Oil and Music : Conversations With Steve Forbert and Tift Merritt

In 1979, Steve Forbert released the album Jackrabbit Slim which featured the hit single "Romeo's Tune." Though the track became Forbert's signature song, an equally enduring composition from that package was included on a bonus 45 titled "The Oil Song."

Originally, its lyrics documented early oil spills, one more horrific than the next. But with each passing decade, the song's topic has continued to be relevant, and it sadly gets updated by its author every few years to include the latest litany of petrol disasters.

The following is an interview with Steve Forbert who discusses the evolution of "The Oil Song." During this conversation, the artist touches on related topics such as better energy sourcing, electric cars, coal, and a strong suggestion that James Cameron at least be consulted regarding this latest crisis. Also included is a chat with Tift Merritt about her career, her early years spent in North Carolina, and her new, very personal album, See You On The Moon.

photo credit: Reggie Barrett / courtesy of Steve Forbert

A Conversation With Steve Forbert

Mike Ragogna: Steve, let's go over the history of "The Oil Song," your commentary on oils spills from the seventies and on.

Steve Forbert: That's right, it originally came out as a bonus single with my album Jackrabbit Slim in 1979. That first version was about the Argo Merchant and The Olympic Games, then there was one called the Amoco Cadiz. That was the first installment of the song, it ended with the Cadiz. Then the song started growing with that Mexican oil well Ixtok 1 on into the Exxon Valdez in 1989 which was like version number three or so. The song is like a true folk song because you have to keep adding things to it and it has a life of its own, and unfortunately, it grows with the particular topic.

MR: Can you give a recap on this latest, updated version?

SF: The easiest thing would be to just tell you the latest verse: "We're pumpin' out petrol no matter what cost, and now that eleven men's lives have been lost, the price is as high as rig workers can pay, payin' the price for the U.S. of A. A deep water rig called "Horizon" went down, no way to seal off the pipe has been found, so South Louisianan's all wait for to see just what the landfall of this spill will be...and it's oil, creepin' in the sea..."

I decided when this happened that I would do a complete overview of the whole history of "The Oil Song" since it started, like I said, with the Argo Merchant and The Olympic Games. It's turned into thirteen minutes of verses.

MR: I think the last big folk hit that used a narrative style this explicit was Gordon Lightfoot's "The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald." Your recording follows the tradition of true folk music, despite its production that doesn't stay within that format's stereotype.

SF: Well, I never thought it would become such a textbook case of a folk song, but it certainly has.

MR: It's unfortunate that this story has to keep growing. What was the worst spill?

SF: I think the worst incident we ever had was when Saddam Hussein just opened up all the Kuwati oil wells. I think technically, that's the worst incident. But, you know, this is looking pretty bad.

MR: Do you feel there was any way this could have been prevented?

SF: Well, I'm hardly an authority on this, and in my humble opinion, they might have asked director James Cameron what his opinion was a couple of weeks ago. This is the guy who did the film on going down and exploring the inside of the Titanic, and the very nature of his job with these blockbuster movies he makes is constantly solving technical problems. So, I wonder what his thoughts would be.

MR: I'm surprised the technology wasn't there to prevent the very thing everyone feared might happen.

SF: Look, they thought they had something that would work, that was designed to respond to a problem and shut it all down. In this case, it didn't. So, okay, if it keeps going after those shutdown systems fail, what do you do? This is a whole new experience. I know they tried, there's no reason why they wouldn't. There's nothing but bad publicity for them every day, and it's their industry.

MR: In a way though, it has that same vibe of incompetence that the Bush years had.

SF: The public is baffled. We see the bad pipe, we see the footage, there it is. Why has it been so hard to stop it?

MR: Right, it seems like we're still going to the mouse about problems with the cheese. It seems that we need input from other industries and strategists when it comes to potential planetary disasters. For example, we've certainly had the ability to at least try and run our cars using other sources of energy.

SF: You know, that's a huge subject. The electric car is said to be a viable option, but what do you run it on? Fifty percent of our electricity comes from coal. You know, that's not so wonderful, unless we have the technology in place to really clean the emissions from burning coal. What coal mining often does to a landscape isn't so appealing either. Don't forget, nearly 30 men were killed in that recent West Virginia mine explosion.

