[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