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DELUXE 3213; APRIL, 1949

 
 

 

Trains as a prominent method of travel were just starting to be on the wane by 1949. It’d be almost a century and a half since the steam engine had revolutionized not just travel but shipping, allowing freight and people to go inland great distances in little time rather than stick to waterways by boat or covered wagons by land. The arrival of trains and the money to be made by daring entrepreneurs throughout the 1800’s overseeing the railroads had made many people very rich while putting every part of the country within reach.

But the train’s time was bound to be limited once automobiles and then airplanes derailed it – pardon the obvious pun – in the first half of the twentieth century. The latter method of transportation would soon be able to travel the same distances at the same (or greater) speed without the need for land to lay tracks crisscrossing the country. The former would allow the individual the opportunity to travel when and where they pleased with themselves at the controls and with the rise of the auto the country responded in much the same way it had with the advent of trains – by building the thoroughfares over which they would traverse.

World War Two was the tipping point, for while the rail system played a vital role in shipping equipment needed for victory the technological advances that were made in the design of airplanes and motor vehicle engines for military purposes during the war now were adapted for civilian pursuits. With the post-war economic boom that found citizens with five years worth of income burning a hole in their pocket (no new autos had been built during the war and so cars were in high demand once they started churning them out again) and with more and more people moving to the suburbs in these years the country’s methods of commuting shifted almost overnight it seemed from trains to cars and never looked back.

What’s the point of this cliff notes version of transportation history on a rock ‘n’ roll history blog, other than the fact this song references trains?

Well, the same situation laid out above regarding how one method of travel was seamlessly replaced by another due to a handful of seemingly unrelated but thoroughly interconnected events was also happening in New Orleans rock ‘n’ roll. The transformation wouldn’t be quite as dramatic perhaps, after all unlike trains which had been thriving for well over a century rock music had existed for barely twenty months at this point, but the streamlined models of rock artists that had seemed so futuristic just a short time before were now headed to the stockyards as a fleet of new flashy cars with more options rolled off the assembly line.
 

 
Bought A Ticket To New Orleans
This is the record where past and future met ever so briefly in the present, as the less successful of the participants on the session date were still hoping to get to the mountaintop the artist in question had just reached. But if they had any thoughts of joining her at that summit they’d have to be content to merely pass her as she herself made her descent down the other side.

We’re talking of course about Chubby Newsom, the unquestioned queen of rock to this point, the only female in fact with a verifiable HIT to her name in the shape (oh what a shape!) of her debut Hip Shakin’ Mama, which just dropped off the charts mere days before Close To Train Time was released.

The voluptuous sex symbol with an attitude to match had shaken up the accepted order of the rock kingdom upon her arrival the previous fall and while one lone hit doesn’t start to off-set the massive gender disparity that has existed in rock ‘n’ roll to date, her success went a long way in proving that women could definitely hang with the fellas and beat them at their own game, not only commercially but aesthetically as well, as she brazenly embodied her songs with a genuine flair that was contagious.

Her follow-up, Back Biting Woman, which like her debut was cut with Paul Gayten’s band, was similarly well-crafted and while it didn’t break into the national consciousness with quite the same impact as that first sighting, it sold well, particularly around her home base of New Orleans and she seemed to be all but assured of expanding her notoriety as rock itself became ever more entrenched across the nation.

But as we learned with the top side of this record, New Orleans Lover Man, it wouldn’t be Gayten behind her this time out, which you may think was cause for concern and perhaps even the reason why this didn’t connect and quite possibly why her hits (or rather hit) were now behind her as her career suddenly stalled.

That’s hardly the case though because stepping in to fill the void, and in the process making a shockingly triumphant return from recording exile, was Dave Bartholomew, giving a decidedly unique twist to the song’s rather obvious imagery where Bartholomew’s train is pulling into the station while Chubby’s is heading out.
 

The Train Is Getting Near
The song is nothing if not interesting provided you’ve come to it knowing Newsom’s prior excursions, because while Close To Train Time still has definite ties to the Gayten led sides including melodic similarities emphasized by Chubby’s vocal inflections, it also steps away from some of the now established trademarks making this sort of a transition piece in her catalog.

What jumps out however is the new perspective offered. Unlike past records where Newsom flaunted her sex appeal that turned men into mush, here she’s the one left reeling when a guy she likes turns his back on her after he gets tired of her bad treatment.

Again it helps to have a sense of the unstated backstory here. Newsom is set up as being so confident in her ability to keep men wrapped around her finger that she didn’t feel the need to invest anything more than a coy smile and a hip-thrust every so often to keep him on her line. She may have even been playing the field, or at least actively soliciting interest of other guys by her flirting when the two of them went out each night until one night he had enough and they fought.

As scenarios goes this is as true to life as it gets as chances are if you make a habit of hitting the clubs on a Friday or Saturday night you’ve borne witness to just such a scene within your last few outings on the town. These scenarios may not exactly be the ideal selling point for the virtues of human nature but as real world melodramas go it doesn’t get much more authentic you’ll have to admit.

Newsom apparently didn’t like the things he’d said to her and decided to play her hole card and threatened to leave him. She makes it clear that she didn’t throw another guy in his face, pretending she already had someone else – someone better – ready and waiting which would’ve turned an already combustible situation into an explosion with that kind of gasoline and lit match tossed into the fray. No, here she plays it smart – at least she thinks so – by merely buying a train ticket to head to New Orleans.

