The great Vern Gosdin died today, aged 74. That makes this reminder of his superb album from 1989, one drenched in sorrow and regret in its own right, all the more poignant.
Vern was actually at the height of his career in 1989, both in terms of commercial and artistic success, even though he was well into his 50s and far older than most of his chart contemporaries. He was not only one of the greatest ever purveyors of heartbreak in song as a singer, he was also an extremely fine songwriter, who co-wrote most of his best known songs, including ‘Chiseled In Stone’ and ‘Set ‘Em Up Joe’. Composed and recorded just after Vern’s marriage broke up, Alone is full of songs of lost love, all but one co-written by Vern. Most are agonized ballads, a style perfectly suited to Vern’s intense but subtle delivery. Vern’s voice was at its very best. The production, from Bob Montgomery, who was also at the helm for Vern’s big breakthrough album Chiseled In Stone the previous year, is pure country, perfectly in sympathy with Vern’s voice and the nature of the songs, and heavy on the steel guitar.
The one song Vern did not share in writing is the title track, contributed by his regular writing partner Max D Barnes. This opens as an agonised ballad with weeping steel guitar – “Alone – at a table for two”.
Although the song ends happily with the girl he fears has left him showing up after all, just late for their date and “my heart started beating once more”, the feel of the song is redolent of the anguish of loss and loneliness revealed throughout the set.
Barnes also co-wrote with Vern the opening track ‘That Just About Does It’, a resigned take on a marriage with nothing left but tears, which was a top 5 single. They also wrote the despairing ‘I’m Only Going Crazy’, as Vern addresses his ex-wife:
“Take the house, take our dreams, take the car, take everything,
Things just won’t be the way they were before
Take it all, take your time, take what’s yours, take what’s mine,
Where I’m going I just won’t need it anymore …
I’m only going crazy
I’ve already made the turn”
Songwriting great Hank Cochran also teams up with Vern on several tracks. ‘Take Me Home To Alabama’ has the narrator longing to return home, and although the lyric does not spell out why he has been away or why he wants to go home now, some unspoken sorrow fills every mournful note. The pair are joined by Mack Vickery for the top 10 hit ‘Right In The Wrong Direction’, a sardonic midtempo number addressed to an errant wife:
“Well your office called to say you wouldn’t be long
Since when did your boss get a jukebox of his own
When I called to see how long you’d be they said you’d been long gone
You’re headed right in the wrong direction, honey, if you wanna come home”
Less successful is the Caribbean feel of ‘Tanqueray’, where the theme of attempting to drink away the unhappy memories on a beach is set to steel drums rather than steel guitar. I think this song, written by Vern, Cochran, Mack Vickery and J Vest, would have worked better for Vern given a more conventional country production. It was a failure when released as a single.
One of the finest songs is ‘Do Me A Favor’, a bitter reproach to the woman leaving and her attempts to rationalize her departure, set to a devastatingly slow ballad tune drenched with steel, and is the product of a threeway writing session between Vern, Cochran and Buddy Cannon:
“All these favors you say you are doing,
Like your staying would just hold me back
But your leaving could be my ruin
Honey let me say this about that
Do me a favor, don’t do me no favors
If your favor means the end of my dreams”
Buddy Cannon, another regular collaborator with Vern, also cowrote the first single from the album, Vern’s last #1 hit, ‘I’m Still Crazy’, with Vern and Steve Gosdin, who I presume is a relative. There are no real uptempo cuts on the album, but this track picks up the pace a bit. It’s still about losing a loved one: he used to be crazy over her, but now “I’m still crazy, but I’m not over you”. Vern and Buddy teamed up with Mike Baker to write ‘Paradise ’83’, in which a vacation fails to take the protagonist’s mind off his loss, as “for me there’s been no paradise since 1983″. This is another desperately sad ballad immaculately performed by Vern.
Vern and Buddy also wrote the closing track, ‘You’re Not By Yourself’, yet another beautifully realized expression of losing a loved one:
“You’re leaving without a reason,
At least a reason you just won’t say,
You won’t tell me where you’re going or if you’re going to stay
And if you thought your leaving would kill me
Honey would you still go anyway?
And if you thought your staying would save me
Oh, I’m ready to be saved.
You say you’re not leaving for somebody else
I guess I believe that is true
And if you find your future is the past that you left
And if you’re all alone you’re not by youself”.
This album is not formally available, but cheap used copies are easy to get hold of.
And if you want a taster of Vern, Country California is offering a giveaway of his Super Hits at the ‘Last Vern Gosdin Giveaway’.
Also check out “The Voice” Remembered: A Tribute to Vern Gosdin at The 9513.