Last year, Marty Stuart's album Ghost Train reminded us of numerous things mainstream country music has lost over the past few decades: top-tier musicians, songwriting that was catchy without being generic, the Loretta and Conway-style duet, the instrumental solos, the talent, and, most importantly of all, the heart. Call it Americana, XXX, alt. country, roots rock, or whatever, but there is no doubt that the music we cover here on No Depression has picked up the slack on most of those things, but there is one of other thing covered on Stuart's album that we haven't carried over, unless you want to count the Drive-By Truckers' "Three Great Alabama Icons". I'm referring, of course, to the recitation, a form Stuart brilliantly embraced with the eerie yet uplifting "Porter Wagoner's Grave."


The most popular recitation in country music is probably future sausage-maker Jimmy Dean's 1961 hit "Big Bad John," but the form is nearly as old as country music itself and has continued through most of it's history. Hank Williams himself even recorded his share of recitations, most of them credited to his morally upstanding alter ego Luke the Drifter. As with the Luke the Drifter songs, many recitations through the years have dealt with religious themes. "Deck of Cards," a sentimental tale of a soldier who uses his playing cards as a Bible, was a hit for both T. Texas Tyler in 1948 and future television host Wink Martindale 11 years later. In the 1960's stars like Porter Wagoner further popularized the gospel recitation and eventually even the hardest of outlaws got in on the act.



Another area in which the recitation has excelled is in the world of truck-driving songs. The 1975 novelty hit "Convoy" by C.W. McCall eventually led to the 1978 Sam Peckinpah film of the same name, but the king of the truck-driving recitation was undoubtedly Red Sovine. Sovine, along with Dave Dudley, actually made singing songs about trucks into a highly successful career and this climaxed with his 1976 #1 hit "Teddy Bear," a recitation about a young paraplegic child who lost his father in a truck accident and spends his days communicating with truckers over his CB radio. Sovine recorded several other recitations of this nature, notably 1965's "Giddyup Go," but his crowning achievement remains one that is a bit less sentimental.


Recitations have also been used to great comedic effect, most famously the Shel Silverstein-penned Johnny Cash classic "A Boy Named Sue," but another notable one is a forgotten Charlie Daniels number from 1973 called "Uneasy Rider." Given Daniels' political and religious stance these days, I highly doubt he performs it in concert much. 


Although, it lands more on the western side of country and western, I must mention this little gem from 1964 that went to #1 on the Billboard charts. Perhaps Beatlemania had something to do with it.


Anyway, I don't claim to be an expert on the form, but all of these songs and all of the others I've mentioned have long been favorites (with the exception of the Johnny Paycheck tune, which I just discovered a few weeks ago). So the big question is this: what great ones did I miss?

Views: 756

Comment by chris sweeney on January 22, 2011 at 8:10pm
"Mr. Mudd and Mr. Gold" - Townes Van Zandt
Comment by Adam Sheets on January 22, 2011 at 8:12pm
I almost included Kris's "To Beat the Devil" as well.
Comment by chris sweeney on January 22, 2011 at 8:21pm
Ray Benson of Asleep at the Wheel does one of the finest Phantom 309's I've ever heard.
Comment by Will James on January 22, 2011 at 8:26pm
Flying Burrito Brothers (Parsons/Hillman): "Hippie Boy."
Comment by Adam Sheets on January 22, 2011 at 8:28pm
@Chris, what album is that off of? I have a lot of Asleep at the Wheel, but don't recall hearing that one. Their latest album with Leon Rausch is a killer if you haven't heard it yet.
Comment by chris sweeney on January 22, 2011 at 8:36pm

I may have only heard it live. If they haven't recorded it, they should.

While looking I saw "Hot Rod Lincoln". Does that qualify?

Comment by Adam Sheets on January 22, 2011 at 8:36pm
Definitely. In fact, I should have included it.
Comment by Adam Sheets on January 22, 2011 at 8:43pm
Speaking of that, is there any consensus on what is the best version of "Hot Rod Lincoln"? I have a soft spot for the Johnny Bond version, but I also love AATW and Commander Cody.
Comment by chris sweeney on January 22, 2011 at 8:56pm
That's a tough call. I got to go with Bill Kirchen.
Comment by Will James on January 22, 2011 at 9:11pm

I'd count "To Beat the Devil," even if the refrain is sung. It's a great recitation song. Some songs have a couple just great recitation verses that set off the rest of the song. One of my favorites is from John Prine's "The Great Compromise," the phrasing is impeccable:

Well you know I could have beat up that fellow
But it was her that had hopped into his car
Many times I'd fought to protect her
But this time she was goin' too far
Now some folks they call me a coward
'Cause I left her at the drive-in that night
But I'd druther have names thrown at me
Than to fight for a thing that ain't right.


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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.