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"Pick It Up" - The Stories Behind the Songs

"Pick it Up": The Stories Behind the Song

Baker's Half Dozen

Mickey Baker was, of course, a greatly influential guitarist, most famous for his Groove Records hit, "Love is Strange", with Sylvia Robinson. The song was written by Bo Diddley and features a nine note Baker guitar lick.
By the time "Love is Strange" peaked on the charts in November 1957, I had been the young, mystified owner of a Roy Rodgers motif guitar for about a year. I had already learned all the songs in the book that came with the guitar, "Red River Valley", "Home on the Range", and a dozen others.
When I heard that rippin' Baker lick, I was pretty sure that was the path for me. I wasn't sure how he made his guitar sound like that, but I knew I could pick out that lick. I did and was on my way to what quickly became an addiction to pickin' out licks.
Mickey Baker had another role in my development as a guitarist. This influence came through his book, "Jazz Guitar I", which I was given sometime around 1960. The book is not a "song" based approach, but rather just presents dozens of chords, along with a good explanation of why a G7b5b9, for example, is so named. Also, he shows arpeggios, exercises, and some jazzy licks – just what young fingers need to develop. The chords comped behind the solos in "Baker's Half Dozen" are entirely comprised of chords I learned from "Jazz Guitar I".

I Crossed the Line

A clear reference to "I Walk the Line", I intended this song to be a tribute to the Cash style. The story is of a young person who, in envy of material possessions, starts a long slide from which leads to an apparent shooting that earns him a death sentence. It's an allegory for all the decisions we make that "cross the line" and the consequences that follow.

You Could Have Fooled Me

This is an implied "cheatin'" song. "I never really loved you" is offered up to explain why the straying party feels justified in the affair. The one who is left loses not only his home, but his memories of better times – apparently, he was just deluded. Also, I wanted a groove like "Silver Wings" and the band delivered a great one.

This Time It's Different

Gotta have the killin' song. Each year for Austin's annual "Dead Sweethearts Ball", I've written a killin' song. I do not subscribe to domestic violence – it's a terrible thing. However, it is fun to write about from a safe distance. In this song, inspired by all those murder shows on tv, I hope the first time listener is led to believe that "this time he's not coming home" because he ran off with some barroom floozy. Not so, we learn later in the song. The wronged wife follows and executes that spouse and his lover. She expects to be caught and punished, but he just went a little too far. This is Waylonesque two beat/waltz in the fashion of "Amanda"… we love ya', Waylon.

Pick It Up

I've always been an admirer of O'Henry style irony in a story. In this song, I made up a character, Carl, who sells pencils on a corner. He respects money – it's hard to come by – so much so that he'll chase a runaway penny down the street. But when he uncovers a lottery ticket worth $50,000, he becomes disdainful of the value of a penny and just leaves one lying on the ground… and he pays a stiff price. There's a pretty clear moral to this story – but the song ends abruptly ahead to disclosing this moral.

Deep Fat Fried

When I was young, almost all food was prepared by frying… chicken, steaks, okra, potatoes. With the introduction of modern deep fat fryers, you might be led to believe that all food is friable. I've played a dozens of state fairs and have seen a dizzying array of deep fat edibles, from funnel cake, to deep fat fried Oreos.
Musically, this song aurally references Merle Travis' talkin' blues like "Smoke that Cigarette", or "So Round, So Firm", with a little Travis-picked intro.

Bartender, Tell Me

Overheard in a bar as I was setting up for a gig: "Hey, bartender… where's the liquor store?" It just seemed like a button waiting to have a coat sewn onto it…. so, I took it upon myself to write that song. Also, this song is a recollection of how the lyrics of country tunes suddenly take on deep meaning when you find that you're the flapper on the chicken wing of love.
The groove of "Bartender…" is the result of a study of Willie Nelson's early shuffles such as "Undo the Right"… drums and bass settle into a nice shuffle, held in place by the piano. The rhythm guitar hits evenly on every beat, as opposed to the usual 2-4 accents. It's a difficult groove to establish and the entire band does a great job with it.

