Old dogs care about you even when you make mistakes; God bless little children while they’re still too young to hate. When he moved away I found my pen and copied down that line ’bout old dogs and children and watermelon wine.
I want to preface this article by stating that making the charts (or number one) doesn’t automatically suggest it’s a great tune. Chart history is littered with fantastic songs not charting and others that are not, that do. A classic example is Daddy Cool’s Eagle Rock being knocked off top spot in 1971 by Drummond’s dreadful chipmunk version of Daddy Cool (the song). Daddy Cool (the band) already had a superior version recorded on their debut album ‘Daddy Who Daddy Cool’. Go figure. Many factors influence sales – DJ’s providing airplay, radio station politics, punter’s poor choices (in my humble opinion) and the amount of money splashed by record companies in promotion. I’m not into using tautophrases, but I will in this circumstance as it requires double emphasis, “A good song is a good song”. While I’m banging on here, another bug bear of mine is the degrading term, ‘one hit wonders’! Many of these so called ‘one hit wonders’ have a fine back catalogue of tunes and wouldn’t it be grand to have one big hit than none at all.
In November 1973 a bloody good country song, (Old Dogs – Children And) Watermelon Wine by Tom T Hall was placed on high rotation by Melbourne radio station 3XY and managed to find its way to number one, where it remained for the month of November. On the National charts the tune peaked at twenty-one on the 3rd November. The tune managed to keep out the popular I Remember When I Was Young by Matt Taylor who was making a return to the music scene as a solo artist. Matt had a number one on the 3XY charts back in 1971 with his band ‘Chain’. Black and Blue had the honour of being the only blues tune to achieve this distinction.
The significance of Tom T Hall’s narrative ditty (Old Dogs – Children And) Watermelon Wine topping the charts cannot be overstated and not too many country tunes ever reached the pinnacle of local radio Top 40. Janis Joplin succeeded nationally in 1971 with Me and Bobby McGee. Tom entered the National ‘Go Set’ charts back in October 1972 (for only one week) with a single not released in the States titled Pamela Brown. I wondered why, perhaps it was paving the way for Watermelon Wine in the Australian marketplace.
I shot off an email to multi Grammy award winning Nashville musician Gordon Kennedy in hope that he could be the conduit to enquire if his father Jerry Kennedy (producer) could recall the reason.
Jerry replied, “I loved that record. Dermot Hoy with Phillips or Polygram Australia, made that call he was there from late ‘60s to the early ‘80s. He would’ve known the market better there and had input on what to single.” Gordon added, “That’s my father playing the signature guitar lick on “Pamela Brown”.
I managed to locate Dermot Hoy working under the pseudonym of Bryan Vaughan for internet radio station Scotland69am. In the mid sixties Dermot used this moniker when he was a disc jockey on British pirate radio ships. Dermot confirmed his input with the Pamela Brown single stating, “I worked for PolyGram for many years and was responsible at one stage for the Mercury label on which Tom T. Hall recorded.”
Dermot continued, “I was lucky enough to meet Jerry Kennedy during my trips to Nashville during the seventies. I was honoured to attend one of Mercury’s recording sessions learning how an arrangement was created by a select group of session musos when played a cassette of a new song simply performed by the songwriter.
From what I recall (1972 is a long way back!) ‘Pamela Brown’ was the B side of the US single ‘The Monkey That Became President’. I think that I might have flipped sides when releasing in Australia. I believe legendary Sydney disc jockey John Laws originally played ‘Pamela Brown’ as a track from the ‘We All Got Together And…’ or from the imported US single. Feedback prompted me to alter the release – anyway I would like to claim the credit**! ‘Pamela Brown’ made the Radio 2UE Top 40 in August 1972 and stayed 12 weeks with a highest place No.27.
As a matter of interest, I mentioned this Aussie success to Tom T. when he visited Australia in the seventies and his band had to learn the arrangement for ‘Pamela Brown’ as it was not in their touring book because ‘Pamela Brown’ was not a hit elsewhere.”
From my research the only flip side to The Monkey That Became President that I could locate was She Gave Her Heart To Jethro. Tom released two albums in the US in 1972, ‘We All Got Together And..’ followed by ‘The Storyteller’. Two singles were released from We All Get Together, Me And Jesus and The Monkey That Became President (no Pamela Brown) and from ‘The Storyteller’, More About John Henry, which proceeded (Old Dogs – Children And) Watermelon Wine.
Watermelon Wine has a cracker signature harmonica riff from Charlie McCoy on a ‘Bb’ harp and he even takes it to another level on Frankie Laine’s version with a ‘C’ harmonica. I’m sure my Mum would agree, but not because of Charlie’s harp. Growing up our turntable featured Frankie’s records (and Dad’s Brass Band vinyl). I contacted Charlie and asked him how the riff developed and on his long association with Tom T.
“Hi Shep, The intro and turn around came about as many Nashville session players were required to do. “Play me an intro,,,,Now!” I don’t know what I was thinking. By then, I had more than 10 years studio work under my belt and I was very comfortable taking intros, solo and whatever. Tom T. Hall was a great writer, artist and friend. He came to my home town for me and joined me in a benefit concert for our town park.”
Producer Jerry Kennedy recalls the recording session, “I remember hearing the song for the first time…the day we recorded it. I knew Tom T. had been in Miami and heard the reference to it in the lyric. As far as the Charlie McCoy part, I remember thinking it would be better than having a dobro or some other instrument play it. Once that was decided, I simply asked Charlie to do it and he did it. I recall one funny bit. As they counted the song off for the first time, Chip Young, who was on acoustic guitar, scratched his strings signaling everyone to stop. I hit the talkback and said “take 2” and they began again, only to have Chip stop them 3 more times. When I asked Chip what was going on, Chip answered “Tom keeps saying “hold on.”” What he had been hearing was Tom speaking the first line of the song “HOW OLD…do you think I am? He said.” An interesting sidelight is Jerry played guitar on Roy Orbison’s Oh, Pretty Woman as does Charlie McCoy, who blew the saxophone.
Tom penned Watermelon Wine on an airline sick bag while returning to Nashville after he had performed at the 1972 Miami Democrat Convention. The 1968 convention held in Chicago had been a public relations disaster for the Democrats when local police clashed with demonstrators. Organisers for the 1972 convention billed Tom T. Hall, George Jones and Tammy Wynette in an attempt to distract the masses and thus keep the peace.
Returning after the show to his hotel bar a cleaner of mature age shared his insights into the three things important in life (it’s all in the title). If your wondering what the ‘T’ stands for in Tom T Hall it’s not Terrific nor is it Town – it is just ‘T’. His producer felt that adding the ‘T’ would help Tom in not being confused with other artists.
Tom T loved touring Australia, he did so on five occasions. On one visit he penned the song I’ll Be With You When The Jacaranda Blooms after waking from slumber on the tour bus (on route to Tamworth) and finding himself surrounded by the Jacaranda’s purple blooms. He also had a penchant for Henry Lawson poems, setting a few of his poems to music. Henry’s meter and poetic structure is the same as Tom’s, so much so he doesn’t have to change a word. The Water Lily (1890) was one such poem.
“Step out on the leaves of the water-lily!”
Two Shep Dawgs – Jazz with our son, Lachlan
Here’s the Watermelon Wine
I’ve added a rendition of Pamela Brown by the late Tabasco Tom Rogerson and with a bit of harp by Steve Williams over on Soundcloud. Here’s my quick take on Charlie’s Watermelon Wine riff.