Singled Out: Ruth Gerson's Knoxville Girl
It is hard to pick a song. In the end I was torn between "Ode To Billie Joe," because Bobbie Gentry is my most favorite singer, "Little Sadie," because this recording is among some of Jack Rose's last recordings and he plays it so beautifully (I still think we should strip the vocal off and leave it as an instrumental), and "Knoxville Girl," which was a hit for the Louvin Brothers in the 50s.
I picked "Knoxville Girl" for several reasons. It was my in to the whole album. It was the first murder ballad I was aware of hearing in my early twenties, aside from "Hey Joe," but "Knoxville Girl" is much bloodier, it took me to a more frightening place. I sat and listened to the Louvin Brothers cheerful harmonies on the most disturbing song I had ever heard and I didn't know how to take it. I don't think, lyrically, this song would air on pop stations today (It's more graphic than "Love The Way You Lie.") "Knoxville Girl" was the reason I started listening and looking for songs about women being murdered, outcast, abandoned, and/or deceived, because they had stepped outside of what society considers acceptable sexual behavior for females.
I went to see Charlie Louvin play many times. I got to know him a little bit. I even cooked a big Texas meal for him and he hung out and played with my daughters (pics below) in my tiny east village apartment - but I still never completely understood his take on the song. One night at the Rodeo Bar, he sang "Knoxville Girl," and a group of young guys at a table laughed hysterically through the song - I think they couldn't believe what Charlie was singing about - and Charlie got pretty pissed and shook his finger at them. Did Charlie Louvin hear the song the same way I heard it? As something to sing in protest of murder? The next time I heard him sing it, it was a huge show in NY, a big comeback, and he carefully introduced the song - he wanted the audience to understand there was a reason for this murder. He said, "Listen, carefully to the lyrics of the song. You'll notice there is a reason the man does what he does, because the woman has dark and roving eyes."
I never understood, if that meant we should think of her death any differently, than if she had had dark and lovely eyes.
In the end, I understand the song best through Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds' version. Our band's way into the song, actually came from the drum set we used on it. The studio had purchased Levon Helm's (The Band) old kit. Phil Cimino (drummer) went into the song thinking about Levon and we all followed. We played it once. This is it. I tried to re-do the vocals because there was some distortion on the scratch, but I could never get the exact same moment. So, we left the scratch on. It's got a little distortion in places, but we decided to keep it warts and all.
Hearing is believing. Now that you know the story behind the song, listen for yourself and learn more about the album right here!