The tale of the Cash family and the song “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” feels to me this morning like something that might have been told by a country radio version of the recently departed Casey Kasem.
Having come to an appreciation of country music by a roundabout way and not via the radio, I can only assume that there is or was a country radio show similar to Kasem’s American Top 40. If that’s the case, then the tale has to have been told. But it was new to me this morning.
Johnny Cash wrote the tale of the boy and his guitar:
In a little cabaret in a South Texas border town
Sat a boy and his guitar, and the people came from all around.
And all the girls from there to Austin
Were slippin’ away from home and puttin’ jewelery in hock.
To take the trip, to go and listen
To the little dark-haired boy that played the Tennessee flat-top box.
And he would play: [Instrumental]
Well, he couldn’t ride or wrangle, and he never cared to make a dime.
But give him his guitar, and he’d be happy all the time.
And all the girls from nine to ninety
Were snappin’ fingers, tappin’ toes and beggin’ him: “Don’t stop.”
And hypnotized and fascinated
By the little dark-haired boy that played the Tennessee flat-top box.
And he would play: [Instrumental]
Then one day he was gone, and no one ever saw him ’round.
He’d vanished like the breeze, and they forgot him in the little town.
But all the girls still dreamed about him,
And hung around the cabaret until the doors were locked.
And then one day on the Hit Parade
Was a little dark-haired boy that played a Tennessee flat-top box.
And he would play: [Instrumental]
Cash recorded the song in Hollywood on July 19, 1961, fifty-three years ago today. Released as a single, “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” went to No. 11 on the Billboard country chart and to No. 84 on the magazine’s Hot 100.
Fast forward twenty-six years to 1987, when Cash’s daughter Rosanne was putting together her sixth album, King’s Record Shop. According to Wikipedia, it was at the urging of her then-husband Rodney Crowell that the younger Cash recorded “Tennessee Flat-Top Box.” When she recorded the song, Wikipedia says, Rosanne Cash was unaware her father had written it; she thought the song was in the public domain.
Released as a single in late 1987, Rosanne Cash’s version of “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” went to No. 1 on the county chart, the third of four country No. 1 records from King’s Record Shop. (The others were “The Way We Make A Broken Heart,” “If You Change Your Mind” and “Runaway Train.”) According to a note in the 2001 edition of the Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll, the younger Cash’s success with “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” “marked a healing of her strained relationship with her dad.”
That healing probably wasn’t as easy as that makes it sound, but never mind. And the tale is probably not unique; I imagine there are other examples of families’ later generations finding success with remakes of earlier generations’ works. (I’m not going to dig for them today, but I imagine I’d find some.)
But it’s still a nice story, with two versions of the same song that are both worth hearing. That’s why Johnny Cash’s 1961 recording of “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” (offered above) and Rosanne Cash’s 1987 cover of her father’s song (below) are today’s Saturday Singles.
So what other covers did I run across this week as I dug into Hank Snow’s 1950 classic song “I’m Movin’ On”? Well, using the list at Second Hand Songs and the list of performers available at BMI, I found a bunch that I thought were interesting and a couple that I really liked.
My favorite? Well, that can wait for a bit, but second place goes to the version that Leon Russell released in 1984 recording as his alter ego, Hank Wilson. Here’s that rollicking cover, from Hank Wilson Vol. II.
As I dug, I was particularly interested in giving a listen to the first cover listed at SHS, a performance by Hoagy Carmichael, but I think that’s an error, maybe a different song with the same (or a similar) title, as Carmichael is not included in the BMI list of performers who’ve recorded the song. Given that, it seems – and I’m not at all certain, as the BMI listings don’t include dates – that the first cover of “I’m Movin’ On” came in 1955 from Les Paul and Mary Ford.
In 1961, a rockabilly musician named Dick Hiorns – whose resume included a couple of daily performances during the early 1950s on WBAY in Green Bay, Wisconsin – recorded a version of Snow’s song for the Cuca Record Company of Sauk City, Wisconsin. A year later, Jerry Reed – at the time a session guitarist in Nashville – teamed up with some background singers who were called the Hully Girlies for a version of Snow’s tune, and a few years after that, in 1965, the Rolling Stones took on the tune and released it on the EP Got Live If You Want It!
