Hillbilly Poetry Playlist: An Introduction to Recitations
The recitation is a tradition embedded deep in country music. It’s the art of storytelling that involves spoken words with musical accompaniment, and usually has a strong moral undertone. They vary in subject matter, from the honorary (“I Remember Johnny Horton” – Claude King) to the infinitely cheesy (“To a Sleeping Beauty” – Jimmy Dean).
In his book Real Country: Music and Languge In Working-Class Culture Aaron A. Fox wrote:
Country singers routinely produce intonationally heightened “speech” that is metrically closer to the rhythm of “ordinary” talk, within the boundaries of song performance. When this technique predominates in a particular song, country fans and musicians refer to such sung-spoken vocalizations as “recitation.” “Recitation songs” have a significant place in the historical canon of country music, though they become less common in commercial country recording after the early 1970s.
In that vein, it’s only fitting that the recitations by recent mainstream artists included on the list are those by artists most associated with traditional country, the artists that aren’t severing ties with their rich musical history.
“Deck of Cards” – T. Texas Tyler (1948)
Tyler was a frequent performer on the Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride, and had one of the best-selling records of 1948 with his self-penned recitation “Deck of Cards”. The story of a soldier boy who has no Bible is narrated by Tyler. Facing punishment from his commanders the soldier explains in detail how the deck of cards represents his Bible, almanac and prayer book.
“Beyond the Sunset” – Hank Williams (1950)
Needing a new hit, Hank Williams went in to the studio to record on January 9th and 10th, 1950. The second day of his session he cut four recitations under the name Luke the Drifter. The music for one of the recitations, “Beyond the Sunset”, came from a hymn of the same name while the spoken words came from “Should You Go First”, a poem by Albert Rosewell. A version of the song by Elton Britt charted three weeks before Williams’ version was released, but didn’t stay long and none of Williams’ Luke the Drifter material sold well enough to attract any chart action.
More: “The Funeral”, “Pictures from Life’s Other Side”, “Men With Broken Hearts”, “I Dreamed About Mama Last Night”, “Be Careful of Stones That You Throw”
“Satan Is Real” – The Louvin Brothers (1960)
Supposedly based on a real testimony, Ira Louvin relates the story of a little, old man who stood up during a sermon to demand that the preacher tell the congregation that “Satan is real, too.” Aside from that, the album of the same name features some of the most unforgettable cover art to ever grace an album. Tell me it ain’t so.
“Big Bad John” – Jimmy Dean (1961)
Rumor has it that Columbia Records was considering dropping Dean before the release of his Big John-sized hit. He wrote the song on a plane trip from New York to Nashville after realizing he needed a fourth song for his recording session. The song earned No. 1s on the country, pop, and adult contemporary charts; garnered Dean a couple of nominations at the Grammys; and inspired a silly, tall-tale sequel–“Cajun Queen”.
More: “The Farmer and the Lord”
“Mama Sang a Song” – Bill Anderson (1962)
Whisperin’ Bill earned his name for his quiet singing voice and the whispering recitations that were intermingled throughout his songs. His first No. 1 came in 1962 from a song that features a heavy dose of reciting, “Mama Sang a Song”. In the song, Anderson name-drops a number of popular tunes that the character’s mother used to sing.
“Ringo” – Lorne Greene (1964)
Greene is most widely known for his broadcasting chops in Canada, and later his roles as an actor in US TV shows–most notably as family patriarch Ben Cartwright in Bonanza. During the ’60s Greene recorded several country-western albums, even reaching No. 1 in 1964 with “Ringo”–a song about the ill-fated friendship between a lawman and and the outlaw Ringo–from the album Welcome to the Ponderosa.
“Confessions of a Broken Man” – Porter Wagoner (1966)
From the fantastic album of the same name, this Bill Anderson penned song is the harrowing tale of a man who’s squandered everything and has nothing left but his confessions. If one was so inclined, there’s enough quality Wagoner recitations to build an entire playlist of his titles alone.
More: “My Last Two Tens”, “Green Green Grass of Home”, “Skid Row Joe”, “George Leroy Chickashea”, “Wino”
“To Beat the Devil” – Kris Kristofferson (1970)
Kristofferson dedicated the second song on his debut album, Kristofferson, to Johhny and June Carter Cash. He assumes the role of a down-and-out songwriter who leaves his pride behind to go into a bar. He meets an old man who sings him a desperate song and buys him a beer. Give it a listen, you’ll like the way this one turns out.
“Here Was A Man” – Johnny Cash (1970)
Written by Johnny Bond and Tex Ritter, Cash released “Here Was a Man” on several Christmas albums throughout the years and most recently on 2007’s Ultimate Gospel. The latter recording came from a 1970 LP titled The Johnny Cash Show which featured segments from his TV show that were recorded live on the stage of the Ryman auditorium. Cash’s towering voice provides the perfect backdrop to the recitation of the life of Jesus that will chill you right down to the red marrow of your bones.
