The Brooklyn Almanac: Gimme That Old Time Presbyterian Blues: Don Reid and The Statler Brothers

by Joe Fodor

In Part 1, I explained how I bought fifty Statler Brothers cassettes on eBay during my COVID-19 quarantine in Brooklyn. Shortly after they were delivered, as if to aid my further study of Statler Brothers music, Mercer University Press published a book by the lead singer, Don Reid, The Music of The Statler Brothers: An Anthology.  This lead to a deeper immersion in Statler Brothers music, and a profound “Statlerization.”

The Music of The Statler Brothers: An Anthology (Music and the American South), by Don Reid, with a foreword by Bill & Gloria Gaither. Mercer University Press, 2020

Every song on the Statler Brother’s first Mercury record from 1971 is terrific, but the one that points to the future is Don Reid’s “New York City”, a love song to a woman who has gone to New York, presumably to have the couple’s baby and never return. But the narrator doesn’t know really what is going on, and is haunted by the dream of his child’s possible future.  

In telling the story of how he came to write it, Reid has a curious explanation. The song started out as “New York Cindy” about a young woman’s first visit to NYC, and might have ended up like “My Darling Hildegard” as completely forgettable exercise in trying to write pop music. “Never ask a writer where he gets his ideas.” Reid warns when discussing this song. “Chances are he will give you an answer, but it won’t necessarily be the truth. Because, trust me, he doesn’t always know the truth.”  And in this case, Don Reid wrote a Presbyterian blues song.

Theologically, from what my limited Catholic education leads me to understand, Presbyterians are protestants with a strong Calvinist bent. If you are among the saved, you really don’t have anything to worry about. You won’t sin, because you love the Lord, and as a result heaven awaits as a blessed reward for a good life. The Statler Brothers sing many gospel songs on these themes, so they are not going to write a drugging, drinking, or cheating song. But they can write a song about heartbreak, and lost love. In this case, the girl has gone to a “Presbyterian home” in NYC, as if Don Reid wanted to put his denominational marker on this particular tragic story. 

John Calvin 1509-1564

You can always tell which songs by Don Reid are the Presbyterian Blues by his reluctance in An Anthology to discuss their deeper meaning.  Because the deeper meaning in the Presbyterian Blues, at least in Don Reid’s case, seems to be that however bounteous this life and heavenly home the Lord provides, there is always the memory of that one woman to torture the pure heart. “Memories” are so important that later in the book Reid lists the three ways songwriters can use the word to fit the rhythm of the line:

  1. Memories
  2. Mem-o-ries
  3. Mem’ries

With “Susan, When She Tried”, Reid tells us he could write half a book about this song, and instead gives us a page and a half. It is one of his greatest, with its own ridiculous creation story, which starts with the title from an Ed McBain thriller, Sadie When She Died, and names “Susan” only as a favor to the group’s attorney, who thought his wife would like it if she was mentioned in a song.  What results is the quickly told story of someone who’s memory obliterates all other memories put together.

What happened when Susan stopped trying is the heartbreak in this song, and exists like a particularly gruesome murder that is described in a novel secondhand–the actual details of the crime too horrible to faithfully recount. The unmatched good times with Susan, on the other hand, have left their poisonous mem’ries behind to spoil present happiness.

How else to explain “I Will Go to My Grave Loving You”?   It’s a gorgeous song, and the lyrics–in only 99 words–express a fervent love for another man’s wife. But because it is Presbyterian Blues,  Harold, the song’s co-writer, begins his discussion of the song in Random Memories  with a disavowal: “Now this one’s a little complicated. I’m not even sure I understand it.”  

“I Will Go to My Grave Loving You” was started by Don and finished late at night while Harold was driving the tour bus, with Harold adding the aftertime rhythm part that makes it swing. It is Don Reid’s ringtone on his phone these days.

He helpfully groups three great songs  “The Best I Can Do”,  “I Dreamed About You” and “Before the Magic Turns to Memory”, all on the 1978 record Entertainers…On and Off the Record,  together, even though the rest of the book follows the albums track-by-track.

“I was in a period. Call it my Blue Period. My Dismal Period. Whatever you want to call it. I was writing deeper than I needed to, and it puts me into a funk listening to it today.”

“And never assume a writer, whether of songs or novels, experiences everything they write, and never presume that they don’t. You don’t have to kill someone to write a murder mystery, but then again, it might help. I don’t know. Can’t say. And I can’t say about these three songs. I was in a mood. And I am not sure how or why these three wound up on the album.”

The one song in this category of Presbyterian Blues that hits me hardest is “How Are Things in Clay, Kentucky”. Written on a bus (this time Harold wasn’t driving) the entire song was completed by the end of the trip, except for name of the town in Kentucky, which, in order for the chorus to work, needed to be one syllable.  At home they poured through an atlas and discovered Clay, Kentucky, population 1,179, and completed the song.

The song is about a man in New York City who was glad to leave town but is now unhappy with his life and wonders how things are in Clay, Kentucky. Following this urge, he calls a woman back home and whispers to her.

