As you know, almost all of the songs we write tell stories. We want to share those stories with you. Just as we did for the songs on our first CD 13, we’ll post the story behind each song on our new CD Again here for you to read. The plan is to feature one song each week for the next 11 weeks.
Here is the story behind Bright Penny as related by Clark Hansbarger.
The song “Bright Penny”
Sometimes I set out to write a song; sometimes the song sets out to write itself. Bright Penny is one of those.
The process began with the music. I found myself playing the chords off and on for a few weeks until the first lines came into my head without reason or warning.
“The Devil caught the red head girl up on Dovetail Lane/
trying to make it home again just before the rains”
The words simply appeared, portentous and just a bit disturbing. I have no idea why I thought of a red-headed girl galavanting off to her destruction with the Devil, but I could picture the two of them clearly—–and the Devil was grinning.
I finished the verse, but could think of nothing else to write, and let the fragment of a song sit for a few days to see what else might come. Often, writing is like this with me. It goes where it will go when it will go, and it can’t be rushed.
When I sat down to try again, this bad boy named Ronnie wandered into the song and I realized that he had gotten the poor girl in trouble in the first place and would run away from his responsibilities. I saw the first verse then as simple allegory: Penny took the wrong path at the crossroads and ended up pregnant— though I wouldn’t go so far as to say Ronnie was Satan himself. He was just this guy acting like…well…acting like Ronnie.
I’ve always thought there is something weird about the Chinatown bus to New York. I’ve known plenty of friends who’ve taken this late night bus out of DC to save some bucks; I think you can still get to New York on it for under $30. And though my fiends say it’s not a bit dark or spooky, the bus seemed perfect for Ronnie’s escape–this and a couple of Percocets. I think he had a few forties with him, too, to further numb his conscience.
The final verse came easily. Penny would need some help and it came like pennies from heaven via the state lottery (our nearly universal tax on the poor disguised as entertainment). When Penny buys a leather pocket book with her winnings, I slip into social commentary: this poor girl can barely survive, but she still indulges her vanity with what little money she happens to get hold of. [ed/dictator: FWIW, that is my favorite line from all the songs on Again] And then she prays for more, though, in her defense, she prays also for a fresh start. Things have not turned out well since she took that walk down Dovetail Lane, and I do feel badly for her.
In the chorus (and background) are church bells and a choir, which I meant to sound both celebratory and funereal. I suppose this too is a bit of mean-spirited commentary. Neither seem to be coming to her rescue, though they ring clearly. In Tammy Lee (my other song about a lost gal), Tammy whips the Devil with her love and simple grace. In Bright Penny, the poor girl prays and prays, but I think the Devil still comes out on top.