I was reading a book by Larry McMurtry, author of Lonesome Dove and probably Texas’ best known living author. This book is called Walter Benjamin at the Dairy Queen, subtitled Reflections at Sixty and Beyond. I’m not sure who Walter Benjamin was, some kind of literary critic. But more to the point, McMurtry’s grandparents were land hungry Texas pioneers who lived a life characterized by hard work and perseverance… and the same was true of his father, a cowboy and small time rancher who worked his whole life fighting mesquite and prickly pear cactus. McMurtry said watching his father gave him the idea that work formed character… he spent all those years chopping back the mesquite and it kept growing back…working against impossible odds…it was a Quixotic thing. He said that the cowboy life…
Hugh: Lots of thoughts flying around already…
The cowboy life was an impossible existence based on an impossible dream. The dream was based on bad economics… cattle were never really made for the west; buffalo were. And central to the dream was the idea of freedom and wide open spaces. But as McMurtry says, that was gone in the period of twenty years, from around 1866 to 1886… it was already over. But the myth lived on. It’s still going on today. McMurtry says trying to kill the cowboy myth is like trying to kill a snapping turtle; no matter what you do to it, it just won’t die. You and Katy grew up in Fort Worth, still a wild cowboy town when you were born. To me it seems cowboys and musicians have a lot in common… maybe this isn’t a very original observation. They share hopeless struggle and romantic myth. I was wondering if either one of you, or both might want to comment on that.
The struggle you’re talking about, cutting back the mesquite made me think of one of the best known of Loren Eisley’s essays, which is ‘The Star Thrower’ in which he talks about being on a coast in Central America…he talks about going down to the beach where people were throwing starfish back into the water that had been stranded by the outgoing tide. And he thought, how foolish…because there were so many starfish and their being stranded was a part of nature anyway. It’s just the way things are—why would anybody want to do this? So he went back to where he was staying to lie down and he thought, “ Wait a minute, that’s what we’re here for.” So he walked back down to the beach and started picking up starfish and throwing them into the water… What I think that means is it’s not hopeless. It may be hopeless in the context of this world, but I don’t think we understand what reality is. I think that when we’re driven by instincts like these, cutting back mesquite, or the cowboy myth, or throwing stars, we’re touching something deep inside of us and we don’t have any hope of knowing what the purpose is. But there’s faith that says it has a purpose and is meaningful.
Katy, do you want to add to that, cowboys and stuff…
I thought that was pretty good. I like that a lot. I thought of Sisyphus…I agree that it’s not a hopeless effort, no matter what the effort is. If it’s there to be done, there’s a reason to do it. It seems to me that’s at the heart of cowboy music…and as a musician I relate to the desire to wander, moving on playing the music…it’s a cowboy thing.
Hugh, you had a lot of songs recorded by other artists over the years, some of them pretty big songs, ‘Old Flames,’ ‘Words at Twenty Paces,’ that was on an Alabama record. And ‘Carolina Star’ is a bluegrass standard.
In fact, just to interrupt you for a minute, John Starling…was the first one who recorded that song. It’s been recorded many times, without ever being a major hit. A year ago John called me to say he was putting a band together and asked me if he could name his band after my song. So there’s a band out there now called John Starling and Carolina Star.
How cool… that’s excellent… I was going to ask in the same breath: do you look at the writing process any differently than you did when we were starting out? I think we met in 1973 or something like that, and I think Katy—I think we met a few years later.
I think we met in 1975.
I know you were never slugging it out year after year in Nashville. You were more out on the road, yet you still wrote a lot; with Tom Russell, in particular.
Right. Eventually I became more prolific.
How is the process different today than it was back then?
Hugh: I don’t know that the process is different; I think it’s more mature. Eventually you get more selective. That’s one reason for writing less. I was fortunate in Nashville in that I never had to be around people who were grinders, as far as writers go. Whether I was in the business, or out of it, or on the edge of the business… no one was around who was a grinder. When I was writing at peak output it was maybe fifty songs a year.
That’s a lot.
It’s a lot, but it’s… well, I knew people who wrote ten songs a week. What I discovered, and the people around me discovered and accepted—I’m talking about the business people, my publishers—was whether I wrote twenty songs in a year, or whether I wrote fifty songs in a year, I had about a dozen that I cared about. It didn’t really matter how many I wrote; that’s about what my useful output was. I wrote for publishers on draw for almost twenty-five years or so, and no one ever told me I had to turn in songs…Lets take a songwriter, Irving Berlin. Here’s a guy who for what, maybe seventy years, wrote countless songs. But you take the songs on which his name rests, the songs on which he probably made eighty-percent of his income on, and you could play them in an hour.