Genius organist Jimmy Smith took a whack at the tune in 1967, and two years later, Elvis Presley included it on his From Elvis in Memphis album. In 1978, New Orleans’ Professor Longhair (aka Henry Byrd) took Snow’s song, altered the verses and made it into a Crescent City shuffle. It’s included on Big Chief, a 1993 Rhino album. (And I have no idea if the fourteen tracks on Big Chief were released during the intervening fifteen years).
There were others, of course: Versions that I didn’t track down or that didn’t grab me came from, among other, Del Reeves, Clyde McPhatter, Timi Yuro, Connie Francis, Johnny Nash, Burl Ives, the Box Tops, Sammy Kershaw, George Thorogood & The Destroyers, Mickey Gilley, Loggins & Messina and Jimmie Dale Gilmore.
But after all of that, I think my favorite cover of Hank Snow’s “I’m Movin’ On” that I found this week was actually a rediscovery. Rosanne Cash included the tune on her 2009 CD The List, an album of songs pulled from a list her famous father once gave her of essential American music. I’ve often thought that too many versions of the song – Snow’s included – have sounded almost celebratory. Not Cash’s. She pulls the tempo back, and amid a nest of atmospheric guitars and percussion, she makes the song something closer to a dirge, and that fits.
As the Texas Gal and I watched the second hour of American Idol last evening, I was grumbling. Now, lots of folks grumble about American Idol, many of whom don’t watch the show, so I was in good company. But I had a specific complaint.
The second half of last evening’s singing competition was dedicated to “one-hit wonders.” Each of the four remaining contestants – four talented young women – got to choose and perform a one-hit wonder. But as that second hour of the show moved on, it became obvious to me (and to other chart geeks out there, I imagine) that AI had not spent much time – if any – working on a definition of “one-hit wonder.”
What’s my definition? Having thought about it overnight, I’d say an artist or group qualifies as a one-hit wonder by placing one and only one single in the Top 40. As to calling songs themselves “one-hit wonders” as AI did last evening, my thought is that the term should be reserved for songs that were in the Top 40 only one time. I think that’s reasonable. (What about artists and groups whose body of work was album-based or not specifically aimed at hit singles? That would seem to be a matter of common sense. As an obvious example, I think all record and chart geeks would agree that calling Jimi Hendrix a one-hit wonder is silly, even though he had only one record in the Top 40.)
Applying the above definitions, none of the four “one-hit wonders” served up last night on American Idol qualify, according to Joel Whitburn’s Top Pop Singles. The songs were: “MacArthur Park,” which was Richard Harris’ only hit when it went to No. 2 in 1968 but was also a No. 1 hit for Donna Summer in 1978; “Emotion,” which was Samantha Sang’s only hit when it went to No. 3 in 1978 but was also a No. 10 hit for Destiny’s Child in 2001*; “Whiter Shade of Pale,” which went to No. 5 for Procol Harum in 1967 but was one of three Top 40 hits for the group (“Homburg” went to No. 34 later that year and “Conquistador” went to No. 16 in 1972); and “Cry Me A River,” which was Julie London’s only Top 40 hit when it went to No. 9 during a 1955-56 stay on the charts but which also went to No. 11 for Joe Cocker in 1970.
Mention is made occasionally on the show of lists from which the performers select their songs when those songs fall in a specific category, so I’m going to assume that all four of those songs were on a list provided to the performers by the show’s producers. If that’s the case, it makes the show’s producers seem uninformed, if not disingenuous or actually dishonest, as they essentially sold those four songs as something they were not.
Does it matter? Not really, not in the large scale. But in the area of pop music and those who love it, I think it does. As I indicated above, I doubt that I was the only viewer bothered by the song selections last night. If there’s one thing that the Internet has taught us by giving us a number of ways to find kindred souls in large numbers, it’s that there are more chart geeks out there than anyone might have realized in, say, 1990, although it should be noted that even at that date, Whitburn was selling a lot of chart books.
And it’s not like there aren’t a lot of good songs available that would qualify on both portions of the definition I offered above. Let’s look for four of them just from the 1980s alone.
