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1992 – Dublin to Nashville.

“Interview” magazine asked me to have a conversation with George Jones. The transatlantic dialogue ahead of George’s scheduled “hair appointment” ranged from telling me about his own brand of pet food to discussing the origins of his unique vocal phrasing.

It had been twenty years since we’d sung “Stranger In The House” together for George’s “My Very Special Guests” album.

The cover of the album was an arrangement of canvas director’s chairs emblazoned with the names of the “Special Guests”: Tammy Wynette, James Taylor, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, Waylon Jennings, Dennis Locorriere and Ray Sawyer of Dr. Hook and The Staple Singers.

I was obviously regarded as the wild card choice to this collection of country and hit parade stars. My director’s chair was placed on its side, next to an empty beer can.

Truthfully, the idea of the record was better than the reality. It was recorded over an extended dark period in George’s long struggle with drink and drugs, not to mention legal woes regarding unpaid alimony.

1981 – Los Angeles.

The early HBO special on which I was also a guest, reprised appearances by Tammy, Emmylou and Waylon Jennings, along with his wife Jessi Colter, Tanya Tucker and George and Tammy’s daughter, Georgette Jones.

I flew all the way to Los Angeles only to discover I had contracted mumps. A quick chilly trip to the doctor revealed that nothing other than my vanity would be afflicted and nothing was going to stop me from singing with George Jones that couldn’t be fixed by the shadow of a wide-brimmed hat.

Quarantined from the rest of the bill, I was installed in an Airstream trailer which was serving as George’s dressing room in the parking lot. Thankfully, he had immunity due to childhood infection.

I plucked up the courage to mention I was about to go to Nashville to record the album that would become “Almost Blue” and that I was going to cut his 1966 hit  “Brown To Blue”.

George stopped what he was doing and sang a few lines. Then I said to him we might also record, “Colour Of The Blues” and he sang that too, likewise “Good Year For The Roses”.

Although I never would have dared touch the song, I told George that I might one day sing, “The Window Up Above” and he was singing the opening line…

“I’ve been living a new way of the life that I love so…”

When a knock came on the trailer door and Tanya Tucker burst into the room and my private George Jones concert came to an abrupt end.

1992 – Dublin to Nashville.

Before concluding our “Interview” conversation, I asked George Jones a question. Would he ever look beyond country songwriters for numbers that he would make his own. I mentioned Hoagy Carmichael. I mentioned Tom Waits, specifically he and Kathleen Brennan’s beautiful ballad, “You’re Innocent When You Dream”.

George told me he’d need someone to point the way to such songs and this was all the cue I needed to cut twelve numbers in one session – with the rhythm section, Pete Thomas and my initial thought for the Attractions’ bass chair, Paul “Bassman” Riley – songs by Bob Dylan, Gram Parsons, Bruce Springsteen, T Bone Burnett and George and Ira Gershwin.

The idea never got any further than that demo reel but if you try hard you might imagine George Jones singing, Paul Simon’s “Congratulations”.

If I had found a vocation as a travel writer, I doubt I would have ventured as far from home.

I have not lived full-time in the country of my birth for over thirty years, these last fifteen or more have been spent in North America.

This does, of course not make all or any of my writing into “Americana”, although so much in the music I have conjured with or conjured up and many of the tales told in the verses are a kind of radar for emotions or the instincts or replies to a series of signals sent out a long time ago that have been chattering and echoing in a two-way a conversation ever since. 

Very few crime writers are ever convicted of murder and it is obvious that some heroic or romantic actors lack charm or valour without a screenwriter’s word to give them courage or magnetism.

When you try to write out your feelings, sometimes you might only fashion a series of dress-up dolls for the toy theatre of your heart’s desire or absence.

It’s no accident that I alluded to Joe South’s “The Games People Play” in the solo of “Different Finger”, a country song buried deep in the album “Trust”.

That song imagined the convenience of snipping the ring finger off that particular straying spouse to cover motives and consequences.

Other times, a song is closing a book that you had opened recklessly, many years before. Such songs were, “In Another Room” and “Either Side Of The Same Town” both written in 2002, are perhaps the flip side of “I’ll Wear It Proudly” or “I Want You”.

I found the former too sad to sing until one unguarded afternoon in Clarksdale, three years later, the latter was a song, too close to home, so initially I gave it to producer, Gerry Ragavoy to arrange for Howard Tate’s “Rediscovered” album.

Jerry credits laid claim to “Time Is On My Side”. He also wrote Lorraine Ellison’s, “Stay With Me Baby” and “Piece Of My Heart” which like the Garnett Mimms classic, “I’ll Take Good Care Of You” – which I’d heard Nick Lowe cover back in 1974 – Ragavoy had written with the great Bert Berns.