Just let me do the talkin’,

‘Cause I know you’re all alone.

What is he doing here?  Why is he calling this woman?  Previous songs merely described that corrosive, mystical, perfect other reality that destroys the happiness of happy people who are otherwise fully justified and going to heaven.  But he’s calling this woman, this arrogant big shot who left town and made it in NYC.

I hear kids back there playin’;

I won’t be, don’t notice me

She’s got kids?  Is she married?  What kind of grenade is he going to drop into this woman’s life with his Jim Reeves “Put Your Sweet Lips a Little Closer to the Phone” bullshit?  And he left Clay, Kentucky for a reason, and I guarantee you he will remember that reason about 10 minutes after his  hometown return.

Jesus knows I still love you,

But I just had to call and see.

Don’t do it!!  Why am I crying listening to this song?  This guy is not going to fix his problems by wrecking some family back home. He’ll be bored and back in NYC by the end of the year if he does. 

The Statlerization I was undergoing from listening to so much of this music, and perhaps some side-effect of the quarantine, had caused me to lose control of my emotions. Now I could whip myself up into an anxious frenzy just thinking about “How Are Things in Clay, Kentucky” and hearing the song play in my head.  Wilson Fairchild, the duo made of Harold’s son Wil and Don’s son Langdon, does a cover of this one, and it is might be better than the original (Don Reid thinks so).   Both versions have the power to completely unnerve me.

Cousins Wil and Langdon Reid, sons of Harold and Don, respectively.

On or about week six of my intensive Statler studies I had a revelation. I was at my workspace in the house, nine feet away from Laura, who was working on her computer. 

Oh no. Oh no,” I groaned.

“What is it?”

“Oh Oh Oh. It all makes sense now.”

“Is this something about the Statler Brothers?”

“Don Reid got a divorce in the 1980s.”

“I am really busy right now.”

I came across Gloria Reid’s obituary from 2016 while trying to figure out the identities of all the Reid children who were also songwriters. The obit mentioned Phil and Harold and Don’s kids, but it didn’t mention Don Reid. At first I thought it was a maiden aunt that everybody loved, but then the pieces fell together.  Why the beautiful 1820s house Don bragged about was sold, and the new house bought in 1988. The fact that Debbie Reid looked different from the woman who appeared on the cover of 1973’s Carry Me Back album and the Statler’s first “Best of” record in 1975).

1975’s “Best Of”

It explained so much, and the reason why certain Don Reid songs positively ache with the Presbyterian Blues. Was this the reason these songs are so compelling, original and relatable? This book about the Statler Brother’s music will thrill any fan of country music, but to understand Don Reid’s darkest masterpieces you probably need to live them a little. He’s not going to draw you a picture or spell it out.

Reid doesn’t mention his first wife in Random Memories or in An Anthology, but his sons do, and when they are quoted in the book twice talking about “mom,” a dutiful indexer at Mercer University Press added those page numbers next to Gloria Reid’s name.

Statler Brothers and Spouses: Lew & Joyce, Harold & Brenda, Phil & Wilma,
and Gloria & Don.

It should have been obvious, but the discovery blindsided me. In Anthology, when Reid talks about “One Takes the Blame,” a song he describes as “a serious anthem for breaking up,” he writes as if this song was a writing assignment:

“This one was painful to write. But I had written about every aspect of a man/woman relationship imaginable, and I felt a need to write this one in depth.”

Is this the pinnacle of the Statler’s Presbyterian Blues?  It’s a goodbye song, but a beautiful and tactful one, and one that celebrates the years of true love, and absolves the person he is hurting so deeply of any blame for the end of the relationship.  And now the reality of their past relationship has become the dream.  That it made it into the Country Top Ten in 1984 might be due to demographics: the divorce rate in the United States had peaked in 1981.

The Statler Brothers were also seeing a change in their business model. The very first Country Music video, the Statlers jaunty “Whatever,” came out in 1982.  In the video, Lew Dewitt has been replaced by Jimmy Fortune, who lip-syncs Lew’s parts.  The Statler Brothers found it easy to bring the good times of their live show to TV, and soon the lure of the studio lights overcame their love of the road.

The touring really began to trail off when the Statler Brothers started their Saturday night TV show on The Nashville Network in 1991, and the group was able to do only 41 shows on the road in 1994. The songwriting was now assisted by a new generation of Reids: Don’s sons Debo and Langdon and two of Harold’s kids, Kim and Wil.   Kim seemed the best at channeling the Presbyterian Blues, and even wrote one “I Had Too Much To Dream”  (1982) that could qualify as a hangover song about indulging in that Presbyterian poison, the memories of an old love.  A later one, “He’ll Always Have You Again” (1993) is a page ripped out of the tortured journal of Don Reid.  While working on his book, Don called up his neice to ask her about it and learns, to his palpable relief, that it wasn’t about any heartache Kim had directly experienced, but came from observing the love-life of a friend.  