First stop as I wander through my files, my books and Wikipedia is “Tainted Love,” a song that was Soft Cell’s only hit when it went to No. 8 hit in 1982. The song was originally recorded in a superb soul version by Gloria Jones in 1965 (in what All Music Guide says is “one of the great ’60s hits that never was” and which would be a far better approach on AI than Soft Cell’s synthpop). It’s been covered by many – more than fifty versions are listed at Second Hand Songs – but was a hit only once.
For a performer with a country bent, there’s Rosanne Cash’s “Seven Year Ache,” which went to No. 22 in 1981. Trisha Yearwood covered it in 2001, according to SHS, but that version didn’t chart and Cash’s did, making it Cash’s only Top 40 hit (which is an injustice, but that’s another post entirely).
Benjamin Orr’s “Stay the Night,” which he co-wrote with Diane Grey Page, was synth-heavy when it went to No. 24 in 1987, but it’s a good song that I could very well hear from one of the four remaining AI contestants. The late Orr was bassist for the Cars, of course, and saw the Top 40 thirteen times as a member of the group, but “Stay the Night” was his only solo hit, and no other versions of the song – if there are any – have made the Top 40.
We’ve found a soul song, a country tune and a mid-tempo pop rock song. You want a ballad? How about “She’s Like The Wind,” a tune from the movie Dirty Dancing sung by the late Patrick Swayze with some help from Wendy Fraser. The record went to No. 3 in 1988, the only time either one of the performers hit the chart. Gender-flip it for one of the final four contestants, and you’re in business. A cover of the song by Lumidee with Tony Sunshine did get to No. 43 in 2007, but that’s not Top 40.
See, that wasn’t so hard, was it? Those titles might not be to everyone’s taste, but it took me less than an hour to find four viable songs that are true one-hit wonders according to the definition I laid out above. It seems to me that the producers on American Idol could have easily compiled a long list of similar songs.
*Mention was made last night on American Idol of the Bee Gees’ recording of “Emotion.” That version never made the Billboard Top 40 or Hot 100 and is listed by Whitburn as a “classic” recording.
A week ago, as I explored tunes buried in the deeper portions of the Billboard chart in mid-January 1972, I shared the version of “500 Miles” by a group billed as Heaven Bound with Tony Scotti. In doing so, I called the tune a “folk song,” vaguely remembering it sung around campfires somewhere, perhaps at the Shores of St. Andrew, where I attended Bible camp during the summer of 1968.
But I also recalled it from one of the first pop-rock albums I ever owned: Look At Us by Sonny & Cher. It was a Christmas gift from my sister in 1965, one of her occasional attempts to encourage me to listen to the same music that my peers did. I liked the album well enough, and “500 Miles” – if not the heart of the album – was a pretty good track:
As I listened to Sonny & Cher this week for the first time in years, I still liked it, but it came to mind that Sonny Bono’s Spectorian folk-rock likely pulls “500 Miles” away from its roots as a folk song, whether those roots are in the literal folk tradition as a song that evolved over time or in purposeful composition during the folk boom of the late 1950s and early 1960s. And I wondered where the tune had come from.
It came, as it turned out, from the pen of Hedy West, a folk singer and performer from Georgia who recorded a few albums of traditional folk music in the early 1960s and 1970s. She wrote only a few songs, and “500 Miles” was by far her most famous composition. The song, according to Wikipedia, “was put together from fragments of a melody she had heard her uncle sing to her back in Georgia.” In her own performance of the tune from her 1963 self-titled album, she offers more verses than are usually sung.*
West’s version of her song wasn’t the first released, however. The Journeymen – a folk trio made up of John Phillips (future founder of the Mamas & the Papas), Scott McKenzie (of future “San Francisco” fame) and Dick Weissman – recorded “500 Miles” for their 1961 self-titled album.
From there, covers of the song multiplied. The Kingston Trio included the song in a live recording done in late 1961, and folk icons Peter, Paul & Mary included the song as an album track on their 1962 debut album. Other covers in the early and mid-1960s came from the Brothers Four, Johnny Rivers, Peter & Gordon, Jackie DeShannon and more. And in 1963, Bobby Bare released a reworking of the song with an expanded title – “500 Miles Away From Home” – and additional lyrics that went to No. 10 on the pop chart and No. 5 on the country chart.
