Blue Yodel #37 – Desert Island Discs

I hate lists. I have a to-do list that always seems to have the same ten items on it. It’s not so much a to-do list as a never-do list.

What I do: I’ll do something, then write it down on my to-do list and immediately cross it out. Meanwhile, the same ten things that never get done stare up at me with arched eyebrows as if to say, “Oh sure, pick up Guinness and Cheetos for the All-Star Game—check; installing shelves in the garage—we all know that’s not going to happen.”

I should just toss the to-do list, but then how would I remember to pick up Guinness and Cheetos?

Then, there are top-ten lists, which is what you get around New Year’s and in articles when the writer is out of ideas . . . which is what led me to revisit item #10 on my to-do list: write article on Desert Island Discs.

(This is more doable than item #9: write song celebrating the Higgs boson discovery. I got as far as “There’s a well beaten particle.”)

No, this is not a top-ten list of my favorite songs to take to a desert island. I would never stoop that low.

It’s a top-eight list.

And actually, they are not my favorite songs. I need to explain.

On the top-ten list of longest-running radio shows, the Grand Ole Opry is #1. It began on November 28, 1925. But at #3 is a BBC Radio 4 show called Desert Island Discs, which began January 29, 1942 and is still going strong.

I listen to it on a podcast and it’s always entertaining.

The premise is simple: the presenter, Kirsty Young, invites guests to talk about the eight songs they would want to have with them if they were stranded on a desert island.

She plays brief clips of the songs and discusses them with the guest, but the Desert Island Disc (DID) list is more a vehicle to discuss the life of the guest, who is usually not a musician, but someone interesting. (I didn’t mean that the way it sounded.)

So, it’s not necessarily favorite songs, but songs that meant something to people at various stages of their lives. There is a difference. If I were to choose my eight favorite songs, that list would be different from the eight songs that meant the most to me at different times of my life.

I don’t have a favorite song, but when I get pressed for one at songwriting workshops, I come back to Jesse Winchester’s Mississippi You’re On My Mind. It’s a well-constructed song with a great melody and lyrics. Or maybe I just like to hear Jesse Winchester sing it.

And when pressed for lyrics that are memorable, one of my favorite lines is from John Prine’s Burnt Orange: “I heard sirens on the train track howl naked getting’ nuder.” I just like it. And there’s a songwriter named Burke Ingraffia whose lyrics always surprise me and make me wish I had written them.

I know some of you are thinking, “Hey buddy, those aren’t bluegrass songs,” as I back slowly toward the door. Actually, two bluegrass songs do make my DID list.

Foggy Mountain Breakdown is at #5 because I remember hearing Earl play it with the Earl Scruggs Revue in 1975 in Gainesville, Florida, when I was messed up on Guinness and Cheetos. It brings back memories I thought I had lost years ago.

And at #6 is the Stanley Brothers’ Lonesome River. That’s because the first time I heard a bluegrass band sing it (I have no idea what band it was—some band in north Florida), I had to learn bluegrass harmony. And then I heard the original and was even more hooked.

Also, the numbering of the DID list is not based on most to least favorite or vice versa, but chronologically.

So, here’s my DID list:

  1. I Want to Hold Your Hand (The Beatles) – This is the first song I remember singing. I was five when this came out and I learned all the lyrics and sang it constantly. It also explains all the bad haircuts in grade school pictures.
  2. Theme from Bonanza – This was the first tune I learned on guitar. My sister Betsy taught it to me and I drove my parents crazy on car trips playing it over and over.
  3. Bridge Over Troubled Waters (Paul Simon) – I think this was the first LP I owned. Again, my sister Betsy bought it for me. She’s to blame for a lot. I remember the harmonies and the big sound and my first inkling that someone can actually write a song. Of course, it was like watching Hank Aaron hit a baseball. It looked easy, but. . . .
  4. Kaw-Liga (Hank Williams) – My other sister, Sally, was a huge country music fan and had a complete collection of Hank Williams. He and John F. Kennedy taught me that only the great die young, which led me to a life avoiding greatness.
  5. Foggy Mountain Breakdown (Earl Scruggs) – Apart from seeing the Earl Scruggs Revue live in 1975, this was the first song I played in public on the banjo. It was in high school with my friend Jeff Trippe on guitar. I remember the huge applause from an auditorium of our peers messed up on Guinness and Cheetos.
  6. Lonesome River (A north Florida band, Stanley Brothers) – Just hearing that sound in an open field made me hungry for bluegrass harmony (not to mention funnel cakes) for years.
  7. The Lakes of Pontchartrain (Paul Brady) – Okay, this is the one that comes the closest to being just a top-8 favorite song and singer. I can’t get enough of Paul Brady’s singing and would hate to be on a desert island without this.
  8. The Silver Swan (Janet Beazley) – One thing I wouldn’t like about being stranded on a desert island is not having Janet there. The song is from her album 5 South and was written by Orlando Gibbons as a madrigal around the year 1600. This would also make my top-8 favorite list.

The problem with lists is that they change. I’d have different songs if you ask me next week. I’m leaving out Samuel Barber’s Adagio for Strings and any minor league organist’s version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame.

But for today and picking just eight songs, I feel good about it. Could those of you in the UK please tell Kirsty Young and BBC Radio 4 that I’m ready to fly over at a moment’s notice if someone cancels on Desert Island Discs?

The show asks for two other items that you’d take to the desert island: a book and a luxury. You’re given the King James Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare, so that eliminates the obligatory answers. For the book, I would probably take Ferdinand and for a luxury I would take a fiddle. I don’t know how to play the fiddle, but I figure what’s a desert island for if not that?

So, that’s my Desert Island Disc list. It’s an interesting exercise—one I encourage you to try. Maybe put it on your to-do list.

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About the Author

Chris Stuart

Chris Stuart is a writer and songwriter living in San Diego. He was the 2008 recipient of the IBMA Print Media Person of the Year award, co-writer of the 2009 IBMA Song of the Year, and past winner of the Merlefest Chris Austin Songwriting contest in bluegrass and gospel categories. You can follow him on Twitter @cvstuart, on Facebook, and at On Tuesdays you can find him having fish tacos at Roberto’s in Del Mar.