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MAY 21, 2006
Lucky Dog CD Cover

About my song, Fire in Arkansas.

I was born in Alpena, Michigan which had a single radio station, WATZ. They played a wide variety of music--the popular songs back then (the 1940's and 1950's), bluegrass from Bill Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, country artists like Roy Acuff & Hank Williams, Western Swing artists like Bob Will, MIlton Brown and the Brownies, singing cowboys like Roy Rogers & Gene Autry and Swing Jazz artists like Benny Goodman and Count Basie.

Bluegrass songs often focused on tragic themes--men throwing their girlfriends into the Ohio River, miserable fathers in a drunken stupor knocking over an oil lamp, allowing their kids to be burned to death. I was fascinated by those horrifying, cautionary tales.

"Fire in Arkansas" flowed from my mandolin, a popular bluegrass instrument. I approach songwriting in several ways, sometimes with a theme in mind, sometimes playing around with words and very often playing around with my guitar until a song begins to emerge. Fire in Arkansas began with a simple mandolin riff. The melody led me to the story. I knew from the first chords that a house would be set on fire. I saw a mother standing on a porch calling out for her son. I was there, with him, hiding behind the tree. I could smell the dust as they left him behind. The dead white birch tree wasn't only camouflage, it added an element of dread to the story.

The story came to me as I played the mandolin like an actual story remembered. The kid crossed the yard and entered the shed. I could smell the oil and the gasoline and feel the heat as the sun rose in the Arkansas sky. I could have placed the story anywhere, but I liked the look and sound of the word, Arkansas.

I was the eldest son and my father took me hunting at an early age. I had mixed feelings of pride and horror when I killed rabbits and partridge, but I liked being with my father, carrying a gun, walking at his side. Movie war heroes and B-Western cowboys carried guns. This was way beyond cap pistols. Because I had hunted, it was natural to have the kid grab a shotgun.

In my first draft, I had the kid burn the house, kill the sheep and run off to hide in a farmer's field. A short time later, he was captured by the local sheriff. Or maybe his dad. It felt more true to this kid's nature to have him climb into the hayloft, in an exhausted daze after the slaughter, and fall asleep. There was no escape.

His father found him sleeping in the hayloft
And killed his only son on the way to hell
He sits staring at the knuckles of both hands
Two murder weapons in a prison cell

I was amazed when those last two lines fell into place. They are perfect. The guards remove all weapons from prisoners, but this violent man keeps his, reminding him every day of his violent deed.

FIRE IN ARKANSAS © 2000 Elwood H. Smith
His mother called his name from the back door
As he stood in the shadow of a dead white birch
His family gave up and piled in the old Ford
Drove seven dusty miles to the red brick church
He slowly crossed the yard to the tool shed
The smell of thirty-weight oil on his dad's chain saw
He reached back in the corner for the gas can
Said: Gonna be a fire here in Arkansas
Teach a kid to listen
With the back of your hand
A little hard-core lesson
From a hard-ass man
A little hard-core lesson
From a hard-ass man
He poured the gasoline on his dad's bed
And smashed the photo taken on their wedding day
He found the Zippo lighter in the top drawer
The fire burned like the young boy's hate
He headed down to the pen with a shotgun
Said: Loves you Goddamn sheep more than he loves me
He wept as he shot them all point-blank
And smashed the twelve-gauge up against a tree
His father found him sleeping in the hayloft
And killed his only son on the way to hell
He sits staring at the knuckles of both hands
Two murder weapons in a prison cell

Play Song


About the CD, "John Platania / Lucky Dog:

John Platania is a wonderful musician and a warm, unpretentious guy. I met him at The Clubhouse, a local recording studio many years ago. I was at the studio recording a tune with my bass player pal, Steve Bartles for a short video I was making. Since John was hanging around, I asked him to trade lead guitar licks with me on my tune. I wasn't a fan of Van Morrison, so I had no idea John was his friend and had been his guitarist in the old days. I also didn't know he'd played and/or recorded with the likes of Bonnie Raitt, Judy Collins, and Randy Newman. So, in the bliss of ignorance, I asked and John said yeah, sure. I also didn't know John was a singer until I heard him play locally. We were friends by then so I hired him to play guitar on and arrange a 3-song demo for me. A year later I hired John (at a reduced rate, thank the muses) to work up a full album of my songs. To entice him further, I funded the project, and allowed him pretty much total creative freedom. I vetoed a few things (as executive producer) and I was there throughout the entire recording and mixing process, but I tried to stay out of the way. This was John's first solo (and vocal) album and I wanted to honor that. The creation of Lucky Dog is a creative highlight in my life.

Fire in Arkansas is the only song on Lucky Dog with a bluegrass feel & features me playing mandolin--the only time I make an appearance. John handles all the guitar work on the CD. Steve is on bass, Zoe B. Zak on accordion and Brian Doherty & T Xiques on drums, along with a couple of other great musicians appearing here and there (all listed on the CD).

PS: 1 minute clips from the other songs are available on my website:
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