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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    Emmylou Harris Covers Steve Earle’s “The Pilgrim”

    Emmylou Harris recently appeared on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert with her band The Red Dirt Boys and gave a moving performance of Steve Earle’s “The Pilgrim.” The song is my favorite from Earle’s bluegrass album The Mountain (1999), so it was great to hear Harris’s wonderful voice giving it a new interpretation and a new meaning.

    In introducing the song, Harris touched upon today’s political culture and the plight of refugees. She noted, “This song is for the over 65 million displaced persons around the world.”

    And then she began the song.

    I am just a pilgrim on this road, boys;
    This ain’t never been my home.
    Sometimes the road was rocky long the way, boys;
    But I was never travelin’ alone.

    Check it out.

    Harris and The Red Dirt Boys are touring to celebrate the 25th anniversary of her classic album Emmylou Harris and the Nash Ramblers At The Ryman, which was recently re-issued.

    What is your favorite cover of a Steve Earle song? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Steve Earle & The Dukes Are Back: “So You Wannabe An Outlaw”

    Steve Earle & The Dukes will be releasing a new album, So You Wannabe An Outlaw. While I have enjoyed Earle’s recent forays into folk and blues, I am excited to hear that the album will be a return to a focus on his country sound. The album is a tribute to the 1970s Outlaw sound of singers like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.

    Speaking of Willie Nelson, he also makes a guest appearance on the album, as do Miranda Lambert and Johnny Bush. So You Wannabe An Outlaw will hit stores and the Internet on June 16, 2017.

    For a preview of Earle’s Outlaw tribute, you may hear one of the new tracks below. Check out “Lookin’ for a Woman.”

    Another track from the new album is “Fixin’ to Die.” It has a harder edge with a rock sound.

    Finally, here is a live performance of the title track, “So You Wannabe an Outlaw.” This performance is from a Town Hall performance in New York City in December 2016. Note that Earle jokes about having Willie Nelson singing on the song. He did get Nelson to sing on the album version of the song.

    A deluxe version of the album will also include covers of songs by Nelson, Jennings, and Billy Joe Shaver. So keep your ear out for the upcoming June 16 release of So You Wannabe An Outlaw, and watch for Earle in the Dukes, who will be touring this summer.


    What is your favorite Steve Earle song? 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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    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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