I didn’t make my first writing session with Patty Griffin. I was on a 6am flight from LA to Austin, and I hadn’t slept at all the night before. One of the reasons I got into show business was so I wouldn’t have to get up early, but what I didn’t realize, is in show business, you have to get up earlier and stay up later more than anyone else ever has to. Whenever I had to get up for a flight I can never sleep the night before, my eyes popping open every hour on the hour to check to see that my nightmare of oversleeping and missing my departure time didn’t come true. It’s the true dark side of rock and roll. I did get up in time – 3:30am – urgh, and I made it to the airport ok, but I had to check my beautiful new chocolate brown Guild with a ‘vintage’ tweed hard body case which stressed me out so much I didn’t need coffee to wake up.
I got onto the flight and waited and waited and waited with all the other passengers to take off. We never did. We rested on the tarmac for awhile, the captain’s communications sounding more and more apologetic until the final apologia of the jet’s return to the terminal and everyone having to deplane due to mechanical failure. This is always followed by the passengers with ‘flexible travel plans’ – one of those people who volunteer to give up their seats for travel vouchers on overbooked flights – saying, “Well, at least it wasn’t while we were in the air!” I disagree. I prefer we just take off and deal with the mechanical issues in flight. I would rather be dead than late. It’s one of the truest things about me, if you knew me.
So the flight wasn’t going to Austin, and we were hundreds of passengers without a plane, and I was so exhausted I called Patty and told her I wasn’t coming. It was too painful, too early and I was too mad. I got my guitar out of the cargo hold as I rescheduled with her on my beloved blackberry. About a month later, there were no delays. I made it to Austin and Patty’s beautiful lime green and bougainvillea home without incident. Her two dogs, Lotte and Bean presided over our session. Bean seemed to love sitting on my guitar case. “She always tries to sit on black things.”
I had not met Patty before this, but I had been a huge fan for many, many years. I had been introduced to her music by the wonderful and sadly missed Kevyn Aucoin. Her music reminded me of him, the bright light of him, the beauty of him always. Patty’s manager said, “She is obsessed with her dogs and country music.” So we wrote a country song about dogs. My dog in particular. My dog Ralph. The greatest.
There is a wonderful album by Ane Brun called “Duets” and in my mind, when I sing along to this record, I am usually Ane and my duet partner is one of my dogs. My dearest wish is that humans and dogs could actually speak to each other and then the one next to that is that we could sing together. As I wrote the lyrics to this song, I sat with my big boy Ralph and imagined what he would say to me if he could speak, what he would sing to me if he could sing. I stared in his root beer eyes, as he cocked his butterscotch blonde eyebrows one then the other and tried to decipher his thoughts. He was a very large dog, intimidating to new people, but as gentle as a giant could be, with an irrational fear of the wind. Every time the Santa Anas would start their engines, Ralph could be found in the very bowels of the house, hiding far away from where the wind could find him. He absolutely hated the sound of the breeze slapping the trees together. He would shake and whine and salivate and refuse to be petted or held. I couldn’t understand it as much as he couldn’t understand why I checked my messages constantly – never hearing from the person I wanted to hear from – feeling destroyed by nothing at all. It was going to be a song about people problems versus dog problems, and the idea that maybe we could solve these problems together “Oooooooo-ooo! Oooooooo-oooo!”
I pulled out the words from out of my guitar case, weighted down by little Bean. I gave the dog warmed, wrinkled notes to Patty and she set them down in front of her. I left the room, returning moments later to Patty singing, “Ooooooo-ooo. Ooooooo-ooo!” and the song “Hey Big Dog” was born. We put on shawls and had dinner outside that night to celebrate. I played the song incessantly to practice, and had a rotating cast of dogs who would sing it with me at shows, sometimes Ian Harvie, sometimes John Roberts and sometimes Ben Lee. I sang the song many times while Ralph was dying. I sat alongside him in his massive dog bed, his big body fighting the eventual, the inevitable. The comforting chords would elicit great sighs accompanied by stinky farts, which would make the whole room smell like a hot springs. Very relaxing.
When he died, the song moved from guitar to banjo, where it could sound truly mournful. I cried as I tried to sing it to myself alone and it didn’t make me feel better but it did make me lose my voice for what felt like a dog’s age. Some time after I had regained my voice, at Largo, Fiona Apple was in the audience. She loved the song instantly, and said to me that she had been thinking of a song like this, one she wanted to write about her dog – and she said – which is the ultimate compliment for any songwriter – “You sang it for me.” I had the perfect duet partner! Fiona’s dog was also irrationally afraid of the wind and we traded dog pictures and many dog stories in anticipation of recording. I love Fiona’s voice on this song, and Ben Lee’s pitch perfect production makes it sound like pure Nashville meets Animal Planet.
I hope that this song will become an anthem to animal lovers all over, and a blessing for them and their beloved pets. We are not alone in this world ever. We have them. The hardest thing for me when Ralph was gone was facing the fact that he was not there anymore, but this song made me realize that this was not true. Now, Ralph is everywhere. Fiona said, “He’s on the wind now. And now, the wind will always bring him back to you.” This is so true.
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