'Sorry You Couldn't Make It': Swamp Dogg Reflects On His Damn Good Country Album

[Cover photo credit to David McMurry]

Swamp Dogg is a name synonymous with speaking out, through album titles, through song titles, through lyrics, and even in the press. His early career as Jerry Williams, Jr. in the 50's and 60's (he started in music at age 12) with a substantial cache of songwriting successes left him wanting more, and very aware of the politics within the music industry. Reborn as Swamp Dogg in 1970, there was no looking back. Gleefully undercutting expectations at every turn is absolutely par for the course for Swamp Dogg. Maybe that's why he finally recorded his first fully Country album after planning it for most of his life, with Sorry You Couldn't Make It.

As Swamp Dogg explains below, this may be his first ever album under this name that doesn't delve into society's ills. Rather, it's a more personal approach, focusing on relationships, experience, and memory. Some of those memories of making the album proved all too fragile, with the loss of Swamp Dogg's friend, the illustrious John Prine, who features on two tracks on the album.

Swamp Dogg spoke to Tower's PULSE! about his career and the songs that he holds close to his heart.

Hannah Means-Shannon: Congratulations on your new album, Sorry You Couldn’t Make It. How have you been doing the past few months?

Swamp Dogg: Thank you. It’s a little tenuous because you think of things that you want to do, but you can’t do them. Places you want to go, but they are not open, but it’s the same all over the country, so you deal with it, that’s all. It’s not like I could leave LA and go somewhere else and survive without these problems. It’s all over the country, all over the world, really. All I can do is keep breathing!

HMS: This is true. Were you able to get all the recording done that you needed on this album before things shut down?

Swamp Dogg: Oh, yes.

HMS: Had you been planning it for a while?

Swamp Dogg: Yes, I have. I’ve been planning it for years. I just hadn’t gotten around to doing it. I hadn’t any other people interested to assist me on it. I might have done it sooner if I had been living in Nashville or still recording in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, where I did a lot of my early stuff. And that’s because I would have had the country musicians, but I didn’t have that here, so I kept recording the things that I could do good, here. Location has a lot to do with what I was recording.

HMS: Did you go out to Nashville to record this one?

Swamp Dogg: Yes, we did it in Nashville. Nashville has a funny little thing about it, you could be a Nashville star, a Country star, and you could go someplace like New York and cut your next album, and I don’t care how great it is, if it wasn’t cut in Nashville, it’s not Country. You got to cut it in Nashville or somewhere near there.

HMS: Can you really hear that on an album, whether it’s been cut in Nashville?

Swamp Dogg: No. [Laughs]

HMS: It’s just an idea?

Swamp Dogg: Yeah. [Laughs]

HMS: You’ve done so much work in your life, and when people look back at it so far, they tend to say that the music has a message in it that’s as important as the music itself. Do you think that’s true?

Swamp Dogg: Yes. I deliberately put political songs on all of my albums, with the exception of this country album. There are no politics in it. I felt politics, but there are no politics in it. The country is so screwed up, Trump just might come to my house personally and whoop my ass!

HMS: [Laughs]

Swamp Dogg: I mean, it’s awful, what’s going on. I spoke out in a song called “They Crowned an Idiot King” and it was about George Bush. I’ve gone all the way back to the 1970s when I started doing the Swamp Dogg thing, trying to carry a message, but people were afraid of me, especially black people. One of the songs that I get a lot of crap for is Total Destruction To Your Mind” and that album still failed. There was the line, “They found out how to tax the grass, Now watch them get the law passed.” See, it took that long to get the law passed, but I knew they were going to do it.

HMS: Wow, you really called that. That’s exactly right.

Swamp Dogg: It just took time. You can do anything in the United States that you want to do as long as you break off the right amount for the government.

HMS: Legality is purely based on whether it makes money for the right people.

Swamp Dogg: Right. And we know Trump should have been outta there. He should be home, or somewhere.

HMS: Maybe in a “home”?

Swamp Dogg: In a “home”. [Laughs] But I don’t even get into him on this album. That was one of the refreshing things about doing this album, I didn’t have any thoughts about politics. I just went to make a damn good country album.

HMS: Was it a nice mental vacation for you to work on songs that could just be your own, without having to take responsibility for the things happening in the world?

Swamp Dogg: Yeah! Right. That was wonderful.

HMS: What was it like writing these songs for you? Is it something where you’d come up with a sound first, or do you usually have an idea or words first?

Swamp Dogg: I don’t have a particular pattern in mind when I write. I gotta have at least an idea. Like last night, somebody said something to me, and thought, “Wow, that might be my next album title: One time a man, two times a child.” I liked it, so I wrote it down, and I put it in my little book. When people say things that catch my attention, I try to write them down. If I don’t write them down, I just figure it wasn’t meant to be. But I must have about a hundred title from hearing people talk to me or listening to other people talk. When I get ready to do something, I look at my titles, or I write with other people. But I pick the people I write with.

