Bruce Robison, Kelly Willis and “Motor City Man”
I talked with Bruce Robison a few days ago about his and Kelly Willis’ new album, Our Year. The full interview will appear in a couple of days, but during the conversation, Bruce mentioned the new video of “Motor City Man” — released yesterday — a song penned by the late Walter Hyatt.
Robison got very excited about the video, and the way that this format offers fans and listeners one more way to discover the couple’s music. “I’m trying to look at discoverability. I’m interested in things all the time that aggregate in weird places. So, I want to release singles and a video of them, and then write a little story behind the song.”
Robison proves as engaging, funny, and canny in this story as he does in his songs. He offers a context for the song, and he quite beautifully captures the scene in Austin when the Walter Hyatt Band–Champ Hood, David Ball, and Hyatt–snuck into town from Spartanburg, South Carolina, and wove their memorable tunes into already colorful patchwork music quilt being stitched by folks like Guy Clark and Jerry Jeff Walker.
Robison and Willis’ version of “Motor City Man” is classic Willis, a straight-ahead, bare bones rocker that tells a mournful tale of life gone wrong — in this case the collapse of a city and an industry that ends with the collapse of an individual — that nevertheless holds in itself that silver glimmer of hope. With a wink and a nod, the singer wryly points out that even in the midst of desolation there’s the hope of liberation, using the very instrument of salvation that the singer has helped to make all these years:
No matter who you are
You got to have a car
In the USA.
Willis stretches out the phrasing on “USA” so that the word resembles that old Chevrolet jingle that urges listeners and viewers to “see the USA in a Chevrolet.” This harmonica-drenched tune, woven around Queen’s dobro, recalls Jerry Jeff Walker and his story songs.
Enjoy Robison’s story behind the song:
I am not crazy about the term “cover.” Not sure what the word really means. I guess I figure you sing or record a song because you can bring something new to it or make people dance or drink or have a good time and forget troubles a minute. Songs are magic. Songs can change so much in a different voice or gender or generation.
From the first moment I started calling myself a songwriter, I felt steeped in the tradition of the Tin Pan Alley guys or Brill Building or Nashville country guys. You need a song? I got one, goes a little like this…. and it’s an incredibly wonderful feeling to get anyone to sing or record a song you wrote.
The Nashville I knew was all about songs. People would really listen and everybody seemed to know that anybody could have one great song. Pair that with the right singer at the right time, and it’s magic.
The Austin I knew was all about scenes. They come and go. I never really had one, but I sure had friends who did. Three elements: band, night of the week, and club. Then it’s the place to be, and you get to tell that boring story: I used to see them when there was nobody. I could name you lots of these scenes since I have been in Austin, bet there are a couple I don’t know about tonight.
One that I heard about a lot, but was before my time, was Uncle Walt’s Band at the Waterloo Ice house (long gone) on Congress in the late ’70s early ’80s. Robert Keen told me the guys in the band were like good-looking hippie gods. Three guys who had moved together from Spartanburg, South Carolina. To hear the band now, I would think Austin was probably the obvious choice.
Champ Hood, I knew the best. He played in Kelly’s band for years, truly beloved in Austin as the player’s player, sweetheart of a guy, always in loafers and never played it the same way twice. With his groovy fiddle and blue Collings guitar, he was one of the guys who made Austin Austin. Our little part of town was heartbroken when Champ died of cancer in 2001.
David Ball played the bass. Great singer, maybe with the heaviest South Carolina drawl of all of them; you can sure hear it on his country radio hits, “Thinkin’ Problem” and “Riding with Private Malone.”
Walter Hyatt made a record called King Tears that Kelly listened to a hundred times the year we first started going out. The three of them together? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, “you shoulda seen them back when.”
I’m not sure I ever met Walter Hyatt. I didn’t know his song “Motor City Man” from back in the day or from Champ’s son Warren Hood who played it in his band. Kelly found it when we were looking for songs. The chord changes are really creative, really great melody, and, eureka! A story that is not a love song. I loved hearing Kelly sing it, really thought we should try to record it after the harmonies worked. And my crappy cross harp part sounded really cool.
I believe Walter was coming home from a gig when his plane went down in the Florida Everglades in 1996. I don’t know if Walter had a “motor city man” in his life, or just was able to write an amazing song that makes you wonder how a boy from South Carolina did that. It is the song that people quote back to us, the lyric I get stuck on is:
I could only understand that my dad’s a good man
And he’s glad payday.
It’s different, partly, because it’s from the kid’s point of view.
It’s great singing Walter’s song. And when we do, I can picture all three of ’em, young hippie gods singin’ to a packed house.
During recording, we had the idea to find some old footage of classic cars rolling off the assembly line to accompany the song. My old buddy Glenn, our video editor, dug up vintage footage from Detroit that focused on people. The Motor City men, women, and children smiling back from the past, just like Walter’s song, full of good old American hopes and dreams.
– Bruce Robison, June 24, 2014