Monday, May 13, 2013

Kentucky Songs: You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive

A little over three years ago on this blog, I featured Patty Loveless’ version of the Darrell Scott classic “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” During that post, I pretty much summed up all there could be said about the song – that was before I heard the latest recording of the tune by Dave Alvin.

You might remember Dave’s name from his stint in The Blasters as lead guitarist behind his brother Phil. He remained in that slot from 1979 to 1986 when he left the band to pursue other musical interests including a solo career.

On April 2 during the season finale of FX’s show “Justified,” Alvin’s version of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” was featured. From the first chords of the song, you know his recording is different. It starts with a guitar using a vibrato/tremolo effect set on a slow setting. Hearing these first chords for the first time caused the hair on the back of my neck to stand on end.

The only time I’ve ever had this happen musically was another song that used a slow vibrato/tremolo setting on the guitar: The Viscount’s “Harlem Nocturne.” Although I had heard this song as a kid, it was during the Stephen King movie “Christine” when the 58 Plymouth Fury rebuilds itself that I had a similar experience. Although the scene was powerful, it was the song and its unique backward strum along with the vibrato/tremolo effect that caused the physical reaction.

Flash forward 30 years to when I first heard Dave Alvin’s version of Scott’s classic lament about Central Appalachia. Although the sound is quite different from The Viscounts, it evoked the same emotion. Alvin set out to record his version in a bluesy feel with only a hint of a “country” sound. The fiddle and the mandolin fulfill any connection to country. If you listen closely, you can also hear Alvin’s National “Style 0” steel bodied guitar.

In the forefront of song, however, are four electric guitar tracks – two rhythm guitars with tremolo – one in each channel, the tasty slide licks, and the killer lead in the middle of the song. A female vocalist harmonizes with Alvin’s gritty low voice. The voice that “Justified” producer Graham Yost said typified what he conceived as the musical voice of the show’s lead character Raylan Givens.

It is for that reason that Alvin’s music has been featured four times, including a cameo spot, on the show. It was not his only recording about Harlan that appeared on “Justified,” as his own composition of “Harlan County Line” also was featured. Additionally, it was not the only time “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Behind” was used on the show. Brad Paisley’s version was utilized in the season finales for both seasons one and two.

This week, I’m featuring songs that reference Kentucky and I cannot think of a better example than Dave Alvin’s unique treatment of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive."

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