Last year I was invited to a songwriter’s retreat… well, actually I was sort of hired, along with four or five other songwriters to mentor and encourage aspiring songwriters. There were about sixty or sixty-five attendees, and we met at a beautiful retreat in upper Michigan. Perhaps, I should voice the reasons I approached gig with certain trepidations. I had just gone through a long period of “writer’s block”… in fact, after Mary’s death, I had gone almost three years without writing anything. I kept telling myself that maybe we could check out that old cliche… “them that can… do, them that can’t… teach”. In my defense, I had taught at other songwriting gatherings and found that even if I didn’t write, I could offer some fairly cogent ideas for approaching the daunting task of making yourself vulnerable and of exposing all your insecurities in a song.
What I didn’t know about this particular retreat was that everyone there… faculty included, was supposed to write a song in the three or four days we were there. Not only write a song, but to perform it publicly for all the others to hear and appreciate. (And here are those insecurities… maybe NOT appreciate).
I will say this….John Lamb, who was the director and moving force behind the retreat did his homework. He had a rather long and detailed suggestion sheet for everyone there… he found out where each person was from, something about the history of their area, or some other interesting fact and actually gave each aspiring songwriter some tangible thing to go to if they ended up not knowing what to write about. I could see, especially for beginning songwriters, how that could be extremely helpful.
He gave each person their own particular sheet and an assignment to write a song based on their town, or state, or what not. He had some rather specific criteria that were intended to keep us connected to the task at hand. For instance, any colloquialisms or customs that were part of the everyday fabric of our particular areas. He also had very detailed suggestions of where the song could go if you ran into a blank wall and didn’t know where to turn. I could clearly see how his process could be extremely helpful to aspiring songwriters. Unfortunately, not for me.
I’ve always known that I write differently from most songwriters… most writers get an idea for a song and sort of write a poem about it, (sometimes, simultaneously writing a melody… sometimes adding the melody later), so it comes out as a fairly well connected whole. With me… melody comes ages before the lyrics. I can have a melody in my head for a long time before I figure out what it’s about, and the problem with that is that now I’m locked into the melody and the number of syllables in a phrase, so now I’m forced to find words that fit EXACTLY into those confines. Not the best way to write. Also… I don’t write quickly. Elephants have babies faster than I write songs. So the idea of writing a song in a finite period of time was terrifying to me. All of the wonderful guideposts that John Lamb gave everybody to keep us on the problem at hand worked against me and just… well… paralyzed me.
On the final night of the retreat, we all gathered and performed the songs each one of us had written. Everyone wrote a song…. some were fantastic. I mean, standing ovation fantastic. And all of them were quite good and affirmed that John Lamb was onto something. That most of us could write a really good song with some guidance and the desire to do it.
Well…. ALL of us didn’t write a song… I ended up with one and a half lines. It was embarrassing. I just couldn’t do it… everything worked against me. All the information John gave, which was so helpful to others, just stopped me dead in my tracks. I left the retreat vowing never to attempt to write a song again.
You see, John had found out I was from a small town in New Mexico… Portales, and that we grew peanuts there. “Portales, New Mexico: Peanut Basin of the Nation”. What he didn’t know that some damn visiting professor from Dallas, in his inimitable wit and wisdom had dubbed us “Goober Gulch” and the nickname had stuck, so I had grown up cringing at the name… he also wanted the song to be a “slice of small town life”.. a love story…. he wanted me to work a holiday into the song… and something about the financial circumstance of our hero…. anyway, it was just too much stuff… so all I wrote was..”You ain’t got no money… your Visa was declined”… I didn’t get a standing ovation.
I came home and four months later finally wrote the song… John Lamb was threatening to put the word out that I didn’t live up to my obligations if I didn’t.
Click below if you’d like to hear it….
- Portales Ronny Cox 4:24
I love New Orleans… it’s one of the great cities of the world, in my opinion. The food is good, the music is great and there is an energy and excitement there that is palpable. It’s the only city I know of where the cab drivers know who is cooking where, and the coolest places to have a drink, or listen to music or to just hang out. By the way, low fat cooking there is when they only use one stick of butter. I have the Jones for Mr. B’s barbeque shrimp constantly.
In the early 90′s, I was there shooting a pilot for a TV show… we got to spend over 4 weeks there… to tell you the truth, Mary and I weren’t really too anxious to get home.
It was kind of an exciting time for me.. the pilot was my first foray back into the world of acting after taking an almost 2 year sabbatical. I guess, I should explain that… I had done a TV series called CopRock that I really loved and I realized how much I missed the music in my life. My son, John, had just left home for college and I didn’t have anyone to play music with… so, I turned down all acting work for almost two years, and since I didn’t know where the folk music community was, I went to Nashville and managed to get a record deal. Harold Shedd signed me to the Mercury Nashville label… ha ha, I should point out that he signed 4 of us new artists at the same time… Shania Twain, Toby Keith… Billy Ray Cyrus and me. As you know, they all went on to Country Music stardom and I went back to acting… and eventually found my brothers and sisters at the Kerrville Folk Festival.