I’ve got two gentlemen, that are twins, in Missouri, and they write lyrics, and they send me their lyrics to see if I like them. I put the music to it, maybe do some switch up on the lyrics. I know they must have at least one cut on the last two albums, the one that’s out now, and Love, Loss, and Autotune, where I liked the lyrics, so I put them to music.

It depends on how I’m approached, also. I have people who come up to me, and say, “Look here, we need to write something together!” And I say, “Why do we need to write something together?” Why is it beneficial to me? It’s not that I’m the greatest writer in the world, but I’m not the worst, by far. I only write with a few people.

Most of the early songs that I wrote were with Gary U.S. Bonds and Charlie Whitehead. But we were buddies, too, and we were just hanging out when I lived in New York. We were just doing things, “precocious” you might say, if adults can be that. We would write things because Gary had seen an advertisement on the subway for a beauty product for women, and it said, to the other woman, “I’m the other woman”. And we wrote it, and it went Top 10 R&B, Top 40 Pop, that kind of thing.

Then I had a couple of covers of it, and that’s the other thing, too: a lot of my old songs are being pitched now to mostly Country acts, and they love it. I love to write women and wife songs, songs where the man gets beat down into the ground. [Laughs] That’s my style.

HMS: [Laughs]

Swamp Dogg: I don’t wish that on people. But I was raised in Virginia with a lot of women. Women raised me, so I heard a lot of things. I know how women feel. I can write a song for a woman quicker than I can for a man. I like writing for women better than anything. I’d love to write for Reba McEntire. She’s as soulful, or more, than any black female singer. She’s right up. There she knows how to lay it out.

HMS: She’s great. She’s really important with her voice, literally and figuratively. So do you enjoy hearing female performers cover your songs since the lyrics are from a female perspective?

Swamp Dogg: Yes, exactly. Gary and I were up for a Grammy, which we didn’t get, on a song called “She Didn’t Know (She Kept on Talking)” about a woman meeting another woman, This woman starts telling the other woman all about her man, and near the end, she thinks, “Damn, sounds like the man I’m married to.” The lyrics go, “She didn’t know she was ruining my life… She didn’t know I was your wife.” So those are the kinds of songs, like “Divorce Decree (I’m a Loser)”.

I know you have to be considerate when writing things about women, though back in the day, people like Fats Waller would write hit songs talking about women in abusive ways, and nobody was really paying attention at that time. If you look at some of the old songs, you hear it, and a lot of them are still enjoyed. Though not all of them were running women into the ground, on the other hand, society was not allowing women to do much back then. And that includes all colors.

HMS: Yep.

Swamp Dogg: It wasn’t just black women who couldn’t vote, it was all women.

HMS: A lot of your songs tell these stories, and you don’t even tell them from a distance, but really close up, in the form of conversations between people, like the one you were just telling me about. That’s something that I think is hard to do, because conversations are big, but you have to condense them down in a way that works in a song, picking out the most important pieces. What do you think needs to be there to make a good song?

Swamp Dogg: Yes. Well, there’s nothing like personal experience of things that you’ve gone through, as a lover, as a husband, as a wife, as a mother.

There was a song called “No Charge” years ago. It was big. There’s a conversation going on between a mother and a child and the child wants to be compensated for everything he’s done. Then the mother runs down the list of things she has done, and has always done for him, and each stanza ends, “No charge”.

HMS: I’m looking it up on my computer now. I see a song written by Harlan Howard, sung Melba Montgomery, though a lot of people covered it. She worked a lot with George Jones and Gene Pitney.

Swamp Dogg: I wrote and produced Pitney’s last big hit. It was “She’s a Heartbreaker”. Matter of fact, I got fired for producing it! Gene was a good, good, good guy, and at the time in the 60s and going into the 70s, he really was an established star. I was working at Musicor Records as a staff writer, and producer also. One day, out of nowhere, Art Talmadge, who owned the company came back to the little cubicle I was working in and said look, “Gene Pitney is going to be here this week.”

And he didn’t say it like this, but he really meant, “Don’t you even dare to breathe any of the air that he’s breathing. Don’t you come near him. We have his career laid out.” And I’m saying to myself, “He’s had five flops in a row, and you have his career laid out?” I didn’t say anything, but that’s what I thought.

I’m in my cubicle, and I’m writing, and Gene, who basically the company was built on, walks by. He comes in and says, “Hey, man, I like that. Let me have some more.” Now, they’ve already told me not to bother Gene, and I wasn’t. He was going to make me lose my job, though I was only making a hundred dollars a week before take out. You ever heard of a writer having to punch a clock? Well, I did. If I missed a day, it was a day out of my little hundred dollars. You don’t do that to creative people.

HMS: Yeah, that sounds like a real fun job there! I hope you didn’t stay long.

