Thursday, June 22, 2017

Horsehead Five: Another List of Favorite Story Songs

Story songs can be a tough sell.  They're like a juggling elephant.  You believe it when you see it.  Or in this case...hear it.  One too many forced or telegraphed rhymes and the listener will bail.

A story song requires a bit more commitment from the listener.  It has to maintain a comfortable balance of words and melody in the telling...without forfeiting the point of the tale.  Plus, and this is a biggie for me, the song must ring with a modicum of truth.  And I don't mean the song has to be truthful.  It just needs to sound believable.  Sincerity never hurts.  I mean, Jim Stafford's "Wildwood Weed" may not be literal truth, but we believe it.

Finding that sweet spot is tricky.  And can be risky time spent in the studio.  The replay value for a story song decreases much faster.  The majority, but for the treasured ones, is played a few times and then quickly relegated to the blue moon bin.

But when a story song captures the genie, the listener will give it up.  They will tune in, appreciating the effort the singer and songwriter take keeping their balance on the beam.  Because's just hard.

I'm going to skip the giants like "The Wreck of the Edmond Fitzgerald" or "Taxi" or any number of Dylan and Springsteen tunes.  On this mini-trip, I'm just gonna mention a few other songs that scratch my itch.  (part 1)

"The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia" - Vicki Lawrence (1973)

"...little sister don't miss when she aims her gun."

By the time the first five notes reach your ears, the table of tension has been set.  A little southern-noir crime of passion.

"Randall Knife" - Guy Clark / "Better Days" (1983)
"When we got back to the house, they asked me what I wanted.
Not the lawbooks. Not the watch. I need the things he's haunted."

I think our memories are filled up less with grand fireworks and more of the perplexing minutiae of life.

"John Wayne Gacy, Jr." - Sufjan Stevens / Illinois (2005)

"And in my best behavior 
I am really just like him.
Look beneath the floor boards 
for the secrets I have hid."

Sometimes a feather is more frightening than a hammer.
Sufjan's ethereal voice singing about such a dark and sad character creates a conflict of emotions that is truly disturbing.

"The Road Goes On Forever" - Joe Ely / Love and Danger (1993)

"Sonny's playin' 8-ball at the joint where Sherry works
When some drunken outta towner put his hand up Sherry's skirt.
Sonny took his pool cue laid the drunk out on the floor
Stuffed a dollar in her tip jar and walked on out the door."

Joe Ely didn't write this, but I like his version.  By the time Ely finishes the song, you're out of breath with a head-shaking...'ain't that the shit'...feeling.

"Operator" - Jim Croce / You Don't Mess Around With Jim (1972)

"She's living in L.A. with my best old ex-friend Ray.
a guy she said she knew well and sometimes hated."

It's a dark night, but I can see a lonely man in a dimly lit, beat-up phone booth on the corner of Anywhere, USA.
Like Adele, this is Jim’s way of saying, "...don't forget me, I beg."

"The Ballad of Curtis Loew" - Lynyrd Skynyrd / "Second Helping" (1974)

"He used to own an old dobro, used to play it across his knee.  
I'd give old Curt my money, he'd play all day for me."

People often forget how good this song is.  I don't care if it's true or not.  I'm seeing lots of barefeet running up the holler, eyes peeled for tossed-off bottles of orange crush in the weeds.  Play it and sing it like you mean it and they will come.

"Highway 17" - Rodney Crowell / The Houston Kid (2001)

"He made his mistake out on Airline Drive, you know those North Houston cops are quick.
They blew a hole in J.D. the size of Dallas and put a lump on my head with the brunt of a nightstick."

Rodney sells the story to the nines. Sings it like he lived it. I can see, smell, taste and feel everything nasty about these characters. Perfect!

Well, that's it.  On another day, I could easily have listed another batch of favorites.  And I will.

Good stuff.

Casey Chambers

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