A Tribute to John D. Loudermilk
I’ve been something of a John D. Loudermilk junkie since around 1961, when I first started buying records. Being somewhat nerdy, I used to take special notice of who wrote the songs and the producer alongside the singer or group of every record that I bought. Several years later, when we had cassette players, I used to have a separate cassette for each songwriter, and would add new versions of their songs to the cassette. I ended up with no less than six 90-minute cassettes of John D. Loudermilk songs performed by such diverse acts as George Hamilton IV, Marianne Faithful, Eddy Arnold, the Nashville Teens, the Everly Brothers, Johnny Cash, Sammy Davis Jr, Tracy Ullman, Glen Campbell, Johnny Winter and many, many more.
During the 1960s and 1970s, Loudermilk’s lengthy string of hits crossed all genres. For instance, while the Nashville Teens had a huge rock hit with Tobacco Road, Lou Rawls also had an equally acclaimed blues/jazz version and more than 150 other artists have covered it in every fashion. A prolific singer-songwriter John D. Loudermilk was much more famous as a songwriter than a performer, though he recorded regularly from the late 1950s through to the early 1980s, and was a somewhat endearing and consummate entertainer, being particularly skilled on guitar. Straddling the fields of rock, pop, and country, he made his mark with catchy songs that run the gamut from the ridiculous to mildly humorous, caustic protest to romantic. By the time I first met and saw John D. perform in the early 1970s, I had accumulated around seven or eight albums and a dozen or more singles … possibly every recording he’d released.
This multi-artist album was recorded live on March 24, 2016 during a concert at the Franklin Theatre in Franklin, Tennessee, near Nashville. Although ailing at the time, Loudermilk was on hand to witness this outpouring of love and respect. He died September 21 that year at the age of 82. Produced by Grammy-winning guitarist John Jorgenson, who was also musical director for the concert, this is indeed a heartfelt tribute to a genuine Nashville songwriting legend.
I’m very familiar with virtually all of the 24 songs selected and I have to say that I really enjoyed these fresh and inventive interpretations of songs that I’ve lived with for more years than I really care to remember. More than that, the various performers have helped to bring these classic and somewhat eclectic songs to a new generation of music fans, who hopefully will find the same kind of connection that I’ve long had with John D, Loudermilk and his songs.
Harry Stinson opens proceedings with Everybody Knows, a deceptively simple song of unrequited love that became a minor hit for Jimmy Dean back in 1971, but this gorgeous version keeps much closer to the way John D. used to sing it. There may be some serious nostalgia at play for people of a certain age, especially on tracks like Ebony Eyes (performed with just the right amount of pathos by Cory Chisel and Adriel Danae), Sad Movies (sung by the vastly underrated Deborah Allen) and Abilene (sung reverently by John D’s son Michael Loudermilk), but these songs sound neither old nor tired.
Though he always came across as an intellectual in his finely-cut clothes and with his well-spoken words, John D was more of a working man's poet, drenched in Americana in the truest sense of the word, with his middle-America values and a pen as sharp as a bayonet at the end of his trusty acoustic guitar. If you doubt these words just give a listen to Rodney Crowell’s dynamic rendition of Tobacco Road, a hard-bitten, bluesy tune that rings with as much authentic grit as a Mississippi Delta blues classic. Then there’s the catchy Blue Train, given a driving bluegrass treatment by Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver and Indian Reservation sung by former Doobie Brother and Southern Pacific founder John McFee.
The mark of a great songwriter is confirmed when other equally renowned writers perform that writer’s songs, so it should come as no surprise to find such skilled tunesmiths as Beth Nielsen Chapman, Bobby Braddock and the late Norro Wilson all taking part in this tribute concert. I was especially pleased to hear Norro’s fine rendition of The Great Snowman.
An often-overlooked facet of John D. Loudermilk’s career is his excellent guitar playing. He would often work alongside Chet Atkins in the 1960s as a session guitarist, playing on many hits by other artists. He also composed several instrumentals, including Windy And Warm, which Atkins made famous. Here, it is played by Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, one of the five musicians that Atkins bestowed the honour CGP (Certified Guitar Player).
There are so many other great performers here including Herb Pedersen (It’s My Time), Lee Roy Parnell (Mr Jones), Becky Hobbs (Talk Back Trembling Lips), John Cowan (I Wanna Live) and The Whites with Ricky Skaggs (Heaven Fell Last Night), but for me, the very best performance among so many great ones, has to be Rosanne Cash’s sultry Then You Can Tell Me Goodbye. This beautifully bruised song about love and loss is anchored by Rosanne's plaintive vocal and a softly played acoustic guitar.
This is a totally wonderful tribute that is nigh on impossible to fault. The production and musical direction by John Jorgenson is a masterful preservation of the traditional element of the songs combined with modern instruments, sonic signature, and arrangement. With remarkable frequency John D. Loudermilk hits you right in the eye with a striking phrase or a sharply focussed image. The boldness and the daring never lets up; from the compositions, to the instrumentation, to the vocal performances. Indispensable.