Song Smackdown

So our smackdowns are usually centered around artists whose names you may have noticed are similar.  I think the most recent was Eddie “Cleanhead” Vinson vs. Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis.  You could click on the “smackdown” tag attached to this post to see them all.  This one is special because we’re going to put some songs into the ring…today we present

BATTLE OF THE SOUTHERN STATE RAINY DAY SONGS

Let’s just get right into each contestant because by now everyone knows this is all arbitrary.  Here they are…

“Alabama Rain” by Jim Croce

Jim Croce’s “Alabama Rain” is a bittersweet stroll down the dirt road past memory lane.  Its full of the carmel sandstone custom cut bullshit on which baby boomer memories of the world are founded – Croce sings about things like drive-in movies and weeping willows, creating an idyllic world he would find alienating and unlivable today.  “Alabama Rain” is Jim Croce’s “Brown Eyed Girl” saved only by the fact it wasn’t sold to a television commercial.  Here is, like so many songs of the early 70s, an idyllic portrait of something that was lost.  Like Phil Och’s “Boy in Ohio” or John Hartford’s best sentimental songs (“The Girl with the Long Brown Hair” or “The First Girl I Loved”) it’s simple, unspecific and heartfelt.

The thing is, we’re talking about the guy who wrote “Time in a Bottle”.  In his all-too-short career Croce crafted such masterpieces as to leave us wishing for a well of unreleased material to dip into (Not there, sorry.  But Jimi’s still putting out records).  “Alabama Rain”, lovely as it is, falls far short of his best work.

alabama rain

“Kentucky Rain” by Elvis Presley

kentucky rain

“Kentucky Rain” has become a popular early 70s Elvis tune, but it was not a particularly big hit when it was originally released.  Through a simple, vivid narrative Elvis tells of searching for a lover who has run away.  His delivery is emotional and expressive, characteristic of the January/February 1969 recording sessions at American Studios in Memphis.

His performance is accented by the rumbling piano of Ronnie Milsap, then an unknown session musician, and evocative backing vocals. The decision to not record with the ubiquitous Jordanaires but rather a group of unknown Memphis session musicians led to a grittier, authentic sound lacking on most Elvis records of the 60s.  “Kentucky Rain”, for instance, is soulful and undeniably southern.

Interestingly, the song was not issued on any of the albums that came out of these productive sessions – Back in Memphis and the classic From Elvis in Memphis.  So far as I can tell its first appearance at 33 1/3 was more than fifteen years later, on the double LP collection The Memphis Record, which ostensibly collected all of the January/February 1969 American Studios sessions.  Regardless, the song has become a classic rock staple and a favorite of many Elvis fans.

“Louisiana Rain” by Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers

louisiana rain

I guess nobody writes about the rain in the state where they were born, because Gainsville, FL native Tom Petty’s classic southern rain song is “Louisiana Rain”.  On a first listen it seems as though “Louisiana Rain” is telling a very similar story to the one in “Kentucky Rain”, but in fact the similarities stop where the stories begin.  While Elvis has gone after his lover, trudging from town to town under a heavy downpour, Tom stays at home and drinks.  “Louisiana Rain” is a great example of the deceptively upbeat pop sound the Heartbreakers cultivated, a style which often hides the weary desperation of Tom Petty’s lyrics.  In fact, “Louisiana Rain” is one of his darkest songs to date, including lines like:

I pour whiskey down my soul but nothing ever seems to change
‘Cause this pain keeps pourin’ down like Louisiana rain

Petty hit paydirt years later with records like Wildflowers and the She’s the One soundtrack, but Heartbreakers-era tracks like this one (And, my favorite “Rebels”) are his best material.

“Rainy Night in Georgia” by Tony Joe White

rainy night in georgia brook benton

rainy night in georgia crusaders

“Rainy Night in Georgia” was written by the great genre-bending singer Tony Joe White, but the most familiar recording was made eight years later by Brook Benton on his “comeback” album Brook Benton Today.  Benton’s #4 hit is the first track here, and the second is a nice instrumental version by the Jazz Crusaders.

If you could put together a single story “Rainy Night in Georgia” would fit inside or next to “Kentucky Rain” and all these other songs.  There seems to be a common narrative.  “Rainy Night in Georgia” is distinct in only that is soul-bearingly sincere.  That seems to be a hallmark of the 70s country soul genre that songwriter Tony Joe White fit into – Like his contemporary Joe South, Tony Joe White wrote songs reluctantly chosen by the King (Elvis recorded a beat-driven version of White’s “Got a Thing About You Baby” eventually) but ones that also deserve more recogniton.

“Rainy Night in Georgia” is a great song if only because its got a great story.  There’s something that we don’t know (Every great story should have a back story we have to infer) – This is what brings all of these songs together.  I don’t think I could choose a winner if this were a smackdown, if only because each of the fighters brought so much to the match.

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