Richard Dobson, the enigmatic songwriter, and author who wrote songs recorded by a lot of country music icons such as Johnny and June Carter Cash, Guy Clark, Nanci Griffith, David Allan Coe, died Saturday in a Swiss hospital. He was 75.
In 1983, Robert Oermann wrote about Dobson in The Tennessean:
“Richard is a huge, gentle bear of a man with a rollicking, roll-with-the-punches attitude toward show business success or lack of same. He’s a man-child who has retained the wide-eyed wonder of youth as he has become a godfather to the new generation of struggling pickers.”
Dobson was born on Mar. 19, 1942 in Tyler, Tex. The son of a Shell Oil geologist, he spent youthful years in the Netherlands. Inspired by Kris Kristofferson and the albums Bob Dylan made in Music City, he moved to Nashville in 1971. The move was the beginning of “a series of peregrinations back and forth to Texas that continued for almost three decades,” as he wrote on his website.
He left in the mid-1970s to work on oil rigs and shrimp boats in the Gulf of Mexico, returned in 1985, left again in 1994, and often traveled back to Nashville to play and record. He made more than twenty albums (his first, “In Texas Last December,” was released in 1977), co-wrote the title track to Guy Clark’s celebrated 1988 “Old Friends” album, and was respected by some of American music’s most esteemed songwriters.
He’s name-checked as “a poet” in Rodney Crowell’s song “Nashville 1972” and was a favorite of Townes Van Zandt and John Prine.
He moved to Switzerland in 1999 to live in wife Edith’s home country. But he made frequent trips back to Nashville, often to record with producer Thomm Jutz, his friend of more than 20 years. They made five albums together, Jutz said:
“He was extremely generous and kind, meticulous in everything he did…He taught me to look at the world in a different way in many different respects, and one of them was to observe nature. He wrote all the time, working on songs, books, newsletters. He always said as long as there’s some writing to do, he’s happy wherever he is.”
Dobson’s song “Baby Ride Easy” was recorded by Carlene Carter and Dave Edmunds, then later recorded by Johnny and June Carter Cash. Clark rarely recorded songs written by others, but he made an exception for Dobson’s “Forever, For Always, For Certain.”
Dobson can be seen performing “Forever, For Always, For Certain” in “Heartworn Highways,” the essential documentary about renegade singer-songwriters like Clark and Van Zandt.
His songs were sometimes internal excavations and sometimes portraits of others. His “Ballad of Robin Winter-Smith,” a highlight of Nanci Griffith’s “Once in a Very Blue Moon” album, was a combination of the two. He wrote the first verse about a doomed motorcycle daredevil, and the second verse about his own questionable but defensible decisions:
“I make my living playin’ these songs, and I hang out in bars. I play my guitar, but I don’t jump over cars.”
Dobson, whose earliest and most important influence was Ernest Hemingway, chronicled his times in prose, as well, writing “Pleasures of the High Rhine: A Texas Singer in Exile About His Life in Switzerland,” and “The Gulf Coast Boys.”
For years, beginning in the mid-1970s, he wrote a newsletter about his various adventures and misadventures. He told The Tennessean in 1988.
“I originally called it ‘Poor Richard’s Newsletter,’ but we changed it to ‘Don Ricardo’s Life and Times’ because ‘Poor Richard’ sounded like self-pity.”
On his website, Dobson, who leaves many dear Nashville friends, wrote of his musical times,
“While you couldn’t call it a living, I wouldn’t trade the life. Music has enriched my existence immeasurably and brought so much joy, I would be a fool to complain about the hard times. A privileged and ancient profession, music can open doors and take you to places where rewards are not counted in money.”
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