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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    Songs About Homelessness

    Music can address societal issues in different ways. Sometimes a song will tackle a big issue head on.  But more often than not, issues are addressed through personal stories or observations. One important societal issue that occasionally appears in popular song is the problem that so many of our fellow humans live without a home. Below are some examples of some songs that address homelessness to varying degrees.

    In 2011, singer-songwriter Ed Sheeran released ‘The A Team’ as the lead single of his first album +. Sheeran wrote the song about a prostitute addicted to crack cocaine after he visited a homeless shelter.

    “Ain’t Got No Home” is a folk song that was made popular by Woody Guthrie: “Just a wandrin’ worker, I go from town to town. / And the police make it hard wherever I may go / And I ain’t got no home in this world anymore.”

    In this video, Rosanne Cash performs “I Ain’t Got No Home”.

    Greg Trooper’s “They Call Me Hank” is about a homeless man named Bill. The song appeared on Trooper’s album Upside-Down Town.

    Here Trooper performs the song at Music City Roots live from the Loveless Cafe in June 2014.

    One of the more famous songs about homelessness is “Another Day in Paradise” by Phil Collins. The song appeared on his 1989 hit album But Seriously, where the singer sees a man avoiding a homeless person.

    Collins asks us to think twice about living another day in paradise, but a lot of critics thought that the song seemed disingenuous coming from someone as rich as Collins.

    The great songwriter Guy Clark recorded a song called “Homeless.” The song appears on Clark’s 2006 album The Dark.

    Like several other songs by Clark, he talks us through much of the story with a memorable chorus.

    Finally, another famous song that is about a homeless person is the Christmas song “Pretty Paper,” which was a hit in an excellent recording by Roy Orbison. The song about a person who in the midst of holiday shopping sees a homeless person was written by a young songwriter who would later go on to have a pretty successful career himself.

    So here is that songwriter, Willie Nelson, singing his version of the song he wrote.

    Other songs with homelessness themes include Jethro Tull’s “Aqualung,” Ralph McTell’s “Streets of London,” and “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)” by Crystal Waters.

    Music, of course, cannot solve problems but it can help educate us. More than 60,000 people sleep in homeless shelters each night in New York City alone. Homelessness continues to be a problem across the U.S., and in particular, the number of homeless LGBT youth on the streets continues to rise due to a lack of support for them.

    A number of organizations around the country work to help the homeless, and this website lists a number of ways that you can help the homeless (besides writing a song).

    What other songs are there about homelessness? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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