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Annotated Set List
Stories and Songs from Saturday’s Gig Paying Tribute to Country Music Foremothers
My setlist required a whole notebook for this past weekend’s show. A lot of history, a lot of keepsakes made better with context, music and wisdom I’ve carried with me for a long time. I thought it might be worth putting down here for safe keeping. No doubt we could do a show like this ten times over and never run out of songs. In the end, I chose the ones closest to my heart.
Two More Bottles of Wine
I’ve been singing this song for as long as I can remember. Released by Emmylou Harris as a single in 1978 with Rodney Crowell-penned B-side Ain’t Living Long Like This, this tune quickly went to number one on the country charts and is the second song on the full length Quarter Moon in A Ten Cent Town, a northern star for me. We did it in D a half step down from the original, with a note to hit the tag three times on the end.
Sitting scratching mosquito bites, old fox done give him the slip, watching the morning glories grow in Biloxi on an overnight trip, bet five dollars to win two bits, eat a peppermint stick on a Sunday, ain’t no use in hurrying up, can’t leave til a week from Monday. One-ree-o-ree-ee-reeanni, fidderless farce hickory John query quan.
I know query quan must be some deeply regional term for root magic or wisdom spoken in dreams. Bobbie sings it in several songs. Please, if you have Mississippi cousins, find out for me.
Bobbie Gentry was a writer, singer and musician unlike any other. Her singular cadence carries through her guitar playing, her delivery, her granular writing about life in the Mississippi Delta. This song was released in 1967, the B-side to Ode To Billie Joe which sold something like three million copies. Bobbie had originally wanted to write songs for other people. She demoed this tune with herself singing simply to save money. When Capital records heard it, Bobbie quickly got a recording deal. Her first full length Ode To Billie Joe was nominated for ten Grammy Awards including Best New Artist.
Bobbie Gentry was a pioneer in writing, producing and arranging for herself. I can’t imagine how hard that was for a woman fifty years ago because it isn’t easy even now. Her second album The Delta Sweete is a completely original feat of creativity, full of genre-bending segways, swampy rhythms, and clear as day vignettes of life in Chickasaw County. Despite all this, a rumor persisted that Jim Ford, her boyfriend for a time, had actually written Ode To Billie Joe. I heard it on a long drive from my very own band and it incensed me. Bobbie’s voice is intrinsic in everything she does unless you have your fingers in your ears. Jim Ford was a cool guitar player but the apex of his poetry is a tune called I’m Gonna Make You Love Me Til the Cows Come Home. So we did TWO Bobbie Gentry tunes to prove a point.
This song can make me weep – the poverty that might bring a mother to this moment, and a daughter who is tough enough to transcend her circumstances. What a magnificent piece of writing. Also, a stark reminder that women’s sexuality is something they are asked to rely on while by the same turn shamed for.
Silver Threads and Golden Needles
This tune was first recorded by Wanda Jackson in 1954. Skeeter Davis recorded a beautiful version in 1962. Linda Ronstadt recorded it twice, on her 1969 solo debut Hand Sown, Home Grown and again on 1973’s Don’t Cry Now. At practice, we discovered that one half of the band was listening to the 1969 version and the other half to the 1973 version which made for some comedy. It felt right to sing, “You can’t buy my love with money ‘cause I never was that kind,” right after Fancy, a similar refusal to be hemmed in by prescriptive roles.
You Don’t Know Me
Pioneer songwriter Cindy Walker was born in Texas in 1918 and started writing as a teenager. She wrote a song with Bing Crosby in mind, and on a trip to LA with her parents, walked into his office and played it for his brother. Bing Crosby recorded her Lone Star Trail in 1940, and Cindy got a recording contract. She was 22.
It is estimated that five hundred Cindy Walker songs were recorded and four hundred of them charted. Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys recorded fifty of them. She wrote Blue Canadian Rockies for Gene Autry, also recorded by The Byrds for their album Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Willie Nelson recorded a tribute album of Walker’s songs in 2006, You Don’t Know Me, The Songs of Cindy Walker.
You Don’t Know Me, a classic, was recorded by Elvis Presley, Emmylou Harris, Ray Charles and dozens of others. Of course, the irony is not lost on us that most of us don’t know who Cindy Walker is. I admire this song because it opens the hidden, an unexplored territory, reminding us how often our interiors defy expectation and limitation. I like playing it on the Wurly leaving plenty of space to sing.
I’ve Forgotten More Than You Will Ever Know About Him
To me, the story of the Davis Sisters is one of the most profound stories of women in country music. Betty Jack and Skeeter Davis (Skeeter took Betty Jack’s last name) were teenagers and best friends. In 1953, their first recording was this song. Chet Atkins was a champion, they skyrocketed to number one, influenced the Everly Brothers (and by turn, the Beatles) and inspired Bud Isaacs to invent the twin neck pedal steel.
