Richard Shindell’s song The Next Best Western

Let’s just pretend today’s election never happened, and speak of better things.

Around the turn of the millennium, I worked at a small company in North London. We had a shared MP3 server: we all put some of our favourite songs on it, and we could all listen to each other’s. That’s how I discovered the brilliant singer-songwriter Dar Williams, who was the choice of my colleague Andrew Eland. In 2009, reading a review of one of Dar’s albums, I read on to the second half of that article which was about Richard Shindell’s album Reunion Hill. Based on the very positive review, I bought the album and loved it.

The opening song on that album is The Next Best Western, and it quickly became one of my favorite songs: so much so that when in 2011 I started playing and singing in folk clubs, it was the very first song I ever performed. So it’s particularly special to me.

Since I first heard Reunion Hill a decade ago I’ve wanted to see Shindell live, and last Tuesday (10th December) I finally did. He was playing a short UK tour, and I was able at the last minute to score a couple of tickets for a gig at Cove Village Hall, a crazily tiny and intimate venue for such a stellar songwriter and performer. I took Dan, my eldest son, and we got seats in the third row — two people in an audience of maybe 120.

Well, it was outstanding. I knew Shindell was a brilliantly insightful and intuitive songwriter, and a fine singer; what I didn’t know is that he’s also a superb guitarist. That facet of him gets rather lost on the studio recordings I’m used to, where his guitar is somewhat buried in the full-band arrangements that most songs get. To my surprise, I found I actually preferred the guitar-and-a-voice versions of the songs to the full-band studio recordings.

At one point he did The Kenworth of my Dreams, a cheerfully goofy story song about a man who thinks that buying and driving a truck is the secret to happiness, and discovers to everyone’s surprise that he is right. Since Richard had been taking plenty of requests from the audience, I chipped in at the end of this one and asked whether he’d do The Next Best Western, as I’d always thought of it as a sequel to the earlier song: the same man ten years later, with the sheen having worn off the trucking life, now just desperately weary and longing to reach a hotel for the night.

Richard: but the guy in The Next Best Western isn’t a trucker.
Me: he’s not?
Richard: no.
Me: but this changes everything!
Richard: you see, the song says “whoever watches over all these truckers”. That means he’s not one of the truckers himself.
Mike: but why else is he crossing the Indiana line in the middle of the night, and still driving at 4am?
Richard: maybe he’s a touring folk singer.

His solution was to sing the song, then take a vote of the audience to determine whether of not the narrator of the song is a trucker.

So the good news was that he sang my favourite of his songs. The bad news was that in the subsequent vote, I was literally the only person to vote yes. Even my own son voted against me.

At the end of the show, Dan and I went to exchange a few words with Richard and get a photo together. Dan said to him “Until now, I mostly knew your songs from my Dad’s versions in folk clubs. It’s nice to know how they’re supposed to sound.” Et tu, Dan?

Anyway: sensational gig. I drove a total of seven hours there and back to be there, and it was worth every minute. I surely hope Shindell will be back touring the UK again soon, and I will definitely make sure I’m there.


5 responses to “Richard Shindell’s song The Next Best Western

  1. Well, if I hadn’t read that before hearing it, I’d probably agree with your interpretation. But if he’s a trucker, it would say, “… watches over all us truckers”. Or so I would suggest.

  2. That was Shindell’s own argument. It was tough to argue with, I won’t deny.

  3. Andrei Vajna II

    That’s an amazing story! These concerts where it feels like the singer is in your living room, singing and chatting with you, are truly something special. So even though the arguments are quite clear, you still don’t agree with him?

  4. Yes, it was a great experience — sort of the opposite of seeing Paul McCartney at the O2 Arena. As for the arguments: they don’t convince me: I can still hear “all these truckers” as inclusive. Authorial intent is a much stronger persuasion for me. But even then, Shindell himself said (in another part of that same exchange) that he belives in hermeneutical liberty, so I guess I am free to interpret his song in whatever way seems best to be. I’ll just know it’s not how he interprets it.

  5. Pingback: What I’ve been listening to in 2019 | The Reinvigorated Programmer

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