Author: Robert Force
Date/Studio: 1984 Altman, San Francisco, CA
Engineer: Sandy Stone
Producer: Robert Force
Original Release: When the Moon Fell on California (KM318)
Current Release: The Complete Recordings (BSR 158)
It was somewhere around the late fall or early winter of '71-72. It could have been a year in either direction but not by much. I was hitchhiking to the East Coast through Kansas, along Interstate 70. The reason I know that this was the time of the year is because in the full winter I would hitch the more southern route taking I-5 down the California coast and then head east on I-10. In the spring and summer I'd cross the country on the northern routes of I-90 and sometimes, in high summer, 94. If it wasn't the dead of winter I'd come out of the Northwest along 84, pick up 80 in Salt Lake and drop down to 70 after Denver.
Outside of Lawrence, Kansas a car with three young men in it stopped to pick me up. It was my custom in those days to always be playing a tune by the side of the road. It was easy to throw the dulcimer back into the case and be ready when a ride pulled up. Besides, it was what I did most of the time anyway-- play music. I was always my own best audience and what better place to play than alongside the road, heading somewhere.
It was late afternoon. I could probably have made a few hundred more miles that day but I was never in a hurry to get anywhere. That's the number one rule of hitchhiking-- be content with where you are. The guys said they were just headed a few miles up the road but since it was getting late in the day, they thought I might like to have dinner with them and spend the night at their house. They were all bluegrass pickers and we could all play a few tunes. Well, OK!
True to their word we shortly pulled up to the house, went inside and broke out the instruments. We began playing our way through Old Joe Clark, Wildwood Flower, Grandfather's Clock, Red Haired Boy. I was a lickety-split, single-string lead player in those days so we cranked it up to Bluegrass speed and I blistered along with their guitars and banjo. They'd never heard “that thing” played before.
Wasn't long before the whiskey came out. After a few hours of drinking and playing it got dark. To this day I don't remember if we actually ever got around to having dinner. What I do remember is that at some point one of them said, “Hey, let's go coon hunting!” They broke out the shotguns, filled up “travelers” with whiskey and fetched the dogs. We were blind drunk, no two ways about it. I held my shotgun for about minute and gave it back. I hadn't been hunting in nearly ten years AND I was way too far gone. I knew that. I offered to tote the whiskey instead.
This was my first experience with coon hounds. They go from a lethargic personality to a loping blur of boney hips while voicing a sound that, to my musician's ear, was nothing short of miraculous. I spent many hours that night stumbling in the dark, drinking more whiskey and listening to those hounds. No one ever got around to pulling a trigger, perhaps just as well.
The next day they took me back out to the highway. By nightfall I pulled into Granville, Ohio, the home of Anne Grimes and Denison University. I'd made friends at Denison over the years of traveling back and forth across the country having spent almost enough time there to have graduated from the place. They had a college coffeehouse called the Jabberwocky that I'd play at on my way through. Students would keep me fed and stashed me in their houses and sometimes in their dorm rooms.
On the upper campus there is a row of ancient oak trees. Walking along the next day I thought they sure looked gnarled and twisted. What a great name for a hound dog! From that point the song practically wrote itself. It's always been sung and performed with just voice-- no instruments. As for Gnarled preferring to do his drinking from the squeezin's keg, you now know where that came from.