Track of the Day: ‘Tobacco Road’ by John D. Loudermilk

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

What kind of songwriter was John D. Loudermilk? Genre labels aren’t much help in describing him. Musicians who took up his tunes had hits playing genres as disparate as country, bubblegum pop, and garage rock. The Jefferson Airplane recorded his songs, and so did the Flying Burrito Brothers, David Lee Roth, Glenn Campbell, and Marianne Faithfull. Jazz singers from Mose Allison to Norah Jones recorded his work, too. (Jones’s rendition of “Turn Me On,” from her debut record, is particularly beautiful.)

Maybe it’s better to describe Loudermilk’s songs in type: Concise, pithy, evocative, and emotional. Loudermilk, who died this week at 82, seldom wasted a word and never wasted verse. Many of his tunes clock in at a terse two minutes or two, with only a pair of verses. If brevity is the soul of wit, he also found it to be the path to songwriting success.

Listening to Loudermilk’s hits now, many of them come across as a bit dated. They’re bobbysoxer confections—George Hamilton IV’s “A Rose and a Baby Ruth” or Eddie Cochran’s “Sittin’ in the Balcony.” There’s Sue Thompson’s execrable “Norman,” and delightfully maudlin ballads like “Ebony Eyes,” recorded by the Everly Brothers. (See how long it takes you to guess the plot twist.) These songs haven’t aged as well as the ones written by Loudermilk’s cousins Charlie and Ira, who changed their name from Loudermilk to Louvin and became country stars and alt-country patron saints.

But John Loudermilk’s best work hasn’t lost a thing. In particular, that means “Tobacco Road,” a song he wrote in 1960 but that hit the charts in 1964 when the Nashville Teens recorded it. It was a semi-autobiographical song—Loudermilk was born in 1934 in Durham, North Carolina, an industrial town full of millhouses built to handle the influx of people from the country who came to work in the city’s textile mills and tobacco factories. Loudermilk’s song begins:

I was born in a funk
Mama died and my daddy got drunk
Left me here to die or grow
In the middle of
Tobacco Road

Grew up in a rusty shack
All I had was hangin’ on my back
Only you know how I loathe
This place called
Tobacco Road

That wasn’t quite all true—his father, though illiterate, was an industrious carpenter who made John a ukelele at age 7. The song’s narrator promises to go away and make it big:

Gonna leave, get a job
With the help and the grace from above
Save some money, get rich and old
Bring it back to
Tobacco Road

Bring dynamite and a crane
Blow it up, start all over again
Build a town, be proud to show
Give the name
Tobacco Road.

That part was only partly true, too. Loudermilk did indeed move away and make it big. The home where he was born doesn’t stand anymore, either—if you ask the right person in Durham, he might show you where it was located—though it wasn’t because Loudermilk dynamited it. Some of the old millhouses have been rehabbed and repainted, and it’s a sought-after neighborhood now.

The song focuses on the squalor, but it’s really more about the love-hate relationship so many people feel with their hometowns and the desire to be seen as a success by the folks back home. It’s heavy stuff, and the Nashville Teens’ take feels a bit callow. In the right hands, though, the song is a punch to the gut. Take it away, Lou Rawls:

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