Glass Houses Words & Music by Steve Gillette & Rex Benson
In NPR's review of the book "Tammy Wynette: Tragic Country Queen" by Jimmy McDonough, he quotes her saying, "I believe you have to live the songs."
When Tammy Wynette died in 1998, she was known as the First Lady of Country Music. She was born in 1942, in a rural county of Mississippi. By the time she was in her mid-20s, she was on her way to being the first artist in the genre to go platinum. Wynette had more than 20 No. 1 hits, though she's still most widely remembered for signature songs of the late 1960s and early '70s, such as "I Don't Wanna Play House" and "Stand By Your Man."
Joe Diffie worked as a demo singer in the 1980s then signed with Epic Records' Nashville division in 1990. He has had 35 singles on the Billboard Country Chart, five of which reached number one.
Of all the recordings of our songs, I think Tammy and Joe's duet of "Glass Houses" is the most sonically beautiful, with the possible exception of the Chesapeake version of "Bed of Roses." The production and mastering are so satisfying, and hearing those fabled voices sing our words is very gratifying.
While congratulating ourselves, we must acknowledge the twisted path that the song took to qualify for that glorious result, and the professionalism that went into every aspect of the effort. I like to think that we were coming to terms with that kind of professionalism in our writing. By the time we came to write this song, I think we had our act together to a much greater degree than we did with our first attempts.
From the beginning, we envisioned Tammy Wynette and George Jones singing the song. Not only were they the premier duo in country music then, but they had been playing out a drama in their own relationship that gave another dimension to our idea of what the song was about. It would be hard to imagine two people more subject to public scrutiny unless you resort to the tabloids in the checkout line at the market. Of course in their day you would find George and Tammy there as well. A question remains as to our role; were we exploiting their pain, or were we trying to rescue them, like children of a troubled couple?
This one brings up the chance to talk about a very useful technique in songwriting. I'm thinking of the device of clustering. It's really just a list of things related to the central topic. The first thing we do with clustering is to draw a large circle on the page. Then around the circle, we start to write down words and phrases that are suggested by the central topic, usually the title of the song. Then we explore all those sub-topics for their insights.
As you can imagine, a title like "Glass Houses" presents us with a rich field of images, and when you add the connotation of two people going through a very public breakup, the ideas begin to percolate. But just with the 'people who live in glass houses' central concept we start to come up with terms like: fragile, reflections, mirrors, shatter, pieces, sharp and shards, see-through, visible, open, hidden, unhidden, hide, can't hide, every one can see, naked, exposed, can't get away with anything, etc.
Some of these found a place in our song, and some just suggested story elements or led us to other ideas. Sometimes a second cluster can be created from one of the terms. For instance, 'mirror' might be the center of another cluster where we would come up with: reflections, shattered, seven years bad luck, see ourselves, man in the mirror, etc. Again some of these will apply and some won't. Better to have more ideas to choose from.
Once we had terms that we felt were valid to the song, it seemed we understood the basic idea of the song a little better. We had more confidence in making an effort to characterize a relationship and deciding where we wanted to put the emphasis. Was it to be a bitter breakup with possible recriminations? No, we chose to present a bitter-sweet struggle that all of us could identify with. A drama that brought out the preciousness and the delicate nature of being together.
We chose not to impose the sentence of ending the relationship, but instead to warn of what might be lost. Sometimes it's easier to talk about what is valuable by describing its loss, or possible loss in this case. So the song really ends with a warning, which we hoped would convey the urgency of protecting something that cannot be easily replaced.
In every collaboration there is some unevenness of abilities or qualifications. I have to say that Rex is really the wiser and more conscientious when it comes to knocking on those doors and taking on the rejection and disappointment that goes with pitching songs. He has worked diligently over the years to build relationships and to cultivate credibility for our songs and other songs he's found.
