Soulful Sad Song Saturday

I have had a soft spot in my heart for singer/songwriter types ever since I was a teenage girl and fell hoplessly in love with James Taylor. *sigh* (James: CALL ME.) Something about that combination of a scruffy, slightly-nerdy-but-kinda-dangerous exterior coupled with a poet’s heart and a really good vocabulary…  Well, I married one, if that tells you anything.

One of my favorite things about living in Nashville is that you can’t swing a cat around here without hitting a singer/songwriter — and because this is Music City, almost every night of the week you can usually find some of the best in the country performing at local bars, clubs or concert venues. The famous Bluebird Cafe is my favorite listening room, and I have spent countless hours down through the years sitting spellbound at a tiny table ringing the tiny stage as famous or soon-to-be-famous writers performed some of the best music I’ve ever heard. Their Songwriters in the Round format has been copied all over the world, but the Bluebird did it first and they still do it best.

Some writers are very talented vocalists with the kind of good looks that get the attention of the industry and often results in them getting signed as recording artists. But most of them are normal looking people with average voices who just happen to have an extraordinary ability to tell stories and paint pictures with their words. One of my favorite writers is a guy named Don Henry. Russ and I have been going to see him since the early 90’s when my brother Matt told us that he had just heard the definitive songwriter’s songwriter, a complete original. Matt is very knowledgeable about music and not generally given to superlatives, so the next time Don Henry played the Bluebird we made it a point to be there. We loved him! His songs were so quirky and unforgettable that I couldn’t picture anyone else but Don ever singing them. I figured that sadly, since Nashville can be a bit of a cookie-cutter town, his uniqueness would probably keep him from ever being really commercially successful. I forgot the fact that record company A and R people, publishing company reps, song pluggers and recording artists themselves haunt the Bluebird and other clubs around town looking for that Next Great Song. And one night country singer Kathy Mattea heard Don perform, and fell in love with his songs. Then her husband Jon Vezner, a brilliant tunesmith himself, collaborated with Don and they wrote a poignant song based on the true life love story of Jon’s grandparents. It was called “Where’ve You Been” and became a Top 10 country hit and won a Grammy Award. So apparently Don Henry was not destined to be a hugely talented but obscure songwriter after all!

Do you remember that song? Here’s a clip of Kathy singing it:

It’s been a while since I’ve made it out to a club to listen to good music–becoming a mother and having a husband who travels kind of cramped by nightlife style. Of course now that Madi’s 18, I can actually fulfill one of my favorite cool mom fantasies and take her to the Bluebird with me. How fun will it be to share that definitive Nashville experience with my music-loving girl?!

Well, I got a little sneak preview of what that’s gonna be like this week when once again my brother Matt invited me out to hear Don Henry– this time for a private party at Matt’s own house. About once a year or so, he and Carol host a group of out-of-town colleagues for a dinner party at their home. They like to give them a taste of local flavor, so they occasionally bring in some fabulous singer/songwriter for a casual living room performance. Last time it was our long-time family friend, the incomparable Marshall Chapman. And this time, it was Don Henry.

It’s been years since I’ve heard him, and I was especially excited because Russ was going to be in town and Madi wanted to go, too. When we got there the party was already underway, and we appeared to have arrived in the middle of some sort of presentation. Matt semi-retired this year, and his guests had planned a little tribute to thank him for all of the years he has dedicated to the cause of early childhood intervention. Actually it was less like a ‘tribute’ and more like a roast! It featured a full power point presentation, as well as a whole lot of stories they thoroughly enjoyed telling about my music loving, so-very-dignified-on-the-outside, so-very-wild-and-crazy-on-the-inside brother. (I only had to put my hands over Madi’s ears once.) It ended with a choreographed song and dance, a la “Y-M-C-A”, rewritten as “M-A-T-T.”

You kinda had to be there. Here’s a picture:

Carol prepared a fabulous Tex-Mex buffet with a whole bunch of ingredients that you’re supposed to layer right on top of each other. Our family calls this kind of supper a ‘Mexican Pile-up,’ but in case the out-of-towners weren’t familiar with that, Matt thoughtfully provided a visual aid to make sure those highly intelligent, uber-academic party guests could grasp the concept:

Doesn’t this look GOOD?

Russ was really happy to see Don and his beautiful wife again, and they had a great time catching up. (Mr. “Not a Fan of Parties” Taff doesn’t seem to be having any trouble making conversation, does he?!)

After dinner, Don regaled us with almost two hours of incredible music. He teaches songwriting classes and seminars all over the country, and in between giving us a little history of each song he also spoke eloquently about the art and craft of marrying words to music– it was a fascinating insight into the heart and mind of a world-class writer.

Towards the end of the evening Don talked about a Q and A session during a songwriting class when one of his fellow writers was asked why Southern geographical references were used in songs so often. The writer said that he guessed it was because words like Memphis, Birmingham and Mississippi just sounded more lyrical and mysterious, not to mention they sang better– he jokingly added, “Nobody wants to hear a song about Schenectady!”

