Monday, December 29, 2014

Trucker's Salute Offers a Different View of Christmas' Gloomy Gus, Red Sovine

Within a few days of mailing my latest holiday CD to friends and family each year, I can count on a call from my brother with his thoughts about the mix. This year, the first thing he mentioned was the title track, "Is There Really a Santa Claus," by the late great Red Sovine. "That one song," he said "singlehandedly ruined my Christmas." I understand the sentiment. I've used several of Sovine's unique recordings over the years, and each one seems sadder and more pathetic than the one before. After replaying this year's selection, I really do think we've hit rock bottom:

For those who'd rather not subject themselves to Red's gut-wrenching rendition of the whole gruesome story, here's the CliffsNotes edition.  The story is about a widower and his two young children on Christmas Eve. The children's mother had died the previous Christmas, but despite the sad anniversary, they are excited by the prospect of Santa's arrival. "Cut out the nonsense," their father says. "There's no Santa Claus." Well, the children went off to bed with tears in their eyes, but they remembered their poor father in their prayers. This prompted a change of heart in Dad, and he rushes to the store to buy gifts on Santa's behalf. In his haste, however, he is killed by a passing car. The next morning, the newly orphaned tots are overjoyed to find the simple toys they'd asked for from Santa. Since Dad is in the morgue, Red suggests, they must have come from Santa himself. Yikes!

Some of the other little ditties I've used from Red's holiday catalog include "Faith in Santa" (young homeless boy dies in the arms of a street corner Santa Claus), "What Does Christmas Look Like?" (young girl blind from birth wonders what she's missing), and "Here It Is Christmas" (divorced man sobs as he writes his ex-wife on Christmas Eve). These songs all appear on his 1978 LP Christmas with Red Sovine, which was one of the last albums he ever recorded. Sovine's Christmas album reflects the direction his music had taken during the latter part of his career. After years of recording marginally popular country and western music, Sovine had finally found his niche in the mid-'70s with a series of maudlin spoken stories about truckers recorded over a depressing musical background. For example his biggest hit, "Teddy Bear," was about a disabled boy who'd lost his trucker father in an accident and spends his days listening to other truckers on the CB radio. (I just listened to it again, and, as always, it brought tears to my eyes.) Sovine himself died in a motor vehicle accident in 1980. Since then, his music has been widely parodied, for all the obvious reasons.

However, with the glow of the holidays still coloring my home and hearth, I've decided to post what seems to be a heartfelt tribute to Red and his music from a grateful trucker. Red's music was good company on his long drives, he says, and he was grateful to travel with someone who understood the life of someone like him. Here's Tom Lanbert with "A Trucker's Tribute to Red Sovine":

I've got one further Red Sovine story to share this evening — a back story about his hit song "Teddy Bear." This one wasn't merely a hit — it climbed to the top spot on the country music charts almost overnight, and, not surprisingly, Sovine's record company wanted him to milk the story by recording a couple of follow-up records. For whatever reason, Sovine was reluctant to do it, which led a couple of his songwriting pals to write a song called "Teddy Bear's Last Ride," in which young Teddy Bear is killed off. Once he's dead, his pals explained, nobody can pressure you to record any follow-ups. Sovine refused to have anything to do with the song, but it was recorded by a woman named Diana Williams, and to Red's dismay it started to climb the charts. Well, Sovine quickly recorded a song of his own called "Little Joe," in which the real Teddy Bear is not only still alive, but had regained the ability to walk. Sovine's follow-up effectively knocked Diana Williams out of the game, and ended the Teddy Bear saga on a somewhat happier note. Of course, this is a Red Sovine record, so before it ends the narrator loses his sight in a highway accident. If only Red were still around, maybe he could hook that former trucker up with the blind girl from "What Does Christmas Look Like?" Just a thought.

POSTSCRIPT (12.30.14):  Looks like the "Teddy Bear" saga continued even after the release of "Little Joe." Some time later, a guy named John Texas Rocker released a song called "Teddy Bear's Epitaph," in which we learn that the poor little former cripple must have suffered another setback because he's now in heaven using God's CB to keep in touch with his gear-jammer buddies on Earth. There's a scratchy old version of this final monstrosity on WFMU's Beware of the Blog site HERE. As that post notes, this news may help explain what was going on in another of Red Sovine's hits, "Phantom 309." Or not.

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