When I told him that I was going to take up our song "Glass Houses" in an article for this blog, I asked him to refresh my memory of how the song finally found its way to Tammy Wynette and Joe Diffie to be recorded, and here's what he wrote:
"Re: "Glass Houses," here is the story as I recall it.
I sent it in Mid 80s to Mary Lou Hyatt who was running Waylon's office. They called back to say Waylon wanted to put it on hold, but nothing came of that. In 1989, I met Keith Whitley and his road manager Carson Chamberlain out here. I handed the version you had cut with Bill Holmes at Glaser, to them.
Next day, Carson called me and said Keith wanted to put it on hold. So I phoned Keith's producer Garth Fundis, and told him. He asked me to send him a copy and I did. He called back to say he liked it too. Keith died in '89, with 'Glass Houses' still on hold, and to this day, every time GF hears it, he tells me how much it reminds him of Keith.
In '91, Joe Diffie debuted at Epic Records and was immediately a Hit artist. I met him and handed him 'Glass Houses' at a show. He went immediately onto his bus to listen to it, and came off telling me he thought it was great. Over next couple of years, I ran into Joe maybe 3 times, and each time he mentioned how much he liked the song. About that same time, I had met Tammy, and got to know her, and some of her entourage.
In '93, I got wind that Don Was was fixing to produce a Tammy Cross-Format Duets project, and I got the Glaser version to Don's asst. Jane Oppenheimer, who forwarded it on to Don. Don requested that we put it on hold for Tammy. Then I saw Tammy again, and she had heard it thru Don (I was also pleasantly surprised that she also had a copy of "The Test Of Time" on her bus, that I had sent to her) and she liked it very much.
Shortly thereafter, Tammy got sick and her husband George Richey phoned me to say they didn't know when Tammy might be well enough to record, but they hoped I would continue to hold it for her, and I told him I'd hold it until they were ready.
In '94, I was in Nashville in a song meeting with Joe Diffie's producer/manager Johnny Slate. Door opened and in walked Joe. He said, "Rex, what are you doing here?" I said "I'm pitching you songs." He said "Play Glass Houses." I said, "I can't, Tammy's got it on hold." He said, "Label wants me to cut it with her." I said, "I didn't even bring a copy with me," and then Johnny said "It's OK, I've got a copy here that the label sent over."
I looked at them, perplexed, as Johnny put the tape into the deck and they listened right then. Joe and Johnny nodded their heads, and next thing you know, Joe is in the studio with Tammy, cutting our song. The Legendary Barry Beckett (whom I knew some at that point) ended up producing the record. Tammy's and Joe's vocal was done in one pass. Incredible."
Tammy Wynette and Joe Diffie singing "Glass Houses"
Tammy Wynette and Joe Diffie
Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen performing "Glass Houses"
Here's a video I made for "Glass Houses" set to a live recording by Cindy and me from our CD, "Live in Concert."
Audio: Steve Gillette & Cindy Mangsen. Video by Steve.
Our album "Live in Concert" is available for purchase here on CD or as an MP3 album.
Here are the lyrics as we sing it:
Before things got to such a delicate place Before those sad reflections on your face I always thought when it was over You'd be kind enough to let me know. I'll admit that there's a distance We're both afraid to let it show But you've been a lifetime coming to me And I'm not about to let you go. Two people living in glass houses We can't hide what we're going through Some of the things that we've been clinging to Are not what they're supposed to be. Two people living in glass houses We've got a fragile world at stake It only takes one careless word to break it Into a million memories. We used to lock our troubles outside Somehow we took it all in stride But all the walls we built around us Couldn't keep us from drifting apart. Seems like everywhere we turn now Somehow there's something in our way. Two people living in glass houses We can't hide what we're going through Some of the things that we've been clinging to Are there for all the world to see. Two people living in glass houses We've got a fragile world at stake It only takes one careless word to break it Into a million memories.
© 1986, Sony/ATV Melody / Rex To Riches Music, BMI