Swamp Dogg: No, but I stayed there long enough to get them about four hits. “Heartbreaker” was monstrous. They didn’t want me to do anything with Gene. Gene insisted, and said, “Hey, I want him in the studio with me.”

HMS: Nice one.

Swamp Dogg: We did, “She’s a Heartbreaker” and about four or five other tunes, but they wouldn’t let me do the entire album, because the album was actually being saved for the guys who had been there before me. When they put the “Heartbreaker” single out, they put on the other side, a song called “Conquistador”, and people were buying it over in Europe. He had big Country hits, and he and George Jones had done a bunch together, but that Pop audience he had in the United States, he lost them. That’s because they weren’t focusing on making records for them. “Heartbreaker” hit the charts in a couple of weeks, and they fired me for doing what Gene had asked me to do.

Now, if I hadn’t have done it, I would have gotten fired. And I did it and got fired. He would come in my cubicle every day for a couple of hours so I could teach him these songs. I didn’t know the kind of consequences that were coming. Usually, you make a hit record, people want you around for more.

HMS: Did Gene realize what happened to you because of that?

Swamp Dogg: I don’t think so. I talked to him about three years before he died and I told him that I would love to go into the studio and do a bunch of songs. He had a voice that was weird as hell, and you either loved it or you hated it, and apparently there were more people loving it than hating it at that time. Gene was a star, and a good writer. You remember, “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”? And one that was a Pop song…

HMS: “He’s a Rebel”, recorded by the Crystals? He wrote “Rubber Ball” too.

Swamp Dogg: Yeah, "He's a Rebel". “Rubber Ball, I keep bouncing back to you…” or some shit. [Laughs]

HMS: That was a really big deal! It made people start writing these problematic relationship songs, where there’s a conflict between the two people.

Swamp Dogg: Right. Well, I was just writing, and people were telling me how good they were. But now I know how to tell if a song is good or not and keep my ego out of it. I don’t even know if I have an ego or not, honestly, I just keep doing what I do.

HMS: You’ve also been willing to change it up a lot over time to keep doing new things. You haven’t really built up a persona that you had to stick to. I know Swamp Dogg is your persona, but the point was to be able to do anything that you wanted, right?

Swamp Dogg: Right. Swamp Dogg allowed me to do it. Jerry Williams was a little spineless and wasn’t a fighter. Swamp Dogg was a fighter, and still is.

HMS: I’m glad to hear that. Yes.

Can I ask you about one song on Sorry You Couldn’t Make It that I know has a long history? It’s “Don’t Take Her, She’s All I Got”. I think you wrote that quite a long time ago, and other people have covered it. But now this is your own take. Does that help remind people that your Country aspect goes way back?

Swamp Dogg: Yeah, we could say that. But I never sing that song in my sets. It felt right, the way I did it here. In this song, the idea was to be poetic. I think that’s the closest that I’ve ever come to poetry. I could picture that a man doesn’t have to be weak, but he could be so madly in love that he would go along with anything. He’s just losing his woman, and he’s begging this guy. That’s one of those guys who, when he walks into a bar, every woman wants him.

The first guy was lucky enough to get a woman who was beautiful in every way, and he knows this other guy can take his woman with a wink. All he’s saying, basically, is “I don’t have what you have to offer in terms of magnetism. Don’t take my woman.” The guy himself, who you might call a “victim” is at the end of the bar watching this guy talk to his woman.

HMS: The song still feels very relevant. It’s a very human song.

Is there anything else that you’d like to say to audiences about your new album?

Swamp Dogg: The album started out as a somewhat fun album, but the songs were sad. A lot of the songs were begging songs. In some ways doesn’t mean quite as much to me now as it did when we recorded it, because John Prine just dismissed himself.

And he and I were planning to set the world on fire and scorch it. We had some ideas that he and I had discussed. I was going to Ireland, where he had a house, and I was going to stay there, and we were going to just write a bunch of stuff. Our main connection was my version of “Sam Stone”, which he wrote in the late 60s and early 70s.

Well, I miss him. And most of the things we were going to do, because of the Coronavirus, they weren’t going to be able to be executed the way we had talked about anyway. But I like to write with great songwriters, and he was one of the greatest. And I miss him.

HMS: I’m so sorry that happened to you. I’m sorry for your loss.

I guess it’s extra special that you were able to have him on the song “Memories” with you on this album.

Swamp Dogg: Yes. And on the song that goes, “Please Let Me Go Round Again.” That’s got double meaning for me because I actually wrote it for my wife, Yvonne, who passed away 17 years ago. That was one of her favorite songs. She always wanted me to try to get Willy Nelson to sing it, and I tried, and I even got on his bus and talked to him about it, giving him a cassette tape of the song. But I never heard back from him. So, the song just went unsung. But I decided to put it on this album, and it went to John.

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