Tag Archives: The Byrds

Gram Parson’s Hickory Wind: Groundhog Day #1

Warner Brothers/Getty Images

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.

Bruce Langhorne: For the Benefit of Mr. Tambourine Man

Bruce Langhorne, Carolyn Hester, Bob Dylan and Bill Lee. September 29, 1961

To those of us who were around the folk music scene of the sixties and to either academic or armchair ethnomusicologists, guitarists both old and young of the past and present, Bruce Langhorne is not unfamiliar. And should you not know the name, you know the man.

Born in Harlem in 1938, Langhorne was a regular at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, where he accompanied many of the musicians who would perform at the hootenannies. He developed a unique style of fingerpicking and would sometimes attach a soundhole pickup to his 1923 Martin 1-21 and run it through Sandy Bull’s Fender Twin reverb.

By 1961, he was in the recording studio as a hired gun, first with the Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem, followed by Carolyn Hester, and then he contributed to several tracks on The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan. He’s likely the guitarist on “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” and “Corrina, Corrina,” though in the deep dark world of the Dylan defenders of mythology, that’s been disputed.

Occasionally at performances or recording sessions, Langhorne would play a large Turkish frame drum that had small bells attached to the interior. He used it mostly on the Vanguard albums by Richard and Mimi Fariña that he is featured on, and it inspired a young Bob Dylan to write a song about him. Recorded by The Byrds and serving as an introduction to a wider audience, “Mr. Tambourine Man” has undoubtedly kept the Nobel Prize winner swimming in a steady stream of royalties.

“He had this gigantic tambourine,” wrote Dylan in the liner notes to his anthology Biograph,  identifying Langhorne as the inspiration for “Mr. Tambourine Man.” It was, like, really big. It was as big as a wagon wheel. He was playing, and this vision of him playing this tambourine just stuck in my mind.”

On Jan. 14, 1965, Langhorne was called to Columbia’s Studio B along with a full electric band to back Bob Dylan for his fifth album. With no rehearsal, they worked on eight songs and in three and a half hours and came away with master takes on five of them. The next day, most of the same musicians were back to knock out the rest of Bringing It All Back Home. Although the album was originally recorded with a full electric band, Dylan decided to use only half the songs from those sessions and re-recorded the other half acoustically, with Langhorne playing countermelody on his amplified Martin. You can hear his lead guitar featured along with the full band on this iconic video of  “Subterranean Homesick Blues.”

I found a profile of Langhorne published in August 2016 on the Acoustic Guitar website, written by Kenny Berkowitz. I’ll let him pick up the story:

“For years, it seemed as though Langhorne had played with everyone. Before and after those Dylan sessions, he recorded with Joan Baez, Harry Belafonte, the Chad Mitchell Trio, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Richard and Mimi Fariña, Hugh Masekela, Odetta, Babatunde Olatunji, Tom Rush, and John Sebastian. He was at the epicenter of change in the folk world, back at a time when session guitarists simply showed up ready to improvise, and an album could be recorded in a single day, or even in a few hours.

He recorded a few songs on his own, but they never materialized into an album, and as folk-rock turned into rock, Langhorne went on to score soundtracks for Peter Fonda’s The Hired Hand(1971), Idaho Transfer (1973), and Outlaw Blues (1977); Bob Rafelson’s Stay Hungry (1976); and Jonathan Demme’s Fighting Mad (1976), Melvin and Howard (1980), and Swing Shift (1984).

But despite a long list of accomplishments, Langhorne has largely been forgotten, living out his days in Venice, California, too ill to walk along the beach. He hasn’t played guitar since having a stroke in 2006.”

This Gordon Lightfoot song was covered by Peter, Paul and Mary back in 1964, and it prominently features Langhorne’s guitar work. I was a little too young to know who he was at the time, but I’ve listened to this song hundreds of times.

It was a message from my oldest son that prompted me to write this column. He works for an organization promoting concerts of experimental music in New York and through guitarist Loren Connors he learned of a new album being released in February titled The Hired Hands: A Tribute to Bruce Langhorne.

Dylan Golden Aycock, with Connors and his partner and collaborator Suzanne Langille, compiled the project, which pays homage to Langhorne’s work and specifically to the soundtrack he composed for Fonda’s film. Here’s how they explain the concept:

“The goal here was to ask artists to cover or reinterpret a song of their choice from the soundtrack. No rules on whether the music should be derivative of a certain song, if the soundtrack inspires a mood, then the artists use their intuition.

Bruce has come on hard times in recent years, having suffered a stroke that prevents him from playing the guitar. He’s currently in hospice care awaiting his final curtain call. A large percentage of profit go to Bruce and his family.”

I linked it above, but if you click here you can preorder this handcrafted set of music from some of todays finest players, some you may know and others you don’t. It’s available both as a double CD with extensive liner notes from Byron Coley (reprinted on the Bandcamp page), and a digital download. There are also nine tracks you can stream for free right now.

Bruce was placed in hospice care in late 2015. Friends, as well as people who only knew of Bruce by reputation, came from near and far to pay their respects and, often, play some music for him. The huge outpouring of love boosted his spirit (and his body), and he was upgraded to palliative care. Bruce continues to radiate good vibes and love in his Venice, CA home. For more information, contact Cynthia Riddle 310-808-4922

“Yeah, he was a wizard. My part is pretty basic on ‘Urge for Going,’ but he was the one who did those triple pull-off things, the diddey-bump kinda lines. He’s in California. He had a stroke, and he can’t play much anymore which is really a shame. He was such a good player. Actually as a kid he had blown off most of his thumb and first two fingers on his right hand with fireworks, which got him out of the draft because they figured if he didn’t have a trigger finger, he couldn’t fire a rifle. So, of course, he became a guitar player, and then decided he was going to be a piano player later in life. Since his stroke he doesn’t play much at all. He’s supposedly the guy who inspired ‘Mr. Tambourine Man,’ Dylan’s song, ’cause he also played tambourine and just about anything you can imagine.” Tom Rush, April 2015

Postscript: For another look at Bruce’s story, check out The Perlich Post‘s article.