MR: That's a terrific point, that's not an efficient solution either. But let's take the case of the electric car. California killed it dead through the politics and greed of the obvious industries that were vying for keeping gas-guzzlers as the status quo to maintain huge profits. Perhaps it wasn't the answer because of the point you just made, but it might have been a forward looking enough action that might have led to exploring even more diverse or inventive sources to meet our energy needs. There's wind power, solar power, geothermal...

SF: ...and we need the combination of all of them is what I understand. But yeah, go ahead.

MR: Instead of looking at this as a national initiative like going to the moon, we're still entrenched in such a pigheaded "profit trumps all" mentality that seems to prevent what I would consider a more patriotic approach.

SF: Mike, you know, gasoline is around three dollars a gallon, and we actually think that's a reduced price since we had that big scare a few years ago. One could look at it this way--in terms of dollars, it's as if Wrangler Jeans were able to sell every household in the country two or three pairs of jeans every week without fail. If you had that kind of business going, you'd probably be willing to go to great lengths to keep it functioning.

MR: That's where we need all our inventors and entrepreneurs to finally step up, more folks like Richard Branson, Steve Jobs, and Bill Gates to understand how dire this is, if not for the planet's sake, then for our survival. But more likely, solutions will probably have to come from the little guy.

SF: I have a friend that's working on an engine that runs on a combination of Borax and water. It makes hydrogen gas, and he's moving right along with it, it's very interesting. He's got a little prototype, and he's been told--no pun intended--that if he can get it to run for sixty minutes, they'll put it on the show 60 Minutes. What happens next could be real interesting. The only way to get around the entrenched industry is to get everybody in America to say, "We demand to know what's up, what's out there, and why what's out there won't work." You've got to wonder, with the weeks that have gone by with this spill, how bad will a problem have to get before people get really activated about something and "organize." I mean, we're just talking about public opinion.

MR: The whole debacle really goes beyond incompetence or faulty machinery. This is also about the bigger issues involved.

SF: I myself am really ashamed about it. We could talk about having a sense of outrage, but I feel a real sense of shame. I mean, I'm driving a car, and we're supposed to be in a country of, by, and for the people. So, what are we all doing? I don't want to sit around and talk about British Petroleum. We know what they're doing, but what are we doing?

For more on Steve Forbert: www.steveforbert.com

Lyrics Courtesy Of Steve Forbert...

© Steve Forbert

"Oh, the engine's gone dead!" cried the men who were there
And she passed up the dock on the wide Delaware;
Then the ship ran aground and the oil got away
And they did not report the big spill on that day.
It was hundreds of thousands of gallons galore
Stretching thirty-two miles down the Delaware shore;
There were geese in the marshes out looking for food,
They got stuck where they stood in the oncoming crude!

And it's oil, oil,
Drifting to the sea;
An' it's oil, oil,
Don't buy it at the station,
You can get it now for free,
Just come on down to the shoreline
Where the water used to be.

In the well-charted waters of the Nantucket shoals
Was a ship run aground, full of oil we were told;
In a week's worth of rough winter weather and waves,
The boat started cracking and it could not be saved.
It was seven point six million gallons this time---
Consider the danger and think of the crime
As it poured out a slick stretching into the tide
Over one hundred miles, it came deep, it came wide!

It was oil! oil!
Pouring in the sea;
Oil, oil,
Don't buy it at the station,
You can get it now for free,
Just come on down to the shoreline
Where the water used to be.

One of these ships was the Olympic Games;
The Argo Merchant was the other one's name.
It's sad but it's true, things got worse for the seas,
Along came a craft called Amoco Cadiz---
Amoco Cadiz between England and France,
Big supertanker out taking a chance
With his one hundred thousand black tons of the slime,
Amoco Cadiz spilt the most of all time!

People, oil! oil!
Creeping in the sea!
It was oil, oil,
Don't buy it at the station,
You can get it now for free,
Just come on down to the shoreline
Where the water used to be.

Gallons of sludge, sixty million and more!
Sleazin' and easin'; towards many a shore;
A Mexican oil well went leaking its goo----
At that time the worst things had ever come to!

It was oil, oil,
Creepin' in the sea;

Hey, the captain's now free and his case it is closed,
The Exxon Valdez wrecked itself I suppose;
What's left of the life in the Prince William Sound
Might not condone what our court of law found!