Don Reid had one last great Presbyterian Blues song in him–“Everything You See in Your Dreams“, written with Harold, and it appears on their 1991 album All-American Country, which is bookended by patriotic songs as you might expect for an album released during the height of the Gulf War. He introduces it in Anthology the way he does all of his most penetrating songs – by evading responsibility for its creation. 

Harold, Jimmy, Phil, and Don in 1991.

“I’m not sure what determined the type of song Harold and I would write together when we sat down with pen in hand.  Sometimes it was comedy, sometimes tragedy. After not hearing this one for about twenty-five years, I have to think we must have been in a very melancholy mood or maybe even severely depressed state of mind.”

The song is a great one, and involves pulling an old letter tucked in an old unfinished book, and then putting the letter back in the book, and putting that “unfinished” book back on the shelf, keeping it there to maybe to look at sometimes in the future. Jimmy sings it in his high tenor, and at the end the song concludes 

And what I’ve learned from living is that you can’t believe

Everything you see in your dreams.

As far as I can tell, it also concludes the great Presbyterian Blues song cycle of Don Reid. The past dream of whatever that tormented and inspired Don Reid is better left there, untouched, in the cluttered library of his mind.

Their Saturday night television show was a success, and  heavy on nostalgia. The town of Staunton, Virginia was a beautiful place to grow up, and who didn’t love going to the movies on Saturday as a kid and watching Roy Rogers and Gene Autrey?

The Class of ’57” in their 1972 album “Country Music – The and Now” is the classic song in this nostalgic vein from the Statlers, and unlikely superfan Kurt Vonnegut proposed in a book of essays, Palm Sunday (1981), that it should replace the “Star Spangled Banner” as our National Anthem. The song is a complete rundown of what happened to the graduating class of a small town high school, the good and the bad, with everyone’s fates delined in a half-dozen words.  One even plays the organ in a Presbyterian church, so it definitely qualifies as the Presbyterian Blues.  And what is nostalgia itself but a lighter shade of the Presbyterian Blues?

An earlier song, “Pictures” by Lew, dwelled on the contents of a photo album in the same fashion, and audiences loved that kind of material.  The Statlers followed with songs about Randolph Scott, Maple Street, Chet Atkins (two!), old movie houses and “We Got Paid By Cash” about their old boss and “Do You Remember These,” which is about everything from the 1950s, including fly-paper and shoes.  To complete the circle, in 2019, Wilson Fairchild, the cousins Langdon and Wil Reid, released “The Statler Brothers Song”, which is a nostalgic anthem about the Statler Brothers themselves, and fits the names of twenty Statler Brothers songs into the lyrics.

Writing weekly television shows took up a lot of time and cut down on Don Reid’s songwriting output. He and Harold took on the workload of writing all of the television shows, and eventually developed a second show focused on nostalgia. The Statler Brothers, with their ability to do comedy and music in equal proportion, were never afraid of doing more television.  

But the nostalgia and the TV show pointed to a looming  problem for the Statlers–their aging audience. Reviews of the later live shows mentioned the group’s “mature” fans,  usually in the first sentence.  And when TNN cancelled the show it had nothing to do with ratings – they were still the network’s #1 show — but demographics.  The signs were everywhere.  Even the Statler Tissue Company went bankrupt in 1995, leaving 550 millworkers out of a job in Central Maine.

The group had their last performance in 2002, and all retired from the music business except Jimmy Fortune.  They live in Staunton, Virginia, where they are honored locals on a level with the town’s other favorite son, Woodrow Wilson. This past April Harold Reid  died after a long battle with kidney disease. Harold was the charisma in the group and added the comedy to the live act that had made the Statler Brothers so beloved.  As a songwriter, one of Harold’s first has always been my favorite – “King of Love,” a gospel song with a chugging rhythm, that the Statler’s included on their most ambitious album, their two-disc retelling of “The Bible” in 1975 that is still their best-selling record.

The Statler Brothers Tribute Monument in downtown
Staunton, VA is made of four stools.

My own Statlerization is continuing, but I am running into new problems. Laura complained that I make noise rummaging through my box of Statler Brothers cassettes, and it is distracting to people in this apartment who are trying to attend their Zoom classes.  Also several of these Statler Brothers cassettes are unplayable, and I am torn between throwing them out or learning how to repair them. 

Because there are so many compilations from Columbia Records in my giant purchase, I have about 15 different cassettes with “Flowers on the Wall” on it. This alternately delirious and somber song is about isolation and fits the moods of every day in the pandemic.  The Muppets even did a remake in 2015, but changed the “smoking cigarettes and watching Captain  Kangaroo” line to something more appropriate for children of today. 

This brings up a serious problem. If the coming generations  are given incorrect or altered Statler Brothers songs, how will they become fully Statlerized citizens?   

But I shouldn’t worry. If they go on to lead happy, prosperous and righteous lives, and trust in God, the Presbyterian Blues will find a way to them all on its own.

Next question: Should I buy all these old Statler Brothers Christmas cards on eBay?