Saturday, July 29, 2006

The Long Black Veil

"She walks these hills in a long black veil..."

It seems new, like you're hearing it for the first time. Charlie Waller's baritone sets the pace while John Duffey's tenor flies high above it all. If you can listen to it and not have chills fly up and down your spine, check for a pulse.

"Ten years ago, on a cold, dark night..."

I first heard "The Long Black Veil" performed by Johnny Cash on one of his late 1960s prison albums. I liked the macabre, folk feel to the ballad about the innocent man who was put to death for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. It had a certain style to it and fit Cash's voice and persona quite well.

But hearing the Country Gentlemen sing the song was like being on hand on the seventh day, seeing Creation when it was new. It's one of those moments you remember. You play it again, and again, and yet again. It haunts your thoughts, so you play it again after a few minutes. You just sit there a minute afterwards, hesitant to move, cause you don't want to ruin it all.

In Duffey's hands, the song becomes something more than just another haunting ballad. It reaches that plateau where only a few tunes stand. "He Stopped Loving Her Today" is there. "Making Believe." A few others.

"The judge said 'Son, what is your alibi? If you were somewhere else, then you won't have to die.' "

Murder ballads were once a staple in country music, back when the genre was pure, untouched by the slick, polished disease that is commercialism. The Gents do the song as it should be done -- raw, aching, reaching new heights on the back of Duffey's high lonesome sound.

As a good friend says, "It's a moment and it works."

The Smithsonian released this little gem a few years ago on the CD "The Country Gentlemen: On the Road (And More)." Run to the store, go now to Amazon.com, or visit the iTunes music store and get this disc. Put it in a special place. Cherish it. Play it again and again and try not to make a mess when you climb the walls.

"I spoke not a word though it meant my life. For I had been in the arms of my best friend's wife."

Duffey and Waller are no longer with us. Duffey passed first; Waller died a couple of years ago. Of their long string of success, both together and apart (Duffey would leave the Gents in 1969 and later form The Seldom Scene), this is their shining hour.

Don't be surprised if you hear their harmony, though, echoing through the hills on a cold, dark night. And if you look closely, you might see her, too. She'll be walking these hills, crying over a solitary grave, wearing a long, black veil.

What a song.

"Nobody knows, nobody sees. Nobody knows but me."

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