RAMBLIN' ROUND: Steve Goodman: 'I'm your native son'

David Gans | Courtesy PhotoSteve Goodman

Numerous stories abound about the competition between musicians — friendly and otherwise.

I've seen plentiful examples of so-called cutting contests, something that occurs when two lead guitarists share the stage, especially in the blues idiom. One guy will tear off a lightning riff, with a casual glance at his counterpart, silently saying "Can you top this?"

Then the other guy will fire off a couple of riffs of his own, as if to say "Oh yeah? Check this out." Then back and forth and so-on, until they're both riffing away in a constant state of one-upmanship. Sure, it's just friendly competition — at least most of the time.

But there are also selfless musicians who are not into the one-upmanship game, who do all they can to help their fellow workers in song. One great example is Steve Goodman.

Goodman may not be a household name, but he's well-known and respected among many who have toiled in the same musical vineyard as he.

And even if he himself is not a household name, some of his best songs have achieved near-legendary status. Probably his most well-known song is "City of New Orleans" — his mythic ode to a train named after the famed city of the South, with the well-known refrain "Good morning America, how are you? Don't you know me, I'm your native son."

He's also the writer and singer of "Go Cubs Go" — which has been played over the speakers at Wrigely Field when the Chicago Cubs score a run at their home stadium.

Goodman also had a hand in writing "the perfect country and western song" — but he always freely admitted he had some help on the song from a friend of his who refused co-writing credit. Goodman later showed his appreciation to his pal in a unique way.

Their friendship started around the early 1970s, when Goodman worked the folk club scene around Chicago, performing in coffee houses and clubs such as The Fifth Peg and The Earl of Old Town.

By 1971, Goodman had become successful enough to open for Kris Kristofferson, who was playing a three-night stand across town at a club called The Quiet Knight.

Every night after Kristofferson's show ended, Goodman set in for Kris to go see Goodman's buddy play at a small club on the other side of the city. On the last night of Kristofferson's gig, he finally relented, bringing singer Paul Anka along with him.

Kristofferson told the story himself later in album liner notes about how the artist Goodman was trying to help "caught us by surprise in the late-night morning let-down after our last show in Chicago.

"Steve Goodman (who’d shared the bill with us that week) asked us to go to Old Town to listen to a friend he said we had to hear, and since Steve had knocked us out all week with his own songs, we obliged," Kristofferson wrote.

By the time they got to Old Town, "There was nothing but empty streets and dark windows. And the club was closing," Kristofferson continued. "But the owner let us come in, pulled some chairs off a couple of tables, and John unpacked his guitar and got back up to sing."

John turned out to be John Prine. He would one day become the legendary songwriter who unfortunately died of COVID-19 on April 7, 2020.

In 1971 though, Prine was still a former mailman singing in Chicago's local folk music clubs, who had yet to be signed to a record deal. Prine later said he and the waitresses were waiting around to get paid after the club closed, when his buddy Steve Goodman walked in with Kristofferson and Anka in-tow

"There are few things as depressing to look at as a bunch of chairs upside down on the table of an empty old tavern, and there was that awkward moment, us sitting there like, 'Okay, kid, show us what you got,' and him standing up there alone, looking down at his guitar like, 'What the hell are we doing here, buddy?,'" Kristofferson said.

"Then he started singing, and by the end of the first line we knew we were hearing something else. It must’ve been like stumbling onto Dylan when he first busted onto the Village scene. One of those rare, great times when it all seems worth it ...," Kristofferson continued.

"He sang about a dozen songs, and had to do a dozen more before it was over. Unlike anything I’d heard before."

Prine later said his set included his songs "Sam Stone," "Hello in There" and "Paradise" — songs that would one day become classic American songs. He said he felt so excited that Kristofferson liked his songs that he couldn't sleep that night — and he gave all the credit to Steve Goodman.

Awhile later Goodman talked Prine into joining him for a trip to New York City. At the airport in New York they picked up a copy of The Village Voice and learned Kristofferson was performing that night with Carly Simon at a Club called The Bitter End.

Prine and Goodman caught a taxi and when they pulled up to the club, Kristofferson and his band were standing outside on the sidewalk — and Kristofferson told Prine and Goodman he was putting them onstage that night. The club was filled record executives  who had come to see Kristofferson and Simon — but they were knocked out by Prine's and Goodman's performances as well.

Jerry Wexler, a producer at Atlantic Records asked Prine to come see him at 10 a.m. the next morning. Prine did and walked out with a $25,000 recording contract after spending less than 24 hours in New York City.

Goodman ended up with a record deal as well. Prine has related how he came to Goodman's hotel room one night when they were touring together and Goodman said he was stuck on a song he was trying to write.

Prine said he looked over Goodman's shoulder and saw the lines "It was all I could do to keep fro, crying. Sometimes, it seems so useless to remain." Prine then added the next two lines: "You don't have to call me darlin', darlin'. You never even called me by my name."

David Allan Coe would go on to record the song and make it a huge hit, mentioning Goodman's name during a spoken interlude as the writer of what's been called "the perfect country and western song."

When Prine refused to take co-writing credit, Goodman bought him a present — a fully-stocked vintage jukebox — and personally delivered it to Prine's home.

I've seen numerous video clips of John Prine performing his classic song "Souvenirs," sometimes even as a duet with Goodman prior to Goodman's untimely passing from leukemia in 1984.

Prine went to perform the song many more times after his good friend departed from this life.

After almost every live performance of "Souvenirs," Prine would announce, "That was for my good friend, Steve Goodman."

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