Wednesday, June 4, 2008

She's drunk all the time

Tom T. Hall - The Essential Tom T. Hall: The Story Years
I saw Patterson Hood of Drive-By Truckers play a solo set in Oxford not long ago, and he did Hall's "Pay No Attention to Alice" wedging it in my head ever since. I figure hearing the original will break the spell, but its at the end of this compilation. I will let the Iowa weather blow and the switchblades get saluted and the bad tequila-soaked marimbas and trumpets muse about Mexican waitresses until old drunk Alice comes around like she always does.

Country music is all about good lines, especially framed in a great title.

The sheriff came in chewin' on a straw
"Where is the guy that thinks this is Indianapolis?
I'd like to talk to him about the law"
(from "A Week in a County Jail")
Not the best song on the collection, but "Coot Marseilles Blues," invoked the specter of cornball country comedian Jerry Clower (in the intro, Hall mentions that Clower told him the uneventful story behind this song at a deejay convention in 1971) and features Hall's brother Hillman playing the cigarette-paper-and-comb harmonica. Anyone that grew up in The South escaping the humidity through AC and TV will be quite familiar with the ubiquitous commercials for Clower's terrible comedy records.

If you didn't grow up here, here is a slice of what you were missing: "The She-Coon of Women's Lib" from his Greatest Hits, one of the 8-tracks my mom's boyfriend had in his workshop.

I'm sure that it is argued somewhere that Clower was a subversive element in the cause of civil rights, illuminating racism and sexism through parody, but much like his modern day counterpart Larry the Cable Guy, Clower always struck me as a less-funny version of the actual offensive personalities that populate a Southern childhood.

Clower has always bugged me not because he mocks The South (there is plenty that needs mocking) but because it is lowest common denominator mockery that easily gets parlayed as truth. I have known people that were more bigoted and world's funnier about it throughout my life, but somehow the caricature ends up becoming the perceived reality of Southernness.

What I didn't know until now is that the runnin' partner in his stories, Marcel Ledbetter, is according to Wikipedia, a real person living here in Baton Rouge. Seems I have some tracking down to do...

(half an hour ensues)

So, during all that, I got an assignment to track down Ledbetter and interview him, listened to more songs about waitresses that I thought could be on a single person's greatest hits collection, resisted listening to and dissecting Johnny Horton, whose 8-track sat next to the Clower to finally get to "Pay No Attention Alice." Such a beautiful song; says so many things all those TV records Jerry Clower had could never say.

(spoken) I went to see an old army buddy of mine to do some drinking
And his wife had become an alcoholic and I wrote a song about it

Pay no attention to Alice. She's drunk all the time
Booked on that wine, bunches of it, and it ruined her mind
Pay no attention to Alice. They say she's a sot, sane she is not
But she loves it and it's all she's got

She made that apple pie from a memory
Made them biscuits from a recollection that she had
She cooked that chicken too long but she don't know that
Oh what the hell, it ain't too bad

Pay no attention to, Alice she's drunk all the time
Booked on that wine, bunches of it and it ruined her mind
Pay no attention to, Alice they say she's a sot, sane she is not
But she loves it and it's all she's got

Don't talk about the war; I was a coward
Talk about fishing and all the good times raising hell
Empty that one down, we'll get another
It's gettin' late. We might as well

But we ran your car into a ditch. Man, don't sweat it
I know Ben down at the Shell Station. He'll get it out.
Alice, put your ashes in that ashtray
I swear woman you're gonna burn down the house
Pay no attention to Alice. She's drunk all the time
The way this song stops is breathtaking. It just unexpectedly clips after "time" with a brief ascension of the pedal steel. Did Alice die while the boys were out drinking and wrecking the car, with her ashes from her last cigarette still burning in her hand as she sits drunk and mad where they left her? The overcooked chicken still sitting in the pan on the stove. The army buddies were out cheating death for old time's sake, while poor old Alice left her body as she had her mind years before. There are worse ways to go, I guess.

Just like the song, and possibly Alice herself, I'll stop right where I am.

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