In a genre overflowing with sad songs, Rex Griffin's "The Last Letter" may be the saddest of them all. Written and recorded by Griffin in 1937, "The Last Letter" has been covered many times since. It remains country music's most disturbing suicide song, deeply affecting in its plaintive simplicity.
Rex Griffin was born August 12, 1912 in Gadsden, Alabama, located in the same Northern Alabama hills that also were the birthplace of the Delmores and the Louvins. Not much is known about Griffin's life, but accounts paint him as a lonely, troubled man beset by diabetes and alcoholism before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 47 in New Orleans.
Griffin began his singing career in the early 1930s, working at radio stations throughout the South. Like many performers of the time, he began his career imitating Jimmie Rodgers, but soon developed a sincere, unadorned style of his own that had a measurable influence on honky tonkers like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. His career peaked in the late 30s when he recorded a total of 38 songs for Decca Records. None of them were big hits, but his songwriting was admired enough to get him eventually inducted into the Nashville Songwriter's Hall Of Fame. After his recording career ended, Griffin continued working at radio stations into the 1940s before health problems ended his singing career.
Even though "The Last Letter" remains Griffin's best-known song, he also wrote other country classics, including "Just Call Me Lonesome," which was later a hit for Eddy Arnold, and "Won't You Ride In My Little Red Wagon," recorded by Griffin's friend Hank Penny, who made it his theme song. Griffin also recorded the first country version of "Lovesick Blues." While Hank Williams was familiar with minstrel yodeler Emmett Miller's earlier rendition of the song, Williams modeled his version after Griffin's.
Still, it's "The Last Letter" for which Griffin is most remembered, when he is remembered at all. Supposedly written after his wife Margaret left him and Griffin was contemplating suicide, "The Last Letter" conjures a mood of utter loneliness unequaled in country music. Griffin's recording of "The Last Letter" features just him and his guitar, emphasizing the aloneness of the singer. There are no instrumental breaks, just a relentless stream of verses expressing the singer's sorrow, accompanied by Griffin's simple strumming. The words pour out of the singer as he empties his heart.
He is a desperate man, in love with a younger woman. She apparently wants the finer things in life, and he's too poor to provide them. She used to love him, but now she just treats him as a friend, and it's driving him to despair. He'd rather she just left him alone. After awhile, it becomes apparent he's writing his former lover a letter, and it will be the last letter he ever writes. He can't bear to think of all her broken promises, and vows to say farewell to this world. The song ends the same way it began, with the singer wondering if the girl he loves will ever be "contented again," if she'll be happy when she's "withered and old."
The sparse instrumentation, simple melody and Griffin's plaintive, anguished vocals transform those desperate, forlorn lyrics into something uncomfortably real and immediate. Even now, nearly 60 years after Griffin recorded it, the heartfelt pain expressed in "The Last Letter" deeply resonates.
Like the rest of Griffin's recordings, "The Last Letter" wasn't a big hit, but other artists quickly recognized its worth. It was covered a little over a year after it was recorded by the Blue Sky Boys, whose close-harmony singing and mandolin-guitar interplay gave the song the feel of an old mountain ballad, and the Carter Family performed it on the powerful border radio station XERA, with Sara and A.P.'s daughter Janette on vocals.
Later in the early 1960s, Willie Nelson recorded the song. It was reissued in 1976 by United Artists to capitalize on Willie's newfound fame, and his Nashville Sound version of it, replete with strings and cooing background voices, actually became a hit. Former Texas Troubadour Jack Greene also had a minor hit with his formal, near-operatic version of the song in 1968. Supposedly Greene sang it for Connie Smith while on a tour bus, and Smith then went on to record her own version. While not a hit, Smith's rendition of "The Last Letter" rivals Griffin's as a masterpiece of forlornness and desolation.
Connie Smith recorded "The Last Letter" in 1968. At the time, her own life was in turmoil. She was disenchanted with the sleazy side of the record industry and her second marriage was on the verge of collapse. Smith's version of the song can be found on her album, Soul Of Country Music, an emotionally wrenching, disturbing work, from the bleak song selection to its haunting cover photo. Before 1968, Smith's album covers uniformly featured a beaming, even beatific-looking Smith -- the perfect stereotypical picture of country wholesomeness (even though her music almost always expressed heartbreak). On the cover of Soul Of Country Music, however, Connie Smith looks vacant, even stoned, with an expressionless gaze that wouldn't have seemed out of place in Andy Warhol's Factory studio.
Producer Bob Ferguson gives Smith's recording of "The Last Letter" the standard late-60s Nashville backing, but he keeps the production gloss to a minimum. The funereal tempo is markedly slower than Griffin's original version and instrumental breaks are added, stretching the song to four minutes (a full minute longer than Griffin's original). While its length was unusual for Nashville at the time, the real power of the song lies in Smith's voice, a heartrending sob that no other country singer has matched. By the time Soul Of Country Music was recorded, a feeling of resignation had also crept into Smith's singing, which gave her version of "The Last Letter" a disturbing finality that not even Griffin's version had. That finality is compounded as the song ends, when Smith holds the last note and then modulates her voice downward, capturing that awful sense of utter despair and hopelessness felt by someone on the verge of committing suicide.
Soul Of Country Music -- and in particular "The Last Letter" -- was Connie Smith staring into the abyss. Like Griffin before her, she was near suicidal and close to falling off the edge. But she was saved by Jesus -- or more specifically, by the Reverend Jimmie Snow, son of country star Hank Snow, preacher to the Opry stars, and the savior of many a wayward country artist. Smith is now enjoying a comeback of sorts, with a new major-label album on the way, a new boyfriend (Marty Stuart) and -- thanks to RCA finally reissuing a CD compilation of her 60s and early 70s recordings -- new recognition of her greatest work.
It's too bad someone like Jimmie Snow wasn't around to help pull Rex Griffin back from the brink, but his greatest song can at least now be heard once again, thanks to a couple of CD reissues. While MCA has yet to release a compilation devoted to Griffin's Decca recordings, "The Last Letter" has appeared on CD twice in the last couple of years. You can find it on the three-CD set, From The Vaults: Decca Country Classics, 1934-1973, and it's also available on volume two (subtitled, "Legends Of Honky Tonk") of Rhino Records' Hillbilly Fever! series.
"The Last Letter" remains one of country music's finest moments
and one of its most influential performances. With its bleak portrayal
of unrequited love, it's arguably the first honky tonk classic. Soon, sad
songs about broken hearts would dominate country music, as they continue
to do right up to the present day.
Copyright 1996 by Don Yates