Nightly Song
Musings on Songs that Strike a Chord Tonight

Mama Hated Diesels So Bad by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen

Mama Hated Diesels So Bad by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen

Performed by Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen and written by Blackie Farrell

You can hear the studio version here. Original member of the band, Bill Kirchen, does a live version here. Bill Kirchen and the song’s author, Blackie Farrell, sing the song together in this video. You can buy the song here.

I’m a sucker for a tear-jerker country song and they don’t come any better or jerk any more than Commander Cody’s “Mama Hated Diesels So Bad.”  With the winding of the pedal steel, the irresistible hook of the chorus, the poignancy of the lyrics and Billy C. Farlowe’s singing, the song will pull you in, sit you down and make you listen.

The song opens with Billy C. leaning into the mike and half-talking, half-singing the chorus over the somber strumming of the guitar and the pedal steel:

Mama hated diesel so bad
I guess I knew it was something to do with Dad
The first time I seen her cry
Was after one of them things went by
Mama hated diesel so bad

The singer is his father’s boy and you already know where this song is heading, but you can’t resist. In the opening verse, the singer notes the good times (“we used to live on the high-grade end of town,” a delicious double entendre of high living and truck driving). The boy, he can’t resist the lure of “them white freightliners.” He can tell even at that young age the problems this will cause:

But there was something in Mama’s eye
When she’d catch me watching the road
Lord a little bitty piece of her died

After another round of the chorus, the singer offers us a long spoken story. Hearing that voice creates an intimacy as if you’re sitting at the diner or maybe a bar and an old man turns to you. There’s something in his voice that you can’t resist, a compulsion that he has to tell that story right then and there is nothing more important than hearing his tale. So we pull a little closer to the speakers or listen a little harder to the ear buds. We hear the singer recount his teenage years, the girls, the messing around and the growing attraction of those big rigs.

Talking to my buddies about all the big rigs
That all the time were rolling in
And talking about all the crazy places we never been
Like California

Once we had cowboys riding west on their stallion; for the singer the trucker is that cowboy, the trucker’s life full of new worlds and adventure. The truck is his way out, the path to the bigger life. The more he stays away from home, the more he feels the pull of those rigs and the more Mama suffers.

One day the county sheriff come up to me
He said they found my mama wandering
All by herself in the middle of the highway crying
She was trying of all things Lord
To flag down one of those big old rigs with a pocket handkerchief

Left on his own, our hero starts loading truck until he gets his own rig “and I left my hometown on my very first run to Frisco.” Was there any other way this story could have turned out? The song is pure country, but it has roots in Greek tragedies where fate leads to tragedy.

He doesn’t come home until three years later and we find him standing graveside, just him and the preacher, that horribly sad and lonely ending. Even there he tells how the preacher:

He prayed for quite some time
But I could barely understand the words he said
Behind that highway’s whine

His life is on the road and it permeates every moment, obscuring even the prayers said over his Mama’s grave.

In the final verse, we get the payoff that we expected all along about Mama and Dad and the full impact of the family’s tragedy, The preacher hands the singer a photograph and declares it was “the best your Mama ever had.”

Well I looked down at that picture
It was Mama and some guy
Standing in front of a semi-truck
“Just Married” painted on the side.

Dad may be dead or may be out on the road; it made no difference to his abandoned wife. And you know that the singer will leave the funeral service and climb back into his rig and take off. He is who he is.

Is the song horribly sentimental? Of course, the emotion it produces far exceeds the story told, but there is that pedal steel adding volumes to what we feel, the precision of the lyrics and the singing that makes you believe.  

*****

If don’t know Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen or if you only their radio hit to Rod Lincoln, then you can discover immense pleasure in checking out their music. If you haven’t listened in a while, crank up the music and rediscover the pleasure. In their heyday, Commander Cody and his Lost Planet Airmen were a great live act and some of the juice from those concerts has been caught on tape. You can check out We’ve Got a Live One Here or 42 live tracks from two different dates on Live from Armadillo World HQ 1973 & Capitol Theatre 1975.

You can listen to some songs on YouTube, including “Hot Rod Lincoln,” the great pothead blue’s song, “Down to Stems and Seeds Again,”  “Lost in the Ozone Again,” and “Beat Me Daddy Eight to the Bar.” You want to go out drink, dance and wind up with some sweaty fun, you can do no better than Commander Cody and the Lost Planet Airmen.

The Commander (George Frayne) was born on a train passing through Idaho and you can hear how that happened in a recent interview the Commander gave to Nick Spitzer on the American Routes radio show. He moved to Brooklyn and to the South Shore of Long Island. The music didn’t start until the Commander headed to Michigan for college in the early 1960’s where he hooked up with Bill Kirchen, the musical talent who supplied the know-how and discipline that the Commander’s creativity and frenetic energy needed. Sounds like college offered lots of fun for the Commander: he discovered pot, formed the band and managed to maintain his scholarship, went onto get a fine arts master’s degree as a sculptor. Kirchen left for California and the Commander took a job teaching at Wisconsin-Oshkosh. Luckily, for all of us, Kirchen convinced the Commander and other members of the band to ravel west. Oakland provided the perfect location as the Town was known for both blues and County, the two dominant influences on the band. Within a few months, they were playing their country swing blues and rockabilly as an opening act for the Grateful Dead. You can read the full story of The Commander’s life here and his website here.

You can catch up with Bill Kirchen here. Both Kirchen and the Commander regularly play live shows, all worth catching if you can. (Kirchen often plays the Rodeo Bar in NYC, a great place to see him. He does a great version of Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues.) Years ago, I caught the Commander doing a show at a bomb shelter of a club in the Rockaways with the creative name of Rockaways. Those were my much wilder days and my buddy, Rat, knew the Commander from his days of yore in Bay Shore and we wound up doing shots of Jack at the bar; the liquor seemed like rocket fuel for the Commander. From what I remember, he put on a hell of a show.

To read more, you can check out the articles on the Commander and the band that have appeared in No Depression. Click here.

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