And it's oil! oil!
Creeping in the sea!
Oil, oil,
Don't buy it at the station,
You can get it now for free,
Just come on down to the shoreline
Where the water used to be.

Saddam Hussein was a pretty strange man,
Look what he's done for his trusting homeland,
With sanctions and bombing he'd no way to sell
Crude from his captured Kuwaiti oil wells;
He sat down to think and came up with a scheme---
One that he thought might protect his regime;
Covered the Gulf in a blanket of black
Thought it might hold a few battleships back!

It was oil, oil,
Creepin' in the sea,

Registered in through Liberian doors,
Passin' the Shetlands near Scotland's cold shores,
A single-hulled ship with his engine broke down
Drifted five hours and then ran aground
Right where the wildlife preserve chanced to be
And twenty million more gallons got free.
But don't worry, folks, "It's light crude!," they did say,
"It'll prob'ly break up and be gone right away!"


They're banning those single-hulled tankers we hear,
Phasin' 'em out in the next sev'ral years;
There's one called The Prestige won't be junked in that heap,
It stalled off of Spain and it sank down the deep;
One million gallons of fuel reached the beach,
Nineteen more sank in some tanks that weren't breached;
If air's trapped inside 'em they'll burst any day,
If not, they'll just sit there to rust and decay...

Till it's oil! oil!
Creepin'' in the sea...


A Conversation With Tift Merritt

Mike Ragogna: How did it feel being a Grammy nominee?

Tift Merritt: It definitely came out of left field. Nobody expected that to happen, and the best thing about being nominated for a Grammy is that you get to share it with your family and it's sort of a validation for them for having supported you when it really didn't make sense. And when you're nominated for a Grammy, it gives you a great feeling. It's a really, really nice thing to share with your family. But it was definitely unexpected.

MR: Speaking of family, you grew up in North Carolina right?

TM: Yeah, I did grow up in North Carolina.

MR: What were those years like?

TM: I grew up in Raleigh and I went to school in Chapel Hill, and that's where we started our band. I lived in and around Chapel Hill for many years. I think growing up in North Carolina would probably be like growing up in a lot of other places in that it was when places had a real identity. You know, I do a lot of driving through the United States right now. When you reach the outskirts of a town, you hit a Walmart. So, Chapel Hill was pretty special for a small town. But we also had a nice amount of culture and a great community of people who had a similar background and who knew your parents. Information was shared at a much slower pace, and life really was so different from the people around you.

MR: You also played music as you were growing up.

TM: Yeah, my Dad taught me. He played piano by ear, and he had a really pretty voice. He plays guitar--he finger picks, plays harmonica. He played Bob Dylan, Percy Sledge, Dolly Parton...that's how I started.

MR: How old were you when you started playing small clubs?

TM: I started playing small clubs by myself when I was in my late teens. I was all by myself, and I didn't really know drunk people. I tried that for a while, and then I said you know, I don't think that this is for me, this is pretty weird.

MR: You also were in groups like The Carbines, right?

TM: Well, right away, I was off trying to play clubs, trying to be an artist. I didn't think any one could teach me that. It ended up I got a job through a friend in New York and was there for a little while. Finally, I realized that I was being a waitress more than anything else, so when I did start school, in my first class, I just happened to meet a drummer. I had kind of decided that playing in clubs was a little tougher than I was. It took me a little while, but I eventually got the nerve to give him a taste of my stuff. He came back the next day and brought drums and a bunch of LPs, and I said, "What are you doing?" and he said we have to have a band. He's now my husband.

MR: You were signed to Lost Highway. How did that happen?

TM: I bumped into Ryan Adams, and he told his manager about me. I was starting to play around the South, and this manager picked me up, and he knew a slew of amazing people. I felt really lucky to be there, and within a few months of managing me, he started Lost Highway. He is one of the founders of Lost Highway, and he sort of took his whole roster to Lost Highway, so I got to go too.

MR: When you did your first record Bramble Rose, it got a lot of accolades. Considering it was your first album, did all of its positive reviews surprise you?

