When I Stop Dreaming

Ray Charles, ABC-Paramount 45-11170, 1969, #112 Pop, #25 Adult Contemporary

My idea of the perfect party: having a few beers, sitting around with a group of friends singing harmony. In the Dallas area there’s an acoustic jam group of thirty-five-plus years run by a woman who is a wonderfully earthy singer and force of nature, and for several years of Sundays, I didn’t miss it. It was in this jam group that I met another force of nature, the late Jimmy Lee. Poor, bedeviled Jimmy Lee had a powerful voice, which he was able to masterfully control in order to convey intense longing on a ballad, and then follow it with hilarious irreverence.

Jimmy Lee brought a song to the jam circle once and requested that I harmonize with him on it. It was the Louvin Brothers’ “When I Stop Dreaming,” a sweet and soaring ¾-time ballad that I’d heard but only vaguely remembered. We enjoyed our first, fumbling try so much that I learned the words, and we did the song every time we met thereafter. On every occasion, it was a thrill to sing: a well-wrought song with the strong, sure voice of Jimmy Lee laying the foundation. Yes, he sang happy-go-lucky brother Charlie Louvin’s lower melody part, and I sang the high harmony that crazy, drinkin’, wild-man brother Ira Louvin did originally. We all found out later how much more Jimmy Lee was like Ira than Charlie when Jimmy went to jail for murdering a business partner, and died there of cancer, well before his time.

It is one of those rare Ray Charles records where his cover does not outshine the original

The Louvins were the influential example of the filial harmony that the Everly Brothers carried to pop-rock immortality. Their commingling voices were sweet and pure, but their repertoire tended toward songs of death and despair—enough so that one collection of their songs is entitled Tragic Songs of Life. They could’ve sung the story of Jimmy Lee.

I recently came across a couple of other single versions of “When I Stop Dreaming.” In 1971, Charlie Louvin, now without his ill-fated brother, sings with perennial duetter Melba Montgomery. (She got around: In addition to Louvin, her recording partners included George Jones and Gene Pitney.) With only one Louvin Brother, it just ain’t the same. It’s a beautiful song that’s hard to tarnish, but a little too saccharine without Ira on hand. Another thirty-six years later, Charlie duetted on the song with Elvis Costello. Others who’ve covered “When I Stop Dreaming” include Roy Orbison, Emmy Lou Harris, Johnny Cash, and Louvinites Phil and Don Everly. Even The Everlys’ recording can’t compare to the original. The Louvins were just too perfectly suited to interpret the song, one of the few that they wrote.

But I also found Ray Charles’s version of the song, recorded for his Tangerine label in 1969. It is one of those rare Ray Charles records where his cover does not outshine the original, but it’s a gorgeous song that Ray puts his stamp on, and so it is worthy. Ray Charles transforms show-tunes, like “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’,” standards, like “Georgia on My Mind,” even anthems, like “America the Beautiful.” Ray Charles could take any song from any genre and make it his own.

Ray had had his way with C&W songs before, of course, but he’s holding back a little here when I’m thinking he could be less restrained; the strings and backing vocals are a little too sweet, and the pacing is sedate. But the vocal performance is moving and true, and I imagine Charlie, like me, may have preferred it to his own duets with Melba and with Elvis. But, of course, would still rank brother Ira over Brother Ray.

I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling

Bill Monroe and His Blue Grass Boys , Columbia 20459, 1947

This song helped dislodge several prejudices I’d long had against bluegrass music. I’d listened to and enjoyed quite a few Bill Monroe records over the years, including “Little Georgia Rose,” “Gotta Travel On,” and the original ¾-time “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” but never owned any and never sought any out. Then I came across the 78 of “Little Cabin on the Hill” and “I Hear a Sweet Voice Calling” and brought it home for a spin. I enjoyed “Cabin” about like I had other bluegrass songs, appreciating the instrumental breaks, tapping along to the steady beat. But when I turned the record over, it stayed there for a while.

It’s one of the most enchanting passages of music I’ve ever heard in a pop recording, and it’s from the world of bluegrass.

The song starts out with pretty ordinary musical structure on the verses. Bill Monroe, taking the lead vocals with his sharp tenor, out-Dickenses Dickens’ melodramatic Little Nell scene as he pines about a young girl on her deathbed trying to console her bereft parents. “Tell Mommy to come to me quickly / I want to kiss you both then go.” That piqued my interest.

But then a series of escalating surprises unfolds during the chorus. First, the instruments drop way down, and three vocal parts come in, with Bill on top. Next, on the second line of the chorus, the voices swoop way up, with Monroe on a high B, and the effect is startling. Then, on line three, the vocalists entwine themselves in a “steel-guitar” harmony, going in and then out of discordance. Line four brings us back to reality, and the instruments rejoin for verses four and five. Every time I listen to the record and it gets to those last two verses, I know that three-part-harmony chorus is about to come around one more time, and I’m spellbound waiting for it. It’s one of the most enchanting passages of music I’ve ever heard in a pop recording, and it’s from the world of bluegrass. What a revelation!

Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys during this key period included Lester Flatt on vocals and guitar and Earl Scruggs on banjo. They were soon to break away to become a bluegrass-novelty act of great renown. In fact, when I was growing up, I was familiar with Flatt & Scruggs, thanks to their theme song for The Beverly Hillbillies, and their appearance on the show as themselves, come to visit old flame Pearl. But I don’t think I was aware of the great Bill Monroe until way into my adulthood. If he’d only made an appearance on Petticoat Junction…but I don’t reckon t’were Bill’s kinda thang, do you?

Before the few Bill Monroe 78s I recently acquired, I owned no bluegrass music, other than a Dave Grisman LP or two and the O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack album. But now I listen to bluegrass a little differently, and I’m at long last a Bill Monroe convert.

Baby, We’re Really in Love

Hank Williams with His Drifting Cowboys, MGM K11100, 1951, #4 Country

My Aunt Kay had left a few 78 rpm records at her parents’ house—my Grandpa and Grandma Wilson’s farmhouse. Grandma gave me one of them to take home: Hank Williams’ “Baby, We’re Really in Love,” with “I’d Still Want You” on the B-side. I loved both songs, and played them on my little record player often. One day, I played the record for my neighborhood friends. Donny picked it up off the turntable after we’d listened and read on the disc “This Is a Non-Breakable Record.” He said, “Non-breakable? Cool!” and tossed it against the wall, where it shattered into a dozen pieces.

no one else writes simple so perfectly

I did recently find a 45 of the record, and it sits proudly in my little collection. “Baby, We’re Really in Love” is a fine song (favorite couplet: “I run around in circles and laugh at fire alarms / I’m nutty as a fruitcake when you’re not in my arms”), and the flip side, “I’d Still Want You,” is just as wonderful. Of all the singer-songwriters whose work I cherish, Hanks’s songs are the ones whose value and appeal I’m least able to explain. They’re not that different in substance from countless other three-chord songs with catchy hooks. I think: so simple—anyone could write that stuff! They are simple, yes—but no one else writes simple so perfectly. The best of his songs are like elements: They are basic but solid and unimprovable. And it doesn’t have to be Hank delivering them. Great covers have been recorded by singers outside the C&W field. I think of Tony Bennett’s “Cold, Cold Heart” (or Norah Jones’ version), Ray Charles’ “You Win Again” and “Hey, Good Lookin’,” Al Green’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry.”

Two of Hank’s best involve trains. I, like so many others, have always felt the mystique of trains (although I’ve only traveled by train once, long, long ago), possibly because my dad and both of my grandfathers worked for the railroad. That used to be a much more common occupation than it is these days. (Kinda like a kid today saying, “My dad and both of my grandpas are computer programmers.”)

“(I Heard That) Lonesome Whistle” (the Hank hit that preceded “Baby, We’re Really in Love”) and “Ramblin’ Man,” which Hank recorded as Luke the Drifter, are train songs, but trains have little to do with my preference for them. Trains, though, may have inspired Hank to do some of his best work, a major-key song and a minor-key song that both convey a regretful resignation to fate. “I can settle down and be doin’ just fine / ‘til I hear an old freight rollin’ down the line…”

A friend recently bought an anthology of Hank Williams’ Luke the Drifter songs. In the liner notes, the song “Just Waitin’” was credited to “Bob Gazzaway of Happy, Texas.” My friend knew that my wife’s maiden name is Gazzaway, and I knew that an uncle of hers had prepared a nice genealogy of the family. I checked it out and was able to find a Bobby Rankin Gazzaway who had lived with his family in Happy, Texas. This had to be Hank’s collaborator, and it turns out that he and my wife’s grandpa Homer were cousins. When I told my father-in-law this news, he was pleasantly surprised (although, he says, he was never much of a Hank Williams fan). He then said that many years back there’d been a rumor that a Gazzaway had written a lot of Hank’s songs and not received any credit.

Among Hank Williams’ stellar output, “Just Waitin’” is no great shakes. It’s a narrative song, with Hank speaking over a basic repeated 1-4-5-1 pattern. Its simple message is that everybody’s just waitin’ on something, and never gettin’ anything done. A series of examples drive the point home. “The farmer’s daughter’s just waitin’ for the travelin’ salesman to take her into town / The city slicker’s just waitin’ for the country boy to lay all his money down.”

But here’s to Bob Gazzaway. I’m just waitin’ to hear the whole story about how he crossed paths with the great Hank Williams. Or maybe how he and Hank were longtime pals who wrote songs together, but the evil Hank stole all of Bob’s credit and royalties, leaving him to languish, unhappy, in Happy, Texas.