The Blackboard Cafe, Bakersfield, CA
The Flying Burrito Brothers • Vern Gosdin
From the Flatt & Scruggs 1955 songbook
Today we have five versions of one of the all-time classic honky tonk songs, "Dim Lights, Thick Smoke (And Loud, Loud Music)." The story goes that Joe Maphis wrote the song one Saturday night (presumably in 1952) while driving home to Los Angeles from Bakersfield after seeing Buck Owens perform at the Blackboard Cafe. The Blackboard had a reputation for being a pretty hardcore honky tonk bar, and the title alone is very evocative of what it must have been like. The song has been covered many times over the years by a variety of artists, but I picked five versions today that I think are significant for various reasons.
The first version is the one recorded by two of the songs three credited composers, husband and wife team Joe and Rose Lee Maphis (Max Fidler, a Los Angeles based accordionist, is the third composer). This version done for OKeh Records in April of 1953 isn't the first recorded as the next version by Flatt & Scruggs was recorded the previous November.
The Flatt & Scruggs version is certainly one of the most well known and was responsible for introducing the song into the bluegrass repertoire where it's been covered many times. I'd love to know how the song got to them.
Margie Collie's version is interesting in that it's almost an answer song as she turns it around to the woman's perspective. Her version made for Decca was also probably recorded before the Maphis's sometime around late March or early April 1953. She's a somewhat limited vocalist, but it's interesting to hear another version from the era when the song was written.
While I love and idolize Gram Parsons, you could argue that in many ways he's a somewhat limited vocalist himself, and his vocal on the Flying Burrito Brothers version of "Dim Lights" is one of his lazier ones. But like many of his better vocal performances, that tortured vulnerability still comes through. To be fair, this recording was done as a demo and wasn't originally released in Gram's lifetime. I think a lot of people know the song from the FBB version, particularly those less familiar with traditional country and bluegrass. (Many versions over the years by New Riders of the Purple Sage could also share some of that responsibility - especially for Dead Heads.)
From two somewhat limited vocalists to one of modern country's most gifted, Vern Gosdin. Though the song is seemingly quite well known and has been covered a multitude of times, Gosdin's 1985 version is the only version to chart so far on Billboard's Country charts, and even then only peaking at #20. Also in contrast to the previous FBB demo version which is somewhat sparse and straightforward, Gosdin's version is quite heavily produced - a bit too much for my taste, in fact, but his vocal is outstanding as usual.
As I've mentioned, there are plenty of other versions of this song including ones by Porter Wagoner, Rose Maddox, Earl Scruggs & Tom T. Hall and many others. I hope you like the five I've chosen for today...
As an added bonus, here's a video clip of Joe & Rose Lee Maphis performing the song live on the Los Angeles television show Town Hall Party from 1959. Also featured here on fiddle is the great Gordon Terry.
Joe & Rose Lee Maphis live on Town Hall Party (1959)