I was thumbing through the recent issue of New York magazine when I saw that they’ve made a Broadway musical from the 1994 film Groundhog Day. You know the story: Bill Murray plays Phil Connors, who goes to Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, to report on the annual de-hibernation of the town’s famed rodent and gets caught in a loop, living each day over and over. As author S.I. Rosenbaum writes, it’s “a film so beloved, idiomized and dissertated about that it’s passed into the English vernacular.”
Got me thinking: Perhaps I could take a song and follow its twists and turns from the original to multiple cover versions, and trace how it has evolved. Could become a new series, and since I have no idea where it’ll take us, it’s sort of like playing Russian roulette with YouTube. Hit or miss, up or down.
“Hickory Wind” is of course a treasured song written by Gram Parsons and Bob Buchanan, who were both former members of the International Submarine Band. It first appeared on The Byrds’ Sweetheart of The Rodeo album, and was recorded on March 9,1968. Lloyd Green is on pedal steel and John Hartford plays fiddle, supporting Parsons, Chris Hillman, Roger McGuinn, and drummer Kevin Kelley.
I should mention that there has been some dispute about authorship, as folksinger Sylvia Sammons has claimed that she wrote and performed it back in Greenville, South Carolina, when Parsons was also there doing gigs with his band, The Shilos. Both Buchanan and Chris Hillman rebut the claim, with the latter saying “As far as I know Gram and Bob Buchanan did indeed write ‘Hickory Wind.’ As unstable as Gram was in my brief time with him on this earth, I sincerely doubt he was a plagiarist in any of his songwriting endeavors unless his co-writer Bob brought him the idea.”
In 2012, Hillman, who was Parsons’ partner in both The Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers, expanded his thoughts to Bud Scoppa in Rolling Stone:
“If Gram had never written another song, ‘Hickory Wind’ would’ve put him on the map. If you know the guy’s life story, however he conjured up that scenario, it’s right at home. Gram was shuffled off to prep school, lots of money … that’s a lonely song. He was a lonely kid.”
This one is from Hillman’s 1986 Morning Sky album.
After Parsons left the Burrito Brothers, Hillman introduced him to Emmylou Harris and she appeared on his first solo album, GP, toured with his band the Fallen Angels, and worked together on Grievous Angel. She cut her own version of “Hickory Wind” on her 1979 album Blue Kentucky Girl. I was going to drop that one in here, but opted for the version that she and Gram did that appeared on The Comlete Reprise Sessions. This is a fan video set to a nice slide show.
On July 10, 2010, there was a Gram Parsons tribute in Los Angeles billed as “The Return to Sin City” that featured many musicians, including Lucinda Williams, Steve Earle, Norah Jones, John Doe, Dwight Yoakam, Raul Malo, and a backing band that featured the great James Burton and Al Perkins, both members of Parsons’ band. Then there was this guy who stole the night, singing “Hickory Wind” with a little harmony assist from Jim Lauderdale.
Lucinda Williams often performs the song in concert, and while you can find a few versions out there, this audio track with Buddy Miller that appeared on Cayamo Sessions At Sea is my favorite.
After spending a few nights listening to endless versions of this great song (and I haven’t even included Gillian Welch with Dave Rawlings or the great old video featuring the late Keith Whitley singing with J.D. Crowe and he New South), there was one I wasn’t familiar with that took my breath away.
Out in California a music teacher, bass player, and award winning fiddler named Jack Tuttle put together a bluegrass band with his kids Molly, Sullivan, and Michael, and they also added AJ Lee to the mix. Singing and performing since she was only four, AJ joined the Tuttles when she was just twelve. Molly Tuttle, now living in Nashville, is an amazing guitarist who was on the April cover of Acoustic Guitarmagazine. Now at 19 AJ already has two solo releases, and all of the Tuttles seem to pop up and perform together in various configurations, along with working on their own side projects. And the whole lot of them have scooped up numerous awards over the years.
So for me, this is the one. It’s from 2011. AJ is only 13 and takes the lead vocal, with harmony and guitar from a young Molly. Michael finishes it off with a beautiful mandolin run. This is perfection and the winner of my game: Russian Roulette with YouTube, the Groundhog Day Experiment.
This article was originally published as an Easy Ed’d Broadside column at No Depression: The Roots Music Journal.