True Love & Broken Hearts: A Valentine’s Playlist, Part One

For this month’s issue of Birmingham magazine I compiled a short Valentine’s playlist, “True Love (& Broken Hearts).” I thought I’d expand on that list here with a few notes on each song, plus links and a couple of bonus tracks. The Lost Child’s annual Valentine’s special, “50 Cents of Gas & a Country Road” airs on Birmingham Mountain Radio tomorrow morning, and we’ll expand the playlist further on the air.

Valentines Day, of course, doesn’t spell joy for everyone. So my playlist ends with a bonus break-up playlist: bittersweet anthems to romances broken. I’ll post those tunes here—again, with commentary and links—in a few days.

First, the love songs. This list could be expanded infinitely (isn’t that wonderful?), and I don’t pretend these are the greatest love songs of all time (although a few of them are). But these were a few of the first that came to my mind, and they include some staples of my annual special.

1. Bob Dylan: “Never Say Goodbye”

Dylan’s reinvention of himself up in Woodstock, New York, resulted in a genuine sweetness and fireside hominess that was new to his work. I don’t know that Dylan shows up on a lot of Valentine’s playlists, but maybe he should: albums like New Morning and Planet Waves are warm and wonderful testaments to marriage, family, and home—and tracks like this one and “Wedding Song,” both from Planet Waves, offer a sort of straightforward love song that goes often overlooked in Dylan’s catalogue. (Since there’s no Dylan on Youtube, there’s no link for this one—but you should own the album.)

2. Sam Cooke: “You Send Me” (demo)

There is so little to this song, on paper, that there’s almost nothing there: six or seven words repeated over and over again, and a bridge. But with “You Send Me” Sam Cooke made clear just how much he could do with just how little, how he could build an entire song out of air—out of hums and fluttering whoa-oas, out of stretched-out vowels and simple, beautiful repetition. “You Send Me” was Cooke’s debut as a solo, secular singer (he was a gospel sensation already), and it launched him to pop stardom.

The song’s original demo is a beautiful behind-the-scenes revelation—just a voice and a guitar, and a masterpiece of simplicity.

3. Juanita Rogers: “Love Letter Full of Promises” (demo)

Another demo, and another joy. The single that resulted from this session—“Teenager’s Letter of Promises,” by Juanita Rogers and Lynn Hollings, with Mr. V’s Five Joys—appeared on the Pink Clouds label in 1958. It was produced in Chicago by Sun Ra, and the record certainly has Sun Ra’s stamp: it’s a teenage lover’s lament, framed by eerie doo-wop harmonies and an echoey voice-of-God, Ed Woodian narration. Even with a bubblegum ballad, Sun Ra didn’t go in for predictable pop conventions.

Listen to Juanita’s a cappella demo and hear the song stripped down to nothing but pure vocals and feeling. Whatever happened to Juanita Rogers? I don’t know, but her one demo’s a tiny, heart-melting miracle.

4. Drive-By Truckers: “Love Like This”

Another sort of love song, for another sort of love. I consider this one of the greatest country songs ever written.

5. Aretha Franklin: I Never Loved a Man (The Way I Love You)

This song, which I first heard in high school, probably started my love affair with soul. Recorded in Muscle Shoals in 1967, it was the first record Aretha made for the Atlantic label, and in the first few seconds of the song she announced herself mightily, unmistakably to the world. Every time you play it, she does it again.

I don’t have much else to say about this one. It’s a perfect record.

6. Karen Dalton: “Take Me”

“Take me to your nearest room; close every window, and bolt every door.” It was a George Jones song first, written with Leon “Lost Highway” Payne; Jones recorded it on his own and again later as a duet with Tammy Wynette, the first of their classic recordings together. But there’s nothing I like more than the way Karen Dalton’s unmistakable voice wraps around, turns over, slinks through, stretches out and bends these lyrics into a thing of her own making. “Take me to Siberia,” she sings, and she moves up and down the next phrase like a staircase: “in-the cold-est wea-ther of-the win-ter time…” It’s a great pairing of song and artist, the thoughtful, unconventional lyrics matched by Dalton’s otherworldly voice, full at once of sweetness and pain. (Kudos to those songwriters, by the way, for filling a country love song with such unlikely images and associations: a barren desert; a bolted door; Siberia.) “It would be just like spring in California,” the song concludes, “the day you say you’ll be mine.”

“Spring in California”—what a wonderful combination of words.

7. Elmore James: “It Hurts Me Too”

“When things go wrong, so wrong, with you—don’t you know it hurts me too?”

