"Tobacco Road" / The Nashville Teens
Heard this on Sirius a couple days ago -- one of those moments when a song suddenly jumps into your mental spotlight. Sure, I knew this song – it was a radio staple in the mid-60s. But I realized that I knew absolutely nothing about who recorded it and what was going on in the song.
And when I finally started to Google around, I was surprised. First of all, despite the name, the Nashville Teens were a British band -- from Surrey, in fact, not even gritty Liverpool or Newcastle. Jeez, their American accents were convincing -- much better than most Brit singers. The band itself had a revolving door of band members, none of them big names, and they never had any other big hits, though they were around for 10 years or so; I wouldn't call them one-hit wonders. (They backed up Jerry Lee Lewis at the Star Club in Hamburg, apparently an epically great live performance.) But “Tobacco Road” was – here’s your telling detail – produced by hitmaker Mickie Most, who worked similar magic for the early Animals among other bands. If they only hit gold with this track in 1964, it was no fluke.
They didn’t write the song; it was by John D. Loudermilk, one of Nashville’s most sterling songwriters, who’d released it as a single himself in 1960, to little success. I took a listen to Loudermilk's version, which is slower and more doleful; it mines the song for struggle and sorrow, which you'd think would be the meat of this song about a hardscrabble country Carolina upbringing. ("I was born in a trunk / Mama died and my daddy got drunk...") The Teens, though, speeded it up, added a percussive backbeat and tons of reverb, and came up with a hit. Country? Yeah, the guitars have a little twang to them, and there's those honky-tonk keyboards in the bridge -- but the song it most resembles is The Blues Magoos' "We Ain't Got Nothing Yet." Go figure.
Okay, it ain't "The House of the Rising Sun," though I'll bet that was exactly the sound Most was reaching for. Those hammering electric piano chords are taken straight from the Alan Price playbook (the keyboardist was John Hawken, later to resurface in Renaissance), and there's a similar threatening bass line and bluesy guitar riff as well. According to Gordon Thompson's invaluable book Please Please Me, the guitarist was Jim Sullivan, although Wikipedia claims that Jimmy Page was playing guitar -- which should give any Kinks fan a good laugh, seeing as how Jimmy Page is still trying to take credit for all the early Kinks records too.
The master touch -- the thing that makes this a great single -- is the reverb on those harmonized vocals, which makes them sound extra lonely as the singer recalls his miserable childhood ("left me here to die alone"; "Growin' up, rusty shack / All I had was hangin' on my back") . At the end of every verse, the singers -- Arthur Sharp and Ray Phillips -- sing "In the middle of Tobacco Road" totally a cappella, mournfully drawing out "road" like howling wolves. That fierce two-beat accent that breaks up each line of the verse is a great touch too, channeling all the singer's throbbing resentment and his ambition to break out of poverty. In the last verse, when he declares, "Bring that dynamite and a crane / Blow it up, start over again," it's got all the rebel intensity of "We Gotta Get Out of This Place."
With no songwriters in the band, the Nashville Teens were probably dependent on their producers snagging them good material; later producers like Shel Talmy and Andrew Loog Oldham may not have given them the kind of attention they needed. I listened to some snippets of their other songs and their musical sound was all over the place, which isn't unusual when you've got a bunch of technically skilled musicians with no strong identity. But this track? It still blasts onto the radio with such cheeky energy. You gotta love it.
Tobacco Road video
Tobacco Road sample