Mother Earth was an American blues rock band formed by vocalist Tracy Nelson after she moved to San Francisco from Madison, Wisconsin. The band were signed by Mercury Records following performances at the famed Fillmore West and an appearance on the soundtrack to the 1968 movie Revolution. The group recorded four albums with Mercury plus another two with other labels before Nelson pursued a solo career. This powerhouse ballad is a track from their debut release Living with the Animals.
Tracy Nelson told us
that the inspiration for the song was her broken heart in the aftermath of a relationship with the musician Steve Miller. She penned the tune when she was working at Discount Records in San Francisco before she'd formed Mother Earth. Tracy recalled: "I had a piano in my house and there was a piano at my uncle's house. I remember I started working on it at my uncle's house out in Walnut Creek. I mostly wrote the lyrics out there, while I just sat at the piano and played around. I didn't put anything on tape. I've never owned a tape recorder in my life. So, I wrote the song and learned it."
Shortly after writing the song, Tracy put Mother Earth together and when it was time to record Living With The Animals she pulled it out. At that stage the band had yet to perform "Down So Low" and they complained it was hard to learn due to its complex time signatures. She explained to us: "We'd been doing blues up to then, songs that were just three changes and you didn't even have to know the song to play it. It took lots and lots and lots of rehearsing before we could do that song. Every musician I've worked with subsequently has complained about it because of the different time signatures. It changes keys three times. I absolutely didn't plan it that way. That's just how it came out. There was no explanation for it. I was aware of different time signatures. I'd listened to some jazz and The Beatles were starting to play with different time signatures too. So when I was sitting at the piano and that bar came out in five, I knew I could have made it be in six, but I thought, well, this is cool. I don't remember if anyone asked me to change it. I mean, I was the boss. It was my song, my band. And I just didn't want to change it. I liked the way it was, and that was that."
Tracy brought in jazz percussionist Rodriguez to play drums on the song. She told us: "Even to this day, I work with drummers who just can't play it. If I'm using a pickup band for something, I can't do it. Or if I do it, I just do it solo at the piano."
It was only after the song began to get airplay and fans were requesting it that Mother Earth began performing the tune. Tracy explained to us: "I just didn't think it was that great. Maybe it was too personal. Singing it wasn't painful by the time I recorded it. I would never have recorded it if it continued to be painful. It wasn't painful writing about my feelings. It was a completely cathartic experience, so it wasn't that. It's just that I didn't like putting my feelings and anything personal about myself right out there. I don't write very personally, the way a lot of writers do. I didn't talk about who it was based on for many, many years. Again, because I just didn't want it to be that personal. Once it was really old news, then I started laughing about it."
So did Steve Miller know the song was about him? Tracy told us that she never told Steve that she'd written it about him at the time "and I doubt if he knew." She added that she only "told him recently, when, as a joke, I wrote him a thank you letter for inspiring it."
This is now recognized as Tracy Nelson's signature song. The first person to cover it was Linda Ronstadt for her 1976 Hasten Down the Wind
album. Since then numerous other artists have recorded their own versions including Etta James, Maria Muldaur
and John Lee Hooker. Tracy told us: "Down So Low" has bailed me out a thousand times. I call it mailbox money. It's the great thing about being a songwriter. I mean, that song has been paying me money for 40 years. When Linda recorded it, I got a huge check and bought a farm with it. So it's a wonderful, wonderful gift. Also, when I think about all the people who have done it, it just stuns me."
Tracy rarely performs the song at festivals, as she does not consider it to be "a good outdoor crowd of people kind of song." When she does sing it is usually "about midway through the set" because of the difficulties of getting the high notes especially the one at the end. Tracy told us: "From the first time I ever sang it, it was hard to sing. I mean, physically hard. As a song, it's just rangy. So I would always have to put it somewhere in the set where I could pace myself, like I'd have a really easy song right after that, or I'd have the guys do an instrumental. I did two high notes on that first Mother Earth record that I couldn't do now if you poked me with a stick. Finally, about two years ago, I began performing it a full note down and it's much easier for me. If I'd thought of it 30 years ago, I would have done that back then. No one's ever noticed that I'm doing it a little bit lower."
The song featured in the 1960s-era motion picture Not Fade Away, which was released in late 2012. Tracy told us that she "was stunned" when she learnt it was going to be in the movie," because everything else that's in that movie were big hits, things that everyone knows." She "was really pleased" that the music supervisor, Miami Steve Van Zandt, knew of the song as it's "not something like where you go back and look at Hits from the '60s and you're going to find it." Van Zandt had to license it from her, so she "knew they wanted it for the film and I even knew what scene it was supposed to be in, but I didn't know until I got the check that it actually had made it through the editing process."