Texas to Tennessee
BOB CHEEVERS: Americana's Master Storyteller By PHIL SWEETLAND Country music & Radio stringer, The New York Times Bob says, 'I don't know if these stories are true...but they happened to me'. Upon listening to Bob Cheevers' story songs like 'Me And Dan And The Spoonman' or 'The Soul Of Savannah' on his delightful new CD Texas To Tennessee, I'm struck by the fact that this guy shares a similar last name with one of America's great modern short story writers, the late John Cheever. Few folks know the work of John Cheever (1912-82), the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of short stories in which he delineates, in clear, elegant, and frequently lyrical prose, the drama and sadness of life in comfortable suburban America. Bob Cheevers' characters are more rural than John Cheever's suburban ones and the singer-songwriter's haunting voice adds a dimension unavailable to the great short story writer. But the two are equally honest and captivating in their work. Polygram's John Tita once said, 'Bob Cheevers is the New Mark Twain and the Great American Writer.' The widely admired music journalist Bill Ellis of Tennessee's top newspaper, The Memphis Commercial Appeal, wrote of Cheevers, a Memphis native 'Bob Cheevers has a Delta heart and an acerbic tongue, giving his music an honesty about the South rarely touched on by any other artist in the contemporary music scene.' Cheevers left Memphis for LA in the mid-1960s after attending college. In Hollywood he scored a solo artist deal first with Dot Records, and then met up with Dan Dalton, a record producer who recruited Bob for a group called The Peppermint Trolley Company. Anyone of a certain age who remembers the ABC-TV sketch comedy program 'Love, American Style,' with the fireworks display opening, knows some of Bob's early work, because The Peppermint Trolley Company sang the program's upbeat theme. But while Dalton was pulling Bob to the commercial side of the LA street, Bob had discovered the emerging LA folk scene on Sunset Blvd. And the Troubadour, and singer/songwriters like Jackson Browne, who in a recent telephone interview Cheevers called 'my all-time favorite artist.' On albums like Saturate Before Using (1972) and For Everyman (1973), Browne gave pop music an interesting fusion of folk, country, and rock stylings on deceptively simple but well constructed songs. Cheevers knew what he wanted musically and knew he wasn't getting it under Dalton's direction, so they parted company. Cheevers moved to a 40-acre ranch in the Northern California highlands to write songs for MCA Music Publishing. The Canadian native and ex-Buffalo Springfield maven Neil Young became another hero. Ron Stone had worked with Neil, and Bob signed a management deal with Ron as well. Thus Cheevers got to hear tapes of the songs on Young's breakthrough album Harvest months before the general public did, and he was truly inspired. MCA was not. 'They dumped me,' Cheevers said. 'I kept on writing songs that reflected the lifestyle of the ranch I was living on, and they wanted songs about urban love affairs.' Bob honed his craft in Northern California and Indiana before eventually relocating to Nashville where he currently lives. On the new record, he and his good friend and Back 9 label mate, Brad Colerick, dug into Cheevers' vast catalog of over 1,000 songs to mine some gems for Texas To Tennessee, which is magnificently produced by Charlie White. 'I've always tried to stay true to what I believed,' he says. 'Jackson Browne did it, Joni Mitchell did it. Those were people who were my own personal favorites because of what they were saying. They stood by it.' Now, Cheevers is standing by the power of his great writing, and folks in the US and Europe are taking notice. Two of his previous albums charted Top 20 at Americana radio. Johnny Cash asked Cheevers to open for him on Johnny's final tour; and his music has attracted the attention of not only music fans but of the late, great Civil War historian Shelby Foote, who wrote that Bob's songs about the South and the Civil War 'show an understanding of war as a thing of shame as well as glory.' Happily, after decades of wars with his own producers and music publishers, Cheevers has found his voice both as a singer and songwriter. The result is a record of great power through simple songs and crystal clear production. Now, we're hearing the real Bob Cheevers. We're listening to an artist who may be mellowing a bit but who still never pulls a lyrical punch, and a songwriter whose melodies and stories have been haunting and delighting listeners for nearly 40 years.