Speaking again of Larry McMurtry at Rice University, I was just reading his book; I knew you had graduated from there and I knew I was going to be seeing you soon. I guess this is why I have the two of you linked in my mind… some kind of synchronicity here. Parenthetically, McMurtry didn’t actually graduate from Rice. He said the math was too hard for him. He got his degree somewhere else and came back to teach English.
Katy: I didn’t know that.
Hugh: I didn’t know that either. I just knew he was a professor at Rice…the other famous alumnus was Howard Hughes… he lasted about a semester.
Well, getting around to my question: I was talking to Harry Warner, an old friend of at B.M.I. I asked him what was the biggest change in Nashville song-writing community was over the years, and he said it was the number of writers with college degrees. He said Kristofferson was the first. He said before Kris came to town, no Nashville writers were college educated. And now almost everybody has some amount of university background.
Katy: That also extends to of the other part of the business of Nashville, which was my introduction… the record making business. The first time I was ever in Nashville was when I went to start my first album for Columbia Records, with Billy Sherrill producing. And he at some point told me that he had never heard a country singer say the word ‘nuance.’
What the hell is that…?
He knew, because he’s extremely bright and well educated man, but generally speaking his frame of reference was really the Loretta Lynns and the Tammy Wynettes.
Did you go to university, or did you just hit the road?
I did. I went to Tulane and didn’t last long… they threw me out after a couple of months. Then I went to St. John’s College in Santa Fe, that has a program based on the great books. The odd thing about St. Johns to me is I can’t really point to any people from the performance side, or writing side of the music business, but two of the alumni are Jac Holzman, who started Electra, and Ahmet Ertegen, from Atlantic Records.
I had no idea.
Hugh: Let me add a little the thing about Kristofferson. Growing up in Fort Worth you had two directions you could take with country music: you loved it or you hated it; and I went the hated it direction.
Katy: So did I.
Hugh: We called cowboys goat ropers… you can see these old prejudices popping up. Then I got away from home, in Houston. I began to understand country music through the back door through Buffalo Springfield and Poco, and a little bit of the Byrds. I started listening to country music and that led me to Willie Nelson and Kris Kristofferson. When I was leaving Austin, I just showed up in Nashville. I was on my way to visit a friend in Washington D.C. I got off the bus in Nashville to stay a night or two… to see what it was about, and I just didn’t leave for twenty-five years. A whole bunch of us came to Nashville, because of Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, and Roger Miller. Of course by the time you hear about something in Nashville, it’s already gone. So what we ended up finding was each other.
I remember you telling me that…
Talking about McMurtry at Rice, he was only there my freshman year. We all knew he was there, and it was exciting. But the real impact he made on the campus, on me and everyone else that year was one of his buddies was Ken Kesey. And Kesey and the Merry Pranksters were on tour that year, and spent a whole week on the Rice campus. They were a year’s worth of education all by themselves. Anyway, that’s what McMurtry meant to me at Rice.
That’s a good one… You know, I used to work on boats and drilling rigs when I needed money. I always felt that the guys out there could sense I was different in some way… I got the feeling that they thought I was slumming. I was looking for adventure and in my mind I was trying to follow in the tradition of Jack London, kind of seaman-literary guy at the same time, a working class hero sort of thing. I was wondering if you get similar feelings working in the country music field. For example, I’m sure you’re aware that European intellectuals tend to look down their noses at country people. Maybe it’s because they like to dress up, or because they believe in the myth. Do you get the feeling that the smart people are looking down on us? Or that the country people are thinking we’re not really country enough?
Katy: I think both of those things are true. They’re different things. Nashville has never considered me country.
Your first record deal wasn’t as a country artist?
No, I was signed to the pop division, but for political reasons I had to go through Billy Sherrill. Nobody expected him to want to produce me, but he did… but this leads me back to Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn who both to me were brilliant songwriters and brilliant singers and performers. I was completely different from them. I could tell that Billy had never dealt with someone like me, and he was trying to stretch and do something different. The comment that he made that there was something new about a singer with a literary education was true…but it has nothing to do with the work itself. People try to separate it, but it can’t be separated. It’s just people trying to do their best work, wherever they come from.
Hugh: I completely agree. I’d go further, take a bigger context here and say what is the place of the intellect in life? The intellect is a secondary function. When you make decisions you know that the intellect is the assistant before, and the understander after. The moment of decision is not in the intellect. Anyone who tries to place the intellect above the other parts of life has got a lot to learn. It’s great for explaining and understanding and analyzing—doing what we’re doing here— but at the moment of decision it’s secondary. That’s what Katy’s saying. If you’re singing about something that touches people, it will touch them whether they’re educated or not. It doesn’t matter whether you’re college educated or not, so long as you’ve done your job right. And if they don’t get the language right away, the melody will hook them. That’s why we do music, instead of poetry.
