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  The Making of 'Answer Ballads'

1. Mrs Jones' Song
2. Maggie's Song
3. Daniel's Song
4. Roxanne's Song
5. Pearl's Song
6. Billy-Joe's Song
7. Marie's Song
8. Bobby's Song
9. Lucille's Song
10. Mrs Avery's Song/Sylvia's Song
11. Dino's Song
12. Jolene's Song

In spring 2012, I embarked on making an album of 'answer songs': in which hitherto silent characters from other people's songs are given voice. This blog is an account of the songs that I picked, and of how I went about writing and recording my 'answers'.

Original Song:

"Don't Take Your Guns To Town"
Composed: Cash
Released: 1958
Performed by: Johnny Cash

"He sang a song as on he rode
His guns hung at his hips
He rode into a cattle town
A smile upon his lips
He stopped and walked into a bar
And laid his money down"

Answer Song:

"Billy Joe's Song"
Composed: Rotheray/Smith
Released: 2013
Performed by: John Smith & The Rotheray All-Star Moose Collective

"An old man needs a woman
Like a young man needs a gun
Feels good when he got one
And feels bad when he holds none
He gets to feelin' crazy when he puts his hand upon
Yes, a young man needs a gun
But a woman only needs a man who's got one"


When I first drew up a list of songs to which I could write 'replies', one of the first that came to mind was the wonderfully evocative 'Ode To Billy Joe' by Bobby Gentry. I struggled for a long time to write something based on the character of Billy Joe, but couldn't get anywhere with it (the closest I got was a lyric based on some dialogue from an episode of 1970's TV series 'Kung Fu', which nearly worked). But in the process I had become attached to the name 'Billy Joe', so I trawled the internet for another song featuring a character with this name. Eventually I came across 'Don't Take Your Guns To Town', a Johnny Cash song which I remembered quite well- though I had quite forgotten that the protagonist was called 'Billy Joe'.

This Billy Joe was quite easy to get a handle on - he is a deluded macho adolescent, a strutting boy racer (but on a horse). If he was alive today he'd be driving a BMW (see footnote 1).

So the thrust of the lyric would be pride. Billy Joe is proud of his horse and his gun, convinced that they represent his accession to manhood. With his gun and horse, men will respect him and women will desire him. This delusion might not have proved fatal, save for the introduction of a third force - alcohol. Looking back on my life, I can say with complete certitude that there have been at least five pub-based occasions on which, if I had been in possession of a gun, I would have used it. So I can sympathise with poor Billy Joe, while giving thanks for living in a (largely) gun-free culture.

Anyway, when I finished the lyric I sent it off to John Smith, who came up with a wonderful tune, with a hint (or possibly more than a hint) of Americana- and a lovely rolling rhythm that evokes Billy's final ride quite perfectly. We booked into a studio in North Wales and spent a pleasant few hours (2) nailing this rather appealing tune.


John Smith

John started off by playing us all the song, sitting in the studio kitchen (on a lovely vintage Gibson). Unfortunately I was too slow to catch this moment on film or tape. We then had a little debate over the lyrics- John wanted to change some of them, I disagreed, but we eventually worked out a compromise version that seemed to work. Then it was into the studio with Damon, Brad, Murray and Bliss (piano, double bass, drums, percussion) to chuck it straight down. We hardly did any overdubs - just the backing vocals I think (everybody in the studio gathered around a single mike). I like the way song ebbs, flows, and builds, all dictated expertly by the drums of Murray Briggs. When I got home I added some Ennio Morricone-style whistling, courtesy of Pete Jack. Apart from that, it’s all live. Here’s how it sounded in the final mix:


1 Or possibly, these days, an Audi

2 Including union-mandated lunch break in the marvelous Llangollen pub, Bethesda.