Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Jim Nesbitt Can Sing a Ballad, Too

Jim Nesbitt sang goofy songs about trucks, drinking, and women (and I mean that as a compliment). But, like any committed country music artist steeped in tradition, he also let in songs that were less comical, more in tune with Music Row's expert pairing of heartache's chaos and a good song's formalism. Nesbitt—a talented tunesmith who wrote the majority of his own material—is probably best know for his killer 1964 single "Tiger In My Tank" which reached number 20 on the Billboard Country chart; he also scored hits with "Please Mr. Kennedy" (#11 in 1961) and "Looking for More in '64," a number seven hit in that titular year. These singles were issued on Chart Records, one of the more successful independent country music labels of the 1960s and '70s.

By the end of the decade, Nesbitt's singles were performing less robustly in a dynamically changing record-selling culture. In 1968 he released his first album in four long years, The Truck Drivin' Cat With Nine Lives, one of the all-time great titles, the lyrical content of which wasn't much of a stretch (trucks, drinking, and women—and, in a fashionable nod to the era, Vietnam draft-dodging. He followed this up in 1970 with Runnin' Bare, the title track an ode to, well, you know). "The Truck Drivin' Cat With Nine Lives" is a hoot (and was a modest hit), but I'm partial to "I Ain't Ever Been Passed," a cut on the second side, a rockin' trucker ode that's ripe for a cover by Reverend Horton Heat:


Yet, emblazoned on the album's back cover is the phrase "From Novelties To Ballads," a message from Chart Records to radio programmers and jukebox owners that Nesbitt is willing to ease off the throttle once in a while. From the notes:
When you first put the needle down on this record you will know that Jim Nesbitt really does “have something." This is the Jim Nesbitt who has kept you laughing for several years with hilarious hits like Looking for More in '64, Still Alive in '65, The Friendly Undertaker and many other rib-tickling tunes. Now, this is Jim Nesbitt pulling at your heartstrings too, making you ‘feel every heartache in She Didn't Come Home and Social Security. With this. album Jim establishes the fact that he is not just a novelty-type recording artist, but that he can sing a ballad just as well as he does the novelty songs.
Defensive stuff, with the tell-tale whiff of commercial anxiety. And Nesbitt does offer a few terrific ballads on The Truck Drivin' Cat With Nine Lives. Particularly strong is the album's second cut, the little-known "Living The Life Of Riley," a clever but moving song about infidelity, the tenuous bonds of male friendship, selfishness, and regrets. Here, Nesbitt gets his hands around the kind of emotional complexities that aren't easily dispensed with in the exhaust of a semi-truck with a girl down the line. I wonder how a timeless song like this turned inside-out would sound today. I'd love to hear Jason Isbell or American Aquarium or Greg Cartwright, when he's feeling rustic, or heck even The Handsome Family or a gender-fucking Lydia Loveless give this deserving song a shot. What do you say?

The Truck Drivin' Cat With Nine Lives (Chart, 1968). A timeless semi and of-the-era babes.

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