The other day, Tink forwarded a story link to me. In an effort to know all things Southern and to love better this different life he has chosen, he often checks things online then forwards interesting pieces.
The article, about Nashville songwriter Bob McDill, was from an online site called The Bitter Southerner. Though Tink did not know it at the time, McDill is one of my favorites. His songs have catchy melodies, clever stories and often a literary flair that is deep and poetic. Tink knows, though, that I’m apt to be the fan of anyone who writes romantically, intellectually or nostalgically about the South. This, McDill does very well. Or did do well. He’s retired now.
In the midst of a book deadline, I had taken myself to Mama’s house where inspiration tends to flow smoothly without the interference of the chaotic atmosphere in our house. There’s always a bill to pay, a problem to solve, a bed to make or a dog to tend. At Mama’s, there is serene calm and peace that hearkens back to the laid back way that Mama and Daddy lived their lives.
There, I was writing pages that were due soon in New York when Tink’s email arrived. “I love Bob McDill!” I replied, listing my favorite songs. I wrote a few more paragraphs, pondered my thoughts a while longer then – as writers are oft to do – I took a break to read the McDill story.
It would be easy to fill this column by listing my most beloved McDill songs, who retired from songwriting at too young an age and settled into one of Nashville’s finer homes close to the governor’s mansion, but I’ll focus on two of my favorites. Both were highlighted in the story.
“Song of the South” was a No. 1 hit for the megahit group, Alabama. When the group was touring to promote their first album, they did a show in my hometown. Less than 300 people showed up but I was there with my portable – then rather large – cassette recorder to interview them for my radio show. Within a year’s time, they were playing to sold-out crowds of thousands.
The article noted that “Song of the South” had charted two times previously before becoming one of Alabama’s biggest hits. When they recorded the song about a kid growing up in the Depression, they left out a verse which I had never known existed:
“Well, I was 18 before I ate my fill
We lived on the garden and the cow’s good will
Winter was wet and summer was dry
And mama, she was old at 35.”
Instantly, I could relate because Mama and Daddy had grown up just like that.
“We lived on the garden and the cow’s goodwill” is more nostalgic than they cared to recall. “And mama, she was old at 35” explains the sad-looking photos of my grandparents. In four lines, 33 words, he wrote their lives’ stories. That’s the marvel of an excellent storyteller like McDill.
“Good Ole Boys Like Me” is pure poetry. McDill explained to the magazine that he was inspired by Kentucky-born writer Robert Penn Warren’s final novel, “A Place To Come To.” Warren was the Pulitzer-prize-winning author of the phenomenal Southern novel, “All The King’s Men.”
I say often that there are no more than two to three degrees of Tinker connections to most people of renown from Abraham Lincoln to Elvis Presley. It has become a game I play and that Tink, albeit reluctantly, joins. A friend and professional colleague of Tink’s is producer David Milch, widely considered one of the greatest geniuses to ever step into Hollywood (“NYPD Blue,” “Deadwood”). Milch, as a Yale professor, was mentored by Warren and even assisted him in writing textbooks.
It never occurred to me that Tink would have a connection to a songwriter I revere so much.
This amazes me.
Ronda Rich is the best-selling author of “Mark My Words: A Memoir of Mama.” Visit www.rondarich.com to sign up for her free weekly newsletter.