When quarantine began in March, I experienced feelings of despair. With life turned on its head, I looked for something in music to help lift me up. And what I turned to time and time again was this, Johnnie Frierson’s lost classic Have You Been Good to Yourself.
Recorded in the 90s* and released on cassette tape, Frierson’s songs are simple. The only sounds you hear are guitar, voice and occasionally the beat of a stomping foot.
What hooked me on this release is the song “Miracles”. Hypnotic and slightly bizarre, the chugging “Miracles” tells the tale of a Memphis car-customizer known as “Spaceman”. According to a 2017 article from WMC Action News 5 of Memphis, “Spaceman was a Memphian who was ahead of his time. He’d created a self-driving, voice-activated car. This was 1988 in Memphis; not 2020 in Silicon Valley.” See a surreal news clip of the report below:
“We all airplanes in this big airport called the world. We all are capable of flying,” Spaceman says. According to the reporter, “Everything [Spaceman] does is a testament to God”. Not surprsing, then, that he and Frierson would be friends.
One needn’t be a christian to feel something from Frierson’s overtly religious songs. His piety is so touching because it translates to pure passion in his music, and this passion reverberates throughout these recordings, especially in Frierson’s voice. Occasionally he releases a chilling wail, as in “Woke Up This Morning” when he cries, “I could’ve been deaaaaad! In my graaaave! But the lord has blessed me!” The straightforward lyrics, clearly delivered from the heart as the entire recordings are without any studio embellishment, are pure and uplifting. On “You Were Sent to this World”, Frierson tells the listener that they were brought to this Earth for a purpose, and that their life has meaning. Even from a disembodied voice of the past, it’s nice to hear in these difficult times.
To my ears, the best song on Have You Been Good to Yourself is the final track “Trust in the Lord”, which combines everything that makes this album so great: Frierson’s passionate singing, homey guitar playing, and simple and sincere lyrics, as well as a beautiful interpretation of “Amazing Grace”.
Have You Been Good to Yourself was re-released in 2016 by the great folks at Light in the Attic Records. According to the Memphis Flyer, label founder Matt Sullivan heard the tape from a friend and record dealer who had randomly found the cassette in a Memphis thrift store, and he was blown away. From the Flyer: “No doubt this is one of my favorite things in our catalog,” Sullivan says. “It’s one of those special albums where you feel like you’re in the room with the man, almost eavesdropping on an incredibly personal moment. He’s singing from the bottom of his heart and soul. Personally, it doesn’t get better than this.”
*Most sources indicate that this music was recorded and released by Frierson in the 90s, however I’ve also read that he recorded these songs in the 70s after returning from Vietnam. The references to Memphis’ Spaceman lead me to believe that these songs were most likely recorded in the late 80s or early 90s. The true nature of the recording dates seems unknown, but I also have not read the liner notes of the release.