Sen. Lamar Alexander's 'Tennessee Waltz' Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) made a musical splash Memorial Day weekend in a performance with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra; it was later posted in a video clip on YouTube. Alexander performed a few tunes at the piano in NPR's Studio 4A.

Sen. Lamar Alexander's 'Tennessee Waltz'

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It's finally over; the long cliffhanging primary season has come to an end, and we've invited a very special politician/musician to help ease us back into regular life. We're going to kick back and relax with some tunes at the piano here at NPR's Studio 4A.

The person we have is Tennessee Republican Senator Lamar Alexander, and the senator made a musical splash over Memorial Day weekend in a performance with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, which you can catch on a video clip on YouTube. But we can do a lot better than that.

We have Lamar Alexander here. He's graciously come by to give us a command performance and demonstrate his prowess at the piano. Senator Lamar Alexander, welcome.

Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee, Pianist): Good morning.

CORNISH: Now, I promise we're going to get straight to the music, but of course I have to get your take as a former presidential candidate on this long political season. And give us your sense of what happened here.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, in the spirit of the interview, it is a symphony with too many movements. And this is a welcome interlude.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: All right. Now, I want to hear some music. So, although we can't hear the whole medley that you did with the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, can you give us a little taste of Memphis to start...

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, it sounds a lot better with the Memphis Orchestra, but this is one piece that people might remember.

(Soundbite of song, "Memphis, Tennessee")

Sen. ALEXANDER: That's called "Memphis, Tennessee."

CORNISH: Well, it's a great piece and it's making me think of the fact that I've read that you've played the trombone as well as even the washboard and you settled here with the piano. I mean, are people surprised to learn about these other talents?

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, they might be. When I was a law clerk for Judge Wisdom in New Orleans right after I went to law school in the 60s, I wasn't making much money. So, I went down to Suburban Street and I played at a place called Your Father's Mustache, which has since burned down, and I played for whomever was off in the banjo band.

So, one night I played the trombone and one night I played the tuba. And two nights I played the washboard with a spoon.

CORNISH: We should have asked for that.

Sen. ALEXANDER: No, you shouldn't have.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: So, you started playing when you were four. Can you talk about where did you play?

Sen. ALEXANDER: I played in - I took piano lessons; I played in little competitions. My dad led to singing at a lot of revivals, so I learned to play church music. For example, like this:

(Soundbite of song, "Amazing Grace")

CORNISH: Now, when I think of soul and the blues or country music, I often think of gospel music and some of the roots of that Tennessee music and revivalist meetings. I was wondering if you could talk a bit about who are the players who really influenced you as a piano player.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, my music teacher would try to - I'd come in some time and she'd notice my left hand is jumping. She'd say you'd been playing that Jerry Lee Lewis stuff again. But growing up where I did, we heard the mountain music. And then I heard Chet Atkins with his new guitar style; Dolly Parton was on the radio. And about that time in the 1950s, Sun Records was attracting Karl Perkins and Elvis Presley and the Blackwood Brothers.

And my piano playing over here was classical piano playing, but I was hearing on the radio and learning to play by ear a lot of this other music.

CORNISH: And in the YouTube video, it sounded a little bit like the Jerry Lee Lewis influence survived, and I was wondering if you could play a little bit more of some of that music for us.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Yeah, I can play a little bit.

(Soundbite of music)

Sen. ALEXANDER: That's kind of the way it goes and just keep going and that...

CORNISH: And you've been known to kick back a piano bench or two...

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, I did a long time ago. When I was governor I was looking for ways - and this was a little while ago in the 80s - I was looking for a way to unify our state, which is a big long state. It runs from Bristol, where the Carter family started Memphis where the blues is. And music is about the only thing that unifies Tennessee. So, I put some money in the community in symphony endowments, challenged them to match that and then I went around the state and I played concerts with 21 different symphony and community orchestras.

And people came out in big numbers to see the governor make a mistake.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORNISH: It sounds like that didn't happen. It sounds like those were very - people really enjoyed those performances.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, they did, but they knew not to expect too much of me. And I used to tell the directors, they'd say, what's your goal here? I'd say my goal is to finish my piece at approximately the same time the symphony finishes its piece.

CORNISH: Well, luckily this time around it's just you and me. And so the song I'm going to ask you to finish with is one that you actually recorded with Patti Page, and that's the "Tennessee Waltz." First, I want you to tell us the story about how you ended up recording with her.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, there were two old boys from Tennessee - Red Stewart and Pee Wee King - after World War II, who were driving from Memphis to Nashville. And one said to the other, well, why does Kentucky have a waltz and Missouri have a waltz and Tennessee doesn't? And that was before the interstate, so they broke out an old penny matchbox and wrote the "Tennessee Waltz" on the back.

And then Mercury Records in New York had a song they thought would be a big hit called "Boogie Woogie Santa Claus." And they got the hottest young singer, Patti Page, to sing it. And they had nothing to put on the back of the record, so they just grabbed this "Tennessee Waltz" and put it on the back. And last year in Nashville, Mike Curve of Curve Records, invited Patti Page in to record again.

(Soundbite of song, "Tennessee Waltz")

Ms. PATTI PAGE (Singer): (Singing) Yes, I lost my little dirty the night they were playing the beautiful Tennessee Waltz.

Sen. ALEXANDER: And I got to play the "Tennessee Waltz" with Patti Page...


Sen. ALEXANDER: the National Symphony Hall that many years after 1950 when it was first recorded.

CORNISH: Well, let's hear a little bit of "Tennessee Waltz."

(Soundbite of song, "Tennessee Waltz")

CORNISH: Senator, I remember you best for the red and black flannel shirt from your presidential runs and the sort of Lamar with the exclamation mark on the bumper stickers, and it's really different to see you here so relaxed and, like, sort of enjoying playing. And I'm wondering, you know, when you do find yourself playing if you don't play in public that often.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, I've got pianos at home. We live in East Tennessee; I've got a little Steinway upright piano there. In Nashville, I've got a Steinway D, and here in a very small home in Washington, I've got a Steinway B. So, when I get home from the Senate at 8:30 at night I sometimes go to the piano and play.

CORNISH: And what does it do for you, I guess?

Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, it relaxes me. You know, I started out playing Mozart and Chopin and Jerry Lee Lewis, and I've ended up playing Bill Evans and George Shearing and mellower jazz. And I enjoy doing it. And I would say this to young people who might be, you know, teenagers and tired of piano lessons.

I find that today I can play what I learned when I was 15 about 70 or 80 percent as well as I can play it then. And I can do that without any practice today. So, if you can stick with your piano playing long enough until you get to be 13, 14, 15, 16, something you can love the rest of your life.

CORNISH: Senator Lamar Alexander, thank you so much for coming in here and, you know, showing us this different side. I really appreciate it.

Sen. ALEXANDER: Thank you. This is a lot more fun than a hearing.

(Soundbite of laughter)

(Soundbite of song, "Tennessee Waltz")

Ms PAGE: (Singing) I remember the night and the Tennessee Waltz.

CORNISH: You can see a video of Lamar Alexander playing in NPR's Studio 4A in the music section of our Web site, There you can also get a sneak preview of the new recording of Patti Page with Lamar Alexander playing "Tennessee Waltz." This CD will be released on Curve Records late this summer.

Our feature was produced by Ned Wharton and recorded by Neil Tevault.

(Soundbite of song, "Tennessee Waltz")

Ms. PAGE: (Singing) Waltz...

CORNISH: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Liane Hansen returns next week. I'm Audie Cornish.

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