More: “Oh, Bury Me Not (Introduction: A Cowboy’s Prayer)”, “One Piece At a Time”, “A Boy Named Sue”, “Ragged Old Flag”
“Roses For Mama” – C.W. McCall (1977)
Much like Red Sovine’s “Teddy Bear”, “Roses For Mama” uses a child to help evoke an emotional response from the listener–and it does it so well. Definitely a tearjerker if there ever was one. This sentimentally rich recitation took McCall to No. 2, but the cheesy background vocals take away from impact of the song.
“This Cowboy’s Hat” – Chris LeDoux (1982)
The first recording for Used To Want To Be a Cowboy is good, but the phrasing sounds off when compared to later recordings–after LeDoux had time to perfect the song and add some instrumental dramatization. It was released as a single on 1991’s Western Underground, where it only made it to No. 63 on the country charts, but nonetheless it has remained a fan favorite. Always the uniter, LeDoux introduced the new recording with “There’s always been groups of people that never could see eye to eye, and I always thought if they ever had a chance to sit down and talk face to face they might realize they got a lot in common.”
More: “The Blizzard”
“The Randall Knife” – Guy Clark (1983)
After being originally released on Better Days, “The Randall Knife” was revised and re-released on 1995’s Dublin Blues album as a sparse acoustic recording–which suits the song much better and is a testament Clark’s endless honing abilities in the pursuit of perfection. It also appears on several live albums in its revised format. The song tells the affecting story of a father’s fondness for a Randall-made knife and a son’s desire to own the blade after the father passed on–a memento for all that his father stood for.
More: “Old Friends”, “Funny Bone”, “Cold Dog Soup”
“Are You Lonesome Tonight” – Merle Haggard (1990)
This version is a cover of a song that Elvis Presley made famous in 1960, yet its roots run deeper than that. Haggard’s rendition, released as a bonus track on 1990’s I Think I’ll Just Stay Here and Drink, rivals the King’s and displays his exceptional interpretive abilities (according to Wikipedia, the spoken part is loosely based on Shakespeare’s As You Like it using Jaques’ speech on Act II Scene VII).
More: “You’re Not Home Yet”
“I Dreamed of a Hillbilly Heaven” – Dolly Parton w/ Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette (1993)
Parton visits heaven in a dream where she sees some of country music’s greats and even thumbs through a book that reveals others who will make it to hillbilly heaven when they die. Tex Ritter, father of famous actor John Ritter, is acknowledged at the beginning of Parton’s version and had a different version of the same song long before Parton’s which is also worth looking up.
“I’ll Go On Loving You” – Alan Jackson (1998)
One of the best songs from High Mileage, Jackson proves that leaning on country tradition isn’t a bad thing with this recitation that took him all the way to No. 3 on the country charts.
“Highway 17″ – Rodney Crowell (2001)
Crowell tells the story of a man and his friend who saved up fifteen grand robbing liquor stores and fillin’ station. His friend got sloppy and wound up shot and he got six years in jail, but he made it through thinking about his money buried out by Highway 17. When he got out he found his family had changed and his money…well, you’ll have to listen to find out what happened to that.
“Little Red Shoes” – Loretta Lynn (2003)
Van Lear Rose released to mixed reactions in 2003, but one thing that most critics agreed on was that “Little Red Shoes” sounded more like Loretta than anything she’d done in years. It’s a near-tragedy about a little girl getting hit in the head with a stick and her–surprise–little red shoes. It’s a little bizarre, but definitely worth the listen.
“Angels” – Randy Travis (2004)
Drenched in gooey sentimentality, Travis’ “Angels” hit forty-eight on the 2005 country charts. Despite its failure to climb higher it still remains a fitting tribute to mothers everywhere. It could have come off as disingenuous in the hands of another artist, but Travis’ gospel background lends him an air of credibility.
“Give It Away” – George Strait (2006)
Part singing part recitation, George Strait rode this Buddy Cannon/Bill Anderson/Jamey Johnson co-write all the way to No. 1 and Single of the Year and Song of the Year awards at the 2007 ACM awards, where Johnson humorously thanked his ex-wife.
“Brother Harold Dee” – Porter Wagoner (2007)
The master of recitations deserved more than one spot on the list, and his 2007 resurgence added an exclamation point to the legacy that was and is Porter Wagoner. “Brother Harold Dee” was one of of the best tracks from Wagonmaster and just so happens to seamlessly fit the contents of this playlist. Also worth checking out is the bonus track at the end–which reaches back to the beginnings of country music– in which Wagoner recites one of his favorite Hank William’s recitations, “Men With Broken Hearts”. Both tracks made our year-end, Best Country Songs of 2007 list.
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