On this episode, we pay a little tribute to the great Tina Turner, with an exploration of the song she wrote about her humble beginnings in a little town called Nutbush, TN. Join us on a journey down Highway 19 to visit “Nutbush City Limits”.
“Nutbush City Limits” (Words & Music by Tina Turner) Copyright 1973 EMI Blackwood Music Inc and EMI Unart Catalog Inc.
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Welcome to the “I’m In Love With That Song” podcast. My name is Brad Page, and I’m on a mission to uncover and rediscover my favorite songs, to get a better understanding of what makes them work and why I love them so much. Thanks for joining me on this journey here on the Pantheon Podcast Network. Everyone is welcome here– no musical knowledge or experience is required. If you love music and are even just a little curious about what goes into making a great song, you’re in the right place.
It’s reality that we are all getting older. I don’t care how young or old you are. We are all heading in one direction. And as we age, so do the artists that inspired us, that have moved us and, um, accompanied us through our journeys through life. Inevitably, we will lose these artists to the ravages of time.
The rock stars of my youth are no longer young. And over the last few years, we have lost so many artists that were such a part of our lives. And it’s just a fact that all of you will experience. Again, it doesn’t matter how old you are, or when you grew up… someday Janet Jackson will be an old woman; someday Britney Spears will be old; someday Taylor Swift will be an old woman. And that’s if they’re lucky– that they make it that far. There’s no shame or insult in that. It’s just the way it is. And nothing will shine a light on your own mortality than the death of an artist that you grew up with, that remains young and vibrant whenever you think of them.
This is all to set the tone for this episode because we’re talking about Tina Turner today, who passed away recently in May of 2023. I have been working on this episode off and on for a while. In fact, I first got the idea for this show back in 2017 when, on a road trip, we came near Nutbush, Tennessee. We never actually got to stop in Nutbush, but seeing the name reminded me of the song and that that would be a pretty good subject for a podcast episode.
So it went on my list, which is a pretty long list of podcast ideas. But one good thing about songs is that there’s no shortage of great ones. So this episode has been in the works for a while. It was about 80% done, just waiting for an opportunity for me to finish it up. And then Tina died… which I’m always of two minds about these situations, because I don’t want to take advantage of, or jump on the bandwagon, or be seen as “cashing in” in any way on the death of somebody, especially an artist as important as Tina Turner. And make no mistake, she is an historically important artist, but she should be remembered, she should be paid tribute to and she should be celebrated.
So I’m going to go ahead with this episode. Keep in mind that most of this was recorded before she passed away. It wasn’t originally meant to be a posthumous tribute, but I think it’s still relevant today. S
So, in honor of Tina, let’s take a road trip down to Nutbush, Tennessee, with Ike and Tina Turner, and “Nutbush City Limits”.
Ike Turner was a journeyman musician. It was his band, the Kings Of Rhythm, that recorded “Rocket 88”, considered by many to be the first rock and roll song. Though he wasn’t credited for it– it was credited to Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats, which always ticked Ike off.
Ike also worked as kind of a talent scout for Sun Records and Modern Records, and spent some time as a session musician playing piano on records for people like BB King and Howlin’ Wolf.
She ended up in East St Louis, playing with his band, the Kings of Rhythm, and that’s where he met Anna Mae Bullock in 1957. She became a fan of the band when she was 17. She saw them whenever she could, and then she began singing with the Kings of Rhythm. They made their first record together in 1958, a song called “Box Top” with Anna Mae, nicknamed “Little Anne” on backing vocals.
They had their first big hit in 1960 with a song called “A Fool In Love”, this time credited to Ike and Tina Turner.
Ike was the one who changed her name to Tina. By then, she was already pregnant with their first child. Ike was married to another woman at the time; he had already been married at least four times, maybe six times by then. When she was in the hospital having that baby, Ike hired another woman to pretend to be Tina on stage so he could keep playing gigs and getting paid. When Tina found out, she checked herself out of the hospital, went to the gig and punched out that fake Tina and then finished the gig herself.
In 1962, they got married. She was 23, he was 31, and Ike hadn’t even bothered to divorce any of his previous wives.
The abuse started early. When she told Ike she didn’t want to change her name to Tina, he hit her. That was the first of many. He slept around and abused her all through their relationship, and he worked her to exhaustion.
By 1966, the hits had started to dry up. Producer Phil Specter was also going through a dry patch when he saw Ike & Tina perform on “The Big TNT” show in late 1965. Go check out that performance on YouTube– they were on fire that night.
Phil Spector, being the control freak that he was, was not about to work with another control freak like Ike Turner. So, they cut a deal: Spector paid Ike a bunch of money to stay away from the studio, and Phil would make the record without him. Though “River Deep Mountain High” is credited as an “Ike and Tina Turner” release, Ike really had nothing to do with making that record.
Though the song didn’t sell as well as everyone hoped, it’s become a true classic; on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time, “River Deep Mountain High” came in at number 33.
The Rolling Stones– and this time we’re talking about the band, not the magazine– The Rolling Stones loved this song, and invited Ike and Tina to support them on a British tour. It was the first of a few tours where Tina would open for the Stones, and this exposed her to a whole new, and much bigger, audience.
