Playing Guy Clark’s guitars

With Guy Clark holding a guitar he built.

With Guy Clark holding a guitar he built.

I was saddened to learn of the death of Guy Clark in The Tennessean. It was a treat to spend some time with this songwriter’s songwriter and a personal hero in 2013. Here’s the blog about that experience I hope you will enjoy. God bless Guy Clark for maintaining his integrity by writing songs of substance.

September, 2013:

Last Tuesday, I was in Guy Clark’s house to interview him for an upcoming column in 2nd & Church, Nashville’s quarterly literary magazine. Guy is one of the songwriters I admire most and I have followed his work since the mid-1980s. Sitting at a table with him in his home talking about songwriting was something I could never have imagined those years ago when I discovered his music for myself.

The theme for the magazine is Ernest Hemingway. Guy co-wrote the song Hemingway’s Whiskey. When the issue is published, you can read Guy’s comments about the man considered by some to be America’s greatest 20th Century author. But this is about my experience of being with a songwriting hero.

Guy Clark not only plays guitars, he has built them. I asked if there were similarities between writing songs and building guitars. “Sometimes I draw that comparison,” he said. “You have to take care with what you’re doing. I like to think of writing songs as art and poetry and at times, I feel that building guitars is the same thing. Except writing is so cerebral. You’re just sitting there staring out a window trying to come up with something from a pocket full of bar napkins from the night before. I’ve got one bar napkin that says, ‘my life was a blank bar napkin ‘til I met you.’”

As we continued to talk he reached toward a Flamenco-style guitar near him, handed it to me and said, “Check this one out. That may be my favorite.” I had told him that I had played some of his songs about the Texas Gulf Coast along the upper Gulf when I played clubs there frequently in the 1980s and 1990s. He asked which ones so I played him a little of “Blowin’ Like a Bandit,” his song about shrimping. I played one verse and realized that there I was, playing a Guy Clark song for Guy Clark. On a guitar Guy Clark had built that he may consider his favorite. In Guy Clark’s house. Wow.

The label inside the instrument was unlike any I had seen before. “I prick my little finger and smear blood on the label and then sign through it,” he said.

Then, when I thought life couldn’t get any better, he handed me a steel-string that he had also built. “I also build these to play on stage, but not this particular one.” It had no strap-pin or electronics for amplification. “That one sounds so good, I decided to keep it in the house,” Guy said.

“Do you mind if I put a pick to it,” I asked and he said, “Sure. That’s what you’re s’posed to do.” I pulled a pick from my pocket and played him one of my songs, Old Lighthouse.

“Thank you very much for letting me play your guitars,” I said as I handed it back to him. “Oh sure,” he replied, “I love it when other people play ‘em.”

In his song Dublin Blues, Guy refers to witnessing excellence in viewing Michelangelo’s David and da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, not to mention hearing Doc Watson pick the Columbus Stockade Blues. In my own case, I haven’t seen David or Mona Lisa. But I have heard Doc Watson play Columbus Stockade Blues and many other songs and I agree with Guy about that. Now, I’ve had a visit with Guy Clark and the opportunity to play his guitars. For me, that ranks right up there with anybody’s milestones of excellent experiences.

Text and photos copyright 2013 by Les Kerr.

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Elvis’ bonus songs

From my collection of Elvis movie soundtrack albums

From my collection of Elvis movie soundtrack albums. These contain bonus songs.

There were certainly plenty of gold records and chart-toppers, but there could have been more. Many other songs Elvis Presley recorded had hit potential had they not been relegated as bonus material on his movie soundtrack albums. When the films Loving You, Spinout, Clambake, Speedway and others came up short of material to fill a twelve-inch 33 & 1/3 RPM vinyl record, some gems were tucked away behind the songs actually used in the movies so the record company could distribute another 12-song Elvis album to his loyal fans. Had these songs been whole-heartedly promoted as singles (a few were released on 45 RPM), I believe Elvis’ mid-sixties chart hits would have been more numerous and  substantive than some of the records RCA Victor released by the singer between Return to Sender (1962) and If I Can Dream (1968).

