Friday, July 17, 2015

Cal Smith, back from the bars to tell about it

Smith, on the back of Travelin' Man (1968)
For probably complicated reasons, I never tire of mid-century honky tonk songs about hard drinking, bars, and lurid consequence. Cal Smith, one of a number of Oklahoma-born country singers who relocated west, in his case Oakland and, later, San Jose, released Travelin' Man on Kapp Records in 1968. Smith had been discovered earlier in the decade by Ernest Tubb and had played in Tubb's band and on his records, eventually embarking on a solo career and charting hits through the 1970s. Travelin' Man is a strong, well-played and -produced honky tonk album. The best songs dramatize the lure and damnation of the bottle, a trio essaying this age-old subject especially poignantly: the well-known "I Threw The Rose Away," written by Merle Haggard (who Smith emulates a bit over-respectfully here), described on the back of the album as "a classic from the past" when it was only a year old, and two deep cuts, "Alone And Broke In Birmingham," written by Jan Crutchfield and Jimmy Rule, and "I'll Just Go On Home," written by the obscure Randall J. Colemus. Each song narrates the unhappy navigation between clarity and blur, and the friends and loved ones who often suffer in between. The cinematic details in "Alone And Broke In Birmingham," while not specifically evoking bars, call to mind the dire results of one who's hit the road with a bottle, while "I'll Just Go On Home" reverses of the sexist drinking stereotype: this time the male singer's hopelessly searching and pining for his wife, who spends her night away from her family drinking with strangers in taverns while wearing her wedding dress. Dark stuff. I love finding album cuts like these last two, songs I'd never heard before but which instantly sounded familiar, and then felt eternal.

"I Threw The Rose Away" (Merle Haggard)

Once I lived a life of wine and roses
And I drank a lot back then for one concern
Success for me lay just around the corner
I thought my social friends could help me make the turn

And now I'm paying for the days of wine and roses
A victim of the drunken life I chose
Now all my social friends look down their noses
'Cause I kept the wine and threw away the rose

I stood by and watched the bottle take control of me
The turn I took was not the one I'd planned
And I watched my social standings slip away from me
As I watched the bottle slowly take command

"Alone And Broke In Birmingham" (Jan Crutchfield/Jimmy Rule)

Nobody knows how blue I am
Alone and broke in Birmingham
Washin' dishes for a bite to eat
Sleepin' nights on a rundown street
My only shoes are paper thin
I’ve hawked my clothes everywhere I've been
I’m down to nothin' and here I am
Alone and broke in Birmingham

Why did I leave a good home town
To ride the freights and bum around
The girl that's waiting is mighty sweet
But I can't wait till I'm on my feet
Down on my luck but I still got my pride
Can't find a job but oh how I've tried
Ain't got the price of a telegram
Alone and broke in Birmingham

I've heard a thousand no's and they all hurt
Who wants a man in a dirty shirt
I can't keep going with this heavy load
Sometimes I think it's the end of the road
A man's got hope though he's not got a dime
He keeps a livin' just a breath at a time
I can't wait till I'm out of this jam
Alone and broke in Birmingham

"I'll Just Go On Home" (Randall J. Colemus)

I know your bar is closing
Your flashing signs are dim
But I'm looking for my darling
Please may I just step in?
 She spends her time in honky tonks
She likes the atmosphere
I've looked in all the others
She's just gotta be in here

She's wearing a dress of silk
It's white with silver thread
In fact she wore that very dress
The day that we were wed
I'm not here checking on her
I just worry when she's gone
So if she's here and she's alright
I'll just go on home

Today's our anniversary
The kids had a party planned
But I know she's happy with her crowd
And I hope they'll understand
I'm not here checking on her
But we worry when she's gone
So if she's here and she's alright
I'll just go on home


Anonymous said...

I'll just go on Home", fantastic. Thematically sort of like George Jones' "The Grand Tour."

Joe Bonomo said...

Yep, great stuff.