Kingston Springs Suite Finally Gets Its Due 43 Years Later

Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash, Jack Clement, Shel Silverstein Helped Produce 1973 Album

“Wish you were here, Vince.”

Whether said aloud or just thought intently, that’s sure to be the prevailing sentiment Saturday (June 6) when a distinguished panel of eyewitnesses gather at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville to discuss one of the strangest, most delayed albums in country music history.

That album is Kingston Springs Suite. Masterminded by the late Vince Matthews and principally written and performed by him and Jim Casey, it was recorded in 1972 and released commercially only last month.

Kingston Springs Suite is a loving tribute to the town of Kingston Springs, Tennessee, which abuts Interstate 40 about 17 miles west of Nashville. It was there that Matthews lived from 1967 until 1973, well before the big highway came through. Casey spent two years in little hamlet of 500 or so residents during the same period.

The Hall of Fame panel is dubbed “God Save Kingston Springs! Cash, Kris, Cowboy, Shel and the Great Train Wreck of 1973.”

The title alludes to Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson, Cowboy Jack Clement and Shel Silverstein, all of whom helped produced the album.

The panelists are Casey, journalist Frye Gaillard and singer-songwriters Danny Flowers and Chris Gantry, all acquaintances or friends of Matthews. Journalist Peter Cooper will moderate.

After trying for years to launch Kingston Springs Suite, Matthews died in 2003 at the age of 63. At the time of his death, he was best known for having written Crystal Gayle’s “This Is My Year for Mexico” and Gene Watson’s breakthrough hit, “Love in the Hot Afternoon.”

What happened to the master tapes of Kingston Springs Suite is a mystery that died with Matthews. The current album was made from a mix Matthews made.

From hearing the songs he and Casey wrote in tribute and reading the article he published in 1975 in Country Music magazine, it’s obvious that Kingston Springs was Matthews’ Camelot.

He rhapsodized about the idyllic Harpeth River that meandered nearby, the neighborliness and peculiarities of the town folk, the famous friends who came to visit him and stayed to sing and drink and the love of his wife, Melva (who’s saluted on the album via the song “Melva’s Wine.”)

Among those famous friends were Cash, June Carter Cash, singers Eddie Rabbitt, Sammi Smith and Tompall Glaser, Allen Reynolds (who would cap his career producing Garth Brooks) and songwriters Dickey Lee and Bob McDill (early on, Casey’s roommate)..

Once, Buck Owens’ fabled guitarist Don Rich stopped by, and, by all accounts, had a helluva time.

Cash and Clement both donated studio time for the project, and Silverstein, Casey says, was a “hands-on” producer.

Although a genial host, Matthews could be a taxing companion.

“He believed in the hillbilly tradition of writing songs,” Casey recalls. “That was you were supposed to go out and stay up for days, taking some pills and smoking weed. We’d go everywhere and do all this crazy stuff. And after about three or four days, when you’re almost exhausted, then and only then would you write the songs.”

Casey, who’s from Nebraska and lives there now, was playing in an R&B band in Memphis in 1969 when he first met Matthews.

“I knew he was kind of a character,” he says. “He had a propensity for pills. Speed. A lot of people took speed in Nashville. If you were on the road, you didn’t get motel rooms. You just got back in the car and drove to the next gig.”

So colorful was Matthews’ character that Silverstein and Larry Wilkerson wrote a song about him called “Vince” that Bobby Bare recorded on his 1975 album, Hard Time Hungrys.

The first verse captured Matthews’ manic behavior: “Vincent rapped a mile a minute, grabbed his cigarette and bent it/Lit a stick of gum and stuck a book of matches in his mouth/Drunk his sugar with some coffee in it/Broke out in a sweat and swore he’d get it all together then he’d let it all hang out.”

But the wild side wasn’t the only side, Casey stresses.

“Vince was an extremely kind person, a sharing person who tried to help everybody that he could,” he said. “But when he left Kingston Springs and moved out, the magic left with him.”

Casey speculates that Matthews’ breakup with Melva, which occurred just before he departed his adopted home town, was pivotal to Matthews’ increasingly erratic behavior.

“When she got out of Vince’s life, he became a wanderer,” he says.

Then there was the fact that the music publishing scene which had supported Matthews was also changing.

“It was a loose time then,” Casey says. “Looking back, the freedom allotted to songwriters — at least at Jack Music [for which he and Matthews wrote] — was unbelievable. To think now that a publisher would pay songwriters to write the Kingston Springs Suite would be unheard of.”

After not seeing each other for 13 years, Matthews and Casey reunited and wrote “quite a few songs” in 1989. But getting back together did nothing to forward their dormant album project.

“Nobody wanted to talk about the Kingston Springs Suite,” Casey says. “And I’ll have to say that sometimes [people in the music industry] treated Vince like a joke. It was unfair.”

Ironically, it was Matthews’ death that got the pot boiling again.

Mark Linn, who heads Delmore Recording Society on which Kingston Springs Suite is released, happened to see Matthews’ obituary in The Tennessean newspaper in Nashville and noted all the “flattering quotes” about him from such luminaries as Clement, Gaillard, the Rev. Will Campbell and “Ring of Fire” songwriter Merle Kilgore.

This set Linn on a 13-year mission to bring Kingston Springs Suite to the public. That mission involved, first finding Casey and then tracking down all the other principals in the project who were still alive. Of these, only Matthews’ former wife, Melva, could not be found.

Saturday’s panel discussion will be streamed live from the Ford Theater beginning at 1:30 p. m. at the museum’s website.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to CMT.com.