As a lifelong Presley fan, I have fond memories of watching his movies and being thoroughly entertained. My favorite is King Creole, set and filmed on location in New Orleans with a dynamite cast that included Walter Matthau, Carolyn Jones, Dean Jagger and Vic Morrow. The music was up to par with Elvis’ abilities and there was plenty of it, no need for filler on that soundtrack disc. Other early films that brought out Presley’s acting and singing talent were Jailhouse Rock, Loving You and Wild in the Country.

Unfortunately, in many subsequent movies, Elvis’ acting and singing were under-utilized. Forgettable story lines and songs written to match them or inserted because they had already been recorded helped categorize the “Elvis Movie.” Travelogues with bikini-clad babes in colorful settings featuring Elvis, rockin’, rollin’ and romancin’ his way through them.

Clambake(d)

Bonus songs on the Clambake soundtrack included Guitar Man and Big Boss Man

Bonus songs on the Clambake soundtrack included Guitar Man and Big Boss Man

As a student at the University of Mississippi in the 1970s, I wrote a term paper on Elvis movies. I found a review of Clambake, a film set in Florida starring Elvis as a singin’, swingin’ water ski instructor who also drove speedboats. The reviewer noted that at the end of the film, Elvis drove off with Shelly Fabares in a convertible with the mountains in the background. The beautiful, famous Florida Mountains. That scene was obviously filmed in California. Having viewed Clambake recently, it appears to me that all scenes in which Elvis actually appeared could have been shot on the West Coast.

Included on the Clambake soundtrack album, however, are two of my favorite Elvis performances labeled “bonus songs.” He covered country guitar great Jerry Reed’s Guitar Man for the first time (it was later a cornerstone in what became his 1968 Comeback TV special) and the blues classic Big Boss Man, composed by Luther Dixon and Al Smith and popularized by  Jimmy Reed.   Big Boss Man was also adapted for the TV special. Unlike the movie songs, these bring Elvis back to his country, rock and blues roots. They were delivered so naturally and sounded, well, like Elvis.

Elvis sang Dylan in the sixties (and nobody was notified)

Elvis sang Bob Dylan's Tomorrow is a Long Time, added as filler on the Spinout album

Elvis sang Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow is a Long Time, added as filler on the Spinout album

Similarly, the Spinout album, from a 1966 movie where Elvis played (you guessed it) a singing race car driver, produced Presley’s outstanding rendition of Bob Dylan’s Tomorrow is a Long Time. If RCA had left the soundtrack on the shelf and promoted that song with the angle, “Elvis Sings Dylan,” I believe it could have propelled the star’s comeback two years before the 1968 TV show.

Aside from my opinion that the bonus songs would have been hits, they would have also shown the world where Elvis really was, musically, beyond the soundtracks and non-movie singles. He released some great songs as singles in the mid-sixties, no doubt. Among them are Crying in the Chapel and Devil in Disguise. The bonus songs, however, as well-promoted singles, would have really enhanced Elvis Presley’s better-known body of work.

Text and photos of album covers from Les Kerr’s collection copyright 2016.

http://www.cdbaby.com/cd/leskerr10

 

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Days

The first person I ever knew whose wife or husband died was my own mother. My dad died in 1963 when I was six years old. Looking back, I wish I had been a more obedient child after he died. It has been two years since my wife Gail died and now that I know firsthand the emotional, practical and logistical hurdles a widow or widower confronts, I can’t imagine going through that and having to raise a little boy or a little girl. Making sure I get home in time to feed my beagle can be enough of a challenge.

After mulling those thoughts and others around for the last two years, one thing I find surprising is how the passing of special anniversary dates causes me to feel. When I had gone through the first wedding anniversary, our birthdays, Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Eve without Gail, I thought, “Well, alright, I can get through this.” In each case, the anticipation of those days alone was worse than getting through them.