The first time I came over here to play we were in the southern German town of Tubingen… kind of a stuffy, intellectual place, an ancient German University. And the next few times I played in the same town was in the Tubingen Bahnhof. There were no intellectuals there; nor were there any denizens of the Bahnhof at the university at the first gig we played years before.
We were talking about the business and the attitudes of the business, the little labels… we got around to the point. The one thing about the commercial music business is that it has absolutely no taste, and that is the saving grace. If you can show somebody that you’ve got an audience and can sell records, you’re going to get your records out there. If you go to the smaller labels, they all have an opinion. That’s good, they can do what they want; but they’re going to categorize and stratify you far more than the commercial labels. There’s an enforced honesty in commercial music that has always appealed to me.
Katy: That’s not my personal experience with the commercial industry.
Hugh: I was talking about the top level, the lawyers who are going to sign the acts, and Katy is talking about the creative end. Because when you get to the creative people they are creative; they do have opinions and they will clash… and they will make mistakes. When you get inside the studios in Nashville working with the producers and musicians, if it’s good, it’s as good as it gets. And if it’s not… well, it’s ugly. But if you’re packing a club with two or three-hundred people a night, it doesn’t matter what you sound like.
Katy: If you can get through those people who are trying to put you in a niche that you don’t fit into.
This is for either one of you. Katy, you’ve made your home in California, more than Texas or Tennessee. And Hugh moved to Washington State some years ago—about the same time I left Nashville for the second time. What’s the role of place, does it inform your music? Where you come from or where you live?
Katy: For me, my first thought because I make my living as a performer, it’s about where’s the international airport. Can I get to it, and can I get to where I live from it? But it really has shaped a lot of my songwriting; in particular, fairly recently, in a very specific way.
Can you tell?
I live in a part of Los Angeles County that has a cowboy music festival. They used to call it a cowboy poetry festival that takes place on Gene Autry’s Melody Ranch. So it has all this Hollywood history to it. And I’ve actually been given assignments by the city to write songs about California history, and then perform them. This was backed by an NEA grant. Most recently I was commissioned by the city to write a song about this Walk of Western stars, a little version of the Hollywood Walk of Stars, except it’s all about cowboys: singers and actors, and even stunt men and wranglers. So place is directly influencing my recent work.
You’re both from Texas, but you don’t either one of you wear your Texas badge on your sleeve.
Katy: No, but I always think of myself as coming from Texas. And I miss having a Texas home.
Hugh: I do too.
For a long time it wasn’t cool to come from Texas. And then for a number of years it was extremely cool. I’m afraid it’s gone back the other way now.
It’s gone back and forth many times. When our mother was in New York City in the thirties, she used to talk about the professional Texans.
Even back then?
Absolutely; they annoyed her to death.
Katy: She was in the fashion industry, in New York City and ran across them.
Hugh: There’s one thing about place: Life happens everywhere. You’ve got to go where you can easily pay attention to it. And the more places that is, the freer you are.
Listening to your CDs the last few days I noticed some of the songs come up two or three times. Is it because you feel like you want to revisit an old song? I recently recorded some early songs of mine and I thought, why am I doing this? Is it a case where you think you didn’t nail it right the first time, and you want to take another run at it? Is it that way with you?
Katy: It isn’t for me. It’s usually setting; if I have an opportunity to do a song that I love in a different setting from which I recorded it in the past, I want to take that opportunity.
I think that’s okay too.
Hugh: I have recorded songs because I thought I missed them the first time, but mostly it’s like Katy says. If it’s a different setting; maybe it’s a band I have. In the sense of my newest album, it’s a concept I’ve been working toward for a long time, and I picked songs out of it to do earlier. But the songs belonged to the concept all along.
We’re going to get to that. First, Katy, this is from the liner notes of your CD, Up Close and Personal: “Strapping on my old Martin and performing takes me straight to the most centered place I can be. Music saved my life, then gave me a reason to continue. It is my mother and child….” Could you also say that music is your religion? Can singing, even in a secular context, be a form of worship or devotion?
Katy: It absolutely is. Writing is too, and it’s about being a reliable witness. In whatever context you want to take that, as a writer and as a singer. To me it is religion.
Right. Now I think we’re getting to what Hugh was talking about. Your new CD is called Songs from the Back of the Church, kind of meditations on religious themes from an outsider perspective.