Naturally Don took that as a personal challenge, and during the next year he collaborated with one of the other writers there and came up with an absolutely gorgeous song entitled, of course, “Schenectady.” It was Matt’s only request of the night.

(By the way, you should know that almost all of Don Henry’s songs make you smile, and most of them make you laugh out loud but since I unilaterally declared this Soulful Sad Song Saturday, I decided to just share some of the more lump-in-your-throat-y ones. I may or may not be a little hormonal.)

Here’s a 2009 video of Don singing Matt’s favorite in the round at the Bluebird. You kind of get a sense of the respect for songwriters in this town by listening to how quiet the audience is, and by looking at the expressions on the faces of the other writers, don’t you?

See why we love him? I’m so glad that Madi got to experience that incredible night at Matt and Carol’s with us.
Thank you so much, Don– it was magical.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorites, a song that Don says was written as “a tribute to one of my greatest heroes, written from what I remember of my young point of view.” It’s been covered by many artists, including Kathy Mattea. I heard Don sing it for the first time years ago at the Bluebird on Martin Luther King Day. It’s called “Beautiful Fool.”

(And for all of you lyric buffs like me:)

“Beautiful Fool” by Don Henry

Martin Luther
Who did you think that you were?
Appointed by some higher up
Merely mortal
Your plans were unaffordable
No one wants to pay for love

Oh you beautiful fool
Swimmin’ upstream, kickin’ up waves
Dreams weren’t meant to come true
That’s why they call ‘em dreams
Oh you beautiful fool

Walter Cronkite
Pre-empted Disney one night
And all us kids were so upset
We thought that you were
A trouble instigator
Marching through our TV set

Oh you beautiful fool
Swimmin’ upstream, kickin’ up waves
Dreams weren’t meant to come true
That’s why they call ‘em dreams
Oh you beautiful fool

To fight a fight without a fist
All human instinct puzzles this
How dare you threaten our existence
Mahatma Gandhi, Jesus Christ
History repeats itself so nice
Consistently we are resistant
To love

I saw you on the black & white with
Blacks and whites applauding you
I saw you on another time
Without a sign of life in you

Oh you beautiful fool
Swimmin’ upstream, kickin’ up waves
Dreams weren’t meant to come true
That’s why they call ‘em dreams
Oh you beautiful fool
Oh you beautiful fool

16 Responses

  1. ginnh

    I just listened to Where’ve you Been and I’m still wiping the tears that just don’t want to seem to stop. I lost my folks when I was a teenager and my in-laws became the parents I no longer had. They are 83 and 84 now and in May,celebrated their 63rd wedding anniversary. We live far away from them now and every trip back reminds me of how precious life is. They have both had some pretty major health problems but are still living in their own home. I love watching the interaction between the two of them. Tori, when you write about your parents, your words tell the story of how so many of us feel but can’t express those thoughts and feelings like you do.
    I surely hope that all singer/songwriter/bloggers know how much their words impact those who are slightly challenged in that department. They give us words that can make us laugh, comfort us, make us sad or fire our imagination to do better things. But mostly, I hope they understand how much we appreciate what they do. Thanks much.

  2. tori

    ginnh– You literally just made my whole day with those incredibly kind words. They are deeply appreciated, and I truly hope that you and all of the rest of my readers know how much your comments and interaction and involvement with this crazy little blog means to me.

  3. rockin robyn

    MAN!!! Tori! I was scared to keep reading… I thought you were going to tell us something happened to Mr. Henry.

    I have always been a big fan of the songwriter. I learned of and became a fan of Don’s from being a big fan of Kathy Mattea’s. The band I followed around for years doing P.R. and photo shoots… they got into a regional country music contest and won it and it took them to a finalist show in West Virginia and Kathy Mattea M.C.’d the event.

    If you sing — anyone can sing a song and make it theirs to their audience… but a songwriters gift comes from their heart and soul and you can learn about their life through their song. I just have a great respect for that talent. Thanks for sharing this very special special event with us. Wow I so wish I could have been there just to shake his hand. Just a big ‘ole music fan!!

  4. tori

    rockin robyn– I LOVE that you love Don! I’m a big Kathy Mattea fan, too. When Russ made his Warner Brothers country album, Kathy came up to him at the CMA Awards and complimented him on the record– she mentioned songs by name and even quoted lyrics! She was so warm and welcoming, I’ve never forgotten it.

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  6. Nova Scotia Mama

    I’m relatively new to this blog but can I just say….I love it! Tori thanks so much for this post and the great pictures – they portray an intimate gathering of friends having an unforgettable time.

