Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Something Borrowed: "Tobacco Road," David Lee Roth/The Nashville Teens/John D. Loudermilk

Every now and then my shuffle hits a song from David Lee Roth’s Eat ’Em and Smile album, and I remember how much I loved that record.

Sure, it’s silly, corny and completely over the top, but that’s precisely what I want from Diamond Dave. That flamboyant, and at times, yes, goofy personality is part and parcel of why I’ve always loved him and why, in my mind, Sammy Hagar was never a replacement for him despite really being the better singer. 

Roth also has a knack for surrounding himself with great musicians, and that was especially true of this record, which featured the likes of Steve Vai on guitar, Billy Sheehan on bass and Gregg Bissonette on drums.

At a time when Van Halen with Hagar was moving toward a more pop-oriented sound, Eat ’Em and Smile was a loud blast of wild-eyed rock ‘n’ roll that was essentially a middle finger to what Roth’s former band was doing. At least that’s how I saw it.

To me, his cover of “Tobacco Road” was one of the highlights of the album. It’s also an interesting study in the evolution of a song. There have, of course, been many covers of “Tobacco Road” over the years, notably the blues rock version by Eric Burdon and the Animals, but they kind of did their own thing with it and played a little looser with the melody. The three we’re looking at here provide that evolutionary chain. All share the same basic melody, but they’re also all quite different.

We start with the John D. Loudermilk original, which is more of a folk blues song. It’s a very calm, somber and restrained performance – three things that aren’t in the vocabulary of David Lee Roth. It speaks a bit more of the hard-scrabble life that might have been found in the rural areas of North Carolina in the early part of the 20th Century.

Skip ahead a few years to 1964, and the Nashville Teens take Loudermilk’s song and give it a loud blast of rock and roll. The punctuating guitar notes on the verse clash and clang with a fervor that approaches an early version of heavy metal. They also add in the little vocal runs on the chorus that probably made Roth’s eyes light up.

Now it’s 1986, and David Lee Roth takes all of the things that the Nashville Teens incorporated into the song, runs them through a modified Marshall stack and then cranks it up to 11.

It starts with that familiar opening guitar lick which, in the hands of Vai, becomes a screaming, squealing beast of a beginning. The verse riff becomes an overdriven gallop as the rhythm section of Sheehan and Bissonette begin to make their presence felt.

And then, of course, there’s Diamond Dave, playing it to the hilt as he always does. While the band delivers a driving, metallic version of the song, Dave transforms it into more of a showtune with his vocal gyrations and antics. He delivers it completely over the top, as always, drawing out the “rooooOOOoooOOOOooooad” in places and hamming it up all the way. It’s certainly not the best vocal the song has ever had, but it may be the most fun and charismatic.

All three versions – the Loudermilk original, the Nashville Teens’ one-hit wonder and Roth’s dripping with ’80s excess rendition – surprisingly share a great deal in common. When you break it down to the notes, they’re practically identical, but with each of the three versions, the volume knob gets a big twist until Roth is blowing the speakers. While I think each of the three has its own charms and strengths, as a proud child of the 1980s, you know which one I’m going with. This one goes to 11.

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