• Chris Stapleton nails two songs, one a classic, one an original

    “Elvira” and “Might As Well Get Stoned”

    I always liked “Elvira” even though it was so obviously written to be a commercial hit when the Oak Ridge Boys sang it in 1981. Bubble-gum country, you might say. Even though I knew that, I also knew it was–and is–wonderfully catchy. “My heart’s on fire-a . . . for Elvira,” followed by a doo-wop “giddyup” that could have come from the Coasters.

    Chris Stapleton and Little Big Town show it has legs. Giddyup.

    As a bonus treat, here’s a short interview with Little Big Town about how they decided to do that song and their love of the Oak Ridge Boys.

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    Chris and Morgane are great in “Might As Well Get Stoned.” How deep is his accent? Well, he rhymes “on” and “stoned”

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    Bonus: If you want another, here’s a heart-wrenching version of “You Are My Sunshine,” with Morgane Stapleton killing it. It’s a little too slow for my taste but it brings out the pain in the song.

    Jimmy Davis, credited with co-writing the song in 1939, rode its success to become governor of Louisiana. Davis didn’t actually write it and never said he did. He bought it from another writer and put his name on it, as many singers did in those days.

     

     

     

  • Two powerful–and very different–reworkings of “Folsom Prison Blues”

    Chris Stapleton and Keb’ Mo’ create very different versions–both wonderful

    Johnny Cash’s version of Folsom Prison Blues is a landmark in country music.

    I have heard two modern versions that do it justice.

    Chris Stapleton’s is musically innovative–and wonderful to hear–while remaining true to the original meaning and feeling.

    His opening chords are a perfect homage to Cash before he transitions quickly to his own version. Wonderful.

    ****

    Keb’ Mo’s version is equally powerful and even more original, musically. I particularly liked his strong grunt of “huh!,” which–in a microsecond–captures the sound of Southern chain gangs.

    But, as I have said before (in an earlier post on ZipDialog), he changes the meaning by denying he did the crime.

    Johnny Cash sings:

    But I shot a man in Reno
    Just to watch him die –Johnny Cash

    That lyric tells us the singer is evil to the bone, knows he is evil, and thus knows he is rightfully in prison, even if there is a bit of swagger and celebration in the assertion. (The line was actually cheered when Johnny sang it to inmates at Folsom.)

    By contrast, Keb’ Mo’ sings:

    They say I shot a man down in Reno
    But that was just a lie –-Keb’ Mo’

    That lyric tells us the singer thinks he is wrongfully imprisoned. Big difference from Johnny’s version.

    The self-exculpation could simply be the old theme that all prisoners say “I didn’t do it.” Or it could be the current political theme that prisons today are filled with people who should not be there, particularly black men. They have been wrongly convicted or sentenced to unduly harsh terms.

    I don’t think there is a way to know for sure which of these meanings Keb’ Mo’ intended, but it seems likely that it expresses a sincere sense that he has been victimized–a total inversion of Johnny Cash’s admission that he, like St. Augustine, actually did the crime and did it because he got some joy doing wrong for its own sake. 

     

  • Time for the Blues (updated): Keb’ Mo’ transforms Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” into an amazing blues song

    keb-moKeb’ Mo’ is one of the greatest, most innovative blues musicians.

    Here, he takes Johnny Cash’s iconic country lament, “Folsom Prison Blues” (1955) and turns it into a true blues song.

    I love it for the music and for the hybrid cultural form it represents.johnny-cash-stuck-in-folsom-combo-large

    ⇒ Keb’ Mo’ changes a lyric, perhaps to illustrate a political point.

    Johnny Cash sings:

    But I shot a man in Reno
    Just to watch him die –Johnny Cash

    That lyric tells us the singer is evil to the bone, knows he is so, and is rightfully in prison. (The line was actually cheered when Johnny sang it to inmates at Folsom.)

    By contrast, Keb’ Mo’ sings:

    They say I shot a man down in Reno
    But that was just a lie –-Keb’ Mo’

    That lyric tells us the singer thinks he is wrongfully imprisoned. That could be simply the old theme that prisoners all say “I didn’t do it.” Or is could be the current political theme that prisons today are filled with people who should not be there, particularly black men.

    Johnny Cash sings:

    I bet there’s rich folks eatin’
    In a fancy dining car
    They’re probably drinkin’ coffee
    And smokin’ big cigars
    But I know I had it comin’
    I know I can’t be free
    But those people keep a-movin’
    And that’s what tortures me  (Johnny Cash version)

    Not Keb’ Mo’. He is wrongfully imprisoned:

    But I didn’t hurt nobody
    I should be rollin’ free
    But those people keep a-movin’
    And that’s what tortures me (Keb’ Mo’ version)

    ♪ I love the Keb’ Mo’ rendition despite the political reference, despite the exculpation, not because of it. In fact, I like listening to it more than to the Johnny Cash originalBut I certainly think that Cash’s reference to understanding that he had done something wrong is more profound and compelling.

    augustine-st-augustine-of-hippo-labeledIn fact, the idea that he killed a man “just to watch him die” and that he knows he did that for his own love of sinning echoes the episode in St. Augustine, where he steals the pears, not because he is hungry but because he has some innate flaw of “loving evil” (which Augustine’s account underscores as a recurrent them in Christian theology).

    Fair were those pears, but not them did my wretched soul desire; for I had store of better, and those I gathered, only that I might steal. For, when gathered, I flung them away, my only feast therein being my own sin, which I was pleased to enjoy. For if aught of those pears came within my mouth, what sweetened it was the sin. –St. Augustine, The Confessions, Book II

    Johnny Cash’s lyric “just to watch him die” captures that point. Keb’ Mo’s does not.

    I’ll also forgive the cultural appropriation of a poor redneck’s song by a successful musician because I think

    • The whole notion of “cultural appropriation” is crapola masquerading as profound social insight, and
    • Keb’ Mo’ creates something original and beautiful in his reworking of Cash’s song.

    Do Yourself a Favor and Listen to Keb’ Mo’ here:

    For comparison to another fine modern version, listen to Chris Stapleton, who stays true to Cash’s original meaning. It is less innovative than Keb’ Mo’ since it remains a country song, but it is beautifully sung and well worth a close listen.

    One more treat:

    If you like Stapleton, then you’ll love his original song, “Nobody to Blame,” which he sings with his wife. It has all the pain of a great country song, all the references you look for (including John Deere), and all the passion and vocal quality of Stapleton’s best music. How can you beat a song with this lyric?

    I know right where I went wrong
    I know just what got her gone
    Turned my life into this country song
    And I got nobody to blame but me
    I got nobody to blame but me