He also wrote most of the songs on Howard’s timeless Verve Record release “Get It While You Can”, several of them with Doc Pomus’ lyrical partner, Mort Shuman. 

Given his credentials, I took Jerry’s word for it when he told me that my rather elaborate opening statement of “Either Side Of The Same Town” would not suit Howard as well as the the refrain, so we settled on a co-writing credit for the final draft, which took a plainer, less alarming view of the first verse.

2003-6 – Nashville.

Lucinda Williams and I were briefly label mates on the Nashville imprint Lost Highway. We were also the featured artists on the first ever episode of the long-running, VH-1/CMT show, “Crossroads”.

More particularly, every thing I love and admire about Lucinda and her writing is embodied in the title “There’s A Story In Your Voice”, a song we sang together on “The Delivery Man”.

Lu has the ear for perfect ear for verse that I assume she inherited in part from her poet father, the emotional economy that is only otherwise found in that other Wiliams, Hank and is “just a rock and roll singer” in the way Keith Richards is “just a rock and roll guitar player”.

Any time she calls, I’d answer; to take my half of the “Jailhouse Tears” duet or be the lead guitarist on “Seeing Black” from her album “Blessed”.

Aside from the songs we sing alone on that T.V. special, you might somewhere find a duet on the Jagger/Richards song “Wild Horse” and us tearing it up on Lucinda’s great song “Changed The Locks”.

It is another thing entirely to sing with Emmylou Harris. To duet with her is to be visited by grace and beauty, even if all you have to offer is a scrape and rasp of an exhausted voice.

I wrote “Heart Shaped Bruise” with the hope Emmy would join me on a song with a bridge that tried light up the torch like those Felice and Boudleaux Bryant’s tunes that she had long ago taken from the Everly Brothers with Gram Parsons.

It was Emmy that allowed me to make my Grand Ol’ Opry debut as her guest, in an impromptu vocal group with Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings and the support of multi-instrumentalist, Fats Kaplin and bassist, Viktor Krauss, whose sister, Alison had performed, “The Scarlet Tide” – a song written with T Bone Burnett for the end titles of the movie “Cold Mountain” – and taken it all the way to the Oscars before losing out to a song about pixies.

The Grand Ol’ Opry of today is not always one Roy Acuff would have recognized but I was fortunate to be there on a night when Little Jimmy Dickens was performing as was Bill Anderson. He was the composer of a tune I included in my short set after which Charlie Louvin appeared backstage, declaring, “I heard you singing that dirty song”, meaning, the Louvin Brothers hit, “Must You Throw Dirt In My Face” on which Emmylou, Gillian, David and I had harmonized around one microphone while the television company broadcast our performance in black and white to complete the impression of time travel.

I was back in Nashville a few months later on my way to the Bonnaroo Festival with Allen Toussaint, The Crescent City Horns and The Imposters.

I stopped into Mark Nevers’ house, where he was recording a Charlie Louvin album on which George Jones was the duet partner on “That Dirty Song”. Charlie’s other guests were Jeff Tweedy, Will Oldham, and perhaps a distant cousin of mine, Alex McManus from Bright Eyes as well as Bobby Bare Snr. and Tom T. Hall.

My assignment would have been pretty daunting at the best of times. I was to harmonize on Charlie and Ira’s “When I Stop Dreaming” a big Louvin hit, re-made by Ray Charles on his classic album, “The Modern Sounds Of Country Music” and then again by Emmylou Harris with Rodney Crowell for her third album, “Luxury Liner”.

Not the ideal song to sing when you’ve been fronting a nine-piece R&B band night after night and you are taking the high harmony.

I cracked the top note of my first take.

“Meet me in the kitchen”, came Charlie’s voice over the talk-back from the “control booth” in the dining room, while my vocal booth was actually in the back parlour.

By the time I got to the kitchen sink, Charlie already had a loaded tablespoon of Worcestershire Sauce to administer.

“Drink this”, he said, “Ira swore by it and always kept a bottle in his mandolin case for vocal strain”.

I don’t quite understand the science or mechanics of this potion as a cure but perhaps your vocal cords just say, “Fuck it!” and and get away from each other long enough to get a true note out, as I hit my next pass dead-on.

2002 – Hollywood.

Joe Henry was producing “Don’t Give Up On Me”, Solomon Burke singing a repertoire that Joe had curated or commissioned including a Tom Waits/Kathleen Brennan song “Diamond In My Mind:, a number by Brian Wilson and Andy Paley, a rare Bob Dylan tune and a title track by Dan Penn.

