Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Another Lost Gem: Don Varner's He Kept On Talking

More and more excuses, so I figured I post a recent show that starts with a great track from Don Varner. I was reminded of this track from the yahoo southern soul chat list email, and as it turns out, it's only from that group that Don Varner was rediscovered in 2000.

All the information I have on Don Varner comes from David Cole in the liner notes to the excellent CD reissue of Don Varner's recordings, Finally Got Over: Deep Soul From the Classic Era (Shout!), which he took from a longer article in his excellent In the Basement Magazine. There's no need to recount all that here (go pick up a copy of the cd), just in short to say, Don Varner bounced around a few of the more obscure 45 labels in the South in the late 1960s and early 1970s (Downbeat, South Camp, Quinvy, House of Orange), did almost all of his recordings with Eddie Hinton at Quin Ivy's studio in Muscle Shoals, and just generally, seemed to be a great guy with a warm heart and an incredibly stark raspy, baritone voice. As I said, pick up the CD and check out the wealth of great tracks, from the Northern Soul favorite, "Tearstained Face," a great country soul swinger, "Down in Texas", a couple of Dan Penn gems, and some self-penned shakers like the title track. Even some of the cliched parts of the recordings, like the 60s tremloed guitar or the hip shaking, are overshadowed by the edge of his voice.

The track here, "He Kept On Talking," never got released in its day. According to Don (as interviewed by David Cole), "I thought that was the one. Everybody else thought that was the one, but it just didn't happen, it didn't even get a release." Quin Ivy prodcued the track himself, and it's written by another member of that southern soul mailing list, Jerry Williams, aka Swamp Dogg. It definitely has that commercial appeal with the arrangements and doesn't have the edge of the Eddie Hinton produced tracks. That's not the appeal the song has for me: it's the downward spiral that Don Varner takes from the lyrics.

I admit that I have a soft spot for the narrative song, especially when its initial emotion is revealed and subtly shifted during the telling, and this is one of those that sticks in the throat just right. The kind of songs that are country strong: Looking back and wanting everything to change, allowing the anger to swell, then consigning yourself to the harsh end. The first song that came to mind was "Mansion on the Hill," but after thinking about it I realized I could name about 15 Hank Williams songs that word. Although the performance reminds me more of the young, vulnerbale Johnny Paycheck ("Apartment #9" or "The Late and Great Me").

Don's got it all over too: the innocence; trembling shock as he soars over all the bridges, "We were just talkin' . . .", "So go on with him . . .", "I'll just swallow my pride . . ."; a waver as he tries to hold himself together even after the fact "I kept on smiling and turned my head / 'cause a man ain't supposed to cry." Finishing it all off with the brutality of the last line:

"But the memory of you face
Is gonna be hard to erase
'cause everytime I come see my children
I'll see you.

I'll see your face, baby."

It doesn't get any harder than that.

Don Varner passed away in 2002, but his wife keeps his legacy alive. It was a post to the southern soul email list in 2000 by Mrs. Francine Varner that led to David Cole's contacting Don and the reissue cd, so go out and grab a copy. David Cole also has a new issue of In The Basement out, which I haven't gotten a chance to get my hands on yet, but I have no doubt to its depth and quality.

The song appears not only on the Shout! reissue, but also on Down & Out: The Sad Soul of the Black South, a real solid southern soul compilation put out in Germany by the Trinkont label.

Well, here's the playlist:

Linda Rondstadt; The Dark End of the Street

Don Varner; He Kept On Talking; Finally Got Over! (Shout!)
Sam Baker; Sometimes You Have to Cry; SS7 2550
Major Smith; Paying With My Own Tears; Lewis 2807
Solomon Burke; These Arms of Mine; Proud Mary (Atlantic)
Mighty Sam McClain; Silent Tears; Amy

Eddie Giles; So Deep In Love; Silver Fox 9
Clarnce Carter; Too Weak To Fight; This Is; Atlantic
Bill Brandon; Full Grown Loving Man; On Rainbow Road (Soulscape)
Roy Head; She's About a Mover; Introduction to (Fuel)
Sam & Dave; You Left the Running; (Atlantic Unearthed)

Ella Brown; A Woman Left Lonely; Lanor 566
Joe Simon; Further On Down the Road; SS7
Arthur Alexander; Call Me Honey; The Momument Years (Kent)
Kinky Friedman; Sold America (live); Lasson From El Paso
Joe Tex; I'll Never Do You Wrong; Soul Country; Atlantic
Merle Haggard; My Past Is Present; Sing Me Back Home; Capitol

Johnnie Allen; I'll Never Love Again; Promised Land (Kent)
Touissant McCall; I'll Do It For You; Ronn 10 (West Side)
Lattimore Brown; I Wish I Felt This Way At Home; Renegade 101
George Jones; Heartaches By The Number; Mercury Recordings

Don Covay; Just Because; Mercy; Atlantic
Van Broussard; Tell Me the Truth; Van and Grace (Jin)
Johnny Truitt; There Goes the Girl (alt); Excello
Roscoe Shelton; I Can Cry If I Want To; AIM
Bobby Charles; Your Picture; Chess Masters

The Ovations; You Had Your Choice; Goldxaw Recordings (Kent)
Johnson, Hawkins, Tatum & Dunn; You Can't Blamc Me; CapSoul 22 (Numero Uno)
Impressions; You Want Somebody Else; This Is My Country; Curtom

And don't forget to vote next week.

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