John Coltrane: Thank God He’s a Country Boy!

Tom Wilmeth blogs about references to Coltrane in recent hit country songs

There is a something very curious taking place right now on the Billboard Magazine Country Music chart. I’m certain there is no Grammy Award or even a statistical category for this anomaly, such as Artist with the Most Records Sold, the Single with the Most Weeks at #1, or even sub-categories such as the Longest Song to Make the Chart. Nonetheless, let me briefly draw your attention to a strange confluence now on country radio: There are specific references to the late jazz saxophone master John Coltrane currently found within not one, but in the lyrics of two separate country hits this week!

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Ray Ross

John Coltrane

The jazz recordings of John Coltrane are about as far from country music as one can travel while still being on American soil. Briefly, Coltrane was born in 1926; he joined Miles Davis’ quintet in 1955; in 1960 he began his own solo career. Before his death in 1967, Coltrane was responsible for expanding not only the possibilities of the tenor saxophone, but of jazz itself.

So how is it feasible that two discrete references to a jazzman more than 40 years dead are simultaneously appearing on country radio in the spring of 2011? What does it mean? Why do we care? Let’s look:

The first Coltrane sighting is found on the latest single by guitar virtuoso Brad Paisley, whose abilities could make Eric Clapton stop and listen. Paisley offers another of his up-tempo hot and clever country numbers on the song “Old Alabama.” It is sung from the point of view of a young man wooing his lady to the sounds of the band Alabama – a country group with its own very impressive chart statistics. The kicker here is that Paisley, in a continuing nod to his country music roots, has persuaded Alabama itself to come out of retirement to accompany him.

As the young lovers of the song are entwined on the back roads, headed for the back seat, their music of choice is that of Alabama. Paisley sings:
“Forget about Sinatra or Coltrane / . . .
And Barry White ain’t gonna work tonight /
If you really want to turn her on.”

“Forget about Sinatra or Coltrane”? Frank Sinatra was, of course, the singer of choice for make-out artists of a previous generation. Barry White has similar appeal as the go-to guy for inducing romance. But John Coltrane? That’s a disconnect; a non sequitur. Why would this truck- driving Romeo even have Coltrane on his I-Pod? Just what sort of mood does the young man want to create? True, John Coltrane recorded many lovely ballads, but he is far better remembered for his lengthy, sometimes atonal exploratory improvisations which quickly leave any semblance of melody in the dust.

Maybe the inclusion of the sax-man’s name is a hip, inside joke by songwriters Paisley, Randy Owen, Dave Turnbull, and Chris Dubois, especially since the word Coltrane doesn’t even rhyme with any other lyric line. Maybe the girlfriend in the song is a meth freak. But no matter the reason – a reference to John Coltrane appears in a current Billboard Country Chart entry!

Unlike the one-time, passing reference in Paisley’s “Old Alabama,” the second example is even stranger as it links a young man’s positive attitude with a specific Coltrane composition. Uncle Kracker exudes extreme happiness during the sunny number “It’s Good To Be Me.” In the song’s culminating comparison, the singer’s euphoric attitude is equated with having “caught some Coltrane Love Supreme.” That’s odd.

John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme is a 4-part cycle of compositions praising God. Released in 1964, it is a well known concept album in the jazz canon. The work was embraced as a religious touchstone in the mid-1970s by guitarists Carlos Santana and John McLaughlin, and more recently on separate recordings by both Wynton and Branford Marsalis. Primarily instrumental, the piece does have a hypnotic spoken repetition of the title words “A Love Supreme” during much of its opening section.

Similar to the source itself, Uncle Kracker’s “It’s Good To Be Me” also repeats the phrase “Coltrane Love Supreme” numerous times. The reference only appears near the song’s conclusion, but becomes a shouted mantra of sorts as Kracker reaches his joyous finale. I suspect that songwriters Robert Ritchie, Brett James, Matthew Shafer, and Thomas Harding are purposefully mimicking the spoken chant in Coltrane’s original recording with the repetition found here. But why is it included at all?

I don’t know. Other than this specific reference, “It’s Good To Be Me” has no religious overtones. It is a number glowing with life-affirming optimism but is completely secular. Its tone bears little resemblance to the extremely sincere gratitude shown towards God or the humility found at the center of the Coltrane work it sites. I’ll say it again—very odd.

So, what can we learn from these unexpected examples of musical cross-genre references? From Brad Paisley’s “Old Alabama” we discover – and guys take note – you should not attempt to create a romantic mood for your girl with John Coltrane tunes. Simple advice, perhaps, but well worth the reminder.

In “It’s Good to Be Me,” the words “Coltrane Love Supreme” become a late-song sing-along hook. It’s the part of the melody and lyrics which one remembers after the number is over. I maintain that if you can get a young Country Music fan to sing the words “Coltrane Love Supreme,” you are well on the way to planting seeds for one of the strangest musical pollinations imaginable. The true country devotee may one day wonder just who or what this Coltrane might be. And with just a cursory search, a new musical world could unfold. That is, if the listener doesn’t think that Uncle Kracker is singing about a Coal Train.

This type of discovery flash point happened to me, albeit in a less jarring musical transition. In about 1985, when I was just getting over being a snob about current country, I was enjoying a live set by George Strait on Austin City Limits. After a handful of hits he introduced a song that he said meant a great deal to him, called “Lefty’s Gone.” It immediately stuck in my brain, but I had no idea who Lefty was and I didn’t worry much about it. However, after continually singing these heartfelt lyrics to myself for a few days, I thought that the man who inspired this tune might be worth finding. Early in the search I found Willie Nelson’s tribute LP, From Willie to Lefty, and some of Merle Haggard’s recordings of Frizzell songs. But Lefty himself remained elusive.

