Album: Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables
. . .
It wasn’t until I started figuring out which Todd Snider songs I wanted to write about that I discovered that “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown” was actually a pre-“Margaritaville” Jimmy Buffett song: a waltz-time song from Buffett’s 1974 album Living and Dying in 3/4 Time, about which I know absolutely nothing.
Which is true about the vast amount of his music that isn’t the songs that everybody knows. That said, I did see Jimmy Buffett in concert once. It was on the third day of US Festival in 1982, in which he performed between Jerry Jeff Walker and Jackson Browne on a day which opened with everybody playing in the band during “Breakfast With The Grateful Dead” and closed with Fleetwood Mac telling 100,000 heat-exhausted people to go their own ways.
Which Tim & I did, and I almost fell asleep a half-dozen times on the seven-hour drive back to Fresno, but made it through the sheer power of being 19 and not even letting two straight nights of about two hours sleep total and the 110 degree heat defeat me. Obviously, the capper to this story would be that Jimmy Buffett played “West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown” during his set, but according to setlist FM, he did not.
So I’d never heard it until 30 years later, when Todd Snider covered it on his 2012 album Agnostic Hymns & Stoner Fables., featuring a weirdly distorted acoustic guitar or maybe an electric guitar overpowering everything until he drops it down to sing the first verse, during which the drums disappear entirely.
Standin’ on side of the Highway 4 exit
A singing lady in tie-dye with a bag by her side
Not seemingly lookin’ like anything special
She saw my Tennessee tags and she waved for a ride
She sat right there ‘side me as the needle hit sixty
Explaining her travels and her family background
When she got through I could not help but thinking
She’s a long way from a West Nashville grand ballroom gown
Yes, she’s a long way from a West Nashville grand ballroom gown
Snider is joined on this verse — and through the entire song, actually — by Amanda Shires, whose fiddle playing provides another level of color to Buffett’s story of a society girl who ran away from home because she wasn’t her mother’s favorite.
Father had money and her mother had love
Channelled entirely to her dear sister Dove
Twenty-two years in society’s plan
Cancelled at the swing of her dear mother’s hand
As you can imagine, Snider’s version of the song is rougher than Buffett’s, eschewing the full string section and choir from the original recording for the indie-oriented instrumentation I’ve already been talking about. That said, Snider is singing all of the original lyrics, especially on the final verse, which he sings us the note that the hitchhiker gives him — “she told me I could read it if I mailed it in Nashville” — as she leaves his car in Cincy, as close to Nashville as she’ll ever wanna get.
‘Mama I’m fine if you happen to wonder’
‘I don’t have much money but I still get around’
‘I haven’t made church in near thirty-six Sundays’
‘So fuck all those West Nashville grand ballroom gowns’
‘Yeah, fuck all them West Nashville grand ballroom gowns’
After that, he his that distorted guitar a few more times, before finally bringing this utterly lovely song to a close.
“West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown”
“West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown” Live Acoustic on WFUV, 2012
“West Nashville Grand Ballroom Gown” Live Acoustic, 2020
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