In a genre overflowing with sad songs, Rex Griffin's "The Last Letter" may be the saddest of them all. Written and recorded by Griffin in 1937, "The Last Letter" has been covered many times since. It remains country music's most disturbing suicide song, deeply affecting in its plaintive simplicity.
Rex Griffin was born August 12, 1912 in Gadsden, Alabama. Not much is known about Griffin's life, but accounts paint him as a lonely, troubled man beset by diabetes and alcoholism before dying of tuberculosis at the age of 47 in New Orleans.
Griffin began his singing career in the early 1930s, working at radio stations throughout the South. Like many performers of the time, he began his career imitating Jimmie Rodgers, but soon developed a sincere, unadorned style of his own that had a measurable influence on honky tonkers like Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. His career peaked in the late 30s when he recorded a total of 38 songs for Decca Records. None of them were big hits, but his songwriting was admired enough to get him eventually inducted into the Nashville Songwriter's Hall Of Fame. After his recording career ended, Griffin continued working at radio stations into the 1940s before health problems ended his singing career.
Even though "The Last Letter" remains Griffin's best-known song, he also wrote other country classics, including "Just Call Me Lonesome," which was later a hit for Eddy Arnold, and "Won't You Ride In My Little Red Wagon," recorded by Griffin's friend Hank Penny, who made it his theme song. Griffin also recorded the first country version of "Lovesick Blues." While Hank Williams was familiar with minstrel yodeler Emmett Miller's earlier rendition of the song, Williams modeled his version after Griffin's.
The sparse instrumentation, simple melody and Griffin's plaintive, anguished vocals transform those desperate, forlorn lyrics into something uncomfortably real and immediate. Even now, nearly 60 years after Griffin recorded it, the heartfelt pain expressed in "The Last Letter" deeply resonates.
Like the rest of Griffin's recordings, "The Last Letter" wasn't a big hit, but other artists quickly recognized its worth. It was covered a little over a year after it was recorded by the Blue Sky Boys, whose close-harmony singing and mandolin-guitar interplay gave the song the feel of an old mountain ballad, and the Carter Family performed it on the powerful border radio station XERA, with Sara and A.P.'s daughter Janette on vocals.
Later in the 1960s, Willie Nelson and Connie Smith both recorded the song.
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