Note to Self

Once again, if you listen to you audience, you'll pick up some song titles. One night, during a gig with The Texas Hummingbirds, my bandmate, Karen Poston, announced to the crowd that we would be back the following week. I heard a disgruntled girl, clearly expecting something more than the stripped down, "family singing" group that was the Texas Hummingbirds, say a little too loudly, "Note to self: don't go." Although the lyrics have nothing to do with drunk sorority sisters, her calendar commentary became the hook line of the song.
That's not all, though. I've always remembered to introduction to the early self-help book, "I'm OK, You're OK", in which the author tells a story of a potential reader who refuses to read the book, saying, "I ain't livin' nearly as good as I already know how." The character in this story KNOWS better, but he's like dieter with a quart of ice cream in the freezer… he just can't stop himself.
T Jarrod Bonta establishes the song's groove with a piano lick similar to that in Gene Watson's "14K Mind". This is topped with a little Les Paul inspired intro lick.

(Chicken Pickin') the Hen, Pt. 1

This is the one song on "Pick It Up" that I didn't write, but, in a way it's the inspiration for the entire project.
I first heard this song when I was surfing the web for tunes that were issued on Stan Lewis' labels, Jewel and Paula. I found "The Hen, Pt. 1" on YouTube and it just blew my socks off… a great B-3 led funky tune with sax lead and a great jazz/blues guitar solo. However, there was no clue as to the players except the mysterious Louis Chachere on B-3.
So I dug around for additional information – where it was recorded, when it was recorded, and who were the other players. I had assumed these were New Orleans guys… possibly associated with The Meters, or some other well know funk-masters in a hired gun role.
Finally, I got a tip when I learned that Louis Chachere had produced a single by a late 60s girl group called "The Trinikas" – and that it had been recorded in Kansas City at The Cavern (recording studio), the same studio in which I had recorded in 1970. A little further digging revealed that Chachere had played regularly at a club in KC during that time. The guitar player was none other than Calvin Keys, and KC veteran, Dwight Foster played sax. The drummer was known only as "Woodchuck". I don't know how let slip by the opportunity to hear this band at the time.

Wrong John

Yet another club experience. Small crowd… I asked if John was there and 12 of 18 people responded. But each was the WRONG JOHN. It has nothing to do with selecting the correct restroom, by the way. Yet another parable about fixing yourself before you think another relationship is going to do the trick.

I Am, Therefore I Drink

The Latin translation would be "Sum ergo Bebe" and it just follows as a corollary to Rene Descartes' "Critique of Pure Reason… I think therefore I am." I assume a little intelligence on the part of the listener, since there's not a lot in this song. My favorite part is the bridge which explains the many reasons a person might drink. We generally leave out the coda when we play this live since the lyrics are too hard to remember.

It's Not What I Need

I bought at Fender Jazzmaster a couple years back, knowing I really didn't need this guitar, but I'd always thought it was Fender's best design. It wasn't really a bad choice, but the same mechanism that resulted in inducting this guitar into my twang arsenal can lead us to eat/drink too much, buy those impulse items at the store, get into questionable relationships and so on… you get the picture? If not, listen to the song.

Barely Legal

"Barely Legal" was originally created for a Bear Family compilation. The requirement was that each song had to have "Bear" in the title. I don't know why it didn't end up on the comp, but I think it makes a good addition to "Pick It Up".

That's What Friends are For

I wrote this just because I thought it was funny. I wanted a Carl Smith "Hey Joe" type tune. I often poll the audience after this song to ask which men and which women can identify with this tune in which a guy offers to look after his friend's sweetheart – his motives are questionable. No one ever raises his or her hand. I tell the audience that this confirms my hypothesis: "All men are liars, all women are angels."
Musically, this carries on the Tunesmith's groove, along with a Maddox Brother's unruly studio mob hollering during solos.

Pick It Up, Epilogue

This record was seriously delayed by an accident that left me unable to walk for a several weeks… but I recovered, a little worse for wear, but pretty mobile. Anyway… it's good to be alive.

-Jim Stringer


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