Anyway, while I was in New Orleans, my Murcury Nashville record had just been released and I was soooo proud and full of myself… I had a cassette of my album and people could actually listen to it on the radio. Not that people were, mind you, but they COULD. A fellow cast member in the TV show we were doing was originally from New Orleans and his parents still lived there, and they loaned him their car for him to drive around while he was in town. We used to go out and sit in his car and put my tape in the player and I could pretend that we, along with gazillions of others, were listening on the radio. Pretty heady stuff!!
Well, one night he parked it in, I suppose, not the best section of The Quarter and when we came out the next morning the thieves had broken the windows of his car and had ransacked it and had taken everything. Well… not everything… they had left my cassette. Even the damn thieves are critics!! I can just see them now… taking my cassette out of the tape deck… looking at it….”Hmmm, Ronny Cox…. I don’t think so!!”
Anyway, I got a song out of the whole deal. I wrote this song with two of my favorite guys…. Tony Haselden and Jimmy Stewart…
- In New Orleans Ronny Cox 3:21
I have been a life-long “lefty” politically, so my evolution in relation to the NRA, has come as a revelation. I suppose I fell into viewing members of the NRA as stereotypes… even though my brother was an ardent member, as were most of the people I grew up with in New Mexico. It always seemed as if there was almost a knee-jerk reaction to a suggestion that registration, or background checks or any intrusion on their “rights” guaranteed by the 2nd Amendment, was an affront, not to be tolerated. I never understood why, if you have to prove you were capable of driving a car, or to show you were conversant with the laws and safe driving habits, why you shouldn’t go through the same process with gun ownership. Sadly, I viewed the membership as a monolithic whole, rather than folks as diverse as any other segment of our population.
A couple of years ago, I was offered a gig… a concert with my band, playing for the NRA at the big annual Labor Day Weekend retreat on the thousands of acres they have just outside of Raton, NM. I took the job with no small amount of trepidation, but it was in my native state… was a good paying gig… and I was touring the state anyway.
When we arrived, we were practically suicidal… had to “permitted” into the vast compound by the guard at the gate. Everyone, and I mean everyone, was armed and fully loaded. We were shown to the concert venue… a low quonset hut that was only about a hundred feet wide, but must have been a couple of football fields long… room for two picnic tables across and God knows how many deep. It was so far to the back of the room, they had to put extra speakers halfway down the room so people in the back could hear. By the way, it was right next to the shooting range and the pop, pop, boom of gunfire echoed all around us during sound check. Between the stage and the audience there was at least 50 feet of gun displays and other NRA materials, so that it felt as if there was a moat between us and the audience… not exactly the ideal situation for my show, in which I tell stories and try for as much intimacy as possible.
Before the show, the woman who booked us, gave me a briefing…. apparently, the year before, they had had a rather big country star from New Mexico… when I heard who it was, I was even more trepidatious about my show. He was a BIG star, and it had not gone very well. She said for us to play only one set and for it not to be longer than 35 or 40 minutes… for us not to be surprised if they started leaving halfway through the show… not to expect an encore… that they wouldn’t buy CDs. To make a long story, short… we played two hours… several encores… sold lots of CDs and they stood around and visited with us after the show… they also hired us on the spot, to play the show the following year. Rad… my piano/accordion player, had an epiphany…. he said…”Ronny, you could run for president, as a REPUBLICAN”!!!
Here’s what I discovered about those folks… and about myself. We’re all grandparents… or brothers and sisters and parents … we all want what’s best for our country and for our neighbors. The vast majority of those folks …. as opposed to Wayne Lapierre and the gun manufacturers… know our 2nd Amendment rights are not threatened by background checks, or by limiting the number of bullets you can have in an ammo clip or by restricting assault weapons…. they get it!!! That’s not to say, there aren’t crazies in the NRA… there are. But the vast majority of them are decent, law abiding, reasonable people.
I recorded a song, written by my son John. We recorded it in 2000… wow, 13 years ago. I happen to know that John’s political views are pretty much identical to mine. He wrote this song from the point of view of some of the more vociferous proponents of the NRA’s unyielding view that any law concerning guns is an affront to their rights. What I love about this song is that certain people recognize the satire in the song and others see it as the righteous truth… ha ha… it’s one of the few songs we play where people on both ends of the political spectrum, nod their head in agreement.
If you’d like to hear the song… click below.
