Leavin' Guthrie

Joe Ziemer
March 25, 2001

For what is a man profited if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? 
Matthew 16.26

Mickey Newbury sings about a place called Guthrie in two of his songs: Cortelia Clark and The Silver Moon Café. Of all the possible places, why did Mick choose this one twice? And by the way, just where in the world is Guthrie? 

First of all, Guthrie is the perfect word. It sounds southern, plus it sounds familiar. Sonically, the word Guthrie phrases well within these two songs. The poet in Mickey pays a great deal of attention to the way words sound or "work" together. Then there's also Woody Guthrie, which of course contributes to the word's instant familiarity. 

Newbury first sings about this place, Guthrie, in Cortelia Clark, the beautiful song recorded in 1972 in Nashville, the city where Mickey and Cortelia lived. In the song, they "went to Guthrie just to see the trains". Interesting to note that Nashville is a mere fifty miles south of Guthrie, Kentucky, a little town located on the Tennessee-Kentucky border. And guess what? A large train depot once operated there; it was demolished in the late 1970's. 

Mickey tells us that he "Was just a boy the year / The Blue Bird Special came through here / On its first run south to New Orleans". So if this train had originated in Guthrie, Kentucky and then headed south, it would have indeed passed through Nashville on its way to New Orleans; hence Guthrie, Kentucky does make sense as the possible earthly place of reference. 

In the song's emotional finale, Cortelia departs Nashville and ascends to heaven. His dreams then were no longer "chained to a depot down in Guthrie". Nashville (though unmentioned in the song) and Guthrie are left… at best as a purgatorial reference… at worst as a place somewhat farther south. Now we're ridin' on the Newbury train. 

Twenty-eight years later, Mickey is back to Guthrie. In his Y2K song, The Silver Moon Café, he begins, "There's a blue moon in Kentucky…" Besides paying homage to Bill Monroe, Patsy Cline and Elvis, ("Blue Moon of Kentucky,") Mick's phrasing on "blue moon" is delivered - à la George Jones - in the heartbreaking tone of despondent sadness. Once again, Mr. Newbury is Taking Care of Business. 

The waitress working at The Silver Moon Café is "as busy as she can be"… which is the only way she can "hold on to her sanity". Where is she living... and then leaving? Guthrie, Kentucky - fifty miles due north of Nashville. And guess what? On the west side of Guthrie, where highways 11, 41, 79, 181 and 848 converge, there once was a popular truck stop, called Tiny Town. Here truckers would spend a little break time "pourin' coffee down". Son of a gun, the imagery appears to be real. 

Two more Newbury songs visit this theme, but for rhythm and meter, a three-syllable place was required - so Kentucky was used in place of Guthrie. In the 1975 song, "Leaving Kentucky", Mickey sings, "The road down to Nashville's / Like crystal and stone / A place where a man / Sells his soul for a song". Crystal is clear and stone is hard; in other words, it's been clearly hard (to deal with that damn piper). 

He continues, "God knows I loved her too much I can see / Much more than she could have ever loved me…" For good reason, then, he is "Leavin' Kentucky and going back home". Kentucky, she, her… all allude to… Nashville. 

Finally in the 1994 song, East Kentucky (actually written in the early 70's), Mickey sings, "In the shadow of the tall pines / I did love her with no shame." "Her" in this case again refers to that Glittertown whore, Miss Gnashville. And so for good reason, Mickey concludes East Kentucky with: "Dusty highway, take me to Denver. I will not be coming back". Don't blame you a bit Mickey. Thank God you got out. 

These tales of Guthrie, Kentucky and East Kentucky sketch an outline of Newbury's Gnashville. He leaves it to us to connect the dots. His ingenious imagery can even hide Hell in a gorgeous melody. Talk about dancin' with the devil. 

In more embraceable terms, these stories present the horrible places in time we all must frequent, and the painful mistakes we make, in the course of doing our best to survive. While we're alive, we "just have to live with that pain…" 

Someday soon though, we will ride that Bluebird Special, hopefully headin' north. And who knows? We just might meet up with Mickey's friend, Cortelia. 

1. Thanks to my friend, Jim Moreillon, for traveling to Guthrie, Kentucky to provide information about its old train depot as well as the Tiny Town Truck Stop. 
2. On July 14, 2001 Mickey told JZ: "Guthrie, Kentucky is the town where the Blue Bird Special train originated which then headed south to New Orleans. This place (Guthrie, Kentucky) was used in Cortelia Clark and The Silver Moon Café".