Here we are again with VERSIONS – our look at the songs, the performers and the interpretations by performers of the songs. This week Clint West looks at the country standard ‘That’s How I Got to Memphis’.
My first recollection of hearing ‘That’s How I Got to Memphis’ was Kelly Willis’s version on the 1998 Tom T Hall tribute album ‘Real: The Tom T Hall Project’. However, the song had first appeared on Hall’s splendidly named ‘Ballad of Forty Dollars and His Other Great Songs’ in 1969. It then became a hit the following year for Bobby Bare, reaching Number 3 on the Billboard Country Chart. The song has since established itself as a country standard with numerous cover versions to choose from for this feature. Versions by The Avett Brothers, Rosanne Cash, Scott Walker, Whitey Morgan, Haddon Cord and Charley Crockett were all considered and each one would have been worthy of inclusion. However, in my final selections, I’ve tried to reflect the diversity of artists that have covered the song and the way in which Hall’s brilliant songcraft lends itself to such wide-ranging interpretation.
Tom T Hall (1969) We start with the original. Like all of Tom T’s songs the beauty is in its simplicity. No extravagance, no idiosyncrasy, no gimmicks. It doesn’t need any of those adornments because the song itself stands tall. Tom T Hall is a genius songwriter, and when you’ve got that, you don’t need anything else.
Solomon Burke (2006) The song featured as the opening track on Burke’s ‘Nashville’ album recorded at Buddy Miller’s Nashville home and produced by him. The album features cover versions of songs by amongst others Dolly Parton, Bruce Springsteen, Gillian Welch, Jim Lauderdale and Patty Griffin. Buddy Miller has long covered the song himself and his own version was probably the hardest to leave out. Nevertheless, he features prominently in this live version of the song.
Karl Blau (2016) For those of you not familiar with him, Karl Blau was a fairly obscure indie-rock musician who was putting out albums from 1997 without creating too many waves, when in 2016 when he released ‘Introducing Karl Blau’, a set of covers from which this is taken. The album also included Tom T Hall’s ‘Homecoming’ as well as songs by Townes Van Zandt, Link Wray and Tom Rush. The album was critically acclaimed and featured in many ‘Best of’ lists for that year. This is a great version.
AJ Lee and Blue Summit (2018) This version is a live recording from the GOF California Bluegrass Festival in 2018. It features the wonderful AJ Lee and her Blue Summit band. The slightly quicker pace and the beautiful bluegrass instrumentation add a further dimension to the song whilst still maintaining its simple beauty. Watching clips like this really bring it home as to how much of a miss live music has been during 2020.