One of the interesting things about both Tina and Ike is that neither one of them really wanted to be known as R&B performers, even though that’s what paid the bills. Their musical preferences were really elsewhere. So they were perfectly happy to venture further into rock and roll. And that’s where they’d find their biggest hits, with their versions of songs like “Proud Mary”, “Honky Tonk Woman” and “I Want To Take You Higher:.
Ike opened his own recording studio and Tina did some session work there, providing vocals, including for tracks by Frank Zappa.
As they got more successful behind the scenes, life with Ike was getting worse. More cocaine meant more violence. She had attempted suicide in 1968. It wouldn’t be the last time. Eventually, she left him in 1976. Their divorce was finalized in March 1978.
But back in 1973, they were still together when Tina wrote “Nutbush City Limits”. While Ike was becoming more and more difficult to work with, Tina was finding her own footing. She wrote “Nutbush City Limits”. But after it became a hit, Ike tried to take credit for it. But clearly this is Tina’s song. She wrote it about the town she grew up in.
Unfortunately, there’s no credits on the album, and there doesn’t appear to be much documentation as to who played on the song. Mark Bolan of T Rex may have played guitar on the track; it is confirmed that he played guitar on at least one other Ike & Tina song, so it is possible. It’s also been claimed that James Lewis, a member of Ike & Tina’s backing band, played guitar on the track. They both could be on the track. Who really knows?
The song opens with one guitar, maybe played by Mark Bolan, in the center channel. After a couple of bars, another guitar with a wah-wah pedal appears in the left channel.
Here come the horns on the right. The drums come in there, but it’s just the kick and the snare drum. No hi-hat, no cymbals. And they’re going to hold off on the cymbals for quite a while. The bass is also going to lay back for a while.
She’s telling us about her little hometown, but she’s not using full sentences. These are barely even phrases. They’re just impressions. A church house, gin house, schoolhouse, outhouse… but you can see the town taking shape in your head, right?
Highway 19 is a small rural state route that runs through this part of Tennessee, I believe it’s about 43 miles long. And a stretch of Route 19 between Brownsville and Nutbush is officially called Tina Turner Highway.
When she hits the end of the chorus, the bass comes in, along with a clavinet. A clavinet is an electric keyboard instrument; it was based on the clavichord, an instrument from the Middle Ages. But the clavinet is a relatively new instrument, developed in 1964. It has a very distinctive sound. It’s almost guitar like, but not quite. It’s really its own thing. Of course, it was Stevie Wonder who really popularized the sound of the clavinet on songs like “Superstition”. Here, the clavinet is kind of accentuating the bass guitar part. Let’s go back and pick it up right before the bass comes in.
“25 was the speed limit, motorcycle not allowed in it.” I love that line, it’s so specific. You can also hear that a low, droning note on a keyboard comes in there.
There’s a chime or a bell in the right channel. There’s some interesting choices of percussion in this song, and that bell will continue to pop up in the right channel. And the drummer is finally going to play some hi-hat coming up. Listen for that when the vocal comes back in.
Listening to the horn part; at first I thought there might be a synthesizer playing along with them, but now I’m not sure. I think it’s probably just horns, but see what you think.
Let’s hear that verse with the vocals.
Let’s play that chorus again and listen to her vocal. She does a nice little scream in there. And the way she cracks her voice on the word “city”, that is a Tina trademark right there.
Now this is where the song takes a total left turn, I think. There is a synthesizer solo that comes out of nowhere, and it feels totally incongruous to me. I don’t know if this was Ike’s idea, he’s credited as producer on the album. At the time, synthesizers were still pretty new. They probably thought they were doing something innovative or updating their sound. But now, to me at least, this is the thing that sounds the most dated about the song. I guess there’s a lesson in there about relying too much on conspicuous technology.
And there’s also that incessant percussion part in the right channel. And that brings us to the last verse where that synthesizer is going to have a little back and forth with Tina’s vocal.
And that last line, “salt pork and molasses is all you get in jail”. Again, so specific. And I love the way she sings that line.
And I love the way she phrases that line, “It’s called a quiet little old community”. There’s a long pause she puts in between “it’s called” and “a quiet little old community”. And the way she hits the word “quiet”, it’s just so great.
Let’s pick it back up and play it out through the fade. “A one horse town. You have to watch what you’re putting down in old Nutbush.”
Ike and Tina Turner, “Nutbush City Limits”.
Nutbush, Tennessee remains a small rural town. There’s a sign over the town grocery store proclaiming it as the “birthplace of Tina Turner”. And then there’s that stretch of Highway 19 that’s named after her, Tina Turner Highway. I’m sure if you go there today, there will be memorials, flowers and tributes laid out in her honor.
There have been memorials and tributes pouring in from every corner of the world, and the internet is full of them. It’s a safe bet that every music-related podcast has discussed Tina in some fashion lately. So, I’m not going to explain all of the ways that she made a difference, all of the barriers she broke down gender, race, age, and how many people she influenced. There are other podcasts that have done that and probably done it better than I can. We’ll never know how many women who, inspired by Tina’s example, escaped an abusive relationship. For that alone, she deserves our respect.
But it will always be the music that she’ll be most remembered for. That will be her lasting impact. Her records leaped out of the grooves with energy and intensity, and as a live performer, she was hard to top. Thanks for everything, Tina.
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