THE HEART OF A HOBO
My late friend Billy Phillips once told me that he had originally moved to Nashville to be a Gospel singer. Billy had Muscular Dystrophy and by the time I first met him at Bobby’s Idle Hour Tavern, he was pretty much confined to a wheelchair. He told me that at one time earlier in life he had been able to walk, and even though he was a “wheelie”, he felt certain that he would walk again one day.
Billy also had a great love of classic country music, and after a few of my songs caught his ear (and his heart) we started having conversations about songs, songwriters, songwriting, and life in general. We became pretty good friends,
Billy used to sing at a soup kitchen that operated on Mondays at a church in Madison. It was a regular thing for him and he loved sharing songs with the folks who came in for what might have been their only good meal of the week. He called me up one day and invited me over there to play. While we were on the phone, he told me that he had a soft spot for homeless folks, and that his father had been a hobo. Billy grew up around traveling folks, and their family home was often populated with transient types that needed a place to lay their burdens down for a spell. One family had stayed with them awhile and left owing Billy’s family some money. They left behind the only thing they had of value, which was a box full of classic country record albums. That’s where Billy got his first taste of what eventually brought us into each other’s lives.
While we were having our telephone conversation, Billy said “I guess God gave me a heart for the hobo.” My immediate response was “That sounds like a great hook for a song”. We had never written anything together and decided that it was past time for us to remedy that fact. A few days later I went over to the house he shared with his girlfriend around the corner from the church with the soup kitchen.
Billy was laid up on the couch. I pulled up a chair and we started discussing where this hook would take us. After a little discussion, came to the conclusion that the hook was a little clunky and would be awkward to sing, so we changed it to “God gave him the heart of a hobo”, which seemed like a better alternative. We talked about it a little bit, tossing ideas back and forth, when suddenly I had a thought. I said “What if God literally did give him the heart of a hobo…as in a transplant from a dead homeless guy?” Billy’s eyes got real big and he stared at me for a minute before asking “Can we say that in a country song?” I told him we could say whatever we wanted to because we were the ones writing the song. Furthermore, if he didn’t want to write songs like that, he shouldn’t call me up, because I was prone to write things from a different angle than most folks. He was good with that.
It took us a while, but we finally came up with the song “The Heart Of A Hobo”.
R.I.P. Billy...and teach them angels this song.