Douglas Greer talks about “Just A Man”
by Johanna J. Bodde
DOUGLAS GREER Talks About “Just A Man”
(Zilker Park Records)
I have this wonderful Aunt who lives in the Texas Gulf Coast town of Crystal Beach, which is a short ferry ride from Galveston. Her name is Kizzie LeBlanc. Aunt Kizzie is a very classy Cajun lady who makes the best gumbo in Texas, I swear. She has a very interesting take on music. She judges every song she hears by “whether it makes me want to finish my beer.” And she’s a very straight-talking woman—she’ll let you know if she doesn’t like something. I’m very happy to report that each of the songs on my album has made my Aunt Kizzie want to finish her beer. That means as much to me as any review.
DAMN SURE GONE—
Growing up in Southeast Texas, my mother and aunts would always tell me, “Never marry a woman you meet at a bar. Nothing good’ll ever come of it.”
They were right.
This somewhat autobiographical song touches on that subject. Where I come from, it seemed like every street corner had either a church or bar on it. The church was where a woman found a husband. The bar was where she found trouble.
I mistakenly thought everyone knew that. And occasionally, after a night at the bar and some clumsy, misplaced passion with a young lady, she would forget where we met. She would try to change this obviously flawed man she met, with disastrous results.
This song is about the disastrous results.
Back home where I grew up you would find your share of charming, hard-working ladies employed as strippers who clothed, fed, and housed their decent, yet unemployed, husbands.
The reason for this was simple. In bad economic times, the local refinery jobs would come and go. But the exotic dancing industry was always rock solid.
So, inevitably, you’d have this situation crop up, where the woman was the only one bringing home any money.
You’d often see the “older stripper with unemployed husband” sit at some of the more established beer joints in the area. And a beer joint was a bit different from a bar. Where I came from, a “bar” was an establishment where people would get together, mainly at nights and on weekends, to enjoy a few drinks, hear a band play, or maybe play some pool or foosball.
A “beer joint” was something much different. A beer joint was where career alcoholics would be at ten o’clock in the morning, often at their regular table, with their regular crowd, and drink until closing time. It was also where people from more normal walks of life would bring people they don’t want to be seen with in public. Cajun, hardcore country, and blue-eyed soul music would dominate the jukeboxes in Southeast Texas beer joints.
And I wanted the musical arrangement for this song to have the feel of sitting in one of those old beer joints somewhere in Texas Cajun Country, circa 1979 or so.
This song is about someone who’s sick and tired of having the lovesick blues and wants to snap out of it. He wants to take charge of his own life again, to jump off of that black train he’s on. So maybe this is an “anti-blues” song.
I had recorded this song before, as a demo while in the roots-rock band Amos Moses in the late nineties. That track was more high-tempo and college rock-sounding, with hard jangly guitars, kind of early-REMish.
I like this arrangement better, with the train-like cadence to the drum and tambourine tracks, and the accordion and keyboard parts giving it sort of an atmospheric, road-song feel.
HEAVEN INTO HELL—
I try to get my ideas for songs and hook lines anywhere they may crop up. Sometimes I’ll hear or read something interesting and adapt it into a song idea. And that song idea’s often totally unrelated to the source of the line.
That’s what happened with this song. One night I was watching a comedy show on TV and a grandmotherly-type character said something like, “He’s done gone from Heaven down to Hell.”
The Heaven-to-Hell idea struck me as provocative, so within a few minutes I had my hook, “Heaven Into Hell.” I was in kind of a bluegrass mood that night, so I wanted something that moved like a hillbilly song.
Once I settled on the theme and the general musical feel, I set out to write a story of someone who plunges from moral stability to depravity rather quickly. So I came up with the idea of an unhappily stable married man who cavorts with a prostitute in front of a church. I wanted the lyrics to be very vivid and lively, to fit in with the theme and the melody. No subtlety or nuance, since the topic of the song certainly wasn’t subtle or nuanced.
I believe I wrote this song all in one night, which is very rare for me. I love David Grissom’s electric lead on this track.
It’s one of my favorite songs on the album.
When I’m writing a country song, one of my goals is to write something you might have heard on the TV show “Hee Haw” if not for the dirty words.
This song was about a time in my life when I had to leave my hometown for law school in Austin. At the time I was pretty serious with a woman and for several reasons, we both knew this change in my life would probably lead to us splitting up. This song’s loosely about that. “Capitol Hall” was another way of saying Austin.
We decided to present this as more of a rock arrangement. Again, I can’t say enough about David Grissom’s lead guitar, and Michael Ramos on keys just really makes this song work.
ROAD TO NEW ORLEANS—
Road to New Orleans is about running away from betrayal, back to the womb of the Big Easy.
