Down in a ‘Dead Man’s Town’

Lightning Rod Records

Lightning Rod RecordsI got to know this guy working on Springsteen: Album By Album. Sort of. We didn’t meet. Rufus “Tee-Tot” Payne has been dead a long time. He grew up in New Orleans in the late 19th century and the nickname comes from the cocktail of tea and homemade whiskey he’d carry in a flask. I wish I’d met him.

He’d carry that flask around Georgiana, Alabama, where he’d play music on the street corners–much to the joy of the town’s kids. One of those kids was named Hank. Hank Williams. Hank probably picked up “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It” from Tee-Tot.

A great many years later, Bruce Springsteen was sitting in a hotel room in New York listening to Hank, listening to “My Bucket’s Got a Hole In It,” according to Songs. And Bruce rushed back to New Jersey and sat up writing “The River.” (Dave Marsh would point out in a magazine piece later that Bruce probably also heard, “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” that night, given Hank’s trip to the river in that particular song, and that river turning up dry–just when he wanted to drown himself.)

“As Jerry Lee Lewis, the living, breathing personification of both rock and country said, ‘I’ve fallen to the bottom and I’m working my way down,’” Springsteen said at SXSW in 2012. For Bruce, Hank raised a big question:

“Why is there a hole in the bucket?” Springsteen said. And what are the the consequences of that hole? How is it fixed? These are the questions he began to wrestle with on the far side of two big successes–Born to Run, and Darkness on the Edge of Town. Hank’s ghost–and Tee-Tot’s–rides with Springsteen still.

Makes an awful lot of sense, then, to have some Williams on Dead Man’s Town, a new collection of covers spanning all of Born in the USA. Hank III, of course, has “Atlantic City” in his catalog. To this new collection, Hank’s granddaughter, Holly Williams adds “No Surrender.” Fight the hole in the bucket, you know?

Jason Isbell and Amanda Shires are perfect on “Born in the U.S.A.” Blitzen Trapper takes the dirt road to “Working on the Highway” and Low gets low on “I’m on Fire.” It’s a good listen. is streaming the whole album, which is out on Tuesday.

Springsteen: Album By Album is out Oct. 7. Pre-order at Powell’s.


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