"Lonesome Town" was written by Baker Knight, a behind-the-scenes genius who wrote many hit songs throughout the '50s and '60s for the likes of Perry Como, Elvis Presley, and Dean Martin. Knight wrote the song as a cynical look at Hollywood, a place Nelson knew well since he grew up a TV star on the series The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. As part of an entertainment legacy, Nelson fared well in Hollywood, but he also knew it could be a "town of broken dreams."
You could imagine "Heartbreak Hotel" being somewhere in Lonesome Town, and the 1956 Elvis Presley hit was certainly an influence on this song. Presley and Nelson were the most popular American singers at the time, with Nelson getting a big boost from exposure on The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet. When we spoke with Nelson's son Matthew in 2016, he explained: "There was obviously a little echo of 'Heartbreak Hotel,' but it was way deeper, I think. 'Heartbreak Hotel' was a very sexy, almost tongue-in-cheek kind of thing, and 'Lonesome Town' was like, 'Man, I've got a broken heart that I drag around with me on a daily basis and nobody can understand but me.' Our pop had a little bit of that."
This song was a big change of pace for Nelson, who had been doing lots of upbeat pop songs. "Lonesome Town" is just his voice, his acoustic guitar, and backing vocals by The Jordainaires, who also sang on many of Elvis Presley's recordings. By recording such a dark and earnest song, Nelson showed another side of his personality - one that a lot of people didn't know about. "He connected with it plain and simple," Matthew Nelson told us. "It's really melancholy. And our pop identified with that, because he grew up famous and really deep down, even though he was a really affable, sweet guy, he told me he could never really tell who was in his life for the right reasons, as you can imagine. So he really tapped into the song."
Today, this song's greatest claim to fame is being on the soundtrack to Pulp Fiction, in the scene at Vincent and Mia's "date" at Jack Rabbit Slims when they order the disputed five-dollar-shake. The song continues to go along with the mood as Uma Thurman puts a point on John Travolta's grumpiness by asking him "Could you roll me one of those, cowboy?", begging one of his hand-rolled cigarettes.
The song has been covered by Paul McCartney, The Ventures, Shakin' Stevens, Chris Isaak, Richard Hawley, The Cramps, Jason Donovan, and others. It also shows up in television shows from time to time, sometimes even playing in a '50s diner with somebody ordering a milkshake, in a shout-out to Pulp Fiction.
This was featured in a Pepsi commercial that debuted during the Super Bowl in 1995. In the spot, a man at a Pepsi vending machine in the middle of the desert is desperately trying to get the contraption to take his dollar, which it keeps spitting back out. Most of the commercial is taken up by the sound of the bill-validation mechanism buzzing back and forth. "Lonesome Town" is playing over this scene.
Nelson had a total of 36 Top-40 hits ranging from 1957's "A Teenager's Romance" (#2) to 1972's "Garden Party" (#6). That one could have a hit-song career spanning three decades, with the last hit scoring only four positions below the first hit, speaks volumes about what a formidable talent Rick Nelson was. If he hadn't had his life cut short in 1985, who knows what else he could have done?
By the way, Nelson's plane crash was not part of the "day the music died" of "American Pie" fame, which, after all, came out in 1971.