’s lyrics in the first verse to “passing trains that have no names” and lost part of the point. (Willie Nelson used Arlo’s lyrics in his cover of the song). As the train rumbles across rural Illinois, it passes through dozens of faceless small towns with no train stations and the less glamorous industrial suburbs of the cities. I’ve recorded it using Goodman’s original lyrics.

Riding on the City of New Orleans
Illinois Central, Monday morning rail
Fifteen cars and fifteen restless riders
Three conductors and 25 sacks of mail

All along its southbound odyssey the train pulls out at Kankakee
And rolls along past houses, farms and fields
Passing towns that have no names
And freight-yards full of old, black men
And the graveyards of the rusted automobiles

Good morning America, how are you?
Don’t you know me, I’m your native son?
I’m the train they call the City of New Orleans
I’ll be gone 500 miles when the day is done

Dealing cards with the old men in the club-car
Penny a point, ain’t no one keeping score
Pass the paper bag that holds the bottle
And feel the wheels rumbling ‘neath the floor

And the sons of Pullman porters and the sons of engineers
Ride their father’s magic carpets made of steel
Mothers with their babes asleep
Rocking to the gentle beat
And the rhythm of the rails is all they feel

Good morning America, how are you? . . .

Nighttime on the City of New Orleans
Changing cars in Memphis, Tennessee
Halfway home, we’ll be there by morning
Through the Mississippi darkness rolling down to the sea

And all the towns and people seem to fade into a bad dream
And the steel rails still ain’t heard the news
The conductor sings his song again
The passengers will please refrain
This train has got to disappear in railroad blues

Good night America, how are you? . . .

I Would Change My Life

Another gem from Texas songwriter Robert Earl Keen, Jr. This is from one of his earlier albums. At the time he was known mostly for drunken party songs like “The Road Goes on Forever.” Many people never got past those songs to see Keen’s versatility and skill as a songwriter. I particularly love the rhythm of the words in the beginning of the second verse: “I have spent my hours on some misbegotten dreams/I have spent my money on some foolish-hearted things/and I have spent my memories on old and bitter wine.”

As always, enjoy and feel free to share! (more…)

You’re a Big Girl Now

In 1965, Bob Dylan was booed off the stage at the Newport Folk Festival for abandoning his folk roots for electric guitars and rock and roll. During his electric phase, he produced some great albums such as Highway 61 Revisited and Bringing it All Back Home and some enduring songs such as “Like a Rolling Stone.” His musical collaborations with The Band during the late ’60s and early ’70s still hold up well today.

In 1974, Dylan returned to his folk/acoustic roots with Blood on the Tracks, perhaps his greatest album. Bits of the album borrow from Dylan’s electric phase, but maintain the deep, lyrical sensibility of his early work. “You’re a Big Girl Now” has some of Dylan’s best lyrical work on an already great album. My particular favorite line is the last one: “I’m going out of my mind/with a pain that stops and starts/like a corkscrew to the heart/ever since we’ve been apart.” This cover isn’t a note-perfect recreation of the album so much as my own personal spin on this Dylan classic. (more…)

L.A. Freeway

Guy Clark was one of the great songwriters of the last fifty years. His music shaped the Texas singer-songwriter scene alongside other worthies such as Steven Fromholz, Townes Van Zandt, Willis Alan Ramsey and more recent musicians such as Robert Earl Keen and Lyle Lovett. In the late 1960s, Guy and his wife Susanna moved to L.A., but it didn’t work out there. They ultimately settled in Nashville, though Guy maintained strong connections in Texas throughout his career.

Guy passed away this summer after many years of health issues. He leaves a towering legacy among American songwriters. This song is one of my favorites of his. (more…)

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