NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Songs for the New Depression

Music to Acknowledge an Enduring Spirit

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

The last time I was in L.A., the devil was in my door all day. Or, more accurately, in my e-mail and voicemail. I was looking for a way past him, and I found it in truth, which the devil detests. The truth is in a song. It’s called “Homeland Refugee” and it’s on the upcoming Flatlanders album, Hills and Valleys. Which, by the way, is their first recorded venture together in five years and only their fourth studio album in three-plus decades. It’s due March 31. This song was written by all three Flatlanders — Joe Ely, Jimmie Dale Gilmore and Butch Hancock — and is sung by Ely.

The Flatlanders themselves are virtual musical refugees. These three veteran singer-songwriters started out together in Lubbock, Texas, in the early 1970s and have carved out distinctive solo careers. They come together every few years and write and make music together and then go their separate ways. Together, their styles and talents blend for something special — a mix of Ely’s rock ’n’ roll spirit, Gilmore’s rooted country sensibility and Hancock’s coffeehouse folk aesthetic. This year, providentially, there’s an album and there will be a tour.

“Homeland Refugee” is not a song of uplift, but of the will to survive. It’s a song rooted in gritty reality, in the way Woody Guthrie wrote them. But there’s a good argument to be made that acknowledging and facing reality is a better way to deal with adversity than ignoring it in favor of, say, spending a few more millions on a spree in Vegas.

“Homeland Refugee” is a tale about the new economic Dust Bowl. The narrator is leaving California with a “backpack full of yesterdays” after losing his home “when the deal got busted by the so-called security and trust.” He’s walking in the “desert sands, filling up with empty cans, container trains, casinos and canals.” He recalls his grandpa telling him about the original Dust Bowl and “the way the bankers drove ’em out in the wind and the dust in the crash of ’29.” Passing a clutch of Mexican refugees, “We nod and smile/It’s clear we’re all the same/For everything this world is worth/We’re all just migrants on this earth/Returning to the dust from where we came.”

The refrain spells out the Flatlanders’ vision of the new Dust Bowl: “I’m leaving California for the Dust Bowl/They took it all/There’s nowhere else to go/The pastures of plenty are burning by the sea/I’m just a homeland refugee.”

Today’s mainstream country songwriters are finally shifting away from the we’re-all-having-fun songs and concentrating more on feel-and-be-better-America songs, but sometimes they’re just as depressing. Somehow, I’m not uplifted by song sentiments which go along the lines of, say, perhaps after having “had a moment” in church last Sunday, now I’m gonna be a better man. I do think it’s wonderful that mainstream country radio is carrying an optimistic tone.

Sometimes, though, the shock of reality is more bracing and restorative than is make-believe.

On that level, I expected Bruce Springsteen’s new album Working on a Dream to try for some Woody Guthrie aspirations, as he has done in the past. The title suggests that — or at least it did for me. But, like a lot of other people, I was putting my own expectations and hopes on Bruce. His vision here is more personal than universal, and I’m fine with that. It’s his life and his dream and his album, after all. On some levels, I think his song “The Wrestler,” which for me is the best song on the album, comes closer to tapping into what the spirit of America sometimes resembles these days. Less Rocky and more Ram, like the character in the movie The Wrestler, who finally accepts his limitations and deals with them in the only way he knows how. Again, I think Bruce’s song is the best thing about that movie.

On his newest album, it sounds as if John Hiatt has been listening to his own inner sense of reality, which has always been very strong in his work. I particularly like the title song of his new Same Old Man album. He sings:

You start out trying to change everything.
You wind up dancing with who you bring.
I loved you then and my love still stands.
Honey, I’m still the same old man.

The song evokes the same sense of a reality check that marked the president’s inaugural address. No flowery oratory, no rhetorical flourishes or ornate skywriting. Just plain old reality laid out there for all to see.

And, finally this week, there’s another powerful song I’ve been listening to. It was written many years ago by the great songwriter Leon Payne, who also penned such classic songs as “Lost Highway,” “They’ll Never Take Her Love From Me,” “I Love You Because” and “Psycho.”

The song is “The Selfishness in Man.” I first heard it when George Jones recorded it. Payne wrote the song after the 1966 Charles Whitman sniper shootings at the University of Texas. It’s now on the upcoming Buddy and Julie Miller album, Written in Chalk (due March 3), and sung by Buddy and Julie, with Emmylou Harris adding the heartbreaking parts. Here’s some of it:

Little children painting pictures of the birds and apple trees.
Oh, why can’t the grown up people have the faith of one of these.
And to think those tiny fingers might become a killer’s hand.
Oh, there’s nothing that stands out more than the selfishness in man.

Why can’t we see the folly and the uselessness of hate.
Love could lead to understanding maybe it’s not too late.
Then perhaps in His great wisdom we might learn to understand.
Then there’d be no shame or sorrow and no selfishness in man.