It comes from a couple of things I think are pretty obvious, from my experience. Pretty obvious to everybody, though I don’t hear it said a lot. The response to these songs is always—well, yes. The point being we get too hung up in this world, with what’s of this world. One of the things that’s of this world is language and personalities. What it’s about is the fact that if you want to connect to God, all you have to do is want to connect to God. And you’re going to use whatever you have in your life to do that. One of the ways is through language, and languages involve images and other things, and those are all… I believe acceptable methods to get to God. And this is probably the center of the theology of ‘Songs from the Back of the Church.’ It’s a Christian message… If you believe that Christ is the way and the truth and the light, and that no one comes to the Father except by Christ, then you also believe—you have to believe—that anyone who opens their heart to God, then God hears them. You have to believe as a Christian that for anyone who prays, Christ is there. And it does not matter what name they use. What religion they come from. It doesn’t matter whether they’re singing on stage. From a Christian perspective Christ is there and it doesn’t matter if you use his name or not. In the experience of it, I don’t see people shaking their heads; I see them nodding.
One of the things that struck me, from one of your earlier albums is a song called ‘The Lord Don’t Take no Prisoners.’ The chorus says: “The Lord don’t take no prisoners, Jesus don’t make no deal/ The Lord don’t take no prisoners, Jesus just wants to set you free.” While the Devil says “…I’ll give you anything but your freedom, and that you’re going to give to me.” First, I see some irony in the title, since if you’re taking no prisoners you’re out to kill any enemy that falls into your hands. So your seriousness is not in question. Also implicit is the idea that you either have to serve either the Lord, or the Devil. Is that the only choice we have?
You’ll notice that the last line of the last verse says if you have to serve one or the other, it has to be the Lord. The question is always what does ‘serve’ mean? I think that’s left open to what people need and how they need to approach the spirit, or whatever it is: Because we don’t think of freedom and servitude in the same breath. And yet that’s what the Christian message is: freedom and servitude.
I’m a little hung up on this one…
It’s one of those things where you have to pick your way through it, as your heart tells you. I can’t explain that, but the song leaves it open.
When I think of freedom I think of history. I think of the history of the Church over here in Europe. For example, at the beginning of the 13th century Pope Innocent XIII and the king of France got together and sent an army down into what is today southern France. At that time it was more of a Mediterranean culture… There was practically a civilization there, of the Albigenses who were following a different type of Christianity, in which incidentally, they had a bard tradition of singers that didn’t exist anywhere else in Europe. They had women priests, and women overall were much more powerful. They weren’t paying their tithes to Rome. The catholic pope and the French king sent a crusading army to exterminate them—and they did, over twenty to thirty years, just about the amount of time it took to kill off all the buffalo. All those people were wiped off the face of the earth. And to make sure Albigenses didn’t come back, they invented the Inquisition, which was to hold people in this part of the world under their thumbs for another three or four-hundred years. Now, I don’t see much freedom there. When I hear you talk about freedom in the context of serving the Lord, I think of the medieval Church. Maybe you can help me with this.
Hugh: Are we going the same place here?
Katy: Probably the Grand Inquisitor.
Absolutely. I’ve read ‘The Brothers Karamazof’ four times in my life. Often exercpted is a chapter called The Grand Inquisitor, and to me this answers the question you’re talking about. Jesus returns to earth during the time of the Spanish inquisition, and is immediately thrown into prison. He’s visited by the Grand Inquisitor. Jesus says “I’m Jesus and I’ve returned to earth.” And the Inquisitor says “I know you are. We don’t need you.” He explains to Jesus how humans don’t want what Christ offered…he contrasts what Christ offered with the three temptations of Satan in the wilderness. One of them is the turning of stones into bread, and Jesus refuses. The Inquisitor says “We feed the poor. People want to be fed. They want your church to feed them.” One of the temptations is about miracles, and Jesus refuses that. The Inquisitor says “We would be nothing without miracles. That’s what they want. The people want you to be greater than they are; they want you to take them out of who they are. They don’t want you to tell them that it’s all up to them. The third one is: follow me and I will give you dominion over the earth, and Christ turns him down. The Inquisitor says, “We are the most powerful government on earth and people respect us. That’s what they want.”
Katy: They don’t want freedom.
Hugh: So they execute Jesus and it’s over. The point being that the church fills a human need, not the spiritual need that Christ offered.
You’ve got one record out together called Dance Me Outside, is that the only one?
Katy has guested on many of my albums.
Did you sing together as kids?
