Nobody around Nashville has talked much about them for 40 years. But in the early Seventies, the songs on Vince Matthews and Jim Casey’s long-lost concept album, The Kingston Springs Suite were the talk of the town.
Johnny Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Cowboy Jack Clement all put money behind the project. Cash covered one of the tunes, “Melva’s Wine,” calling it “the greatest contemporary American folk song I ever heard.” Waylon Jennings recorded another, “Laid Back Country Picker.” Yet despite all the support, the record — and its creator — ultimately went nowhere but down. Until now, that is: Decades after The Kingston Springs Suite was supposed to push the edges of Nashville’s creative boundaries, Vince Matthews’ nearly-forgotten life’s work is making its belated debut on the Nashville-based archival label Delmore Recording Society.
Matthews, the bright-burning, speed-gobbling songwriter who conceived the record’s impressionistic portrait of a small town about 20 miles outside (and a world apart from) Nashville, burned more than his share of bridges. By the time he nearly caused the destruction of an actual train trestle – when a freight train smashed into a cherry picker he’d rented for an ill-conceived film shoot – it seemed, sensibly enough, like a bad omen to Matthews’ songwriting partner.
Three years after they’d embarked upon Matthews’ quixotic proposition, after the routine disappointments of record label rejections, Matthews and Casey had a falling out.
Without Casey, Matthews landed a few hit songs of his own, including Gene Watson’s “Love in the Hot Afternoon” (which hit Number Three on the charts in 1975) and Crystal Gayle’s “This Is My Year for Mexico.” But he soon faded away, frittering whatever money came his way on Budweisers and Cadillacs. When Matthews died at age 63 in 2003, he’d been making phone calls for a mortgage company to make ends meet.
With its spoken recitations, songs about small-town eccentrics and Matthews’ uncertain command of his own singing voice, The Kingston Springs Suite is not quite what you’d call a masterpiece. But it is a distinctive artifact from a time when the anything-goes attitudes of the psychedelic Sixties were finally leeching into backwaters like Kingston Springs.
“Nashville was wild then,” says Casey, a Nebraska native who toured with Sammi Smith before buying into Matthews’ fevered vision.
The two were introduced by Allen Reynolds, who would later become Garth Brooks’ producer. “I remember thinking, ‘Man, that guy sweats a lot,'” says Casey about that first encounter with Matthews. “I wasn’t familiar with speed at the time.”