You bring in, I’ll put up

What seems to blindside me with a full force blow of depression more than the “dates,” are the “days.” Just run of the mill moments like grocery shopping, cooking dinner or deciding what to do on a weekend. I still park on “my side of the garage,” now leaving plenty of empty space in it where Gail’s car used to be. I’ve tried to move to the middle, especially if I’m unloading anything from the passenger side of the car. But it doesn’t feel right. After parking toward the center, I have actually backed out into the driveway and aimed my car where it seems to know it belongs, then pulled back into “my side.”

Our usual shopping routine involved me loading in grocery sacks while Gail put things away in the pantry or refrigerator. Now when I get home from Publix, I sometimes say to no one what she always said to me, “You bring in, I’ll put up.” Belle, the beagle, usually greets me and distracts me from taking an emotional ramp leading down the road to self-pity.

Some of my television viewing habits have changed as I avoid watching some, but not all, of the shows we watched together. As time has passed, I returned to a couple and they bring fond memories rather than tears. I am relieved that I don’t have to endure some shows anymore. Gail loved American Idol and Survivor and I never liked either one. The first few seasons of each, I would find something else to do during their broadcasts. Then I realized that I wanted to spend those hours with her so I joined her on the couch and watched (and learned to watch my comments).

Getting my taxes done for the first year without any of Gail’s income or expenses to report, going to church alone, and not having her to plan vacations with are among the days, rather than dates, that sneak up on me if I let them. As with the big dates, I now do my best to take a deep breath and forge through. Sometimes, those moments pass quickly and at other times they last way too long. But I have gotten through them.

I am not unique

The chance of rain may be forecast at 20 percent but if you happen to be where rain chooses to fall, it’s a 100 percent chance for you. I realize that I am one of many who have dealt with learning to live without a loved one. Before and after Gail died, I have known friends in my general age range who have encountered the same gut-wrenching sadness.

I also have to remind myself that I’m not the only one who misses Gail. She had many dear friends, as we did together. Sometimes I ask myself if I’m just being selfish when these days occur.

I am grateful for my friends and a loving family. At every turn in the last two years, they have been with me when I needed them. But when these memories and emotions sneak up on me, I truly feel alone. My goal is not to be “the grieving husband” forever. I want to move forward and I realize I have to work at it. And I do. My own sheer determination, a short daily devotional and Bible reading session and taking a lot of deep breaths all help me make it through the days.

Text and photos copyright 2016 by Les Kerr

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Southerners and Irishmen, revisited

Les Kerr & The Bayou Band perform their annual St. Patrick's Day Concert at Jimmy Kelly's Steakhouse, Nashville, TN

Les Kerr & The Bayou Band perform their annual St. Patrick’s Day Concert at Jimmy Kelly’s Steakhouse, Nashville, TN

As the Bayou Band and I get ready to play our annual St. Patrick’s Day Concert at Jimmy Kelly’s Steakhouse in Nashville on March 17, this song and its story come to mind. I hope you’ll enjoy reading about how the song came about and that you’ll join us for our show!

Songwriters are often asked where they get song ideas.  I hope you’ll enjoy this story behind my song, Southerners and Irishmen.

When I lived in Mobile, Alabama in the 1980s, I developed a near-addiction fondness for coffee with chicory, readily available in local grocery stores at very resonable prices.  New Orleans (where I have also spent a lot of time) is most associated with this flavorful and potent treat, but it’s also found up and down the whole Gulf Coast.  When I moved to Nashville in 1987, I realized that finding it on grocery shelves here was nearly impossible, and always expensive.

So whenever my performance schedule took me back to the Gulf Coast or New Orleans, my standard operating procedure included loading up at (the late, great) Delchamp’s and other local grocery stores on coffee with chicory.  I chose every opportunity to load up with vacuum-sealed bricks of Community or Café du Monde coffee every time I made it down South.

