AUK’s Chain Gang: Willie Nelson “City of New Orleans”

The previous Chain Gang link, The Highwaymen, featured Willie Nelson among their all-star lineup. Their debut album which featured our chosen song ‘Desperados Waiting For A Train’ also carried a Steve Goodman/John Prine song, ‘The Twentieth Century Is Almost Over’. Nelson and Goodman met again on a cover of Goodman’s most famous song ‘City of New Orleans’.

While ‘City of New Orleans’ appeared on Goodman’s own debut album in 1971, it became famous in the hands of Arlo Guthrie. The story goes that Goodman only got to play the song for Guthrie by buying him a beer. It gave Guthrie his only Billboard Top 20 hit and has gone on to be covered by everyone from Richard Clayderman to David Hasselhoff. Nothing is more American than a song about a railroad trip. “All along the southbound odyssey” it passes through snapshots of American life. “Passin’ trains that have no names, and freight yards full of old black men”, “the sons of engineers, ride their father’s magic carpets made of steel”. The words evoke an American dream of travel that has remained constant since the covered wagon. “Good morning America how are you? Don’t you know me I’m your native son”

All of which makes it a shame that Guthrie’s hit version was rather lightweight pop. Nelson’s version recorded the year after Goodman’s death from Leukemia in 1984 was better, adding a harmonica riff to counterpoint the still slightly syrupy arrangement. Goodman, who has also featured in AUK’s forgotten artist series was very much a folk artist and despite the numerous covers of his song there is still room for someone to record the definitive version, possibly Old Crow Medicine Show who often play it live. The best version featuring Willie Nelson is a duet with Sheryl Crow with a good band led by legendary bassist Lee Sklar, and featuring Nelson playing one of the oddest looking guitars you will ever see.

Author: Tim Martin

I spend some of my time in Clevedon (Somerset) and some in Crianlarich (Scotland), but most of it on the road in between listening to Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty and Over The Rhine, or anything else that makes the miles go by quicker.

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