Not long ago, and apropos of absolutely nothing, I received a text from my friend, Greg. There may have been some scotch involved, as there often is with his late-evening non sequiturs. His missive read as follows:
You know how sometimes you’re watching a movie or you’re in a good bar…and you hear a GREAT song that was never a big radio hit or anything like that…but you would definitely recognize the song and know the band…and you instantly say, “Fuck yeah!” And then you think, Shit, I wish I had a long playlist of exactly this kind of music. This is your assignment. Then he waited all of one minute before adding, Standing by.
Well, I do love a good playlist project, and I was off. But first one more check with my impatient associate. Was there any particular song or artist, I wondered, that I could use as some inspiration, a sort of lodestar, for just what he had in mind. “Nah, I can’t really think of anything” he replied, “but it’ll be someone like Ry Cooder when it comes to me.”
The next few days I was brainstorming the concept and some potentially applicable song ideas. Playlist compilation, you see, is a multi-step, intricate operation, and I have had a little experience with the process. I needed tunes that were not obscure, that you’ve probably or definitely heard before, yet not too famous or played-out. But from generally recognizable bands. Deep, album tracks. Yeah. But more importantly, they had to engender that feeling I’d seen manifested countless times with Greg – in concert halls, pubs, or our living rooms – usually accompanied by a rhapsodic shout, a jostled beer, and some spastic, sloppy air guitaring. That “Fuck yeah!” feeling. Logically this would be likeliest to transpire on in-your-face, driving rockers by the likes of, say, George Thorogood, ZZ Top, Los Lobos, and Dire Straits. But at times that visceral reaction could also arrive on a slow burn; the latticed propulsion of Traffic and the tranquilizing chord strums of a Neil Young or Lou Reed tale came to mind. A few suitable selections from Greg-specific favorites were musts, and that list starts with Tom Petty, Sheryl Crow, U2, and the Rolling Stones. And I also felt I had to include a number of slightly quirkier artists, those that might drift off the beaten track to many, but that were foundational to our particular shared, rakish music history: Reverend Horton Heat, whose psychobilly freakouts we’d witnessed together at nearly a dozen shows; the best, most tragically underrated band ever, The Bottle Rockets, for whom we’d once co-executive produced an album (technically, it’s true); and the estimable Barbecue Bob and The Spareribs, who played a triumphant show in my driveway at a block party Greg and I co-hosted.
But before all that, as any even moderately accomplished playlist aggregator could tell you, I needed an opener. A killer tone-setter. A grimy, revved up tune gripping enough to immediately launch Greg (and whatever listeners might someday follow) straight into the Fuck yeah! zone. I started out looking for a Ry Cooder song, based on Greg’s original semi-nod, but oddly enough found that – despite the venerated esteem in which he’s rightfully held among musicians – he kind’ve doesn’t have any. And so instead I chose this one, the positively chooglin’ ‘Mercury Blues’ by David Lindley, a no-shit ditty by a totally different guy that to me sounded more like a Ry Cooder song than anything actually by Ry Cooder.
You may not recognize the name of acclaimed session player David Lindley, but I’m pretty sure you’d recognize the sound of his guitar, perhaps most famously as sideman to Jackson Browne on the album “Running On Empty.”1 That is, if you realize that what you’re used to hearing is even a guitar, and not an electric violin, or some strange hybrid thereof, as I long did. Though you wouldn’t actually be that far off if so, given Lindley’s litany of stringed instrument mastery: guitars and basses of all varieties, as well as banjo, lap steel, mandolin, lute, and at least 10 others enumerated in his bio – from baglama to bouzouki to cittern to zither – that I can’t really be sure he’s not just making up. His proficiency is so vast, in fact, that Guitar Player magazine referred to Lindley not as a multi-instrumentalist but instead as a “maxi-instrumentalist.”2 And yet, with his distinct, string-sliding strains notable on so many records alongside so many artists over so many decades, he could be best-known for something few actually know he did: It is Lindley’s falsetto voice that’s heard in the final refrain of the “Running On Empty” record closer, ‘Stay,’ in full-on Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons-like fashion.
Gratifyingly, my completed 32-song, two-hour playlist (see below) ended up getting a long, detailed, rave review from its task originator, Greg, included in which was his description citing this featured tune, the one that was not only my lead-off track but my absolute first pick for the entire list: “That is the exact song profile that belongs on this list. Even if I actually had never heard it before!” Fuck yeah.
1among literally scores of other appearances, with Browne, Warren Zevon, Linda Ronstadt, Curtis Mayfield, James Taylor, David Crosby, Graham Nash, Dolly Parton, Leonard Cohen, Rod Stewart, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and yes, Ry Cooder.
2Lindley himself admits he has absolutely no idea how many instruments he owns or plays.