Guy Clark: My Favourite Picture Of You
One of the all-time great storytellers, the Texan elder statesman paints extraordinary pictures about ordinary people and situations. This poignant tribute to his wife Susanna who died in 2012 appears on Clark’s last album of the same name. Luminaries such as Townes Van Zandt, Rodney Crowell and Steve Earle were hugely influenced, and no wonder with lines such as ‘Just a stand-up angel who won't back down, Nobody's fool, nobody's clown, You were smarter than that.’
Nick Drake: River Man
Another fine storyteller whose own story was cut cruelly short. Drake’s work, like that of the romantic poets he has been compared with, has achieved far-reaching recognition since his death in 1974 at the age of 26 following deepening bouts of depression. The melancholy which permeates the Cambridge student’s achingly sumptious song is enhanced by baroque strings which evoke the swell of the river in 5/4 time. Just feel the fragility in that singular sombre voice.
Hank Williams: I Can’t Help It If I’m Still In Love With You
The father of contemporary country music died at 29 in 1953 (before I remember listening to music) but managed to pack in a lifetime of achievements. If you look at the late 40s/early 50s footage, Hiram Williams could pass for a decade older. This song is about betrayal, and well done Tom Hiddlestone for not betraying the Williams memory in the 2016 biopic I Saw The Light. Williams was a big fan of Roy Acuff who would have been proud with this intro: ‘Today I passed you on the street, And my heart fell at your feet. I can’t help it if I'm still in love with you.’
The McGarrigle Sisters: Talk To Me Of Mendocino
Kate died aged 63 in 2010, having produced with her sister Anna some of the most enchanting music to come out of the Canadian folk scene. This song of Kate's is from one of my favourite albums, their first in 1976. Her children with Loudon Wainwright III, Rufus and Martha, who do a beautiful version of the song themselves, safely carry the baton. Has there been a more plaintive, delicately delivered song than this? It is doubtful whether there are a finer couple of lines: ‘Never had the blues from whence I came, But in New York State I caught ’em.’ How do you write that?
Gram Parsons: Return Of The Grievous Angel
The return of an unfulfilled talent. Most of the lyrics on this outstanding track, which became country rock’s definitive song in the early 70s, were written by the poet Tom Brown. ‘I saw my devil, and I saw my deep blue sea, And I thought about a calico bonnet from Cheyenne to Tennessee.’ The playing by old Elvis sidemen Glen D Hardin and James Burton is admirable and Emmylou Harris’s driven harmony vocals hint at greater deeds. In five years a pioneering 26-year-old had reshaped American music. If only this angel had not been so grievously treated by fate.
David Bowie: Lazarus
Much has been written about whether Bowie’s final album, Black Star, was an intentional farewell, especially after viewing the accompanying video. This atmospheric jazz-soaked track, the 69-year-old artist’s voice at its most mournful, would seem to give the game away. ‘Look up here, I’m in heaven. I’ve got scars that can’t be seen.’ This song, which is featured in Bowie’s off-Broadway musical of the same name, and others on a disturbing but moving album rival anything he had produced in his career. Bleak but bold to the last.
Little Feat: Dixie Chicken
The late slide guitar wizard Lowell George wrote seven of the 10 tracks on this 1973 album, including the magnificently funky title track which showcases the strength of his singing, playing and lyric writing. ‘If you’ll be my Dixie chicken, I’ll be your Tennessee lamb, And we can walk together down in Dixieland.’ The underrated Feat, who embodied the sound of the South, can lay claim to being the finest band of the 70s, perhaps just ahead of the more commercially successful Eagles. In George, they had an inspirational if self-destructive figurehead.
Leonard Cohen: Hallelujah
Cohen’s baritone drone is lifted by the hymnal choruses in this extraordinary song from 1984 which became the most covered of his career. Many prefer the versions by Jeff Buckley, kd lang and Rufus Wainwright but there is a joy in hearing the then 50-year-old Canadian poet deliver the lines as they were intended. ‘Well I heard there was a secret chord/ That David played and it pleased the Lord/ But you don’t really care for music, do you?’ His final album, You Want It Darker, was released three weeks before his death at the age of 82. The father of reinvention.
Otis Redding: Mr Pitiful
Redding’s soulful warble cuts through the impressive horns in a 1964 R&B song written in reaction to a disc jockey’s unfavourable comments about his ballads. Redding collaborated with guitarist Steve Cropper for this upbeat putdown which appeared on an album of ballads and must have pleased a certain DJ. ‘People just don’t understand now/ What makes a man feel so blue/ Ooh, they call me Mr Pitiful ’cause I lost someone just like you.’ The short-lived king of soul died in a plane crash, leaving most of the accolades posthumous. That age of 26 again.
Roy Orbison: Not Alone Anymore
Jeff Lynne wrote this heart-tugging song for his idol during the briefly magical collaboration that was The Traveling Wilburys. The pathos of the lyric and its delivery by the Big O’s inimitable voice was deepened by news of the singer’s sudden death at the age of 52 after the debut album’s release. It was his last recorded song, falling just short of the stature of classics such as Crying and It’s Over. All band members were credited with the Wilburys songs, but Lynne can be proud of his role in an outstanding legacy.