The Meaning of Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails”

Source: The Long Memory / Facebook

Way back in 1961, American folk singer Utah Phillips wrote a bitter love song called “Rock Salt and Nails”, so bitter even that he refused to record or perform the tune. That didn’t stop many other country and folk artists from offering their own takes on the song, though, and many of them quite popular. Thus “Rock Salt and Nails” has become a classic in the American folk music canon.

During an interview for Utah Phillips’ songbook released in 2007, the artist recalls the inspiration behind the song, and why he chose to never sing it. He remembers being on a transport ship during his time in the military, and feeling down about it, looking out at the dark Atlantic. He got drunk and wrote “Rock Salt and Nails”, and sang it one time to his friend Rosalie Sorrels, and never again.

“I never sang it since because it’s a hard, angry love song, and I don’t feel that way about it anymore,” Phillips explains. “And besides, the person involved in this song is still very much alive, and it would simply be unfair.”

Most popular in recent times is Tyler Childers’ version of “Rock Salt and Nails”, where you can truly hear the venom in the lyrics when he reaches the climactic moment in the final verse, loading up that shotgun. Other popular recordings of “Rock Salt and Nails” come from Waylon Jennings, Bob Dylan & The Band, Willie Watson, Steve Young, and many more.

Live on Red Barn Radio II, including Tyler Childers’ cover of “Rock Salt and Nails”.

Some listeners may wonder what exactly is meant by “Rock Salt and Nails”, and why somebody would want to load it in their shotgun. If one were to actually do such a thing, and fire it at somebody, the result would cause a lot of pain, but it is not likely to kill the person.

The answer to this can be found in the story being told by the lyrics, which weave a tale of heartbreak and deception. There is an appreciation for natural beauty running through it, and perhaps the beauty of of the other is part of the reason why this particular heartbreak is so difficult for the singer.

Let’s dive into these lyrics and see what they’re all about, starting with the first verse:

By the banks of the river
Where the willows hang down
The wild birds they warble
With a low moanin’ sound
Way down in the hollow
Where the river runs cold
It was there I first listened
To the lies that you told

First verse to “Rock Salt and Nails” by Utah Phillips.

In the opening lyrics, Phillips conjures a memory of a time when he was with this past lover, down on a riverbank. He describes the sounds of the birds, and the flow of the river, and then remembers the lies that his lover was telling him.

This was the first time that she lied to him, but the context suggests that there were many more occasions to follow. As he looks back on the memory, it’s clear that before he knew he was deceived, this stood out as a happy memory in his mind, surrounded by nature and talking sweet nothings with somebody very dear to him.

The second verse delivers more memories, with an increasingly resentful tone:

Now I lie on my back
And I see your sweet face
The past I remember
Time can’t erase
And the letters you wrote me
They were written in shame
And I know that your conscience
Still echoes my name

Second verse to Rock Salt and Nails” by Utah Phillips.

We picture the vocalist lying in bed, awake late at night and haunted by visions of the past. Some time has passed but he still lives with the remnants of this heartbreak. He recalls the letters that she wrote him and how they were all shameful, suggesting that there was some infidelity involved here.

Closing out the verse, we have the first taste of the singer’s vengeful attitude, as the lyrics state that he knows she still remembers what she did, and has to feel the weight of her actions.

Finally, the third verse brings a break in the rising tension, with a somewhat dark revelation about his feelings toward women, as a result of what happened:

Now if the ladies were blackbirds
If the ladies were thrushes
Well I’d lie there for hours
In the chilly cold marshes
And if the women were squirrels
With them high bushy tails
Well I’d load up my shotgun
With rock salt and nails
I’d load up my shotgun
With rock salt and nails

Third verse to “Rock Salt and Nails” by Utah Phillips.

With more imagery from nature, Phillips sings of hunting for blackbirds, thrushes and squirrels, except he compares them to the ladies. He sings of the lengths that he would go to take revenge, including lying in the cold marshes for hours waiting for the time to strike.

And rather than killing the animal, which would be a more humane alternative to blasting them with “Rock Salt and Nails”, he would prefer to inflict pain, so that they have to suffer and feel some equivalent of the pain he had been feeling.

With this in mind, it’s quite wholesome to think that Phillips refused to play this song. It shows that he had the capacity for forgiveness, and that writing this song was a cathartic experience for him in the path to moving forward with his life.

Still, it’s an excellent song that draws upon a depth of emotions, so it’s a very good thing that other musicians have picked this one up and decided to make it their own.

Compare versions of “Rock Salt and Nails” by Tyler Childers, Waylon Jennings, Bob Dylan & The Band, Willie Watson, and Steve Young below. Which is your favorite?

2 comments on The Meaning of Utah Phillips’ “Rock Salt and Nails”

  • December 7, 2022 at 11:33 pm

    Thank you for working through these lyrics. Some versions include an additional verse as noted on Utah Phillips’s website. The added third verse is a great addition, and it’s brutal:

    Now the nights are so long Lord sorrow runs deep
    And nothing is worse htan a night without sleep
    I’ll walk out alone and look at the sky
    To empty to sing to lonesome to cry

    To me, this completes the song.

    There is cover that you didn’t include. My favorite version is the one by Buddy and Julie Miller, here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7U6WqxnzwPc

    Reply
  • January 6, 2023 at 1:26 pm

    Thank you for this look into a great song by a great songwriter and performer. I’m surprised you didn’t mention the version by Joan Baez, on David’s Album, from 1969. I believe this is the first recording of Rock Salt and Nails – it includes all four verses, without which the song is woefully incomplete.

    Reply

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