The Flying Burrito Brothers Song That Includes a Tribute to Bobby Kennedy

I have probably heard “Sin City” by the Flying Burrito Brothers more than a hundred times.  But I never realized that one of the verses is about Robert F. Kennedy until reading an interview with Steve Earle.

In the interview, Earle recounted how the song’s co-writer Chris Hillman explained the Bobby Kennedy connection.  The following verse is about Kennedy.

A friend came around,
Tried to clean up this town;
His ideas made some people mad;
But he trusted his crowd,
So he spoke right out loud;
And they lost the best friend they had.

In another interview from many years ago in The Los Angeles Times, Hillman confirmed the above verse was about Kennedy. Hillman also explained how he and Gram Parsons came to write the song.

Hillman woke up one morning with the opening lines of the song in his head: “This old town’s filled with sin, it’ll swallow you in….”  He immediately woke up his roommate Parsons, who soon came up with the melody for the song.

Parsons and Hillman, who both had recently experienced relationship breakups, completed the song in about thirty minutes.  And they both ended up singing it on the first Flying Burrito Brothers album, The Gilded Palace of Sin (1969).

Bobby Kennedy was not the only person referenced in the song.  Hillman, who still had bad feelings about the breakup of his former band The Byrds, included an allusion to that band’s manager Larry Spector.  Hillman considered Spector a thief, and the man lived on the thirty-first floor of a condo.  Hence the line:  “On the thirty-first floor a gold plated door / Won’t keep out the Lord’s burning rain.”

Hillman further explained that they wrote “Sin City” as a cautionary tale to “people like Gene Clark from the Byrds, who came here from Kansas with all that talent and all bright-eyed and talented and idealistic, and the whole thing just swallowed him up.”  Unfortunately, that cautionary tale could equally refer to the tragic young death of Parsons.

“Sin City” remains one of the great collaborations between two great singer-songwriters. While the original recorded by the songwriters remains definitive, there have been a couple of nice covers through the years. Below in a performance from 1989, k.d. lang and Dwight Yoakam do the song justice.

Finally, here is a wonderful version by Steve Earle, Gillian Welch, and David Rawlings (Buddy Miller is also there on guitar).

And that is the story behind the song.

What is your favorite song by the Flying Burrito Brothers? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Life and Songs of Emmylou Harris

    On January 10, 2015, a group of great performers came together at Washington, DC’s DAR Constitution Hall to honor Emmylou Harris. To celebrate Harris’s work, Rounder is releasing DVD and CD versions of The Life & Songs of Emmylou Harris: An All-Star Concert Celebration, created and produced by Blackbird Presents.

    The performers on the DVD and CD feature many of my favorite artists. The package includes music by Mary Chapin Carpenter, Shawn Colvin, Sheryl Crow, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Patty Griffin, Chris Hillman, Iron & Wine, Alison Krauss, Kris Kristofferson, Daniel Lanois, Martina McBride, Buddy Miller, Conor Oberst, Mavis Staples, Sara Watkins, Lee Ann Womack, and Lucinda Williams.

    Of course, the celebration would not be complete without Emmylou Harris. She performs “Boulder to Birmingham,” a song she co-wrote about Gram Parsons after he passed away. The song originally appeared on Harris’s 1975 album Pieces of the Sky.

    Below, Harris performs “Boulder to Birmingham” at the celebration concert with a little help from her friends. She begins singing the song alone before the others join her onstage. It is not much of a stretch to see the symbolism in the arrangement, considering how Harris must have felt so alone after Parson’s death. But her fans and colleagues, who in many ways are children of Gram Parsons, remind her that she is not alone. It is a beautiful song, and this performance is a nice arrangement.

    The Life & Songs Of Emmylou Harris: An All-Star Concert Celebration will be released in various forms on November 11, 2016.

    What is your favorite Emmylou Harris song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Buddy Miller’s Touchstone: “That’s How I Got to Memphis”

    The first time I fell for Buddy Miller‘s music is when I heard his cover of Tom T. Hall’s “That’s How I Got to Memphis.” At the time, I’d borrowed Miller’s 1995 CD Your Love and Other Lies from my friend. Although I eventually came to love the entire album, it was “That’s How I Got to Memphis” that grabbed me on the first listen and never let me go.

    I have followed Miller’s career since then, buying and enjoying all of his albums. If asked to name my favorite Buddy Miller album, it would be Cruel Moon (1999).

    But asked me to name my favorite Buddy Miller recording, though, I would have to go past all of the wonderful original songs of his. And I’d name his cover of “That’s How I Got to Memphis.”

