March 10, 2013
On their beautiful new album Cheater’s Game, husband and wife Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison get together for the first time to deliver some moving music, including several covers of now-classic country songs. Among them is the Razzy Bailey-penned “9,999,999 Tears.”
In 1966, Bailey recorded “9,999,999 Tears” with Atlantic Records, backed by an all-star cast that included Billy Joe Royal, Joe South, and Freddy Weller. Bailey’s original version of the song is more pop than country, and the harmonies resemble the music of The Righteous Brothers. Ten years later, Dickey Lee made the song his own, giving the tune its now familiar pop- country treatment, and a new twist. As he’s repeating the refrain—”I’ve got 9,999,999 tears to go/And then I don’t know if I’ll be over you”—at the very end of the song, he modulates to a high note on the final word (“you”), thus making the song his own and setting up any subsequent artists covering the song to be measured, in part, by how well they can make this shift at the song’s end. Lee’s version romps off with hard-driving lead guitars and whining pedal steel, with Ronettes-like backing vocals that give the song a pop sensibility.
Willis and Robison’s new version of the song makes it identity clear from the very beginning with fiddles replacing the guitars of Lee’s version. In her raw, intense voice, Willis belts the first two bars almost a cappella before the fiddles kick in, and then we’re off to the races. It’s not just the fiddles that set this tune apart from the earlier versions; it’s also Willis’ voice, so full of yearning, desire, sorrow; she takes us into the heart of a broken relationship here. When Bailey and Lee sang this song, it was as if they were singing a camp song (999 bottles of beer on the wall) for the little
emotion they dredged from the words. When Willis croons the words—“The sun didn’t shine this morning/ It’s been raining the whole day through/ Suddenly without warning, you found somebody new/ That’s when the first tear came, falling from my eyes/ I’m beginning to feel the pain, seeing nothing but cloudy skies”—we ache with her, knowing that just as the tears cloud her judgment and her day, no amount of tears can wash away the hurt that this broken heart feels. Willis delivers the pain of uncertainty and vulnerability in deep ways on this tune; she gets inside the song, using the lyrics and music to take us inside her heart. And, she nails that high note at the song’s end.
Willis and Robison have us cryin’ at the end of their tender and affecting version (it’s a cryin’ song, after all), palpably capturing the heartbreak at the very center of the song.
Written by Razzy Bailey