The overseas contributions included songs by Van Morrison and Nick Lowe along with a tune that I had modeled on the O.V. Wright song on the theme of the court of love: “Eight Men And Four Woman”.

I visited Sound Factory Studio to witness the recording of the vocal session for “The Judgment” but discovered it contained a tricky turnaround that was tripping up Solomon’s flow.

“The King of Rock & Soul”, ”The Bishop of Rock Soul” summoned me to the vocal booth to illustrate how the chorus should be phrased, no easy task with his genial but expansive presence at such close proximity.

Once I’d laid down a guide, Solomon had me stay next to the mic with him, as a conductor, while he completed the vocal performance. We parted with wild notions that Solomon had about developing an entire opera from this one lyric.

2003 – The Beverly Hilton, Beverly Hills. CA.

Half of the songwriting and publishing industry was gathered for the annual, ASCAP Pop Awards – that is the 50% of the business that was not signed to BMI, the other main performing rights organization, a few of whom had snuck in wearing wigs, dark glasses and false noses.

The notable attendees included Stevie Wonder and honorees, Nelly, Linda Perry and Puddle Of Mudd.

I was receiving a non-competitive award from Burt Bacharach and ASCAP President, Marilyn Bergman, who with her husband, Alan, had written the lyrics of “The Windmills Of Your Mind”, “The Way We Were” and, for that matter, “Champion, The Wonder Horse” among their many volumes of hit titles.

Solomon Burke – backed a band led by Joe Henry on guitar, a rhythm section of Pete Thomas and David Pilch and Patrick Warren at the piano with a concert harpist from Solomon’s ensemble – launched dramatically into the “order in court” declaration with which my song opens:

“The accused will rise to be torn in two

Guilty of nothing but loving you

This is the judgment”

And that was just about the last word Solomon uttered that can be found in the lyric.

Nor did he, strictly speaking, sing any more of my melody.

While Joe signaled frantically to “play the arrangement”, Pete Thomas, calling on his years of expecting the unexpected from me, shook his head, indicating, “No, follow the singer”

Many people people would call what happened next, “a road-crash” but to my eye and ear, Solomon simply commanded the stage as he always did with spirit abandon and panache, delivering an impromptu sermon on topics of love, transgression and “The Judgment”.

Joe told me later that as they were taking the stage, Solomon had turned to him and said to him sheepishly, “You know I don’t know the song” and Joe had thought he was making a joke.

I don’t think Solomon Burke ever joked about forgiveness.

To be continued…
1) CONGRATULATIONS (Paul Simon) Elvis Costello from “Kojak Variety”

2) SHOES WITHOUT HEELS – Elvis Costello from “Out Of Our Idiot”

3) THE JUDGEMENT – Solomon Burke from “Don’t Give Up On Me”

4) DIFFERENT FINGER – Elvis Costello & The Attractions from “Trust”

5) DON’T GET ABOVE YOUR RAISING – Ricky Skaggs & Elvis Costello – from “Live In London”

6) I LOST YOU – Elvis Costello from “National Ransom”

7) BLUES KEEP CALLING – Elvis Costello – from “Almost Blue”

8) JAILHOUSE TEARS – Lucinda Williams & Elvis Costello from “Little Honey”

9) THERE’S A STORY IN YOUR VOICE – Elvis Costello & Lucinda Williams from “The Delivery Man”

10) EITHER SIDE OF THE SAME TOWN – Howard Tate – from “Rediscovered”

11) WILD HORSES – Lucinda Williams & Elvis Costello from “CMT Crossroads”

12) MUST YOU THROW DIRT IN MY FACE – Elvis Costello from “Kojak Variety”

13) WHEN I STOP DREAMING – Charlie Louvin with Elvis Costello from “Charlie Louvin”

14) FIVE SMALL WORDS – Elvis Costello from “National Ransom”

15) HEART SHAPED BRUISE – Elvis Costello & Emmylou Harris from “The Delivery Man”

16) HOW MUCH I LIED – Gram Parsons from “G.P.”

17) I’M YOUR TOY – Elvis Costello & The Attractions and The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra18) I’M TOO FAR GONE – Bobby “Blue” Bland from “Ask Me ‘Bout Nothing”

19) SLEEPLESS NIGHTS – Elvis Costello – “Grievous Angel – A Tribute To Gram Parsons”

20) THE SCARLET TIDE – Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch & Dave Rawlings – “Live At The Grand Ol’ Opry”

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