Shel Silverstein: 1930 to 1999
Every kid wants to grow up and be like his daddy — my daddy just happened to write songs, record them, and shake his butt on stages all over the world. And in the eyes of my parents, there is no occupation more noble than that of a songwriter — a really good songwriter, a true blood-and-guts songwriter, a woman-chasin’, heart-stompin’, lost-lovin’ songwriter.
My parents’ favorite songwriter was Shel Silverstein, a Chicago Jew who wrote and illustrated children’s poetry books and was a cartoonist for Playboy magazine, Shel was brought to Nashville by Chet Atkins in the late ’60s. He was “artist at large” for Playboy in the ’60s and ’70s. If you find those old copies of Playboy at secondhand stores, you’ll see pictures of Shel on assignment, drawing satire of the swinging scenes, dancing with skinny blonde hippies at the Fillmore in San Francisco or hanging with Twiggy in London.
Shel’s momma used to listen to “The Grand Ole Opry” on Saturday nights, so he was already a big fan of all the country stars when they started cutting his songs in the late ’60s. Loretta Lynn was first with “One’s On The Way”; then Johnny Cash recorded “A Boy Named Sue” on his Folsom Prison album.
My dad wanted to do an entire concept album of songs written by only one songwriter, which was unheard of on Music Row. He was having a hard time finding any takers; then Chet introduced Shel to my Dad, and Shel lunged at the opportunity. Their first collaboration, 1973’s Lullabys, Legends And Lies, was their greatest success.
One of those songs was my first time to work with Shel; I was 5 years old. “Daddy What If” is a song about the love between a father and son. Shel was in the tracking room with me while I sang, leading me through the verses, and if you listen to the song you can hear him tickle me into a giggle at the very end. The song went to the top of the Billboard country charts and was nominated for a Grammy in 1974 in the category of country duet of the year. WE LOST TO THE POINTER SISTERS.
Next we made a family album called Singing In The Kitchen that was all Shel songs about parents wiping their kids’ snotty noses, banging on pots and pans, and an embarrassing duet with my mother called “Momma Where’d I Come From”: “Did you buy me in a boy store? Momma where’d you find me?”
Shel was completely fascinated by kids and could watch them for hours — or until my dad would say, “Shel, if you keep staring at those kids, you’re gonna get arrested for all the wrong reasons.” Much of the color in Shel’s writing and drawing came from this childlike fascination with subjects most artists would not even waste time on — like trash, booger-picking, boa constrictors, or lying to your parents.
But what makes Shel’s work so powerful is how far he pushes an idea. He does not give up until it has been warped, twisted, pushed over the top, left for dead, reworked, expanded on, and then given a perverted twist for an ending. He once told me he knew how all his poems or songs were going to end before he started them. As a writer who writes with no idea how any song is going to end, this was tough news to absorb.
In ’94 I began sending him my demos with lyric sheets. He would read the lyrics, make notes, and call to tell me where I was getting lazy and where I was doing good. I don’t know for sure if he listened to the tapes, because he saw music as the least important part of a song. If the words aren’t any good, who cares about the music? Music should accompany, but never distract from, the words. Music is just another clever trick to slip a message into someone’s ear. I think music is a bit more important in the whole of a song than Shel did, but this is what he would teach.
The greatest advice he ever gave me was to never be afraid to be an asshole. This is also a constant in his work, which is fearless and uncompromised. He never let any darn producer soften his lyrics, nor any editor alter his message. He had no interest in compromising, nor any need to create to satisfy anyone but himself.
What satisfied Shel the most after he finished something was to bounce his work off people and watch their brains fall out. Whenever any of his songs were played back in the studio, he just sat back and watched everyone’s reactions. This seemed to be what motivated him to create, and he created more than any artist I know: drawings, poetry, music, watercolors, screenplays, cartoons, off-Broadway plays, short stories, adult books, children’s books — and he had been taking saxophone lessons. It all came from a beautiful place inside of him, and we are all more beautiful inside because of him.
Two summers ago, Shel spent most of his time in Nashville working on a project called Old Dogs, an album about getting old. The songs were written by Shel and sung by my dad, Waylon Jennings, Mel Tillis and Jerry Reed. Getting to be in the control room with those guys as they abused, misused and generally amused each other was a priceless experience. I spent every minute I could with them as they told hundreds of dirty jokes, tall tales, and flat-out lies — each trying to out-bullshit the other. Their way of hugging and showing how much they cared for each other was to abuse and make fun of each other, with no mercy.
Shel was a health nut who walked everywhere he went because he did not know how to drive. I never thought he would die — and because of everything he left behind, he will always be here. The most difficult part of writing this has been speaking of Shel in past tense, for there is so much of him all around me, living, breathing thoughts into my life every time I read a story or look at one of his drawings.
There was no funeral for Shel, just a burial in Chicago that only immediate family was allowed to attend. All his friends in Nashville met out at John Hartford’s house the day of the burial. Chet Atkins was there, along with my family, dozens of old songwriting buddies, and a bunch of Shel’s old girlfriends.
Like a good riverboat captain should, Hartford lives in an old house, on a cliff dangling over the Cumberland River. It was a cool day and there was a thunderstorm clattering in the sky that never hit us but threatened the entire time, while people were telling stories of Shel and the many different reasons everyone loved him. It was a beautiful, magical day that will live inside of me forever.
Shel always told me to show what you mean, don’t say it — and that is how he lived his life, too. He gave me more than I could ever give back, and I know he knew that because I told him all the time. Through his work he gave freely and in abundance to all of us, and we will all be better because of that.