In the late 1990s, I had spent a few days in the Mobile Bay area before performing at an event in Destin, Florida.  As usual, I made sure to buy a bunch of coffee to take back home. Around that time I had heard some report about how nostalgic people from Ireland and from the American South become when they leave the familiar places where they were raised.  In my own case, I was raised in Mississippi and had spent a lot of time in New Orleans and I have always felt like coffee with chicory is a way to start the day with a taste that part of the country, which I still so dearly love.

So with my car full of coffee with chicory heading back to Tennessee, the thoughts of this song occurred to me.  I stopped at a roadside gas/convenience store somewhere in Alabama and bought a pad and wrote these lyrics as I drove back home.  Songwriters might relate to this – drive a while, stop and write.  Drive a while, stop and write.

By the time I got back to Nashville, I had finished the song, and it’s been a good one for me.  I recorded it with just an acoustic guitar and my friend Robby Shankle joining with his tasteful flute playing.

I hope you will enjoy the lyrics, printed below.

And, by the way, I’m happy to report that coffee with chicory now found in many Nashville grocery stores.  But I still “stock up” every time I’m on the Gulf, just in case!

Southerners and Irishmen
Words and Music by Les Kerr/©1999
 
Southerners and Irishmen always long for home
No matter how far they’re away or how long they’ve been gone
The little things that take them there for moments at a time
Are elevated to a place that’s sacred in their minds
 
To hear a fiddle play a piece of some old Irish reel
Can cause a man from County Cork to genuflect and kneel
A Georgia lady in New York might fall down on her knees
If someone merely speaks the words, “My mama’s black-eyed peas.”
 
Show a cotton boll to a Mississippi son
Or talk about the bluegrass with an old Kentuckian
Find a displaced Dubliner and sing, “Oh, Danny Boy,”
And smiling eyes will soon be filled with grateful tears of joy
 
I do my best to keep a taste of home right close at hand
I guard coffee with chicory like smugglers’ contraband
Be it Irish Whisky or fried chicken with green beans
Southerners and Irishmen are brought home by such things
 
Southerners and Irishmen always long for home
No matter how far they’re away or how long they’ve been gone
Others have a sense of sight, of hearing, touch, and taste
But Southerners and Irishmen are blessed with sense of place
Southerners and Irishmen always long for home
 
Text copyright 2012 by Les Kerr
Learn More about Les & join the e-mail list for free downloads, including Southerners and Irishmen
at www.leskerr.com
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The Reason

“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

The Holy Bible, King James’ Version, 1611. St. Luke, Chapter 2, Verse 11.

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Seeing Christmas on the road

New Orleans streetcar with Christmas garland picks up passengers near Governor Nichols Wharf

New Orleans streetcar with Christmas garland picks up passengers near Governor Nicholls Street Wharf

During the period between November 29 and December 18 this year, I had the pleasure of performing or being a broadcast guest eight times in five cities. When I travel this time of year, I make sure to enjoy the Christmas decorations, sights, sounds and people. After all, Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” Here are some of the signs of the season I was able to enjoy.

I hope you will have a Merry Christmas!

 

 

 

Oh, Little Town of Lobelville, Perry County, Tennessee

Oh, Little Town of Lobelville, Perry County, Tennessee

The Perry County Courthouse, Linden, Tennessee

The Perry County Courthouse, Linden, Tennessee

Christmas trees on the Mezzanine floor of the Peabody Hotel, Memphis, Tennessee

Christmas trees on the Mezzanine of the Peabody Hotel, Memphis, Tennessee

 

Christmas trees in the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone, New Orleans, Louisiana

Christmas trees in the lobby of the Hotel Monteleone, New Orleans, Louisiana

 

Jackson Square, New Orleans, Louisiana, morning

Jackson Square, New Orleans, Louisiana, morning

Jackson Square, New Orleans, Louisiana, night

Back home in Nashville, Tennessee with Creole Belle. Merry Christmas from both of us!

Back home in Nashville, Tennessee with Creole Belle. Merry Christmas from both of us!

Text and photos copyright 2015 by Les Kerr.

