Interview: 40 Years Later, ‘The Kingston Springs Suite’ Makes Its Debut
In 1967, songwriter Vince Matthews moved from Nashville to a small town just west of Music City called Kingston Springs. The tiny Tennessee town (population at that time: 510), with its pure mineral springs, was a popular health resort and spa in the early 1900s, but by the time Matthews arrived, it was just another small Southern town.
Matthews and his wife Melva often hosted their Nashville friends at their home in Kingston Springs -- a group of singers, musicians, songwriters and producers that included, among others, Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash. Also in the mix was Jim Casey, who had moved to Nashville to work alongside noted producer Alan Reynolds (Emmylou Harris, Crystal Gayle, Garth Brooks); together, Casey and Matthews would begin to craft what became known as The Kingston Springs Suite, 12 songs about the people of and life in Kingston Springs in the early '70s.
The project began "as almost an assignment," Casey tells The Boot: Essentially, "Cowboy" Jack Clement suggested that Casey and Matthews work together and offered to produce them.
"Vince Matthews and I were both of really totally different personalities, but we were both songwriters, and we shared a love of people and the things that mattered to us," Casey explains. "Vince and I fell into this thing, and we saw a deeper thing to it ... It was about humanity in this little town we lived in that we thought was soon going to pass out of existence the way it was.
"We actually started this out as a project on Vince," he adds. "but the farther we got into it, the farther it depended on me as not only a writer but as a performer, too."
While Casey is quick to note that he and Matthews weren't the best singers, the songs on The Kingston Springs Suite benefit in a way from their unpolished voices. Listening to each tune, some accompanied by spoken-word introductions to the songs' many characters -- Melva, Bessie, "Mr. Sam" and "Mr. Soul," all real people, among them; "Laid Back Country Picker" was written with Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings in mind -- you almost feel like you're hanging out with Casey and Matthews as they tell these tales.
"These were real stories, and they were about real people," Casey says proudly. "Every single song on there was about a real person."
Clement, Cash, Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein all lent their clout to the project as producers, with Cash also providing his studio and engineer and penning the liner notes.
"At the time, we were going, 'If only we had a song in here that was a lovey-dovey, simple thing,'" Casey notes, "but looking back, I'm so proud that we were able to do that [without one]."
Casey and Matthews mounted about half a dozen live productions of The Kingston Springs Suite, including at Pennsylvania's Pocono Speedway, at the Tennessee State Prison and in a small school auditorium in Kingston Springs, the latter "with Johnny Cash and June Carter Cash and their little baby John sitting on their lap there in the front row," Casey recalls. ("They had the best time of their life," he adds. "They got to be ordinary people from that front row.")
There was talk of turning The Kingston Springs Suite into a Broadway show -- "as crazy as that would be for a bunch of hillbillies," Casey says with a laugh -- or a TV special, for which Casey still has notes. But neither of those projects came to fruition.
"Our vision was an impossible one for that time because they didn't have the technology to do what you can do now," Casey says, noting that their performances used, quite simply, a projector and slides to help tell the stories. "We knew what we wanted in our mind, but all we could do was project slides."
And even though the album was recorded and mixed, it was never released.
"It just never was able to reach that point," Casey adds. "Nobody really understood it at the time."
On Tuesday (May 19), 40-something years later, The Kingston Springs Suite will finally be released, digitally, on CD and on vinyl, through Delmore Recordings; it will also be commemorated at an event at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville on June 6.
"I really think, with what's available now, people are really interested in that era," Casey says. "They want to hear about how creative and open it was."
Matthews died in 2003, but Casey is happy to help fulfill this dream of theirs -- and he says that the moment was well worth the wait.
"I believe the timing is perfect. This is God's timing on this," he continues. "Any earlier, I don't think people would have cared about it."
Casey notes that he is still open to the idea of creating a stage production out of The Kingston Springs Suite, but for now, simply having the project released is victory enough.
"It was like a story that never had the ending to it, and the ending was never written," he says, "so just [getting it released is an] accomplishment."
The Kingston Springs Suite is available for pre-order on Amazon; you can listen to one of its tracks, "Bessie, That's a Lie," here. More information about the CMHOF event is available on the Hall of Fame's website.