TM: Well, I think we were just happy to be noticed and playing at that point. I mean, I tried to make a point to not get too carried away with press, and I just tried to stay on my own compass. We were making music, and we got to work decent gigs, travel all over the country. You know, it was just one of those times when you see your dreams set in motion, and we were just so super excited about that. And we were also learning a lot. I learn a lot now, being in the music business, but back then, every club, every city, every night was truly something new, and that was a really awesome feeling.

MR: Did a lot of those experiences translate into songs that made it on to your album Tambourine?

TM: I know there was a fair amount of pressure on Tambourine. It was kind of before the music industry fell apart. But most of all, our band had always been like this very energetic band. I mean we always wanted to be more than just a bar band, and we were all full of energy. I just really wanted to make sure that we went into the studio after touring for this really introverted record. After six months I was like, "I really want to burn something down on stage every night." It was really an exciting time.

MR: In addition to being nominated for a Grammy, it was nominated for three American Music Awards in the Americana category--Americana Album of the Year, Artist of the Year, and your song "Good Hearted Man" that hit #60 on the country charts. That had to be a nice high coming off of all that.

TM: It got a lot of critical acclaim, and I think that everyone was surprised that the Grammys took notice of it. I mean, I believed in it 200 percent, but the country world didn't embrace it at all, and it didn't really sell to what anybody thought it should have. We were dropped twice after that.

MR: Yeah, major label luv. A recurring theme.

TM: It was really, really amazing to see the world embrace that record and to have worked with people like Mike Campbell. But it just wasn't embraced by the country world though it was sometimes painted that way, you know what I mean?

MR: It probably seemed like a logical market to the label. Whatever. You then moved on to the Fantasy label. How did that come about?

TM: Well, I took some time off in Europe, and I wrote a record which was a big accident too. I was sitting in Paris where I rented a flat with a piano. I came back with these songs, so when we were dropped, there was already a record in existence that I really believed in. Robert Smith at Fantasy called me, and we started talking about Eudora Welty stories and Robert Franks photographs and on and on. I started to think this could be my home for this new little record that I'm working on, and so it came about very naturally.

MR: That was your previous album, which brings us to See You On The Moon. This one seems like a very personal record to me. I could be wrong.

TM: No, no, no!

MR: Then I would say this is your relationship record, right?

TM: Yeah. I think that there is a lot in this record. The story is a lot more in the music than in the framing of it. I really wanted to make a direct record. I wanted the writing to be really strong and direct and not try and expunge anything superfluous in the writing and the writing process. But you know, I think all my records are very personal, and hopefully are going further and deeper with each one, so yeah, it's more personal.

My grandmother died while I was writing this record and I think are some personal losses in this record that maybe weren't in the other ones. But in a lot of ways, I made this record without thinking...just by feeling and doing and trusting in a way that I can get beyond and get further than I did before.

MR: Well, what is sweet about what you just said it that it's the process used by most great artists when creating their brilliant albums. It comes from a place that just flows, you have to get out of its way.

TM: That is exactly the phrase that I use, get out of my own way.

MR: And you're also a photographer whose Other Countries exhibit had a run in Raleigh's Mahler Gallery.

TM: I did. And you know that was a really, really sane thing for me to do because I have always had this fantasy that I'm a visual artist rather than an artist that is on tour all the time.

MR: As a photographer, how do you get inspired?

TM: When I took that time off in France, I was by myself and didn't really know anyone. So, when I was writing and really needed just to stuff my own head, I would walk, and I came home with all of these journals and pictures that, to me, felt like a part of that time and part of that record. I wanted to find a way for the photos to stand on their own rather than just be in a box under my bed. I'm always careful to not be a dilettante, but that was just an important part of that process to me, I don't pretend that I'm a photographer. I'm a hack, and I do it when I can and I love it. But this was really about trying to make something stand on its own and speak for itself, and I was very proud of it.

MR: So, See You On the Moon. One of my favorite tracks is "Mixed Tape" with those moody seventies strings and a sound reminiscent of...

TM: ...Bill Withers!

MR: Man, I swear, I was just about to say "Ain't No Sunshine," but said seventies strings instead. What inspired "Mixed Tape"?

TM: Yeah, well, the first thing was that I had a huge suitcase of tapes that I've been meaning to go though. I have some tapes that my high school boyfriend made me, and some from a friend who had great taste in music. By the time I was around 19 or 20 years old, I had a collection with all of this really great music on it. That was my introduction to it, and that's when music became really, really important to me.

