Sunday, January 25, 2009

When the Marriage Ends

Category: 50 Songs to Hear

These songs are being posted in alphabetical order by genre, so it's purely coincidental that the current song (John Prine's "Bruised Orange [Chain of Sorrow]") posted on the rock side is also about divorce.

SONG: A Death in the Family
ARTIST: Little Jimmy Dickens
SONGWRITER: Bill Anderson
ALBUM: None, B-side of "Times Are Gonna Get Better"
YEAR/LABEL: 1969, Decca

This is the greatest song you've never heard. The reason you've never heard it is because it was the flip side of a flop record.
(Little Jimmy Dickens)

When Bill Anderson's first marriage ended he, like many songwriters, poured out his pain in a song. Little Jimmy Dickens heard Anderson's heartbreak and recorded it. The bad news is that "A Death in the Family" was, as Dickens said, confined to an obscure B-side. The good news, however, is that this spectacular song about the pain of divorce was recorded. And, thanks to WSM's residential "Deep Catalog" expert/DJ Eddie Stubbs, this may well be the best-known obscure song in country music history.

The song, a great "old days" country song (where everything was accomplished in two and a half minutes), begins with Dickens showing up at a relative's house, alone, with the announcement that there has been a death in the family. "By now you notice Betty's not here with me, and Betty won't be coming tomorrow night," he tells the family. "I said there's been a death in the family: it's Betty's precious love for me that's died." If that is not enough of a sucker punch to the stomach, the chorus throws another: "There's two deaths in the family, Betty's love for me and my poor heart."

Dickens continues with his wonderful ballad voice (there are very few people who can evoke emotion in a lost love song the way Little Jimmy Dickens can) about how everyone will miss her, but to remember that he is suffering the most and needs help so that "I don't lose my mind."

Bill Anderson told Eddie Stubbs that he wrote the song exactly as his life had played out following the end of his first marriage, which included using his ex-wife's name (Betty). Anderson said Dickens was adamant about recording the song after hearing it and Anderson agreed, asking only that Dickens change the woman's name in the song to "anything but Betty." Dickens didn't.

This is a very difficult record to find, but the reward of hearing one of Bill Anderson's best compositions delivered by one of Little Jimmy Dickens' finest performances is more than worth the effort.


"Farewell Party" (available on I'm Little But I'm Loud) -- the song that Gene Watson made his own was first recorded by Dickens as a mid-tempo shuffle. That may sound hard to believe for those who only know Watson's great version, but one listen to Dickens' rendition will make a believer out of you.
"How to Catch an African Skeeter Alive" (from Comes Callin') -- a novelty song that anyone who has survived southern summers with mosquitoes big enough to be seen on radar can enjoy.
"Out Behind the Barn" (from Raisin' the Dickens, different version on Out Behind the Barn) -- the joys of farm life on display in one of Little Jimmy's greatest tunes.
"Kung Pao Buckaroo Holiday" (with Brad Paisley, Bill Anderson, and Vince Gill, from Paisley's Christmas) -- the politically correct crowd gets the treatment they deserve in this riotous number.

Dark as a Dungeon
Bottomless Well

Bruised Orange (Chain of Sorrow)
Baby Mine

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