She’s taken this approach before to maintain her upper hand and it’s worked, as she confidently says he’ll do the same thing he did that time and beg her to stay… except he calls her bluff which sends her reeling and leaves her quite shell shocked by the sound of it, teetering on the brink of despair.

Chubby doesn’t WANT to go. She likes this guy a lot but she also likes the power she and her notoriously shapely hips hold over all men and for the longest time it proved more than enough to get whatever, and whoever, she wanted. She was able to keep those men in line precisely because they feared losing HER more than she feared losing them.
 

A Good Man These Days Is Hard To Find
Once upon a time this guy was no different than the rest, sticking with her because he’d convinced himself that given the choice between being disrespected and being dumped losing her was the worse option, but getting tread upon in the process isn’t easy to tolerate, especially by someone you’ve given your heart to. There comes a point where whatever benefits you’re receiving from her (and having seen Chubby we don’t have to guess what those are and kudos for him to be able to turn his back on THAT!) aren’t enough to put up with it anymore.

The genius of Close To Train Time is how the story unfolds, each plot twist coming as a surprise, not just to you the listener but also Chubby Newsom herself who realizes her ploy hasn’t worked and now is at a loss for what to do about it. This sets up a few very interesting questions: Does she give in and apologize, knowing that if she does the balance of power from this point forward will rest with him? Or does she risk blowing the entire relationship up out of stubborn determination and simply not back down?

Either way this relationship is doomed. She forced his hand at first and he could either accept that she was the one calling the shots and let himself stay pussy whipped, forever at her beck and call, losing his self-respect in the process as well as never gaining her respect, or he could stand up to her and risk losing her in the process.

If somehow these two do patch things up this time around neither one is going to be satisfied with the new ground rules. She sure doesn’t want to be subservient so she’ll eventually try and regain the upper hand somehow, probably by using her natural gifts (that would be her body, in case you’re slow to catch on) to make him jealous by encouraging competitors to lurk around her door. In response to such a scenario he’s surely going to try and exert his newfound control over her in ever increasing displays of power – probably through mental cruelty and physical intimidation – for fear of easing off too much and letting her slip away.

But all of that is speculative, merely the likely responses from both that will occur after the record ends, and Bartholomew as producer doesn’t tip his hand as to which outcome he is anticipating because musically this is rather subdued – in a good way – letting the lyrics dominate which allows for Chubby to show off her emotional uncertainty without having to compete with the band. A few new touches are present that weren’t featured when Gayten was at the controls, namely some subtle guitar accents by Earnest McLean and Bartholomew’s mournful trumpet which adds the right amount of resignation, but as such it doesn’t have the kick to make this a jukebox favorite.

That’s a compromise they needed to make, and should be commended for it – staying true to the sentiments in spite of losing some surface appeal is something many artists and producers will struggle with – as Bartholomew shows right away why he was different in that regard, never betraying the song he’s been enlisted to put across.
 

 
I Don’t Want To Go Nowhere
Unfortunately being discreet, subtle and understated are things that are generally harder to appreciate for most folks. As such Close To Train Time is a song that requires a lot of awareness going into it – of Newsom’s on-record (and real life) reputation that this plays off which is crucial to having it work with a minimal of set-up; and of the storyline itself, making sure you pay close attention to it as it unfolds and understanding how Newsom’s state of mind – and subsequently her actions – change as it plays out.

That’s a lot to ask of a song meant for the jukebox and club crowds that were the audience for rock music in the late 1940’s. Not that they weren’t smart enough, worldly enough and experienced enough in their own lives to understand and appreciate it, they certainly were. As stated this type of thing happens all the time in real life and it was no different back then.

The problem is however rock music up to this point rarely called on you as a listener to focus intently on all of these aspects when enjoying records and so audiences weren’t expecting this kind of mental exercise when laying down their money. We’ve encountered some that have asked it of their audience, the first two sides of Albennie Jones’s output in rock for sure, a few from Amos Milburn and Andrew Tibbs and some Orioles tracks as well, but it’s just in general the songs that have made the greatest connection and thus have set the prototype for what rock audiences have come to expect by 1949 is something more shallow by design.

But that’s where we come back to the train analogy that opened this review. Just as train travel was on the wane in 1949 as a combination of advances in air travel and automotive production and the higher standard of living forever changed transportation, in rock ‘n’ roll the early successes have raised the expected standards of the music coming out. To that end newcomers to the production side of the equation such as Bartholomew were taking it upon themselves to elevate those standards, bringing more depth to them than previously was thought permissible. Though not yet two years old we were approaching the second phase of rock’s evolution already, one that would see it become more diverse and more complex.

It’s not that the old approach was found to be lacking at all, but ambitious artists never want to stay rooted to one theory for long and anxious fans are always seeking something more once they feel they’ve fully absorbed the last sounds.
 

 

Newsom was a defining artist of those prior sounds and in her own way had already done plenty to advance the ball by giving females a stronger presence in the field, opening the doors for others to follow.

As she shows on Close To Train Time she was certainly capable of expanding her artistry when called upon to do so, but it wouldn’t be up to her whether that move would be successful. Only the audience and what they accepted from each act would determine that and Newsom’s days as a star, short lived as they were even now, were about to end.

As Chubby herself exclaimed though the train was at the station she didn’t want to ride, preferring to stay and “change her ways”. But once that ticket is bought, as she found out within the song and in her career itself, sometimes you get put on board and are sent down the track all the same.
 
 
SPONTANEOUS LUNACY VERDICT:

 
 
 
 
 
 
 

 
(Visit the Artist page of Chubby Newsom for the complete archive of her records reviewed to date)