Charlie Gillett

While reading the sad news of Charlie Gillett's passing, I had a vivid memory of being in a darkened kitchen in1975 and tuning in his "Honky Tonk" radio show to hear Tommy McClain's "Sweet Dreams" or Bobby Charles' "Small Town Talk", records that I could neither obtain or afford. Anyone in his radio audience can probably think of a song that they would not have heard without his help. Truthfully, it seemed like some kind of magic trick when Charlie first broadcast my home-produced demo tape on his show, in 1976. After all, it was the same tape that had been rejected by just about every music publisher in England. Perhaps its very obscurity was attractive to him. It was even the same tape which lead to me recording a couple of those songs for Stiff Records, when Charlie's Oval label shilly-shallied over a plan to cut a couple of sides. I will always be grateful for those few curious minutes when I sat with my head cocked like Nipper the Dog at the improbable sound of my own voice coming out of a radio speaker. Charlie would routinely play such songs as Dan Penn and Chips Moman’s “Dark End Of The Street”, sung James Carr or Charlie Rich’s version of “A Woman Left Lonely”. A short time later, I was seeking out Peter Guralnick’s great book, “I Feel Like Going Home”, to read more about such artists. That’s the way the trail leads. When Charlie famously championed Johnnie Allen’s great Louisiana version of “The Promised Land, the very next spin might be a great record from Senegal, back when it was just a great record from Senegal and not something safely filed away in the “World Music” racks. He also seemed to have a prescient view of the dissemination of music that the Internet age would confirm. Needless to say we disagreed about his entitlement to later issue some of my demo tape simply because it had found its way into his hands but the line between “opportunity” and “opportunism” was, to say the least, a little bleary back then. Just as people have their virtues, so they can also have their blind spots and biases. Oft-times, a puritan streak is found running through the heart of even the most widely versed musical theorist. Perhaps some unimagined fate or an unfortunate career undoes all that lonely evangelism and embarrasses early advocacy. On the other hand, the path of noble failure and the embrace of decent obscurity are not conditions to which many musicians aspire. Some say songs last forever, just as the voices and options that attend them fade from memory. I don’t know if that is true. These days, everyone has an opinion to broadcast and hardly a soul seems to have a decent song to sing. For myself, I’m still glad that I caught hold of records that might have otherwise escaped my notice because I was listening to a radio show. It’s not something you get to say very often. Three weeks ago, I was in a Nashville studio making some new recordings with T Bone Burnett. Over the nine days we were working, a number of songwriters, producers and singers stopped by to visit. They included, Donnie Fritts, Dan Penn, Cowboy Jack Clement, Delbert McClinton and Hank Cochran. I’m pretty certain that I heard songs by most of these gentlemen come over the airwaves, courtesy of a Charlie Gillett radio show, a long time ago, in another country.