In 1966, as a 5-year-old living in Atlanta, I loved songs without thinking about them as a matter of any choice. I listened to them the way I ate a jelly sandwich: eagerly, and soon ready for the next one. I’m fairly certain that I didn’t think of a song, initially, as something that someone had imagined and then constructed, but rather like a thing that was mined, like salt. And like salt, I didn’t yet feel the need to go actively in search of songs: They were on every table, waiting to be savored.

My dad worked for Chevrolet and drove company-issued cars. Tape players were new to automobiles, and Chevrolet provided-for demonstration purposes-their own tapes consisting of a strange assortment of popular songs, bridged together by promotional voice-overs espousing the virtues of the latest coupes and sedans, Malibus and Biscaynes. This was the only tape we had in the car and it had as its climax a track featuring TV star Lorne Greene, who played Ben Cartwright on Bonanza, a Chevrolet-sponsored Western series. Greene performed a spoken-word song called “Ringo,” which tells the story (in first-person narration, against a big-sky cowboy soundtrack) of an Old West rider who discovers a man that had been shot and left dying in the desert. After nursing the wounded man back to health, the two men go their separate ways, only to come face to face years later when Greene’s narrator has become a sheriff and the recovered man a feared, ruthless outlaw. When the inevitable showdown happens, the gunfighter spares the sheriff’s life in payback of his long-ago kindness, only to be gunned down moments later by the sheriff’s posse. The sheriff, realizing there had existed an undetected spark of good in the hated fugitive, hangs up his star in disillusionment, leaving it literally on the grave of the outlaw.

Greene’s deep baritone seemed ominous in the dark of the backseat as we drove home from a Braves game, or a rare dinner out. It scared me, to tell you the truth, because the song was really about mortality-the character’s and mine. Ringo was a misunderstood renegade-evil in deed, but ultimately moral, just and redeemable. And destined, like all of us, to die anyway. I took it all in because it was there in front of me as insistently as the long drive home.

In our “formative years,” few of us know we are being …formed. And I certainly didn’t know that many TV actors were cranking out cornball fare simply because they could. What I heard and took to my heart was song-as-narrative, singer-as-actor. That’s why, I guess, by the time I was coming of age and the singer/songwriter movement was happening, the song-as-confessional that was the code of the road couldn’t touch me. My heart was already spoken for. I didn’t care about songs being vehicles of autobiographical expression anymore than I cared about being a bubblegum teen angel. I had already learned that songs were short stories-small films and character studies.

When I finally moved on to more artful versions of this discipline than “Ringo,” to songs by Randy Newman, John Prine, Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan and even Fats Waller, it was because I’d already been primed. Lorne Greene may have been Sunday night’s prime-time TV attraction, but for me, in 1966, he was God’s messenger. And he seemed to be saying, “Who do you want to be: Bobby Sherman or a gunslinger?”

(Courtesy of: CMJ New Music Monthly Issue 117, October 2003)