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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'.
"He sang a song as on he rode
"An old man needs a woman
WRITING THE SONG
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'.
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.
RECORDING THE SONG
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.