- Judgement Day Ronny Cox 5:12
I love words… imagine that, a songwriter who loves words. Having grown up in New Mexico I’ve also had a life-long admiration of the Navajo culture, and I found a Navajo word that just knocks me out. The word is hozh’q… I know, I know… it looks like a cat stepped on a computer. It is pronounced (phonetically) hoe-shk with the accent on the first syllable.
Hozh’q, is in many ways a road map of how we should live our lives… you see, in the Navajo culture, wealth and possessions mean nothing. They don’t care how much “stuff” you got, what matters is how you live your life… a fully conscious and participatory life. What matters is how many times you’ve kissed your granddaughter… how many times you’ve stayed up all night to watch the sun rise.. or spent the day watching cloud formations, or saw a coyote in the wild… embracing every moment of life.. taking everything in. So often… days, weeks, or even months go by and we just slide by with them and we miss out on so much!!! Hozh’q reminds us not to do that.
When I was writing this song with my dear friend Wendy Waldman, we decided to put a spoken section in the middle of the song. They’re just ideas I had that I thought would enrich my life. And I would love it if people hearing the song were moved by them, but then I realized something even better, perhaps. The listener could substitute the things which would mean something in his of her life.
As always… I’m including a stream of the song… if you’ll just click below, you can hear it.
- Hozh'q Ronny Cox 4:44
I love smart and smarty-alecky women. I know, I know.. they can be a challenge, I was married to one for lots of years. I think most men are intimidated by being around really intelligent women… thus the need to celebrate their boorish bubba-isms. My wife, Mary, was the smartest person I have ever known… now, mind you, I’m no slouch, most people think I’m pretty damn sharp, but I couldn’t hold a candle to Mary. So… couple that intelligence with a smarty-alecky wit and you have a whole bunch of stuff to deal with. Plus, anyone who is aware of my relationship with my granddaughter Catherine… knows that even though Mary isn’t here any more that I still have my hands full with a smart and smarty-alecky young woman.
Several years ago, I was writing a song and my idea was that this guy who didn’t have a clue had finally ripped it with his woman and she had left him. My plan was to write a song based on an old jazz/blues bass pattern… sort of a throwback to the tunes the big bands were doing in the 30′s and 40′s. I even had a title picked out. It was going to be… “Since My Baby Walked Out On Me”, and it was gonna be so cool, jazzy, bluesy and sophisticated. I didn’t exactly know how I was gonna pull off trying to write a big band jazz type tune… but what the hell? I worked on it for several months…. part of the problem was that I knew what I wanted it to sound like, but since I’m a really limited guitar player, I didn’t have the vaguest notion of the names of the chords I was hearing in my head, much less how to play them. So…. I spent a fair amount of time painstakingly finding ways to place my fingers on the strings so it sounded like what I was hearing in my head. Just humming a tune and playing my….(mystery chords) and only kinda knowing what I wanted the song to be about.
As you all know, I’m a film buff and one night I was watching an old movie on TV, and one of my favorite actors, Walter Brennan said a word that stopped me cold. He said…”Dadgummit”… it just kept reverberating in my head and I thought…. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard dadgummit in a song. Immediately I thought of the song I was working on…. jazzy, bluesy… ha ha the antithesis of dadgummit and I knew I had to try to work it into the song. It was perfect for the clueless guy I was writing about. And then a week or so later I was watching another movie and heard Cary Grant say: “peaches and cream”, and I vowed to work it into the song as well. The title “Since My Baby Walked Out on Me” is now long gone… the song is called “Dadgummit”… don’t know why anyone would call it anything else.
The final irony is that there’s a scat section in the middle of the tune… I always intended to do the scatting myself, but I’ve been playing with Karen Mal for several years… I love her, she’s like a daughter to me and since the song celebrates a smart and smarty-alecky woman… (and she is certainly that), it seems only right for her to do the scatting.
****NOTE Click on Dadgummit… below to listen to the song.
- Dadgummit Ronny Cox 2:51
I live in the San Fernando Valley in California… Sherman Oaks. Basically one of the ordinary suburbs of Los Angeles. One day I was in my yard doing some chores and I noticed a lady on the sidewalk in front of my house. She must’ve been in her mid-eighties and she was very primly dressed… little hat, white gloves, pocketbook over her wrist, lace collar on her ancient dress. She was standing near a sign and would occasionally peer down the street. I’m pretty sure she thought she was standing at a bus stop. The top of the sign she was clinging to was obscured by leaves and branches from a nearby tree, but I happen to know the sign says…. “No Standing Here”. She was becoming more and more agitated as the morning traffic trickled by, so I walked out to the fence and asked if I could be of help. She turned to me and smiled and said…”Yes, young man…. (I love it when they call ME young man)… yes… is this where I catch the bus to Baltimore?” I think she thought Baltimore was just a couple of stops down the road. I really didn’t have a clue as to how to deal with her… as I was about to ask if I could perhaps take her somewhere of call someone… a younger woman approached us and said… “Mama… I’ve been looking all over for you”. The younger woman apologized if her mother had bothered me… I assured her that she had not and asked if I could do anything… She said, “No… now come on Mama, let’s go home.