I first remember reading into every single song and there was the emotional charge that every song gave me, so I had to translate that. I remember making tapes for my friends and wanting them to be perfect, even making the cover and tearing it up and trying it again. It was at least a one day process if not a four day process. I guess I think there was so much sweetness in that, and I don't think that making as CD playlist and burning it in 35 seconds is equivalent.

MR: Yeah, the process of making them always was terrific. CD burns probably appeals to that instant gratification thing we all seem to need now. Creating a mix tapes always seemed intimate to some degree. Very personal.

TM: I just think that hand made, home made thing really takes time, and you do it with your hands. I think that's still where my heart lives.

MR: Beautiful. Tift, on the song "The Things That Everybody Does," I don't really want to do any of them. Are those truly the things that everybody does?

TM: (laughs) No. Those are the things that I did, and that I am feeling with everybody.

MR: Tell me what went into your list?

TM: It's a very personal song. When I wrote it, I got married, and I was kind of a little scared about it. It's about what everybody feels when they do it, and it was also singing about a time when I was a loner. I lived with my dog by myself on a farm trying to be a writer, and it was a very pure time. But it was also a very lonely time. I just never totally got in a place that everybody around me seems to get to. I think that as I have grown older I have started to understand a little more what it is that I was talking about.

MR: "Feel Of The World." You've got good ol' Mr. My Morning Jacket on there, Jimmy James.

TM: Yeah, he did such a wonderful job with that. I'm talking about my grandmother dying, and it wasn't about her actually dying. I wrote it while she was dying, and I feel like my grandfather--who is not around--I feel like it was more his song than my song. My grandmother was very old, and it was time for her to pass. But you know you can feel the impact of someone's life passing, and in the mystery of that passing, you also feel a sense of tactile life. So I was just really thinking of her.

MR: Beautiful. So of all the potential songs by other artists to cover on your album, why did you pick Anne Murray's hit "Danny's Song"?

TM: It's so funny. We love seventies music, and I was wearing roller skates around the studio. It sort of brought us around to this conversation about seventies singers who wore roller skates which went into seventies singers who got haircuts. It just went from there, and somebody said something about Anne Murray not being cool. This huge argument broke out in the studio because Anne Murray is cool.

MR: I think before she recorded "You Needed Me," she was considered one of the great interpreters of lyrical songs. Paul McCartney commented that he thought her version of "You Won't See Me" was his favorite.

TM: So, we started watching all these videos of her singing "Snowbird" in 1970, and we're all in our thirties. "Danny's Song" totally made us tear up and had us thinking when it came on of when our parents had it on. So, we just started fooling around with it, and Tucker said go on in there and cut it, you've got two takes. It was never intended to be recorded, it was just sort of this moment that was really sweet and true and we couldn't shake it.

We played it for people and they would say you're not putting it on the album. So, then I thought my gosh why don't we. It was just really natural and sweet and fun and something that kind of resonated in our lives. When you start thinking about it...we don't have a lot of money, but we're happy and its good. It was just a sweet song for us.

MR: Is "After Today I Never Thought I'd See 18" a true story?

TM: Yes.

MR: Ouch.

TM: This song is definitely not through my eyes. I sat next to a public defender for juveniles on an international flight. He told me about his job defending kids who, by the time they're 16, 17 years old, are facing a death penalty or life in prison. After I heard that, I just knew I needed to write a song about that.

MR: So did this turn out to be your dream come true album?

TM: Well, every album that you make is your dream come true album if your doin' it right.

MR: Good answer. Are there any issues in the news that concern you?

TM: You know, I think about food safety, big agriculture. I am a huge advocate of small farmers, and there is so much in the news right now. The oil spill is breaking my heart, and it's just really hard for me to read the news sometimes. The decision making processes that happen don't really make any sense to me, and I don't know how to change them.

MR: One more question. What is your advice to new artists?

TM: It's so simple. I think you have to love what you do, and you have to do the things that feed life to you. I don't think there are any shortcuts. I think you have to be true to yourself, and I think that's really hard because there are a lot of people telling you that you should be something more convenient for them. It's really not so complicated. You just have to love music, play music that you believe in, and try to do the right thing.