May 24, 2012 in City

Clark: No clear inspiration for ‘Spokane Motel Blues’

By The Spokesman-Review
 

It seemed like such a simple question.

What motel inspired country star Tom T. Hall to write his “Spokane Motel Blues?”

From the variety of answers that rolled in, however, I’m now wondering if this mystery surrounding the country song will ever be definitively solved.

To recap my Tuesday column: I’m trying to get this question answered for Larry Cebula, an associate history professor at Eastern Washington University.

Enamored by Hall’s 1973 ode to the Lilac City, Cebula wanted to include it in the smartphone app his digital history class is designing about Spokane’s past.

The idea is to let users listen to the tune while they gaze at photographs of the motel that inspired it.

The tale I had always heard was that Hall had been marooned here when a post-concert blizzard grounded his flight home.

I do know for a fact that the song’s 1973 release set off a small controversy when City Councilman Jack O’Brien denounced the tune’s “get me outta here” theme as a civic insult.

As silly as that sounds today, it’s important to put this flap in the context of the times.

Spokane was gearing up for Expo ’74. Our leaders were understandably on edge as to how our image would be received by the rest of the world.

Hearing about the shock he had caused, Hall sent O’Brien a letter that was read during a May 1973 Council meeting.

“Very few towns inspire me to write anything,” explained the singer.

“Those beautiful mountains and rivers in Spokane started my creative juices flowing and had I not been in a motel room at the time it would have been a positive song.”

The tiff quickly blew over. O’Brien and other thin-skinned officials not only made up with Hall, but proclaimed a Tom T. Hall Day in his honor.

Yet the question remains:

What motel?

Don’t look to O’Brien for an answer.

“If I did (know) I can’t remember,” said the 90-year-old when I called him on Wednesday.

Drat.

Others, who responded to my question, relied more on speculation than verification.

“My guess would be that it was not a motel at all,” wrote Sam Cassel in an email.

“ ‘Stuck in Spokane in a hotel room’ doesn’t have the same depressing tone he needed for his song. If you were a celebrity back in the day, the Ridpath was probably considered a high rise motel.”

“My vote’s for the Fourth Ave Inn at 4th and Cowley,” wrote Jim Salisbury. “Don’t know why I know that.”

Wait a second, Jim. I don’t remember opening this up to a vote.

A couple of depraved readers wanted to put Hall in a certain seedy motel that is known as a popular “bed by the hour” for women of negotiable virtue.

“I hope Tom T. didn’t write it” there, wrote Jock. “He would have scratched it out in an hour with their hooker rates.”

Some readers put Hall in the Davenport, which is where he did stay in 1974.

“The answer to your question is Spokane House,” announced one unnamed caller. “It was a cold, snowy bad night.”

Another caller suggested the long, gone Starlight Motel.

No way. Hall was way too big a star for the Starlight.

Ron Hardin, a former news director at KGA 1510-AM radio, recalled in an email that Hall was actually asked about the location during a press conference at the Davenport.

“He refused to name the motel,” wrote Hardin, “but did say he legitimately wrote the song after staying in a Spokane motel.”

A check through our newspaper files failed to answer the question.

Nobody was apparently curious enough to find out.

Marion Anderson will win a prize for coming closest to supplying a fact-based answer.

“I was a chef at the Holiday Inn downtown which is now a Quality Inn,” said the 81-year-old. “And I remember very distinctly that that’s where he wrote his song and that’s where he stayed because of the weather.”

True, Anderson never actually laid eyes on Hall.

But this was a year or two before Expo, she said, and “all the waitresses were talking about that’s where he was.”

Maybe. Maybe not.

Perhaps some things are not meant to be known.

But wherever Hall wrote it, the Spokane Motel Blues remains a catchy classic.

So on a lark, my buddy Joe Brasch and I decided to go into the studio and record our own rendition of it.

I sang the song, added two rhythm guitar tracks and a harmonica part.

Joe played bass, added some hot country lead guitar and worked the dials.

You can hear what we came up with posted with this column at spokesman.com.

Or sing along to the lyrics below.

Spokane Motel Blues

I don’t know what I’m doing here, I could be someplace else

Like in Atlanta drinkin’ wine, wine, wine

I don’t know what I’m doing here, I could be someplace else

Like in Kentucky drinkin’ shine, shine, shine

The dogs are running down in Memphis

And them nags are running in L.A. yeah

I’m stuck in Spokane in a motel room

And there ain’t no way to get away

Willie Nelson’s picking out in Austin

Waylon’s hanging out in Mexico

I’m stuck in Spokane in a motel room

And Kris is making movin’ picture shows

Hey, I don’t know what I’m doing here, I could be someplace else

Like in Atlanta drinkin’ wine, wine, wine

I don’t know what I’m doing here, I could be someplace else

Like in Kentucky drinkin’ shine, shine, shine

Well, I know they’re dancing in New Orleans

And old Chicago’s bright as day

I’m stuck in Spokane in a motel room

Lord, I wish I had a Dolly Parton tape

Well Hill and Bare and Billy Joe they’re gambling

And ol’ TP’s frying croppie all night long

They’re down at Tootsie’s eating chili

I’m stuck in Spokane writing songs

Hey, I don’t know what I’m doing here, I could be someplace else

Like in Atlanta drinkin’ wine, wine, wine

I don’t know what I’m doing here, I could be someplace else

Like in Kentucky drinkin’ shine, shine, shine

And there ain’t no way to get away

Doug Clark is a columnist with The Spokesman-Review. He can be reached at (509) 459-5432 or by email at dougc@spokesman.com.


There are six comments on this story. Click here to view comments >>

Get stories like this in a free daily email