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Song You Need to Know: Bill Callahan, ‘Pigeons’

Bill Callahan begins his new song “Pigeons” with a greeting: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” He signs off, “Sincerely, L. Cohen”

Bill Callahan begins his new song, “Pigeons,” with a greeting: “Hello, I’m Johnny Cash.” He signs off, “Sincerely, L. Cohen.” Sandwiching his own work between the names of two musical luminaries might seem the height of hubris — if Callahan weren’t such a damn good songwriter himself.

“Pigeons” is a spare affair, opening with finger-picked guitar and an evocative image: “Well, the pigeons ate the wedding rice/And exploded somewhere over San Antonio.” Taking its cue from Cash, the track has a vague cowboy sound — replete with horns and slow-strutting guitars — anchoring us somewhere in what Sixties Hollywood deemed the Old West. Callahan’s protagonist, a limo driver, picks up a couple of newlyweds who’ve just tied the knot at Alamo Village, the set of John Wayne’s 1960 film The Alamo, and plays the sage old man, quiet in the front seat.

By the time the groom asks Callahan for advice — noticing the “gold band on my left hand” — a hint of electric guitar and cymbals leads into louder horns as the protagonist drops his pearls: “When you are dating, you only see each other/And the rest of us can go to hell/But when you are married, you are married to the whole wide world.” The melody, largely unchanged throughout the course of the song, seems to lengthen the silence as the couple takes in the driver’s words. He never tells us what they think of his advice. He just ambles down the road until the song peters out.

Callahan, who fits squarely within the tradition of Cohen, has never been one for vocal gymnastics, and his rich, plain voice is engrossing here as he narrates this simple ride. The song is reminiscent of short stories like the ones in Sherwood Anderson’s 1919 collection Winesburg, Ohio. His songwriting is a glimpse into someone else’s world, a snatch of spoken words, the smell of the open road and the dust it leaves behind.

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