This is a story of three great singer-songwriters.
The first is John Prine. One of the greatest songwriters in American history, the much adored Prine was mourned deeply when he died early in the pandemic, the first really big cultural figure to be slain by Covid. Now, Prine was a walking preexisting condition. Let’s just say he had a lot of fun over the years. Prine was a rascal. He was the kind of guy you knew was going to get into some shenanigans. They might be slightly illegal. They might get him in trouble. They were surely going to lead to some great stories. But they weren’t scary. He was a fun guy. He was the guy you wanted to go on that bender with, the guy who would end up playing cards all night with legends, the guy who just had weird things go on around him. He was a center of mischief while also being just so damn positive about it all. The thing that made Prine such a great songwriter was his tremendous empathy and his ability to sum up an entire world with a line (“Voted for Eisenhower cuz Lincoln won the war” from “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” sums up a whole generation of white men).
So when Prine died, a lot of people were sad. They knew him or they wanted to know him. They idolized him. They loved his songs and they loved the man he was. But at least he lived the life he wanted to live to the fullest. The leads us to the second of our singer-songwriters: Patterson Hood. The front man of Drive-By Truckers, Hood is a different kind of songwriter than Prine. Whereas Prine’s work revolved around dry wit, Hood is a more earnest songwriter, about politics and about the travails of the working class and about the world he grew up him. But Hood has two major things in common with Prine. First, he has the same empathy. His songs could be condemnations of conservatives and sometimes they are–but of their leaders (“Thoughts and Prayers” and “The Part of Him” are a couple of good examples here). But mostly they are stories of trying to understand what has happened to the nation. A song such as “The Guns of Umpqua” tells the story of the horrible mass shooting at Umpqua Community College in Oregon through the eyes of veteran who came back to the U.S. and now he’s been shot at in a classroom. Then there are his many songs about small-time crime in which he is quite empathetic with these people whose lives are just a mess. And this gets to the other thing that he and Prine have a common–Hood is the kind of guy you would want to get in trouble with. He’s also a bit of a rascal, or so it seems. These are fun people, smart, literate, hard-partying singers.
So it’s not surprising that if Hood had the chance to participate in a tribute to Prine, he would. DBT isn’t really a Prine-cover type of band. According to the setlist website, they once covered “Angel from Montgomery” all the way back in 2003 and that’s it. That then brings us to the third great singer-songwriter of this post: Elizabeth Nelson.
Of course, I’m biased here. Elizabeth is not only my blog colleague here, but she’s like the most brilliant music writer ever, not to mention her many other great contributions from interviewing authors to writing about golf. But even if I never met her, The Paranoid Style is a kick-ass band. Her writing and playing hits my two most important mental zones. For years now, each Paranoid Style album has brought a unique perspective into American music. First, it is super smart and literate. Second, it is awesome guitar rock. A song such as “Turpitude” off of A Goddamn Impossible Way of Life includes this set of lyrics:
November 8th, 1994 – a dark café in Rochester
Gingrich revolution on the TV – you think things just got bad? The truth is more exhausting
And I smoked for the following reasons:
The contract with America
I smoked because of Pulp Fiction
I smoked because of Mojo Nixon
And because back then it wasn’t rude
Nowadays I suppose they’d call that Turpitude
Who writes like this? No one else but Elizabeth Nelson! And this is what makes her so great–a unique voice in her writing and a unique voice in her singing. For a whole career now, we’ve seen great song after great song–“Subtraction by Subtraction,” “The Thrill is Back!”–that have all deserved far more attention from the world.
I was lucky enough to get a copy of the new album, For Executive Meeting, out later this summer. Folks, this is a fun one. And lest you think I’m overstating the literary aspect of Elizabeth’s work, let me note that among the song titles on the new album are “Exit Interview with P.G. Wodehouse” and “Until Burnam Woods Comes to Dunsinane.” Those are great tracks! But that’s not what we are talking about here. Because Elizabeth wanted to write a song to honor John Prine. So she did.
In the media release for the release of “I’d Bet My Land and Titles” Elizabeth notes,
I wanted to write something that I thought Prine would appreciate. Something funny and character-driven, where people got themselves into and out of trouble. Or maybe just into trouble. I started out just embroidering on a lyric of his: “One last illegal smile”, and just kind of took it from there. It’s about a couple of roustabout types — gamblers who make their way through life with guile and nerve and not a lot else. And maybe they’re lovers, or have been. They’re kind of stuck together, the way certain kinds of folks are. They crack wise at each other. At a certain point, it occurred to me it should be a duet. It was writing itself that way — like a conversation.
So she needed someone to sing this with. And that person is Patterson Hood. He notes,
“Elizabeth asked me if I wanted to sing a duet with her, and I said that sounded just fine.We talked about “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around” which is certainly cool, but also the Suzi Quatro/Chris Norman track “Stumblin’ In” which was a particular favorite of both of ours. Nobody talks too much about that song anymore. We liked the idea of two people committed to the proposition of getting into trouble. It’s a good natured thing, but we’re still going to wreck shop. Whatever town we’re about to go out in is gonna get snowballed.”
I’d like to note here that I would like to see them cover “Stop Draggin My Heart Around” which I once saw Margo Price cover with Aaron Lee Tasjan at an awesome show in Pittsburgh. It’s a fun one. So cover that one when the inevitable Paranoid Style/DBT cover album is released, consisting entirely of my favorite songs!
Anyway, instead of a cover, they did Elizabeth’s new Prine tribute. And it’s great. It really a song of two people about to get into some fun trouble. These rascals! There’s gonna be some drinking and quite possibly a few other things happening! They sing so well together. When I first heard about this duet, I was really curious. Hood and Nelson are different types of singers. She is a dense lyricist. There’s a lot of words in there! Like, a lot of words. This is someone with a lot to say. Hood’s vocals tend to be less fast and crowded. So how were they going to manage this?
Well, they sing together like tequila and lime. This is a good moment to note how much Hood’s singing has improved over the years. Early in his career, his voice was pretty ragged. I’ve read that he himself doesn’t like the singing on the early DBT albums. But over time, he’s developed a real sweetness in his voice, one that goes really well with the empathy in his heart. I think I first truly realized this with his underrated solo album Murdering Oscar and all the recent DBT albums have reflected this mature voice. Meanwhile, Elizabeth is herself a unique singer, really unlike anyone I’ve heard. Her voice sounds like wry commentary and often is wry commentary, someone who has turned a lot of 90s irony that we Gen Xers grew up with into often cutting remarks about contemporary society. But that’s not the goal here and that’s why it works, because that ironic voice discovered a land beyond irony a long time ago.
Enough of me talking for a minute. Let’s watch the video!
I love that little groove that starts this song! Within one second, you are the point of dancing around, even if it’s your seat. That guitar/organ combo with the drums high in the mix is total gold. It’s something out of a Sir Douglas Quintet album. Doug Sahm approves from the Great Texas Beyond; Augie Meyers would approve if someone gives him the track. The song’s conceit–“one last illegal smile”–is so great and they both take it from there in a joyful exchange of trash talk. Your idols might be dead and you might have been acting like jerk, but I’d bet my land and titles you’ll find this song one of the catchiest tunes you’ll hear in 2022. John Prine is indeed in exile, but his spirit lives in this song.
Again, “I’d Bet My Land and Titles” is a really fun song. First rate songwriting and first rate singing combining for first rate rock and roll. What the hell else do you want out of a song?