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Revisit: Shel Silverstein: Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs

Revisit: Shel Silverstein: Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs

Should be mandatory listening for any fan of outlaw or alt.country.

Anyone who only knows Shel Silverstein for his children’s poetry collections or the masochistic The Giving Tree has only a small piece his creative puzzle. A true polyglot, Silverstein not only wrote and illustrated his own works but also worked as a playwright, and songwriter. While his entire oeuvre is well worth delving into, his songwriting, better known by other performers, deserves a closer look. You may know Johnny Cash’s hit version of “Boy Named Sue,” Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show’s “Sylvia’s Mother” or Bobby Bare’s myriad covers. If any of Silverstein’s own albums is particularly well-known (as they are most certainly not, given their scant reissue treatment), it would be 1972’s Freakin’ at the Freakers Ball. Accompanied by Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show and featuring such classics as “I Got Stoned and I Missed It,” the title track and the appropriately-titled “Everybody’s Making it Big but Me,” it’s about as close to the mainstream as his albums ever got. It garnered more attention than his previous foray into barroom country territory, the 1969 album that’s the subject of this revisit.

Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs was originally released on RCA/Victor, the album has, save a 2008 reissue on the Water label, essentially vanished. You can’t find it on any of the streaming platforms, despite the remainder of his catalog being readily available all the way back to 1959’s beatnik-aping Hairy Jazz and 1962’s folk singer pastiche Inside Folk Songs. Its conspicuous absence remains something of a mystery. Appearing dark and foreboding on the cover, a cigar clenched between his teeth, looking down menacingly at the camera, Silverstein here is a far cry from his better-known public persona. But that’s what makes it such a welcome surprise, the darker reaches of his humor and exceptional wordplay on full display. His voice, however, is very much an acquired taste. Wildly over-the-top, raspy and prone to bouts of manic shouting, it’s far from commercially viable and certainly not going to garner any sort of airplay. But it perfectly suits his songs and subject matter.

“Dirty Ol’ Me” is a tale of workplace revenge that puts “Take This Job and Shove It” to shame, the narrator essentially murdering and maiming his way to the top. His hammy delivery helps temper what would otherwise be an incredibly vicious narrative, taking typical country music tropes to the extremes the folks in Nashville wouldn’t touch with a 20-foot pole. But none of this matters as Silverstein is clearly having a helluva time tackling the persona of a Jewish hillbilly taking the piss out of country music, while showing himself to be a deft songwriter and solid raconteur.

But it’s not all shit-eating grins. “Cloudy Sky,” a heart-broken ballad equating love spurned with meteorological events. “Love is just a cloudy sky as far as I can see/ And that old cloud up in the sky has as much a chance as me.” In the hands of a more nuanced vocalist, it would be a far more affecting ballad, much like Dr. Hook’s take on Silverstein’s “Sylvia’s Mother,” an even more heart-wrenching song.

“Kick it Again” finds the protagonist egging on an ex-lover to finish the job of destroying his heart by means of the title action. He pushes the unseen lover on and on, encouraging them to do their worst because everything they’ve done up until this point hasn’t been enough to completely “kill my love for you.” Meanwhile, “Someday’s Here” is an on-point fuck-you to a lover who didn’t have the patience to wait around for success to come around. Not content to simply enjoy rubbing it in the ex-lover’s face, he gloats and growls as they come crawling back to his feet. With “Time,” Silverstein manages a great deal of pathos in a melancholy narrative that, again, in the hands of a more capable [read: mainstream] performer would’ve made it a hit (though Bobby Bare would make a game go of it some years later, one of many Silverstein tracks he has tackled).

The centerpiece of the collection is of course a title track that has become a country standard thanks to Johnny Cash. Where Cash imbues it with an angry vengeance and steely resolve to find the father who had the gall to name him Sue, Silverstein’s read is more unhinged lunacy. It makes the song all the more engaging as if delivered from the perspective of someone not merely out for revenge but wholly malformed by the unfortunate first name.

The remainder of the second side is equally as strong, boasting the shit-out-of-luck trucker anthem “Somebody Stole My Rig,” the Tom Waits-esque “Comin’ After Jinny” (complete with a borderline laugh-out-loud denouement very much in line with his more well-known works), and the raucous night-on-the-town closing track “Bigtime.”

Relatively short but exponentially weirder than anything else released within the country idiom around the same time, Boy Named Sue and His Other Country Songs is a wildly entertaining listen well-worth seeking out. Forget what you think you know of the author of A Light in the Attic and Where the Sidewalk Ends and check out his albums, each of which employs a different genre filtered through his warped sense of humor and batshit crazy delivery (think a slightly more coherent Wild Man Fischer on speed and you’re halfway there). This album should be mandatory listening for any fan of outlaw or alt.country, its 1969 release date making it well ahead of its time.

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