Smile Politely

A Case study

she got the tightrope walker
to go for a stroll
the baptist preacher
denyin’ his soul
the fortune 500
forget about rich
she stopped the executioner from
throwin’ the switch

(Lyrics from


If you’ve heard better lyrics to drink to…

That kind of woman has been sung about for decades — centuries, if we’re being honest — and she’s always impossible to describe, impossible to keep. She’s too much for one lover, for one town. She’s beyond beautiful; she’s flawed. She’s her own. That’s the kind of woman Peter Case writes about.

Case has a lyrical touch that is subtle enough to be universal, yet personal enough to punch his listener in the gut:

the politicians vanished
they must have caught their plane
the clandestine policeman
stared out in the rain

I sat down on the curbstone
I rubbed my eyes & coughed
I rubbed my wrists & ankles
& I thanked the lord above


I had the opportunity to talk to Peter Case this week, and the man knows who he is. He knows where he came from and what his music means to him. I’d argue that he adheres to the “I don’t get older, I get better” philosophy, and, if you read on, I think you’ll agree.

Smile Politely: How did you get started in music?

Peter Case: My big sisters were crazy about music. Phyl played boogie woogie and Fats Waller on the piano as a teenager. This was the fifties. I was the youngest, a little child, but it really affected me. I got a ukelele, also, played the piano in the house.

SP: What are your main sources of inspiration and encouragement?

Case: Elvis before the army, Everly Brothers, Chuck Berry, and Ray Charles … all big turn-ons. Sisters came back from going away to college; now they were into Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, also some jazz, and I loved that, too. Then the Beatles came out. The Animals, [Rolling] Stones, Kinks. I started [playing] guitar somewhere in all of that. I dug Jack Kerouac, too. On the Road … read that at fourteen … a big inspiration. [Allen] Ginsberg, too. People started to dig my music a bit when I was 14/15. It went from there.

SP: Where do you usually play? Any particularly special place you enjoy?

Case: I tour the U.S., Canada, Belgium, The Netherlands, Great Britain, Ireland, Spain, France, Italy, Australia … I like playing all those places. I like London, Atlanta, Houston, L.A., San Francisco, Chicago, Paris, and Rome! Austin … I like New Orleans to visit. I don’t get much chance to visit outside of playing! I enjoy playing anywhere people are, especially if they’re enthusiastic, awake. And, if they’re not, well, that’s my job to get ’em that way.

SP: You’ve been all over the world, clearly. Have you found music to be universal or are there cultural divides that get in the way?

Case: I haven’t really found too many cultural divides that music can’t cross. Music is international.

SP: One of my favorite things about music (and theatre). You’ve been playing and singing a long time. How has your style and influence changed over the years?

Case: As you get older, life seems to go by quicker. The effect is, you want to focus your energies better, get down to the good stuff. Don’t waste time. I don’t want to waste people’s time. It’s gotta be strong. And my taste is probably more selective. Music has to really say something to me, that helps me with what I’m doing, living my life.

SP: What about age? I really think some of the best music is universal across national and racial lines, but it could be difficult for lyrics and themes to hit home if personal experience doesn’t match.

Case: I think everyone is pretty much the same way down deep. In a sense, age is an illusion. You’re not really that much older than anyone, in the big scheme of things. It does bring some clarity of vision, though, and that helps the artist. Anyhow, I feel like I keep getting better at what I do.

SP: Do you feel you’re better because you’ve improved in skill (and I’m sure you have) or is it a change of perspective about yourself and the world?

Case: Both. Technical skill isn’t as important as perspective, which does grow.

SP: What kind of lyrics hit you the hardest — personal or more general?

Case: I think the personal and particular in lyrics is the toward being ‘universal.’ And generalization bores me.

SP: Do you prefer instruments you play yourself or those you’ve heard most often?

Case: I play guitar, piano, harmonica, and bass. I like slide guitar the way Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, Brian Jones, or my friend Ron Franklin plays it. I like sitar, harmonium, tenor, and alto saxophone … reggae horn sections … carnival music. I wish I could find somebody who plays like George Harrison…

SP: Well, who doesn’t love George Harrison.

Case: The thing about George is the way he could play lead over chord changes, melodically. Just about nobody does that well now.

Case: It goes without saying that you really pay attention! I learned to actively listen over many years, and I’ve only developed the ability to express what I hear in the last five years or so. Never stop improving, always working.

Case: I know what you mean. It’s hard to get what you’re really thinking down in writing!

SP: I think there’s a trap in trying to achieve perfection, so I just go with “relatable.”

Case: No perfection is possible, but it’s good to get lots and lots of practice and try to nail it down the best you can, and try to see it through someone else’s eyes.

SP: Sounds like it’s all about deeply personal, yet universally touching work for you. Am I right?

Case: Like I said, the most personal is often the most universal because people relate to it. The details you include in a lyric are the proof of its realness, and people get it.


You can catch Peter Case’s solo acoustic show at show at The Highdive on Friday, June 7. Tickets are $15 in advance, so save yourself a couple of dollars and get on the train now.

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