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.”
But the two would go on to have plenty of adventures together, many of which ended up in song.
“It wasn’t the kind of thing you sat in an office and did,” Casey explains. Matthews, who claimed to be part Cherokee, called it the “hillbilly method”: “You had to go out, live the tradition, drive around, drink and visit people, until you were exhausted. It worked if you survived it.”
They ran around with fellow rough riders like Tompall Glaser and Shel Silverstein, who produced the Suite. A few years later, Silverstein co-wrote a song for Bobby Bare called “Vince.” The lyric referred to a “great speckled bird” — not the traditional country classic, but the amphetamines known on the street by that nickname.
“Vince and Casey,” as they sometimes billed themselves, began thinking of the album as a self-contained show. (“We wanted to take it to Broadway,” Casey says.) In all, they would perform the album in its entirety maybe a half-dozen times. Those shows included a couple of prison gigs and one in the Kingston Springs school auditorium, with Johnny and June Carter Cash sitting in the front row.
Years later, Casey would hear from people who swore they were in attendance at shows the two had never played. He’s also heard a few insist they once owned the album – hardly possible, since Matthews and Casey themselves were the only two who had the mixdown tapes.
Once it became apparent that Nashville’s “next big thing” would be no such thing, the Matthews legend quickly evaporated. Former friends began distancing themselves.
“Everybody loved Vince, they really did,” says Casey. “He was a big personality.” But that could work against him, too, especially as he slipped deeper into abuse.
When Matthews asked Casey to give up his co-credits on the Suite songs — without remuneration — their partnership was over. Matthews was furious.
The last time Casey saw his friend, he recalls, “I was walking up Highway 100 with my guitar and my bag. He drove by in his Cadillac and didn’t stop. And that was it.” (They did reconcile years later, in the late Eighties.)
As long as he’s waited to see The Kingston Springs Suite come out, Casey thinks the timing is just right. Both Shooter Jennings and Father John Misty have covered “Laid Back Country Picker,” and the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum is currently celebrating the transitional period of the era in the new exhibit called Dylan, Cash and the Nashville Cats.
“I fully understand the prophet is never appreciated in his hometown,” says Casey, who will take part in a listening party and discussion at the Hall of Fame on June 6th. “Our appetites get us in trouble, but Vince did something that was wonderful. So from the heart.”
Like the plainspoken record he helped make, Casey is matter-of-fact about the whole thing.
“Some people emerge as winners,” he says, “and some don’t.”