It is that time of the year when many try to give back to the community while others attempt to solidify their power and position; I won't attempt to calculate which is more prevalent in the bluegrass community this Christmas season.
This year I come bearing gifts. I bring forth to all those inhabiting Bluegrass Nation five song suggestions for the New Year. These are all songs that have previously been recorded and are crying out for a bluegrass rendition should any band be brave enough to step forward and accept the challenge. I don't need any credit; if any of these songs get recorded in the next year, I'll know where you got the idea!
First up, would someone please have the balls to take on Eddie Noack's "Dolores?" This is a song crying out for a 5-string and a bluegrass band. Eddie Noack had more famous songs, notably the creepy Leon Payne-penned "Psycho," later made infamous by Elvis Costello, which itself could use a bluegrass rendition. "Barbara Joy" is another good one, and "Invisible Stripes" has a Tom T. Hall cadence that would be adaptable to bluegrass.
But, "Dolores;" now there is a song! This Noack written number is just deadly, literally as it turns out.
The premise is pretty straightforward- there has "been violence in the streets" and "danger in every stranger you meet." See, there is a killer loose in the neighbourhood, a guy preying on the women of the town. Therefore, the narrator- from all appearances, a loving husband- cautions his wife to stay inside at night. Unbeknownst to the listener he is the actual slayer, and worst yet in the final verse Dolores goes out without his knowledge; as the song concludes, the narrator sings, "If you had stayed inside the house tonight, Dolores..."
What a song- twisted in every way imaginable, with implied violence in each verse and a twist worthy of "Driving Mary Home" at the end. This is a song any brave bluegrass band should be proud to call their own. Coincidentally, after drafting these paragraphs, I was doing some research about the songwriting of these Noack songs and found a piece from Nashville Scene, Halloween 2013 showcasing Noack's dark legacy. Google it 'cause I can't figure out how to post a link.
Second, "Don't Believe A Word" which comes to us from Thin LIzzy and their album "Johnny the Fox." Written by band leader Phil Lynott, "Don't Believe A Word" would, in the right hands, make a great bluegrass song. I pitched it once before to a band, but they didn't bite, and therefore maybe it isn't such a great idea; I prefer to think that the right person hasn't heard the suggestion.
Many bluegrass songs feature deception within relationships, and usually it ends badly. Where "Don't Believe A Word" is different is that the singer is telling the deceived right off the hop that he is a liar who will treat her poorly, going as far to say "not a word of this is true"... "especially if I tell you that I'm in love with you."
Go with the live arrangement found on the "Live/Life" release of 1983. In Thin Lizzy's hands here, the song is a bluesy shuffle, a format readily adaptable to modern bluegrass. There is room for a nice mandolin break, maybe even a G-run mid-song just before the final verse, and there is ample space for an extended coda bringing together fiddle and guitar to an explosive, high-energy finish. Oh, wait- bluegrass bands don't take fiddle players on the road anymore, so maybe that isn't such a good idea.
My third gift to bluegrass bands this Christmas is the suggestion of Guy Clark's "Homegrown Tomatoes." I can't find a bluegrass version of this song although the very excellent Bluegrass Discography site informs me that the Fritts Family may have recorded it about 20 years ago.
Guy Clark has had a few of his songs make it into the bluegrass field. "New Cut Road" and "Heartbroke" have been recorded, and Ricky Skaggs took the Clark-Shawn Camp song "Sis Draper" to the top a decade back. I believe "Black Diamond Strings" (not the Larry Cordle song of the same title) made the rounds, and "Dublin Blues" was recorded by NewTown not that long ago.
But "Homegrown Tomatoes" may be the best Guy Clark song suited to bluegrass. It is a fairly concise song, and can be played in less than three minutes. "Only two things that money can't buy, and that's true love and homegrown tomatoes."
There are two things I know. When my wife hears the opening lines of this song ("There ain't nothing in the world I like better/ bacon, and lettuce, and homegrown tomatoes...") she reaches for the audio control and hits 'off.' She does the same thing should I dare play a bluegrass tune with her in the car.
To me, that tells me we're onto something!
Fourth, I would like to suggest a bluegrass band somewhere take on "One Bad Apple" by the Osmonds.
Okay, stop. I'm serious. This is a great pop song that could make a wonderful and soulful bluegrass number. I don't know which brother sings the lead (Merrill?), but it is in a range most bluegrass lead singers should be able to nail. And when little brother Donny comes in on, "Oh, give me one more try before you give up on love" and " I don't care what they say, I don't care what you heard..." there is something any great bluegrass tenor singer should be able to nail as a showstopper...in the good way. And the sentiment is one of independence and self-determination, something bluegrass folks are usually quick to get behind.
Most folks attending bluegrass fests aren't likely to remember the song- they would either be too young or too old. Resurrect this one, I'm telling ya- it's a hit.
Finally, my fifth and final Christmas gift this year goes to only one bluegrass band, The Gibson Brothers. Many of us know that the bluegrass Gibson Brothers are not the first family of that name to hit the charts, and I have thought for several years that it would be just a deadly idea if Eric and Leigh took on the original Gibson Brother's hit, "Cuba." What a hoot! Can you imagine the audience reaction if they just launched into it to kick off a set somewhere? I hear their new album is comprised of brother songs; here is one that could go on the 'expanded' or special Wal-mart versions of the album.
With US/Cuba relations closer today than they have been in decades, what an opportunity to get ahead of the wave. And the possible stage dance moves? Endless! If The Gibson Brothers want to get back to be IBMA Entertainers of the Year, this might be a direction to go; there really aren't enough bluegrass songs that you can salsa to.
There have been hundreds upon dozens of rock, soul, and county songs reinvented as bluegrass tunes. My gift to you bluegrass bands are these five suggestions. Be brave this Christmas!
A Merry Bluegrass Christmas to all.