It was years ago, 1979 to be exact, when I would take out the album at night. The next day was to be an invitational cross country meet. Our team, the Marian Central Hurricanes (why we were the Hurricanes in the Midwest, I never quite understood) was a high ranked team. We had one of the top runners in the state, the great Daryl May who led our pack. I was a toward the back of the pack, a pusher in cross-country parlance. In other words, I pushed our runners to get toward the front of a race by merely trying to outrace them.
I wasn’t the slowest runner, but I wasn’t the fastest either. But I could worm my way toward the front of a race if I just could keep a steady gait. That was why I would take out the album, the Chieftain’s #9, Boil the Breakfast Early. I would listen to the title track over and over to get myself ready for the race. There was something about it that just reacted with my Irish DNA, that sound of the bodhran and the fast pace of the pipes that made my legs do what they should do.
Walkmen were not yet invented, so I had to play that melody in my mind. Which I did; as soon as the gun went off, I would race with the Chieftains. As the years went by, little did I know that I would someday be performing with the Chieftains. And so, last Saturday, the day before St. Patrick’s Day, I had the honor of playing with my heroes.
Years before, Brian and I had met Matt Malloy, the flautist for the band and had become friends, playing at his pub in Westport, Co. Mayo and sharing the stage with him there. But here, in Tyler Texas of all places, I had the chance to be with the full band. And it was a great sensation, sort of like meeting old friends.
I always think how important it is to touch souls with our music. The Chieftains touched my soul. And it certainly made a knobby kneed kid run as fast as he could. And my hope is that my music has inspired like they inspired me.
[Our friends Martin and Brian have asked me to drop the old phonograph needle on some of their tunes, perhaps some lesser known, and report back to everyone.]
Love and lack thereof are perhaps the most common themes in popular song. However, there is also a jukebox full of what-if-this-whole-music-thing-doesn’t-work-out-for-me? numbers.
Switchback takes a turn at career doubt on “The Has-Been That Never Was” on their American Roots and Celtic Soul, LIVE – Volume Two. From the stage Martin McCormack will tell you the song was inspired when he and Brian FitzGerald saw an old kudzu-shrouded cabin down south. But I suspect there is a dash of bad dream in there, too.
“On a bowl backed mandolin / And on a porch all broken / Strums the has-been / That never was” begin the melancholy lyrics about a played-out player looking heavenward, playing for possibly the only fan he has left.
It’s often in these tunes’ later verses that we learn how music-biz failure was resolved. “Tulsa Time” was a hit for the late, great Don Williams. The song has him heading west from Oklahoma to be a star but soon admitting, “Well, there I was in Hollywood wishin’ I was doin’ good . . But they don’t need me in the movies and nobody sings my songs.” He is soon eastward bound, telling us, “Gonna set my watch back to it / ‘Cause you know I’ve been through it / Livin’ on Tulsa time / Livin’ on Tulsa time.”
In a bit of coincidence both the scene and the theme of “The Has-Been That Never Was” are wonderfully covered by a daughter of Switchback’s favorite producer for their albums, Lloyd Maines. Natalie Maines and her Dixie Chick partners sing “Long Time Gone” about a country singer whose wings got clipped. “Now me, I went to Nashville / Trying to beat the big deal . . . Living from a tip jar / Sleeping in my car . . .” The song even starts on a creaky porch, just like Switchback’s, but ends happily with the singer back home “singing every Sunday / Watching the children and the garden grow.”
American Roots and Celtic Soul, LIVE – Volume Two was recorded at Chicago public television station WTTW and in their famous Sound Stage Studios. Its 16 cuts draw from several Switchback CDs and were performed with a live audience. The album makes a fine companion to Volume One. Those dozen tunes were recorded in venues small and large across the U.S. and Canada. So Volume One has that boisterous frisson of on-the-road live while Volume Two has an excellently pared down crystal-clean sound even with its bigger band. (“The Has-Been That Never Was” originally appeared on The Fire that Burns and can be found also on one of the discs in Switchback’s Twentieth Anniversary Collection.)
In film the has-been character perhaps hit its comedic height in 1965’s Cat Ballou starring Jane Fonda and Lee Marvin. At the famed Hole-in-the-Wall hideout, an elderly gent approaches Marvin’s Kid Shelleen character and says something like, "Hey, Kid, you remember me? Old. . . old. . . old. . ." Then he just wanders off shaking his head.
Doug Kamholz is an itinerant washboard player who has freelanced for the New York Times, Washington Post and many lesser media. His most honest work was as a pig farmer in central Illinois, where he now lives and occasionally makes dinner for Switchback.
American Roots & Celtic Soul