Jingle Bells, New Orleans Style EP

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Postcards from a poet

Postcard from Everette Maddox

Someone said he had borrowed the suit he was wearing from his brother. The distinguished but declining poet from New Orleans was the special guest at a poetry series in Mobile called Second Saturdays at the Lumber Yard Café. He mesmerized the packed house that day with a book of poems in his hand, a glass of Scotch beside him and a microphone before him. That was Everette Maddox, mid-1980s.

I had first met Everette before then in his natural habitat, the darkened Maple Leaf Bar in New Orleans late one night after JazzFest. He was holding court at the bar with his buddies and admirers, quoting poetry to them over the din of the crowd and music from the next room. Everyone stood as close as they could in order to hear him. “This is a rare man,” I remember thinking.

I will always be thankful to my friends Max Reed and Peter McGowin for introducing me to him. I was about to fly the corporate coop into the wide open spaces of music and freelance writing. Everette and others of his independent creative bent were heroes to me then, as they are today. It impressed me that he held songwriters in high regard. Respect from Everette didn’t depend on fame or “who you were,” it only mattered to him that you were writing. I was writing songs and we became friends.

Songwriter Sunday cardWe had a cheerful, fun friendship, not a deep, soul-sharing one. I never felt close enough to him to call him, “Rette,” as others did. But when we communicated in person or by postcard, I always felt that each of us shared an admiration for the other as people and as writers. As a performer myself I was immediately impressed with his ability to deliver a poem, an introduction or a passing comment in his uniquely entertaining way. If they were smart, other purveyors of the spoken word took mental notes when they heard him read. Everette wove syllables, sentences and the silence in between them into moments that made listeners forget everything else in the world or even within their own existences when he spoke.

Our conversations included reminiscences of his boyhood in Prattville, Alabama, mine in Mississippi and how much we both enjoyed Nashville. He once started a sentence I was able to finish when we talked about the beautiful view from Interstate 65 North just inside the Tennessee state line when the fields around Pulaski come into view. I always remember that exchange when I’m driving back from the Gulf Coast to Nashville.

Thanks to Peter’s suggestion, Everette began inviting me to perform at the long standing Sunday afternoon poetry readings he had founded at the Maple Leaf years before. He would usually have another songwriter or two on those days to add variety to the weekly spoken word event. It was a thrill for me to be a part of those readings and I’m honored that Nancy Harris, who leads the readings now, continues to have me back to sing my original songs on occasion.

Toward the end of his life, he worked feverishly to compile enough poems for another book.Ev card 1 Hank Staples, the owner of the Maple Leaf who helped him and held his new poems, mentioned that Everette might like to do a reading in Nashville when it was finished. The notion of Everette staying with me in my apartment would be a possibility if a reading were secured. Everette had heard about the eclectic club on Second Avenue called Windows on the Cumberland, aptly named because of its tall windows overlooking the river. I had played there and said I’d be glad to help, if I could.

Everette's book was sent as a wedding present from a friend.

Helen Toye’s inscription in Everette’s book that she sent as a wedding present.

But Everette didn’t live to see the book published or to make it to Nashville. He died young but full of wisdom in 1989. When American Waste, Poems by Everette Maddox was published in 1993, another friend and Everette disciple, Helen Toye, sent a copy to my soon to be wife Gail and me as a wedding present. Her inscription reads, “OK, you two good ones, this one’s for you! All the best in your endeavor, Love, Helen.”

My favorite poem in the book is called Mail Box Blues. It’s about two mail boxes side by side talking to each other about a postcard made from a torn beer box, destination: New York. The postcards Everette sent to me only went to my one bedroom apartment in Nashville. But when I read them now, in a split second they take me back to a darkened New Orleans bar presided over by a somewhat inebriated poet casting a word-spell as broad as a Gulf Coast mullet net over those of us lucky enough to be caught in it.

Click here to see a concert performance by Les Kerr of Inspiration and Bar Scotch, inspired by Everette Maddox.

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Text and photos copyright 2015 by Les Kerr.

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