By Bob Johnson
Being a California native, I love songs about my home state. And, as you know, I also love songs about wine.
Of course, my definitions of “California songs” and “wine songs” are quite broad. The songs don’t have to actually be about California or wine; they just need to mention them in some way.
Near the turn of the millennium, Nora Guthrie, the daughter of legendary folk singer/songwriter Woody Guthrie, was sharing some of her dad’s uncovered and never recorded songs and lyrics with Billy Bragg and Wilco. That resulted in an album called “Mermaid Avenue,” which included a real gem: “California Stars.”
Looking back, at the time, I did not recognize it for what it was: that most rare combination of a California song and a wine song. It’s quite likely I didn’t even listen to the lyrics. I just liked the music and the easy, toe-tapping beat.
It was only a couple years ago, when I saw Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band in concert, that I started putting 2 and 2 together and actually getting 4. For an acoustic interlude during his otherwise straight-ahead-rock-and-roll concert, Seger sang “California Stars.” He introduced it as “an old Woody Guthrie song,” which didn’t strike a chord with me, but once I heard the first few notes, I knew exactly what song he was starting to play… and I’m pretty sure a big smile must have crossed my face.
Here was one of my favorite singers ever singing one of my favorite songs ever.
For the first time, I actually listened to the lyrics:
I’d like to dream my troubles all away
On a bed of California stars
Jump up from my starbed and make another day
Underneath my California stars
They hang like grapes on vines that shine
And warm the lovers’ glass like friendly wine
So, I’d give this world just to dream a dream with you
On our bed of California stars
And only then did I realize that this was a wine song in addition to a California song.
Hey, I never claimed to be the smartest bulb in the light standard… or the brightest star in the California night sky.
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Check out the first version of “California Stars” that caught most of our ears — by Billy Bragg and Wilco — here.
Then see what you think of Bob Seger’s rendition, performed live, here.