    When I was a teenager I had a soft spot for scruffy, definitely dangerous Miami Vice star Don Johnson – must have been a combination of his confident swagger and raspy voice…

    I can see now that the whole singer/songwriter type may have been an oversight on my part!

  7. tori

    Nova Scotia Mama– YAY, you’re jumping in this commenting thing with both feet! Yeah, you may have missed a whole genre in the dating pool: singer songwriters! Of course you know Don Johnson DID put out an album or two…. *winces* (But he was sorta cute, in a pastel t-shirt/rolled up sleeves/stubbly face kind of way… I can see it.)

  8. chillybean

    What a cool post this is. I LOVE the song Where Have You Been. Wish I could sing it like Kathy Mattea. (btw..I have her Christmas CD called Good News. My all time favorite) Anyway, the first time I heard Where Have You Been was in 1989 in high school choir. We were hosting some sort of choir exchange with another school. One of their singers brought her guitar and sang this song, just for fun, in the middle of the choir room. It was beautiful. There were close to 80 high school students in that room and none of us moved. The combo of her sweet voice and beautiful lyrics has us mesmerized. I swear I cried then as I do everytime I hear it now.

    How lucky for all of you to have this evening! Colleen

  9. Barbara M. Lloyd

    Oh my, I have been entertained……and I did so enjoy hearing Kathy sing “Where Have You Been” again. I remember when it first came out, watching a video of two elderly people while Kathy sang. It made me cry then….and it made me cry now.

    Not only have I been entertained, but it has been a very interesting blog on your part, sweet Tori. Thank you….once again.

  10. tori

    Colleen– What an incredible memory that is! That song gets me every time too.

    Barbara M. Lloyd– Thank you , Momma Lloyd! (I’m never really sure that just because something is interesting to me, that automatically translates into it being interesting for other people, too!)

  11. LindaB

    It was interesting to me too! I’d LOVE to go to the Blue Bird Cafe—-I’ve heard so much about it. I went to The House of Blues in Chicago Friday night and that was something I’ve always wanted to do! I LOVED it! Food was great! And they had homemade key lime pie, my favorite, and it was delicious! Maybe next, I can go to the Blue Bird and hang out! Cool! (How is the food there?)

    I do that Mexican “pile up” thing too. And I keep the cast iron grill hot in case someone wants to fill a soft taco shell with meat, cheese, spanish rice, refried beans, green onions,…. roll it up, and I’ll grill it for them. That’s very very good! Was that Mexican corn bread I see in the 9X13 pan in the back? That’s what I make to go with the Mexican smorgasbord!

    Thanks for sharing the party with us, Tori! I had a good time.

  12. rachelbaker

    I want to go to the Blue Bird Cafe too… and now I want to go to eat at LindaB’s house as well.

  13. LindaB

    ANYTIME, Rachel! Love to have you!

  14. Barbara M. Lloyd

    I love Mexican cornbread!

    Rachel, I can tell you that Linda is an excellent cook. We had her cooking for us in a hotel in the middle of Ohio….or was it Kentucky? Wherever it was, we all followed Russ Taff in and around two states that weekend..and he was worth it.

    If themema were here now, she would hasten to add that y’all need to make arrangements for him to come to your church for a solo concert. What a blessing! (sorry, Tori, I couldn’t help myself)

  15. tori

    LindaB– Your Chicago trip sounds like SO much fun! And yes, that is Carol’s jalapeno cornbread and it was great.

    rachelbaker– Take Linda up on the invitation! She has sent me food porn, er, I mean food pictures of her meals before and they look unbelievable.

    Barbara M. Lloyd– Momma Lloyd, Betty is in heaven right now grinning and giving you the A-OK sign!

  16. jonny

    Well, I hope someday I could be some woman’s Where Have You Been.

    Looks like I’ll be in the states again this December and beginng of January. Guess I’ll have to see if I can get enough money to fly over to Former’s for a meal, then over to Tori’s for a little club action!! = )

    FWIW, I’m resonsible for getting the current wave of singer/songwriter evenings going in Helsinki. Started it around three and a half years ago, and it’s still alive and kicking in at least three venues.

    Feel I should leave with some words of my own. Even though it’s not Saturday, I hope I’m not out of place here. Should be soulful enough = /

    At The Gardner

    I can’t let it go
    I can’t let it go
    Sorrow owns my soul
    Sorrow owns my soul

    I can hardly breath
    I can hardly breath
    Anguish chokes my heart
    Anguish chokes my heart

    Now that I can see the beauty
    And damage that’s been done
    And knowing I too am guilty
    Now how can I go on?
    And how could I ever be worthy again…
    How do I go on?

    How can I get up?
    How can I get up?
    Love has crushed my bones
    Love has crushed these bones

    Now that I can see the beauty
    And damage that’s been done
    And knowing I too am guilty
    Now how can I go on?
    And how could I ever be worthy again…
    Ever be forgiven?
    Ever be forgiven?

    Your’s a-gain

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