Hillbilly Poetry Playlist: An Introduction to Recitations

Brody Vercher | January 3rd, 2008

Hillbilly Poetry Playlist

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.
More: “Still”

“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.

  1. Hollerin' Ben
    January 3, 2008 at 2:17 pm

    rad.

  2. M.C.
    January 3, 2008 at 3:01 pm

    Great list.

    I’d add Johnny Horton to the list, probably “Battle of New Orleans.” And “Hello Darlin’,” if you could call what Conway does there a recitation. And how about K.T. Oslin and “’80s Ladies”?

    How much influence did the Luke the Drifter cuts have on recitations becoming more popular? A lot? Not much? I’d lean toward the former, but I can’t say for sure.

  3. Hollerin' Ben
    January 3, 2008 at 3:09 pm

    I know that the original probably trumps all else, but David Allen Coe has an awesome version of “Be careful of stones that you throw”. He even manages to slip in the old self reference “she said, David Allen, that girl should be run from our midst!”

    Also, I thought that “The ride” was a sure thing for this list!

  4. Kelly
    January 3, 2008 at 3:22 pm

    “This Cowboy’s Hat” is a song that is hard to beat in regads to a live concert experience. When LeDoux would shout “…big ‘ol Texas grin” near the end of the song right before the chorus and the dramatic, climactic rise of drum beats, it would send the whole audience (and me) into a frenzy. RIP.

  5. Baron Lane
    January 3, 2008 at 3:57 pm

    Great list. I think the best examples of recitation are the “Luke the Drifter” pieces done by Hank Williams.

  6. Peter Kohan
    January 3, 2008 at 4:10 pm

    How about “Uneasy Rider” by The Charlie Daniels Band or “I Will Always Love You” by Dolly Parton? Do they qualify?

    What about “Here I Am” by Lyle Lovett and his Large Band?

  7. Brody Vercher
    January 3, 2008 at 4:18 pm

    M.C. – Thanks for the suggestions, but I don’t think any of them can really be considered recitations since the vocals throughout the song are still more closely related to singing than they are to “ordinary talk.”

    Also, I think the popularity of recitations precedes the Luke the Drifter cuts and it was probably that popularity that evoked the desire in Williams’ to cut the songs. In Colin Escott’s biography he says speech was common in turn of the century songs, although it was commonly caricatured speech. He also says that two of the recitations (“Beyond the Sunset” and “The Funeral”) from Williams’ Drifter sessions were recorded by two or three artists within weeks of his own session. He also mentions that Williams most likely heard whole shows of recitations at the time from Cowboy Slim Rinehart as well as performing his own at shows. But, like you, I’m not for sure how much of a role he played in further popularizing them.

    Hollerin’ Ben – I haven’t heard that particular version, although I imagine it’d be hard to top either Hank Williams’ or Porter Wagoner’s versions. Waylon Jennings has a good one too. I’ll have to find a copy of Coe’s. I tried to find a suitable David Allan Coe recitation though, and pondered “The Ride” for a while, but decided against it since Brady used it recently in Songs About Hank Not Sung By Guys Named Hank.

    Kelly – I have a live version that possesses way more energy than the studio versions, but I couldn’t find the exact one on Rhapsody. I bet it was a hell of an experience to hear it live though.

    Baron – I think the Porter Wagoner ones are up to par with the Drifter ones, too.

  8. Lucas
    January 3, 2008 at 4:20 pm

    If we’re talking talking songs, all I can say is “Comeback teddy bear”.

  9. Brody Vercher
    January 3, 2008 at 4:26 pm

    Peter – “Uneasy Rider” definitely qualifies and “I Will Always Love You” has some recitation towards the end, but I’m not quite sure what to think about the Lyle Lovett one.