Sam and Dave had a similar refrain: “When something is wrong with my baby, something is wrong with me.”

The rest of the lyrics, it turns out, aren’t as purely romantic as the refrain might suggest—I honestly just listened to them, now, for the first time. But, like I said before, Valentines Day isn’t always easy. And how about that scorching electric guitar?

P.S. Speaking of Bob Dylan and Karen Dalton, check out their versions of this song, too—and the original recording, by Tampa Red.

8. Hoagy Carmichael: Stardust

Several songs on this list have been covered widely, but none as frequently as this staple. It’s hard to beat Louis Amstrong’s version, but there are so many outstanding renditions to choose from. I’m in love with this spare little rendition by the song’s composer, the great Hoagy Carmichael. Usually we hear other people do his songs (this one and “Georgia on My Mind” and others). It’s nice to hear his own take on “Stardust,” from 1942: unaffected, laid back, and totally sincere.

I couldn’t be any happier when he starts whistling.

9. Clarence Carter: Making Love (At the Dark End of the Street)

“Dark End of the Street,” Dan Penn and Chips Moman’s anthem to illicit love, is for Clarence Carter just an afterthought in his “cover” of the tune: once he finally gets around to singing, more than four minutes into the record, we’re just seconds away from the fade-out. But it’s the build-up that makes this one count: this epic sermon on making love presents Clarence Carter as his fullest-fledged, most outrageous self. He is preacher, grade school teacher, and sultry-voiced love doctor all in one—but it’s Clarence Carter as comedian who’s at the heart of this record. The singer, famous for his boisterous and smutty “heh-heh-heh,” clearly delights in his own sense of humor. Every year I play this song somewhere near the climax of my Valentine’s Special. In fact, the name of this annual show—“50 Cents of Gas and a Country Road”—comes from Carter’s monologue.

Years later, Clarence Carter would record “Strokin’” as a kind of sequel to this, his last big hit (to date). You might think from these that Clarence Carter is only good for a laugh, but don’t be fooled: try “I Can’t See Myself (Crying About You)” or “Don’t Make My Baby Cry” for straight-ahead, straight-faced soul. And if you want to hear “Dark End of the Street” without the sermon, try James Carr’s definitive original, or Aretha’s gospel tour de force—or the Flying Burrito Brothers’ country rock revision.

10. The Blue Ridge Mountain Singers, “I’ll Remember You Love in My Prayers”

This old parlor tune dates back to 1869. Its original title is “When the Curtains of Night are Pinned Back” and it has lyrics like this:

     When the curtains of night are pinned back by the stars
     And the beautiful moon lights the sky
     When the dew drops of heaven are kissing the rose
     It is then that my memories fly.

The Blue Ridge Mountain Singers recorded it in 1930.

I am smitten with this record.

11. Dan Reeder, “Clean Elvis”

    … I grab my laser gun, I know my place:
     Somebody has to save the human race.
     And I-I-I
     will always love you.

As far as I’m concerned, this one has it all: Dolly Parton, Elvis Presley, and sci-fi, all wrapped into a single (sort of) love song.

12. June Carter Cash and Johnny Cash: The Far Side Banks of Jordan

This one, though, is the kicker.

No one expected Johnny Cash to outlive June, but still somehow he did. June Carter Cash died in May of 2003; Johnny followed five months later. In the brief window between their deaths I drove through the little community of Hiltons, Virginia, the Carter Family’s longtime homeplace, a rolling country town where the Carters and Cash still had deep roots. I stopped at the little museum at the Carter Family Fold, and there was grief all around. A sign in a church yard read simply, “PRAY FOR JOHN.” And soon he too was gone.

Johnny and June first cut this song, “The Far Side Banks of Jordan,” back in the seventies, and they grew old with it between them.For June’s 1999 album Press On they recorded it a last time. The words and music came an English teacher and country songwriter named Terry Smith, but the song feels like it’s made just for these two. “I believe my steps are growing wearier each day,” John begins, and the weariness in his voice is real: “got another journey on my mind…”

     Lures of this old world have ceased to make me want to stay
     and my one regret is leaving you behind.

Then June picks it up:

     But if somehow it proves to be His will that I am first to cross
     And somehow I have a feeling it will be
     When it comes your time to travel, likewise don’t feel lost
And I will be the first one that you see

It goes on from there but, suffice to say, all the others on this list are lightweights by comparison.

Rest in peace, John and June. And may we all grow into loves like this one.

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