If you’d like to hear the song, just click below:
- Bus To Baltimore Ronny Cox 4:12
I can pinpoint the day I wanted to become an actor… not the actual date, mind you, or the year… but the day. We were living in Roswell, New Mexico… (yeah, Roswell, New Mexico in the 40′s..((aliens))… my dad was actually working at Walker Air Force Base at the time, which might explain more about me than you know… but that’s another story). Anyway, back to acting… when I was a kid I loved Westerns and every Saturday afternoon, if I could scrape together a dime I could go see Gene or Roy or Johnny Mack Brown… or Hopalong. The day in question I went to see a movie called The Treasure of Sierra Madre…. so different from the other movies I had seen. When it got to be dark and I still hadn’t come, my parents finally thought to look in the theater for me… and there I was, sitting mesmerized. From that moment on, I knew I wanted to be an actor. Now, you’d think I would’ve become a fan of Humphrey Bogart or Tim Holt or Walter Huston… but for some reason I became a fan of John Huston and from then on immersed myself in every movie he had anything to do with… either as a writer or director or actor. Late in his life, I actually got to meet him and become friends and to play poker with him. John loved poker… he thought you could learn more about the character of a man by playing poker with him than any other way. He loved everything about it, the rituals, the banter … he was a gracious loser and a generous winner.
This was the final year of John’s life.. he was on oxygen and we would go over to his house in the afternoon and play poker for a couple of hours and then he would have a meal brought in for us and we’d eat and shoot the bull and then play for another hour or so, until he got tired. We had some of the most wonderful conversations of my life. For some reason John and I were always drawn to each other… he was the most vital and engaged and engaging man I had ever known. He would ask everyone…. “What do you want?”…. and he wanted an answer, not some wisecrack like younger women or faster horses… he wanted to know! Now, this is a man who was dying… so at some point, someone asked John what he wanted… and he said what I think was a profound thing…. “To be interested”. Not interesting, but interested and it reminded me that when my mom was dying she lost interest long before she died.
When John died… and we all knew he was dying… it hit me like a ton of bricks… it hit me in a way I wasn’t prepared for. My own father and I had had a stormy relationship and he had died before we had really patched things up between us… and everybody realized before I did that John was a sort of surrogate father figure for me. I mourned for John for almost a year and it allowed me to get in touch with the feelings for my own father.
The very night John died was an amazing thing and one which eventually I felt compelled to write a song about. John loved songs of the Mexican Revolution… so at the wake they were playing the corridos. John was in his bedroom with Maracella by his side… drifting in and out of consciousness. At one point he opened his eyes and said to Maracella… “Do we have enough rifles?”…. she said, “Yes John, we have plenty of rifles.” He drifted off…. after a few minutes, he stirred again… “Do we have enough bullets?” “Yes, John,we have lots of bullets.” He drifted off… Finally he opened his eyes and found Maracella’s hand and held it up and said…. “Then give ‘em Hell.” And he died.
When I was writing the song with Don Schlitz, I wanted to put a few bars of a corrido at the beginning of the song… but then I remembered an old Mexican folk song about a village that was so poor they only had one burro for the whole town and when the burro died they gave it a funeral… so I decided to put that song at the beginning… knowing John would love being associated with a funeral song for a Jackass!!!
*** NOTE….. I have put two versions of the song on here… the first one is the full band overproduced version, but it has “El Burro” on at the beginning… the 2nd one (my favorite) is a simpler version, which I like better…. if you click on either, or both of the titles, below, you can listen to the songs.
Ah… the life of a folksinger.. I don’t act much any more, but occasionally something comes along that appeals to me. Recently, I was sent a script for a “big” Hollywood movie… big name director, lot’s of major actors… well written, and the role they were interested in me for was perfect, an important but small role… would only work for four days. I met with them and they offered me the job. We checked their shooting schedule and it fell perfectly into my schedule and did not conflict with any of my gigs. Wardrobe fittings were arranged… (my character is an extremely wealthy guy and I’m kinda hard to fit, so…) they had a tailor come in and they arranged to have my shirts for the role custom made. Holy crap… I’m gonna look like a million bucks!!
Now… cut to the chase… yesterday I got a frantic call from my manager saying they had changed the shooting schedule and that now the days I’m scheduled to work on the movie happen to fall when I’m performing at Kerrville and in Houston. They’re saying I have to cancel my gigs… I refuse… their solution is to offer me more money… I refuse… they heatedly ask: “How much are they paying you?” I say, “I’ve probably got more money in my pocket.” …… I’m back to being a folksinger.