Katy: We were so far apart musically. Hugh was a trumpet player,
Hugh: I was a jazz snob…
Katy: And I was into pop radio, top-forty radio, and show music. But at the very beginning we were exposed to the same music, and that was Gilbert and Sullivan—how that led to where we’ve ended up is another story.
Hugh: I can tell how I was led to it… I love Katy’s phrase, the reliable witness. You have to find your voice as a writer of any kind, and as a singer particularly, and as a songwriter. I was attracted to all kinds of music. What country music offered me was a music that was of who I was… I love blues, but I couldn’t pull it off. I take it seriously. When I look back to my heritage as a writer I go back to Shakespeare, not just back to Dylan and Hank Williams. It’s got to be that context, because it’s my life. I can’t write like Shakespeare or what he wrote about, and I can’t sing the way B.B. King sings, as much as I love that…I can’t do Gilbert and Sullivan either. But the thing that I believe, and when I’ve taught songwriting in various seminars… people ask me how do you learn to write melodies. You don’t learn to write melodies, but you have to be free, to be ready for them. It comes from experience.
It comes from hearing a lot of them.
Hugh: It does, and to me the greatest melodies you can absorb are in classical music, and traditional folk music. Those two realms have the greatest melodies and they will feed your soul.
This might be a good time to ask you about the opera. Opera—you’re the only guy in my acquaintance who’s ever written an opera. As a matter of fact, I think you’ve written two now.
Three; one full length.
I love people who can jump out and do something completely different.
The most recent is a full-length opera about the Louis and Clark expedition. I’m responsible for the text. I work with a classical composer, Michael Ching, so I don’t do the music. When we were working on this—it was a four-year project. I’ll tell you a background thing. Katy was talking about Gilbert and Sullivan when we were growing up; the other thing we grew up with was Wagner. The guy at the University of Missouri who commissioned us to do this, he was a classical tenor…who ran the opera department at the university, and the composer, Michael Ching who’s the General Director of opera at Memphis, and me. Of the three of us, I’m the only one who grew up listening to opera.
I was astounded. Both of the others discovered opera in college; they were already into music but had never considered opera. In Nashville people talk of listening to the Grand Old Opry; we were listening to the Met broadcast on Saturday afternoons. It’s not something I ever thought about doing, but it was always there.
I grew up listening to classical music, but opera never did work for me.
I’ve written about this, and I usually try to explain it this way. Because the question does come up in the opera world—what are you doing here? The operatic voice is an instrument which is very powerful, very fragile, and short-lived. A great tenor takes maybe ten or fifteen years to develop and their actual working life is maybe ten, twelve, fifteen years.
Like an athelete.
It’s like a combination of a surgeon and an athlete. They don’t know that they’re going to have a career until they’re thirty. It’s a brutal life early on. But the reason is, and this is the way I put it: everybody has moments in their lives which are so overwhelming emotionally—negative, positive, joyful, painful, whatever—those are the times, when just for that moment you would love to be an opera singer because it is absolutely the only way to get that out. Those guys will blow out windows.
Katy: If I might add here just one coda, so to speak. I don’t know if Hugh even knew that I did this, but I was asked by a friend who was making an eclectic music project, to sing a Mahler piece… one of a trilogy. I don’t remember the German title for it, it’s the poems for the dead children…and he gave me this piece to listen to. I called him and said I can’t sing this in German. He said “I just want to hear your voice singing these notes.” That’s what we did and it was an extraordinary experience for me. Mahler, and that piece in particular, is extremely dark and deep. I was completely absorbed, and grateful for the opportunity to experience it.
I almost forgot this. Hugh, I have to say congratulations—you must be one of the last songwriters on earth to get a Johnny Cash cut.
You’re talking about ‘Rose of My Heart.’ I’d heard that Cash liked the song and that he had learned it; and then I heard that he was dead. I figured that was it. Then it came out on his last recording…it was an incredible experience.
You’ve got a gig tomorrow night at the Dolder 2 in Feuerthalen, your second gig of the new tour?
Katy: Yes it is.
Well, how’s it going so far?
Hugh: Ask us that tomorrow night.
You still like each other?
Katy: We’re okay, but you should have seen the first show.
Let me just put it this way: Katy was telling me to watch out for a few things that might happen that night. And I told her “Katy, the one thing I know for sure is that it’s very unlikely that whatever goes wrong tonight is ever going to have happened before.” I really wish I hadn’t said that.
I thought you were going to say “I can guarantee you my guitar is going to be fine.”
Hugh: I wrote a story about that first night. I have to draft it a little and I’ll send it to you.
Great, let’s go get a pizza.