By Dalton Roberts
Roger Alan Wade wrote me way back in 1994 saying, "Some records are produced just perfect and the songs written right out of the rule book. But it ain't crippled, man, it ain't lumber with the bark still on it. I like to see things you can just taste, things just a little bit crippled. Let's get a jug of wine and hitchhike to Mississippi and sleep in the Old Zion churchyard by Robert Johnson's grave, just off the Dixie Highway. He might have missed a few notes and got a little out of time, but that's what makes it last. It's not like those generic things, those elevator and dentist office things. I don't buy those records. I don't know who buys them. It must be the same people who collect state spoons and thimbles and things."
You don't have to be a great songwriter like Roger to understand what he is saying. Just think of your favorite singers, and you will realize some of them have some rough edges. Like Johnny Cash. He was not smooth. He was soulful. Like Ernest Tubb. His voice would often go flat, but it was still Ernest Tubb, and you could identify his voice a mile away. Some of his songs were absolute masterpieces, like "Waltz Across Texas."
When Willie Nelson first came to Nashville, I went with a fellow songwriter to hear him in a plain old honky-tonk. It was so honky-tonkish, it was a basement place under a pawn shop! As we left my fellow writer said, "That poor guy cannot keep time." I said, "Whether or not he can keep time, if he wrote those songs he will at least be a great songwriter."
Willie does not sing in time. He loves to sing just before the beat or just after, but everyone has gotten so used to him that it doesn't matter. I dreamed he visited me recently and woke up so excited I couldn't go back to sleep. When a man can do that to you, it doesn't matter if he ever hits the beat.
Even Roger Alan beats a guitar until it cries for mercy. When I first heard him I thought, "I wish he would just smoothly stroke his guitar." Then I played lead for him a while and came to love the energy and power in his driving rhythm. Is anything more important to a musician than energy and power? Absolutely not.
This "crippled thing" Roger talks about also shows up in people other than musicians. Like Hubert Burnum, a semi-literate Baptist preacher who slaughtered the King's English. I would read his text to him over and over until he thought he had it memorized, and still he would get it a little twisted. Like when he said Paul was struck down on the road to Nebraska. I would drive 200 miles tonight to hear him preach even if Billy Graham was holding a crusade in my home city. I have nothing against Billy's preaching, but I prefer the rough-as-a-cob originality of Brother Hubert.
You see, Brother Hubert spoke without notes from the bottom of his heart. It was like water from a fresh spring. As Roger said, It was a beautifully crippled thing. The more authentic a thing is, the more rough edges it will have. It seems like some law of the universe.
E-mail Dalton Roberts at DownhomeP@aol.com.