  10. Rick
    January 4, 2008 at 12:34 am

    Brody, One addition I’d make is Merle Haggard’s version of “Old Doc Brown” off of his excellent “Let Me Tell You About A Song” album. If that song doesn’t bring a tear to your eye, its time to get your pulse checked…

  11. C. Eric Banister
    January 4, 2008 at 7:16 am

    Let’s not forget the legendary Red Foley when it come to recitations. It was his version of the traditional “Steal Away” that Hank based “The Funeral” on and it was Foley who directly influenced Porter Wagoner by advising him to speak softly so that the audience would have to be silent to listen to every word.

    Sadly, Foley’s immense popularity and influence is forgotten more often than not.

    Speaking of Red Foley, there is also “I Was With Red Foley(The Night HePassed Away)” by Luke the Drifter, Jr.

  12. Brody Vercher
    January 4, 2008 at 10:50 am

    Rick – I’ve heard a version of that song on Johnny Cash’s Ride This Train album, but haven’t heard Haggard’s version. It’s an excellent recitation though.

    Eric – Excluding Foley was a gross oversight on my part. I did try searching for “I Was With Red Foley (The Night He Passed Away)” while I was putting my list together, but couldn’t find it anywhere. Another Hank, Jr. recitation that I can’t find anywhere is “The Old Ryman”.

  13. C. Eric Banister
    January 4, 2008 at 1:17 pm

    At least you thought of him :)

    “I Was With Red Foley” is on Luke the Drifter, Jr which was released in 1968. “The Old Ryman” was released in 1970, but I think it might have been only on a single. Both songs are available on CD in “The Essential Hank Williams Jnr” released in 2001 or the “Living Proof” box set from 1994 (both from Polygram).

  14. Hollerin' Ben
    January 4, 2008 at 2:06 pm

    another one just occurred to me. It may not be one of the greatest, but the most outlaw recitation of all time is definietly Johhny Paycheck’s “Colorado Kool-Aid”.

  15. Hollerin' Ben
    January 4, 2008 at 2:19 pm

    since we’re on the talking bit subject, when Cowboy Jack Clement was producing Elvis Costello’s country and western album “Almost Blue” (which I highly recommend, especially the Rhino records re-issue), he was trying to persuade Elvis to do a little reciting and gave him the follow rationale

    “There’s not a woman in the world ain’t a fool for a talking bit”

    Good ole Cowboy Jack.

  16. Brody Vercher
    January 4, 2008 at 4:13 pm

    Here’s some more recitations I found in my research that I didn’t use:

    Tammy Wynette – No Charge
    Donna Fargo – That Was Yesterday
    Dallas Wayne – Tell It to the Jukebox
    Dallas Wayne – I’m Your Biggest Fan
    Kitty Wells – I Gave My Wedding Dress Away
    Todd Snider – From a Rooftop (explicit language)
    Webb Pierce – Faith, Hope, and Love
    Charlie Daniels Band – Uneasy Rider
    Vince Gill – Almost Home
    Porter Wagoner – What Would You Do
    Hank Williams – Please Make Up Your Mind
    Hank Williams – Too Many Parties and Too Many Pals
    Porter Wagoner – What Would You Do?
    David Allan Coe – If That Ain’t Country
    Jimmy Dean – IOU
    Jimmy Dean – Dear Ivan
    Jimmy Dean – To A Sleeping Beauty
    Glen Campbell – Honey Come Back

    And some more that I found references to, but not actual song samples so that I could see if they were really recitations or not:

    Bill Anderson – Golden Guitar
    Red Sovine – Giddy Up Go
    Minnie Pearl РGiddyup GoóAnswer
    Ralph Emery – Hello Fool
    Jimmy Dean – Old Pappy’s New Banjo
    Jimmy Dean – Please Pass the Biscuits
    Hank Snow – My Mother
    Lorne Greene – Saga of the Ponderosa
    Jethro Burns – Malady of Love
    Hank Williams, Jr – The Old Ryman
    Dottie Rambo – Sheltered In the Arms of God
    Wayne Scott – This Weary Way
    Walter Brennan or Red Sovine – Old Rivers
    Brian Burns – Dallas After Midnight

  17. James
    January 5, 2008 at 11:11 am

    For my money, the greatest recitation of all time is Little Jimmy Dickens’ “(You’ve Been Quite A Doll) Raggedy Ann.” And seeing Little Jimmy do it live a few years ago (while holding a Raggedy Ann doll) stands as one of my all-time concert highlights.