I have no idea how many performers have covered the tune, then or since. The listing at AMG shows 237 CDs with the tune “500 Miles” on them, and nearly a hundred more with the title “500 Miles Away From Home.” Many of those are duplicates, of course, so there may not be as many cover versions as I once thought, maybe thirty at a guess.
One of the most recent came from a group called the Innocence Mission, which included “500 Miles” on its 2000 release Christ Is My Hope. In its review of the album, AMG notes the “childlike humility and translucence of Karen Peris’ voice” as contributing “to a kind of wide-eyed wisdom that seems to gaze into the everyday and illuminate its elusive spiritual core.” I didn’t necessarily get that, but I thought casual listeners could be forgiven if they thought that the performance came from 1970s folkie Melanie. It’s a nice version with a decent if simple arrangement.
I should also note that Rosanne Cash did an excellent cover of Bare’s version of “500 Miles” on her 2009 release The List, an album whose contents were drawn from a literal list of essential American songs compiled for Cash in the early 1970s by her famous father, Johnny.
But the most interesting cover of the song I found as I dug around the past few days – one that’s far removed in approach from Hedy West’s spare rendition – came from an unexpected source. In 1989, the Hooters, a pop-rock band from Philadelphia best remembered, AMG says, for the No. 21 hit “And We Danced” (or perhaps for being Cyndi Lauper’s backing band on She’s So Unusual), adapted “500 Miles” – adding lyrics evidently inspired by that year’s events in and near Beijing’s Tienanmen Square – on its album Zig Zag.
The haunting, atmospheric arrangement works very well, and the Hooters’ version, which went to No. 97, has the added attraction of including background vocals from Peter, Paul & Mary along the way.
*Some compilations of West’s work are available on CD and through downloads at Amazon, as is a CD version of Getting Folk Out Of The Country, the 1974 album she recorded with folk musician Bill Clifton. There’s some vinyl out there, too, both at Amazon and through GEMM.
I don’t know Rosanne Cash’s work all that well. I’ve got a couple of her albums on vinyl and have found a couple of CDs of her recent work, too. I’m still absorbing the work she did on last year’s acclaimed CD, The List, a collection based on a list of one hundred essential American songs her famous father gave her when she was eighteen. In other words, I’ve listened to a fair amount of her music, but I’m no expert, just a fan.
And as I write that, I realize that I’m still absorbing the album that I’ve long thought – from my admittedly limited view – to be Cash’s best: King’s Record Shop from 1987. In a few years, The List may challenge for the top spot in Cash’s catalog, but I think that – as good as last year’s release was (and it was very good indeed) – the best that The List can do for some time is wrestle King’s Record Shop to a draw.
Now, perhaps I think that because King’s Record Shop was the first album by Rosanne Cash I really heard. Before that, I’d likely heard bits and pieces of her work here and there, but I don’t know that I’d considered Cash as someone to take seriously. And – as is true in the case of quite a few performers – it was Dave Marsh’s The Heart of Rock & Soul that persuaded me to listen more closely to Rosanne Cash, when he listed her song “Runaway Train” at No. 590 in his 1989 listing of the top 1,001 singles.
So what did I find when I tracked down King’s Record Shop? Looking back – with the aid of a little bit of listening again last evening – I found a performer and songwriter at that interesting intersection of country, rock, blues and folk, a place where I’ve been pleased to find a fair number of other performers in the past twenty years, maybe chief among them Darden Smith.
My blogging friend Paco Malo once cited in the comments to one of my posts the description given by Levon Helm of The Band of the music he listened to and played growing up in Arkansas. Having lost those comments, I’m paraphrasing, but Helm basically said the music at home was some country, some blues, some gospel, some folk, and they called it rock ’n’ roll. And that was true enough, meaning that Cash and Smith and others at that intersection aren’t creating something new. My point, though, is that for many years as rock, pop and even country music evolved, some of those influences were forgotten or at least at times ignored in mainstream genres. And when I picked up King’s Record Shop not long after reading Marsh’s book, it was, if not quite a revelation, then at least a refreshing reminder of some of the major strains of American popular music.
