Where I grew up, if I went out the back gate I was in Leahy's Trailer Court. I had a lot of friends there and hung out there a lot. Itinerant-type people were always passing through. There were carnival people, too. And there was a lot of music. Growing up in Memphis. I had people like Johnny and Dorsey Burnette across the street, and Dusty Rhodes around the corner. I used to see Johnny Cash driving by all the time in his Thunderbird. In school there were quite a few musicians too, like Travis Wammack, Tommy Cash, Eddie Cash, etc. There was blues, gospel, and hillbilly on the radio night and day. Downtown, there were blues street musicians that I got to know, visited in their homes and learned from.
There were tent meetings where I would go afternoons and evenings and hear rocking live gospel. There were people singing work songs in the fields along Cypress Creek where I played as a kid. I soaked up those sounds. All those tunes of the heart - songs of lament and joy - helped me get through growing up in Memphis. one night in America is a reflection of my experiences in Memphis.
It didn't take long after Randy and I first started talking about this concept that the pieces all fell into place naturally. We both had worked with G. E. Smith before, and the drummers Per Hanson and Michael Jerome. T-Bone Wolk and Peter Re also became obvious choices as we moved along. I would call these guys a Dream Team to work with. They are all versatile musicians who play with a lot of soul. We also enlisted some other talented musicians to help us bring it home. I remembered Christine Ohlman from the times I sat in with the Saturday Night Live Band, and my disc-jockey friend Bill Bowker had given me a tape of Kelly Willis because he thought I'd like her voice. He was right. Robben Ford and I go back many years to when he was just starting out. He went on the road with me when he was nineteen. We've been friends ever since, and he always brings a lot to any session. Marty is a fellow Mississippian and our paths have crossed a few times. We had talked about doing a session together. This seemed like the perfect time.
I've already been asked quite a few times why I chose the material I did for this record. Some people might think it's an unusual song list for me. From time to time throughout my career I have been criticized for some of my forays outside a strict blues structure, but what I have been trying to get across to people is that blues is a feeling and not confined to a theoretical musical structure. So I ignore the narrow-mindedness of some and rely on fans because they are with me and open to new ideas. My fans are real smart. Some of the tunes on one night in America are straight-ahead blues. Some tunes, like "Cold Gray Light of Dawn," sound country, but that one was actually written by the famous R&B artist Ivory Joe Hunter. That particular song reminds me of all those awful times I had back when I was drinking. It was awful bleak to say the least.
I heard "In a Town This Size" on my car radio one day and called the station to find out about the tune. I went out and bought it so I could play it while I was driving around. It's just one of the tunes I loved immediately without knowing anything about who it was or anything. It just sounded like a perfect tune. I live in a small town so I can appreciate the humor in it. "Rank Strangers" is another song that I can relate to on a personal level. I often feel like the man in the song. I grew up feeling like that. When I was young I moved around a lot-trying to get by-and there was no family or people around I could turn to for any kind of help. Seems like I was just always on my own. On a lighter note, I remember hearing "Ain't That Loving You Baby" on the jukeboxes in Memphis. Jimmy Reed was real popular, and I remember seeing him play in Memphis too. In fact, I even remember dancing with my girlfriend to his music-right in front of the stage where he was playing. He was popular in Memphis and all his records would be played at parties.
Now, more than any other of our choices, people are wondering why I'm singing a Johnny Cash song on this record.
I've already mentioned my memories of Johnny back in Memphis and that's really where it came from, but there s more to the story than that. Johnny Cash sings songs from the earth, especially when he lived in Memphis and recorded for Sun. In Memphis, in those days, Johnny Cash seemed like he was one of us and was singing about us, about the life we knew. So in that sense he served the same role as a bluesman and all his tunes were about life the same way blues songs are about life. Of course, for somebody living in Memphis, on the Mississippi River, "Big River" certainly had more appeal than for somebody living in Fargo, North Dakota, I would think. I have fond memories of these tunes blaring on the jukeboxes in taverns all over Memphis.
I wrote "Blues Overtook Me" and "In Your Darkest Hour," and they are in the autobiographical vein. "Meet You Over There" is an instrumental now, but I am working on Iyrics for it for a future recording session. "Ain't It Time?" is one I wrote about a friend of mine and it applies to a lot of people I know. "Walking Alone" was written by my good friend Pontus Snibb. We were working together down in Mexico when I was hit by a semi and nearly died. I heard him doing this tune every night, and I grew to like it a lot. Producer Randy Labbe turned me on to "Trail of Tears" and it is a real audience pleaser at our live shows. My old friend Kevin Morrow turned me on to "One Time One Night." He kept saying, "Ya gotta hear this tune!" He even bought me a copy so I'd be sure to listen to it. Henrietta, my wife, kept playing it a lot, and it really grew on me. I love the story it tells. A line from it is also the title of this CD.
So even though some of these tunes were written in the last few years, they all somehow capture the feeling of the times I remember growing up in Memphis in the 1940s and '50s. They were the times I had - the sad ones and the happy ones - it was all I knew. Of course, my life has broadened a heck of a lot since then, but I still get a lot of inspiration from the past.