    There are some Red Sovine recitations on YouTube that you should check out. He might’ve been co-master of recitations with Porter. There’s a CD called “Two Golden Voices of Recitations” with 5 recitations from each of them.

  18. jim walsh
    March 22, 2008 at 10:13 am

    I am looking for the words to the recitation by Jimmy Dean about a little horse that he leaves behind to go to school. Does anyone know where I can find the words.

  19. JPM
    April 22, 2008 at 7:05 pm

    Those are all good, but nothing compares to “Down the River” by Chris Knight.

  20. Brody Vercher
    April 22, 2008 at 7:32 pm

    Great song JPM, but it’s not a recitation.

  21. Mike Parker
    April 22, 2008 at 7:45 pm

    I’ve always loved Night Accident by Robbie Fulks… though I’m not sure it counts here. But some other Fulks songs at least qualify- “If They Could Only See Me Now” and “Coldwater, Tennessee” which was also a Dallas Wayne tune.

    And how about Todd Snider’s Seattle Grunge Rock Blues? It is a great country song. Though, a lot of Snider’s stuff probably fits here- since he does a lot of talking. “The Ballad of the Kingsmen” is a good one as well.

    Another good one was Roger Miller’s “One Dyin’ and a Buryin’”

    “Rose for Mama” is fantastic. Rips me up every time I hear it.

  22. Dave Little
    October 26, 2008 at 6:34 pm

    I caught the Red Foley (very poor quality) version of Steal Away. I think Red Sovine had that narration as well, it’s the one I remember. I think it is one of the most powerful narrations of all time along with Ragged Old Flag by Johnny Cash. I’d like to listen to a better version of Steal away, however, haven’t found a clearer or better one yet. OH! by the way, Little Buddy by Hank Snow will bring tears to your eyes as well.

  23. Jigger Helms
    January 28, 2009 at 2:01 am

    Do you know the artist or title of the recitation about the soldier who waited until a certain time of day to brave enemy fire because he knew that was when his mamma would be praying for him?

  24. Paula_W
    January 28, 2009 at 8:06 am
  25. walter pruskowski
    October 3, 2009 at 6:08 pm

    hi, I am trying to get the words to Deck of cards. can you help me? Thankyou Walter Pruskowski

  26. Trish Kaiser
    December 2, 2009 at 12:46 pm

    Hi,
    I am trying to get the words to Deck of Cards by Little Jimmy Dickens. Can you help?

    Thankyou!

    Trish

  27. Sheila
    December 19, 2009 at 12:48 am

    There’s a song that my Dad used to recite in the 1960s called the Mother In Law song. Does any one know who performed this song? The first line is “Here’s a little song that get me in the craw. It’s a song about my dear sweet mother in law.

  28. DALE
    May 9, 2010 at 9:50 pm

    LOOKING FOR THE PRAYING TREE. I HEARD IT ON A RADIO STATION ONE TIME.

  29. Jean
    September 22, 2011 at 10:53 am

    I’m trying to find the lyrics to a country hymn with A singer who is talking about a child who has died.Steal away is playing in the background.While he is saying those silver tears you’re sheddin’ are just interest on the loan. Where jesus has only loaned the child.

  30. Randi Walker
    October 17, 2011 at 1:37 pm

    I am looking for a recitation that Jimmy Dean performed on the Staler Brother show. It was an old Sunday School teacher trying to come up with a new lesson for Christmas Sunday. He’s watching it snow. ends up deciding the old Christmas story is the best. Anyone know where I can find a copy?

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