Betty Jack and Skeeter found deep skepticism rather than pride about their music and success from their very religious community. Two girls driving around the country by themselves had already shamed themselves if they weren’t about to. The week their record was released, a boy with a crush on Betty Jack showed up at a show; the girls had a hotel room nearby. Betty Jack was so disappointed. Had he told the folks back home he was coming? Of course he had, he told her. There was no way they could use the hotel room or stay the night in town. Unchaperoned, Betty Jack would never be believed and would be condemned, shamed. The girls drove home through the night. In the early morning hours, they were struck by an oncoming car and Betty Jack was killed.
I learned this story from Skeeter Davis’ autobiography, Bus Fare To Kentucky. Skeeter went on to have an enormous career as a writer and singer in both pop and country fields. She was a member of the Grand Ole Opry; she toured with the Rolling Stones. Her sound is the genesis of Countrypolitan – and that sound came from her harmony singing with herself – which sounded at once like a high-lonesome, family-style country as well as a trippy, rock and roll doubling. That sound happened because Skeeter would never, never replace Betty Jack by letting someone else sing with her.
I love a lesson song, a song that tells you how the hard way is worth it and being a kind person is the most important thing. This song is one of the best of that breed. Recorded by many, many folks, my favorite is the second version which was ever released, just after Porter Wagoner, by Jean Shepard, in 1955. That same year, Jean Shepard joined the Opry beside Kitty Wells. I love doing this one with just acoustic guitars.
I Never Will Marry
An old song traceable to the 1800s, the Carter Family version was released in 1936. My favorite version is Linda Ronstadt singing with Dolly Parton on her 1977 album Simple Dreams. The singing is simply just everything. I remember listening to it as a kid with my Dad and I can’t manage to not tear up when I hear it.
PS Simple Dreams also included Blue Bayou and was nominated for Record of the Year in 1978. The album at the time was the second biggest seller by a female artist, behind Carole King’s Tapestry. Why is there a critic on the album’s wikipedia page calling Linda predictable? Why does he get that space? He certainly can’t sing like she can.
I love the sweet spot where Country and Rock and Roll meet the singer songwriter’s internal reflection, the heyday being in CA in the 1970s. When my first record came out, I carried Quarter Moon in a Ten Cent Town, Street Lights and Heart Like a Wheel like gospels. I’m doing my best to honor the traditions in those records in my own humble way. Traveling Alone is a compass I wrote for myself after I’d been on the road for a decade or so and realized how easily one can get watered down and lost without a tight hold on a good map.
Walking After Midnight
Released in 1957, this song launched Patsy Cline’s career when she performed on CBS’s Talent Scouts. The audience went so wild, the applause meter froze. We were all sweating this one. I’m no Patsy Cline but it sure is fun to sing this song in her honor.
9 to 5
A very wise person told me many years ago that the problems of being a woman in the music business are the same as the problems of being in any business. Dolly’s anthem tells the truth, sets the record straight and has more fun than all get out, as only Dolly can do it.
Blame It On Your Heart
Of course we needed some Patty Loveless. The wonderful drummer Matt McCaughan is the reason our set list made it into the nineties, and he has a lot to add to set lists like this one down the line. I did know every word to this song already, in part from the radio and in part from the Peter Bogdanovich / River Phoenix movie, Thing Called Love.
It Wasn’t God Who Made Honkey Tonk Angels
Kitty Wells sang it first in 1952 and made way for all the rest of us. I love Dolly’s cadence from her version with Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette. Required listening, required singing.
I made a little dedication after this song that goes something like this:
My therapist told me if you want to take strength and inspiration from the power of women, you can go all the way back to Eve and she’s right. There are so many women – sung and known and unsung and unknown – who have made way for the path I’ve taken and love so much. While their experiences vary, what these women have in common is that they transcended the limitations of their circumstances and the framing placed upon them. They remind us that we can do the same. They defined themselves from within, the unlimited within, and by pulling our hearts to our throats with their music, they remind us how much we share and how very little we don’t share. Music does not have implicit denomination or sex or race – genre is not a musical device. That framing is placed on music rather than coming from within it. When you hear a song that makes you feel the unlimited within and that unlimited togetherness, go find her name. Go learn her story.
I will spend my whole life learning from musical foremothers, ones we paid tribute to here and beyond. I don’t perform very much right now because I am making sure my daughter has what she needs on the path. I want her to have big dreams, and also good manners. Most of all I want her to have what I got – roots. Bonnie Raitt made an incredible version of Karla Bonoff’s tear jerker of a song on her 1977 album Sweet Forgiveness. The album was recorded at Sunset Sound, where I eventually made my first record.
Sometimes it seems I’ve made it home in the nick of time about a hundred times and I’m grateful for every single one of them. Our fine band and afterparty included Kate Rhudy, Skylar Gudasz, and Chessa Rich (singing, all amazing writers and musicians in their own right) Jay Brown (bass), Eric Heywood (steel and guitar), Matt McCaughan (drums), Luc Suer (sound), my father Robin and my daughter Jean, who was our event photographer and polaroid documentarian. We practically walked home.