NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Songs About Oil Spills and BP?

Pearl Jam and Steve Forbert Do What Most Artists Don't Dare

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

Oil and gasoline are not subjects that are beloved in musical folklore. I’m sure that’s why there haven’t been all that many such songs. None of them are love letters to the oil and gas industries. And even though songs about current and very real social issues were at one time a staple of both country and folk music, there’re not many artists around anymore who would dare step out of line to write and record a song that takes a stand, that offers social commentary or that is actually openly critical. One, I mean, that directly addresses the Gulf oil spill.

No one wants to take a chance on a controversial song or stance. These days in Nashville, all anyone wants is a chance to strike gold with a summer anthem. Given your druthers, are you, as an artist, going to try to sell a song about a huge disaster or a song about a summer T&A “par-tay“? Which song is country radio going to play?

But there actually are a couple of BP and oil spill songs I have heard, written by composers who have the moxie to tackle the issue head-on. Three years ago, Pearl Jam were moved to write an actual “boycott BP” song, called “Don’t Go: BP/Amoco,” when they were outraged by a BP sludge dumpage into Lake Michigan. The band debuted the song at Lollapalooza, and videos of it are still running on some websites. It’s pretty much just a chant, but it’s also very effective.

Remember when rock ’n’ rollers actually wrote songs about social issues and wrote songs calling out giant corporations, instead of writing songs tailored to be commercials for them? This year, when Pearl Jam played the New Orleans Jazz Festival, Eddie Vedder offered this advice to BP executives: “I’d like to make a toast to the fine folks at BP. Send your sons and daughters to clean up your f***ing mess.”

In oil and gasoline lore, the famed troubadour Woody Guthrie is not a major player. In 1942, he was commissioned by the Oil Workers International Union — when that organization was trying to organize at Standard Oil — to write songs that would fire up the workers. He came up with “Boomtown Bill” and “Keep That Oil A-Rollin’.”

Country Music Hall of Fame member Tom T. Hall used gas prices as a trigger to invoke nostalgia in his song “Back When Gas Was Thirty Cents a Gallon.” He sang, “Back when gas was 30 cents a gallon/America was young and strong and brave.” That line itself is so lovely and at once so jarring when you compare that era to present-day reality.

In recent years, I can recall only a few songs involving gas or oil, and most of them hint at or directly involve disaster — or sexual desire. There’s “Gasoline and Matches” by Buddy and Julie Miller, Terri Clark’s “A Little Gasoline,” Rodney Crowell’s “Sex and Gasoline” song and album and Miranda Lambert’s “Kerosene” song and album.

And then there’s “Gasoline” by an L.A. group, Kicking Harold, which has served as a theme song on the TV show Overhaulin’. Its lyrics are very pointed:

I am gasoline
I am history
I am gasoline
I am gone

Singer-songwriter Steve Forbert has mellowed a bit since his early, fiery career days in New York City when his first works sparked a media campaign heralding him as the next Bob Dylan. What he proved to be is the present-day Steve Forbert, and I think the world of music is better off for that. He’s lived in Nashville for many years and has managed to assimilate mainly the good side of the Nashville music scene, as far as I can tell.

In the wake of the recent Gulf catastrophe, Forbert has written and added a new verse to his classic “The Oil Song,” which is about a number of oil disasters. The song itself has become an epic and is at least 12 or 13 minutes long. His new lyrics address recent events:

We’re pumpin’ out petrol, no matter what cost
And now that 11 men’s lives have been lost
The price is as high as rig workers can pay
Payin’ the price for the U.S. of A.
A deepwater rig called Horizon went down
No way to seal off its pipe has been found
So south Louisianans all wait for to see
Just what the landfall of this spill will be

Forbert’s chorus finishes the saga tidily:

An’ it’s oil
Creepin’ in the sea
Don’t buy it at the station
You can get it now for free
Just come on down to the shoreline
Where the water used to be