    Buddy Miller’s Relationship With the Song

    Considering how that song has remained a standout in Miller’s catalog for me, I was fascinated that the Tom T. Hall song means so much to him. In this video recorded at Tom T. Hall night at Music City Roots on November 16, 20111, Miller explains how the song is his favorite and how it has become his “touchstone.”

    Miller has been playing the song since it came out.  And he has played it at every gig. Additionally, he played it the first time he met his wife, the singer-songwriter Julie Miller.

    What Is the Meaning of the Song?

    The title of “That’s How I Got to Memphis” gives you and idea about the question of the song (how did the singer get to Memphis?). But it is Tom T. Hall’s great storytelling ability that tells you just enough to answer the question and leaves just enough unclear, so that everyone may hear something different in the song.

    In “That’s How I Got to Memphis,” the singer explains how he is seeking a lost love and how that journey brought him to Memphis. The song does not answer all of the questions, like why the woman went to Memphis, what kind of “trouble she’s in,” or the exact reason she left the singer. But the singer’s quest to find the answers to these questions allows the listener to fill in the blanks, even as the story breaks your heart.

    The song is about life and loss. If the song were from the woman’s point of view, one might be tempted to categorize it as a song about a stalker, even as we wonder why she left and why she always threatened to go to Memphis. But because the song is in the voice of the broken-hearted man speaking to another person who may be a stranger or a friend, a great singer can remind you of the pain of losing something you once loved.

    Or you may see the song as more about the journey of getting to another place. The beauty of Hall’s song is in the ambiguity, which leaves a lot to be revealed in the connection between the singer and the listener.

    Other Versions of “That’s How I Got to Memphis”

    Several other artists have covered the song, sometimes shortening the title to “How I Got to Memphis.” The song has been recorded and/or performed by artists such as Bobby Bare, Bill Haley and the Comets, Solomon Burke, Rosanne Cash and the Avett Brothers. More recently, Jeff Daniels sang the song on the series finale of HBO’s The Newsroom.

    “That’s How I Got to Memphis” first appeared on Tom T. Hall’s 1969 album Ballad Of Forty Dollars & His Other Great Songs. Below is his version.

    What is your favorite Buddy Miller song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Colvin & Earle: “Ruby Tuesday”

    A lot of folks are excited about the forthcoming album from Shawn Colvin and Steve Earle that is produced by Buddy Miller. The teaming of three of my favorite artists should make for some great music, hopefully. From a project with three outstanding songwriters, it is interesting that the album includes four cover songs, including a cover of The Rolling Stones’s classic “Ruby Tuesday.”

    In a recent interview, Earle noted that he brought “Ruby Tuesday” to Colvin, and the two had sung it previously on tour. He explained that although the song is so well known, their version is new: “it has a reason to exist is because we sing in harmony all the way through it.”

    On the song on the album, Colvin plays the guitar while Earle plays an octave mandolin. As he explains, “I get to be Mick and Keith. I sing the melody on the verses and Keith’s part on the choruses and I get to be Brian Jones because I’m playing the weird instrument.”

    Below is a live performance of Colvin & Earle singing “Ruby Tuesday” live from earlier this year. Check it out.

    The album Colvin & Earle will hit stores and the Internet on June 10, 2016.

    What do you think of the “Ruby Tuesday” cover by Colvin & Earle? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    RIP Jesse Winchester

    Singer-songwriter Jesse Winchester passed away today at his home in Charlottesville, Virginia. The 69-year-old artist had been suffering from esophageal cancer. Winchester, who had moved to Canada in 1967 in protest of the Vietnam War, had some chart success with his own recordings of his folk-country-blues sound. While he may not be remembered by a large number of the population, he is well-respected and admired by a number of talented artists. And many of them covered his songs. If you are not familiar with his work, check out these videos.

    Here is Winchester with a moving performance of his song “Sham-A-Ling-Dong-Ding” on season two (2009-2010) of Elvis Costello’s Spectacle show. That’s Neko Case, Sheryl Crow, and Ron Sexsmith on stage with Costello and Winchester. You can see near the end around the 3:12 mark where Case has tears in her eyes from Winchester’s touching song. Wow.

    Here is a young Winchester in 1977, singing with Bonnie Raitt and Emmylou Harris.

    Finally, here is one of my favorite covers of a Jesse Winchester song. In this video, Buddy Miller sings Winchester’s “A Showman’s Life,” which appeared on Miller’s 2002 album Midnight and Lonesome. Winchester’s “A Showman’s Life” has been covered in excellent versions by the likes of George Strait and Gary Allan. But check out Miller’s version.

    Thanks for the music Mr. Winchester. RIP.

    What is your favorite Jesse Winchester song? Leave your two cents in the comments

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