Sunday, May 2, 2021

Homer Lee Sewell – "Ring Around the Bath Tub" (1965)


With its reference to vomiting and depiction of a sentient ring of soap scum, Homer Lee Sewell's "Ring Around the Bath Tub" is one of the weirdest old country songs I've heard in a while. 

It sounds like a song poem but was written and recorded by Sewell himself, a Texas country singer, recording engineer, and recording studio owner who once cut a single for Pappy Daily's D Records label on which a young Willie Nelson played lead guitar. 

Sewell was born in Wills Point, Texas, in 1920 and died in 2018 at the age of 98 in Haltom City just outside Fort Worth, about an hour and a half from Wills Point. His grave marker describes him as a "Country Poet."

He ran Oakridge Music Recording Service and Demo Studio in Haltom City as well as Oakridge Records, on which he released his own music and music by other country and even rock 'n' roll artists. His entry on Discogs lumps together records by Sewell and Homer Lee, but Homer Lee was a different artist. 

Sewell's recording career appears to have begun in the late '50s. He recorded the previously mentioned D Records single, "She's Mad at Me" b/w "Whisper Your Name," both original songs, in 1959, but that wasn't necessarily his first record. These two songs are more conventional country fare than the bizarre "Ring Around the Bath Tub." 

The book Willie Nelson: An Epic Life by Joe Nick Patoski talks about how Nelson came to play guitar on a recording by Sewell, whom Patoski identifies as "another Cowtown Hoedown regular," referring to the Fort Worth country music radio show that aired on KCUL from 1957-61:  

"I found out he [Willie Nelson] was a good lead man," Sewell said, "so I asked him if he wanted to play on my record." Sewell rounded up Willie, Paul East, an upright bass player named Bill Bramlett, and two fiddlers and paid Uncle Hank Craig $200 to get his recording made and released on D Records. An alternate version of "Whisper Your Name," recorded on the stage of the Majestic with Sewell on fiddle and Willie and Paul East on guitar, supported by Jack Zachary, Hank Craig's son Eddie Craig on bass, and Bill Bramlett—members of the Hoedown house band—was used as the B side of the single. "I got more airplay on that than I did with 'She's Mad at Me,'" recalled Sewell. "It had a good beat to it." Lawton Williams played the record on KCUL, and so did the disc jockeys on KTJS in Sewell's hometown, Hobart, Oklahoma. But sales were feeble....

Around that time Sewell also launched his Oakridge label and began releasing singles by himself and others that probably had been recorded at his Oakridge studio. If the catalog numbers can be believed, it appears that his first release was "Open Arms" b/w "Always Broke" (Oakridge OR101). A later single, "Country Boy Shuffle" and "Two Silver Dollars," was numbered OR 104 and was released in 1959, according to 45cat, so "Open Arms" might have preceded the D Records single. 

None of these were hits, but some recordings Sewell released on Oakridge—of himself and others—have been included in modern anthologies of vintage country and rockabilly music.

That brings us to "Ring Around the Bath Tub," which, according to 45cat, was released in 1965. It is a surreal account of a man's conflict with an anthropomorphized ring of bathtub soap scum that keeps him awake at night. 

The offbeat story and slurping sound effects at the end might qualify this as a novelty record, but the narrative is played straight and even includes some religious imagery in the chorus. The mention of vomiting is very unusual for a song of this era, and the almost random length of each line in the lyrics keeps the listener guessing about where the melody is going. 

The B-side, "Image of Daddy and Me," is a sad but somewhat confusing recitation that breaks into song on the choruses. It's one of those country weepers in which a child begs its parents to stop fighting, but the story is told by an observer in a courtroom who alternately quotes the child and the mother, the latter of whom says the titular line that the child is the "image of daddy and me." 

Here are the lyrics of "Ring Around the Bath Tub":

Friends, that old ring around the bathtub sure must be lonesome…

The towel is on the towel rack

And soap is in the container

The garbage disposal is all stopped up

And the ring around the bathtub makes me want to throw up

I’m drying myself off with the towel from the rack

And the dripping from faucet is running down my back

The ring around the bathtub has just about wore me out

I’ll try and get some sleep now if that ring around the bathtub don’t interrupt

I dreamed last night I was in Heaven

I was sleeping away in a room on flight eleven

When I awoke I’m-a whirling sound

The ring around the bathtub was up walking around

I got me some scouring pads and I put him back in place

And when I got through, he said, “You’re a human disgrace”

“If you go to sleep,” he said, “I’ll just interrupt again”

“I may be a ring around the bathtub, but brother, your troubles have just begin”

I dreamed last night I was in Heaven

Sleeping away in a room on flight eleven

Then I awoke I’m-a whirling sound

The ring around the bathtub was up walking around

That ring around the bathtub was up walking around 


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