This song came about in a very unconventional way. Normally when I write a song, the hook line or song title comes about very early in the process, and forms the basis of just about everything else. But with Road to New Orleans, I had to let everything breathe for a few months, after I had written the melody and some of the verse lines, before the hook line came to me. And then when the idea of “Road to New Orleans” came, it felt so natural to the song that I couldn’t believe I hadn’t thought of it right away.
This song has a bit of a back story. Before I recorded my album, “Just A Man”, my father was very sick and on the verge of dying from a respiratory illness. When he had gotten real bad and near the end, I was alone with him, in his intensive care room at a local hospital one day. He had slipped into a coma so we couldn’t communicate, but I wanted to make him feel better, and to know I was there with him. So I held his hand and began to sing to him. He always loved my song, “Road to New Orleans,” so I began to sing that.
Before I’d finished the song, a nurse poked her head in through the crack in the slightly opened door. I asked her if I was making too much noise. She said no, and in fact she was wondering if it was okay if she opened the door a bit while I sang. Some other nurses, who had all been so nice to my dad, wanted to listen for a bit.
So we opened the door and I sang the song again. It was a really surreal experience for me, seeing those nurses, some with tears running down their faces, and the rays of sun coming in through the windows. It felt pretty overwhelming, like I was dreaming or something.
After the nurses went about their business, I didn’t know what else to tell my dad, so I closed the door and just sang that same song to him over and over, must’ve been ten times or so.
My dad died a few days later. That song means a whole lot more to me than the words you hear when you listen to it.
I told that story to my producer Michael Ramos before we began work on the album, and I told him that on this track I wanted to capture that kind of sparse, atmospheric feel that was in the room that day.
And I think we did that. Every time I hear or play that song I think of that day, and that room.
DRY CREEK CAFE—
In the late eighties and early nineties, while I was a student at the University of Texas Law School, I was an “occasional regular” at this old country bar called the Dry Creek Café. It was on the side of Mount Bonnell, near one of the highest altitude points in Austin. There was an old couple in their seventies or eighties who owned and ran the place, and they ran a tight ship. The scenery was spectacular, but the bar itself was a real dump, which actually gave it most of its charm. The owners were always getting lucrative offers to sell their property, but they refused because that bar was their life.
This was at a point in Austin’s development where the last old hippie/redneck places were finally infiltrated by the yuppie class. Once the yuppies found out about the place, they came and mixed with the hippies and rednecks, and for a few years during that time, you could walk into that place and see things you just couldn’t see anywhere else. The mixing of the very different cultures made for some great people watching.
The Dry Creek Café’s closed now, but the building’s still out there. Whenever I’m in the area I try to drive by it. It was my church for a while there.
KILL ME AGAIN—
When I was single, I was hanging out at my apartment one Saturday night, and I had planned on a real manly night of sports viewing. Sometimes a man just wants to hang out on his recliner and drink a beer and watch a sporting event, by himself, with no distractions.
There was an important Houston Rockets basketball game on that night, and I was ready for it. I had a cooler with a six-pack of beer, a few sandwiches and chips with dip, television remote controls, everything I needed, all precariously perched on TV trays and the arm of my recliner.
I was in Man Heaven.
Suddenly, a small tree roach ran across my arm. As I reached over to slap it with my hand, I spilled my beer, dropping my sandwich, chips, dip and everything else in the process.
I was furious. As I looked at the dead roach, I muttered to myself, and to the roach, “Dangit, I wish I could kill you again.”
And then it hit me. The idea of “killing you again” was something I could build a hook out of. And at the time I was thinking of writing a really dirty beer joint song, and this hook idea seemed to fit the bill nicely.
So I wrote lyrics about a man encountering a dishonest lover from his past at a bar, and knowing from the drunken look on her face that she’d be up for breaking his heart again, or “killing him again,” at least until she sobered up.
This song was specifically written with the country legend George Jones in mind. George’s older sister Helen, who’s a very sweet, dear lady who basically raised him, is a family friend. Through Helen my parents met George, and he was really good to my father in his last years. I had been wanting to write a real honky-tonk song that would make him proud.
Helen’s had some health problems this year, but I’m planning on driving her and my mom to Tennessee this summer, to thank George for being so gracious to my dad and to finally hear what he thinks about this song.
In the mid-nineties, a record company based in Los Angeles arranged a dinner meeting with my songwriting partner Robert Frith and myself in Beaumont, before a showcase Robert and his band was playing for them.
Robert had just recorded an album that was making some noise back home. They said some really flattering things about both of us, proposed a lot, and promised us the moon. It all turned out to be a mirage of sorts.
Robert and I wrote this together, and I wrote the lyrics as an embellished version of our story. It’s the story of an artist who has an opportunity to move to California, and the fallout it brings to his relationship.
I like the sort of Southwestern feel of the arrangement on this one.
In 1999, I was betrayed by a person really close to me. I wrote this song about it. I purposely re-tooled the story in the song to be about a lover’s betrayal, to keep the real story secret.
I wanted a real stark, minimalist arrangement on this one.