Now, all that was twenty years ago or so. But King’s Record Shop – along with some of Cash’s other early work (Interiors comes to mind) – remains to my ears as vital and fresh as her more recent work, including The List. And the heart of King’s Record Shop remains “Runaway Train.” The song was written by John Stewart, and Cash’s recording of it peaked at No. 1 on the country charts.
A Six-Pack from the Ultimate Jukebox, No. 17
“Suspicious Minds” by Elvis Presley, RCA Victor 47-9764 
“My Impersonal Life” by Blue Rose, Epic 10811 
“China Grove” by the Doobie Brothers, Warner Bros. 7728 
“#9 Dream” by John Lennon, Apple 1878 
“Time” by the Alan Parsons Project from The Turn of a Friendly Card 
“Runaway Train” by Rosanne Cash, Columbia 07988 
A while back, I picked up Suspicious Minds, a two-disc collection of the work Elvis Presley did at American Studios in Memphis in early 1969, the sessions that resulted in Presley’s three greatest singles – “Suspicious Minds,” “Kentucky Rain” and “In the Ghetto” – as well as a wealth of other great material. And I was going to comb through the booklet that came with the collection to find a quote or some other tidbit to use here this morning. But the booklet is printed in small white type on black and is for practical purpose unreadable without using a magnifying glass. I have one of those, but I also have better ways to invest my time. So I’ll just say that “Suspicious Minds” – which went to No. 1 in the autumn of 1969 – is to me the best thing Presley ever recorded during his long and erratic career. That’s a hefty statement to make about someone who had 114 records in the Top 40, but to my ears, the body of work from those Memphis sessions was better – in most cases, far better – than anything Presley had done since the Sun sessions during the mid-1950s. And “Suspicious Minds” was the best of all.
“My Impersonal Life” is likely better known for the cover version done by Three Dog Night. The Blue Rose version – the song was written by Terry Furlong of Blue Rose – came to my attention through a CBS compilation called The Music People, one of those classic collections record labels used to sell cheaply to promote new artists and albums. From there, I found Blue Rose’s self-titled 1972 album, and after I ripped and posted that album – this was almost three years ago – I found myself connecting with Dave Thomson, who’d played bass and guitar for the group. Dave has since passed on, and when “My Impersonal Life” pops up these days, I find myself thinking about connections found and lost and the multiple layers of life and the sheer impermanence of things. And then I hear the first line of the chorus – “Be still and know that everything’s all right” – and I’m okay.
It’s become a cliché, I suppose, to call the Doobie Brothers’ “China Grove” one of the great road trip songs of all time. But it’s still true. If I’m not driving when the song pops up on the player, I wish I were. And if I’m out running errands and the record – which went to No. 15 during the autumn of 1973 – comes on the radio, I generally keep moving until it’s over, even if I have to drive around the block an extra time. I should note that sometime during one of our visits to Texas, the Texas Gal and I will likely go to the little town of China Grove just east of San Antonio with the CD player blaring as we cross the town line. Not like that hasn’t been done a million times since 1973, but I’ve never done it.
The dreamy and mystical soundscape of John Lennon’s “#9 Dream” still captures me, more than thirty-five years after its release. I’m not sure what it all means, but it doesn’t really matter. Evidently Lennon wasn’t sure what it all meant, either: Wikipedia says that, according to May Pang, Lennon’s companion at the time, “the phrase repeated in the chorus, ‘Ah! böwakawa poussé, poussé’, came to Lennon in a dream and has no specific meaning. Lennon then wrote and arranged the song around his dream”. Pang, by the way, provides the whispered female vocals on the record, which went to No. 9 in early 1975.
I don’t know a lot of the work of Alan Parsons, either solo or as the leader of the Alan Parsons Project, which is just another example of the world containing too much music to know. But I recall getting lost in “Time” when it came out of the radio speakers during the summer of 1981 on its way to No. 15. It’s a record that’s perhaps pretty and sentimental to excess – and I perhaps have a weakness for things pretty and sentimental – but it seemed at the time so much better than the music that surrounded it on the radio. (The records that bracketed “Time” when it peaked at No. 15 in July 1981 were “Endless Love” by Diana Ross and Lionel Richie and “Touch Me When We’re Dancing” by the Carpenters.) And I still like it almost thirty years later.