Utah Phillips wrote Rock Salt and Nails on a troop ship coming home from World War II:
“I felt lousy. I didn’t know what kind of world I was coming back to. I felt lousy about where I’d been; I felt lousy about where I was going.”
He wrote it in his head, and sang it once: drunk, in his friend Rosalie Sorrels’ living room. He never sang it again.
Sorrels later recorded the rusty-sharp love song for her album Rosalie’s Songbag. Over forty years later near the end of Phillips’ life, she recorded it again for his Starlight on the Rails: this time she’s manic, murderous.
Picking up the baton is Willie Watson (formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show). His rendition is spare, but no less pained.
It’s a song that says, “Shootin’ you ain’t enough. I want it to sting.”