When I finally tracked-down original recordings of Lefty Frizzell, I was transformed. I immediately realized why, in spite of only a handful of hits, his style had been so influential and important to country radio in the early 1950s. Hearing George Strait sing “Lefty’s Gone” that night ultimately resulted in my purchase of a 12 CD set of Mr. Frizzell’s complete works. Small seeds of interest can grow large. And perhaps this type of discovery is what will eventually occur with these two Coltrane citations. A few curious country fans may search-out the references found in songs they like and become devotees of John Coltrane. I hope it. And I doubt it.

But apart from possible repercussions of influence, I still marvel at two different country music songs dropping Coltrane’s name into the lyrics. Even stranger, how could these songs share the same chart? This seems like it should be a once-in-a-generation songwriting fluke. And who in the country audience did these songwriters expect to connect with by using jazz references? I’d give worlds to know. I began by saying that Billboard Magazine had no category for such an anomaly, but I would like to suggest one for next year’s Grammy Awards – Most Pleasantly Unexpected Reference to a Musician from Another Genre in the Lyrics to a Hit Song. Hey, why not? We already have two entries vying for the award.

9 Comments

  • May 05, 2011 at 09:49AM Terry Hummer

    I wonder whether Paisley's "Old Alabama" refers to Coltrane because of Coltrane's great composition "Alabama." This may be a stretch, but it makes a kind of sense.

  • May 07, 2011 at 07:10AM Chris Miles

    You know, Tom, I think the Brad Paisley song is really talking about the classic Coltrane recording with Johnny Hartman -- it's one of those 'smoochy' records that gets heavily promoted at Borders, etc. to the general non-jazzbo public. And rightly so, because it is a thing of beauty. Regarding the 'A Love Supreme' reference by Uncle Kracker, it reminded me a gig I went to back in the early 90s. Primal Scream (a UK indie rock band who were at the time transitioning heavily into the acid house 'summer of love' scene with their album 'Screamadelica') were playing to an audience of generally late teens early twenty year olds -- towards the end of one of their numbers the singer, Bobby Gilespie, began to repeat the'A Love Supreme' vocal line form the Coltrane recording -- I immediately recognised it and joined in, only to be surprised that probably a good half of the audience also obviously got the reference and joined in too. It was a very uplifting moment, really uniting the crowd. However, it later struck me that it might not have been the Coltrane piece that everyone was vibing to, but the Will Downing number that had done very well in the UK charts about 5 years earlier (and which itself was much more of a clear reference to Coltrane). Sorry to go on at such length, but your piece brought it all gushing back!

  • May 07, 2011 at 06:48PM Robert Robbins

    Coltrane's "Alabama" was inspired by the freedom rides and marches of the early and mid-60's, not by any romantic ideals. Whether or not Paisley was familiar with Coltrane's oeuvre, I do not know.

    What I do know is that jazz and country music were almost mutually exclusive until very recently, with the emergence of Norah Jones, and Willie Nelson performing and recording with Wynton Marsalis. The late Ray Charles was virtually the lone successful exception for many years, although Stan Kenton and Tex Ritter collaborated on an album in 1962 which was a colossal failure for both (over a decade later, Kenton would blast the country genre as "tasteless musical pap" in his Creative World Magazine, and would be challenged by Charlie Daniels).

  • May 09, 2011 at 02:20PM Tom Wilmeth

    The Coltrane tune "Alabama." Thanks for the reminder, Terry, and I agree with you that this is probably not the genesis of the references. I did not know, as Robert indicates, that the tune was inspired by tthe Freedom Rides. Interesting. Another friend of mine thought he recalled Coltrane doing some early sessions in Nashville, but this too would probably not have been the reason for either song's including his name.
    I appreciate the connection Chris makes from the live show he attended. Based on his experience, had Coltrane's name not been a part of the song line, I might if the line applied to the Will Downing number. But Coltrane's name is undoubtedly in there, oddly used as a adjective. Thanks. tw

  • May 09, 2011 at 02:24PM Tom Wilmeth

    That is to say, I might wonder if the reference applied to the Will Downing number. tw

  • May 09, 2011 at 10:37PM Lee Mergner

    Actually, Coltrane's "Alabama" was specifically inspired by the famous Birmingham church bombing, though there were many churches (and homes) bombed in Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi during that time, and all of those incidents were connected to the civil rights movement and the violent backlash against it.

  • May 29, 2011 at 03:42PM Steve Cramer

    Regarding the separation of jazz and country music, you don't have to go too far for recent recordings of a country/jazz mix: the neo western swing and hot jazz bands (like Hot Club of Cowtown), who often feature young musicians. Of course, you won't hear that kind of music on the commercial country stations.

  • May 31, 2011 at 12:01AM Tom Wilmeth

    Not a lot of Bob Wills style Western Swing on current country radio, it's true. But chart regular George Strait still plays some swinging Wills material in his live show. He includes fewer Coltrane tributes, I fear.

  • Jun 06, 2011 at 09:03PM Tom Wilmeth

    Update -- June 6, 2011 -- Brad Paisley's "Old Alabama" remains at #1 on the Billboard Country Music Chart this week. tw

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