Riding with Private Andrew Malone: For All of Those Who Didn't Make It Home
1966 Corvette - Wikimedia Commons
by Kathy Warnes
Like any good ghost story, Riding with Private Malone begins in the imagination and glides into the world of reality as smoothly as Private Andrew Malone glided into the passenger seat of his red 1966 Corvette. And like any good ghost story set to music, Riding with Private Malone combines the music and an American homecoming story to touch the emotions of people as they hear or sing the song and renew their belief in the American dream.
Returning from the Vietnam War and a 1966 Corvette
Song writers Wood Newton and Thom Shepherd based their song on a 1966 Corvette and a soldier returning home from the Vietnam War. In an interview, Wood Newton explained that he had been in college during the Vietnam Era and he recalled how the impact of the Vietnam War had traumatized and shaped his generation. He recalled navigating a website about restoring a 1966 Corvette.
Then he heard another Corvette story, this time from a man who had already restored a Corvette. According to the man, he would turn his Corvette’s radio to one certain station
late at night, but it would always change back to a different station. The man
felt certain that his Corvette was haunted.
Wood Newton and Thom Shepherd Write A Song About Private Andrew Malone
Wood Newton combined his feelings about the Vietnam War, the idea of haunting he had
heard from the Corvette restorer, and the mystique of the Corvette itself into verses for a song. To Wood Newton and his partner Thom Shepherd, the 1966 Corvette represented American ingenuity and enthusiasm for cars and the American idea of endless possibilities and endless horizons. The Corvette also symbolized the dream of a normal life for returning soldiers and others who had been through a traumatic experience and longed to come home.
Wood Newton also contributed personal experience to Riding with Private Malone. His cousin Jeff Davis Newton of Hampton, Arkansas, went to Vietnam as a lieutenant and returned as a jungle combat veteran with two silver stars. He returned from his tour of duty determined to go back to Vietnam and to a welcome home gift of a Corvette from his father. He took a ride in his Corvette the same night he got home, and crashed it. He died in the crash. “The trauma of losing him is still with me thirty years later,” Wood says.
The two song writers believed that they could combine these timeless themes into
one song and in the person of one soldier, Private Andrew Malone, who didn’t make it home from the Vietnam War. Wood Newton’s partner, Thom Shepherd provided the name of the ghost, Private Andrew Malone- Malone because it rhymed with home.
The two songwriters met several times and worked continuously on the lyrics to get their version of the story right. They said that although there is an unwritten rule in the world of song writing that says a song should be three minutes or less, they couldn’t tell the complete story in under four minutes. Riding with Private Malone, complete with embellishments of the original three chord melody, is over four minutes long.
The story song speeds along like a sixteenth note. A soldier returning home to America sees a classified advertisement for a Chevrolet. Despite his guilty conscience at paying so little for it, he buys the Chevrolet from a woman-presumably the soldier’s mother- for $1,000. To his delighted surprise, the Chevrolet turns out to be a Chevrolet Corvette. The soldier opens the glove compartment and finds a note dated 1966. According to the note, a soldier named Private Andrew Malone wrote it and he says that “if you’re reading this then I didn’t make it home.”
Private Malone goes on to encourage the reader not to give up hope, saying that even though one dream is shattered another one will come true. He says that the Corvette was once his dream, but now it belongs to the soldier. He tells the soldier that even though he takes the Corvette or the dream as his own, “You’ll always be riding with Private Malone.”
The Corvette’s New Owner Meets Private Malone
In the next three verses of the song, the soldier fixes up the Corvette and thoroughly enjoys driving it through city streets and down winding country roads. Sometimes he senses another presence in his beloved car and when he quickly turns his head, he sees Private Andrew Malone “riding shotgun” in the passenger seat. Sometimes, especially late at night, the unseen presence punches the radio buttons to change the station from contemporary to golden oldie songs.
The last verse tells how one night the soldier speeds around a curve in the winding road in a rainstorm and his Corvette crashes and catches on fire. The soldier doesn’t remember the fiery crash, but someone tells him that they saw a soldier in a Vietnam Era uniform pull him out of the crash.
The rescued soldier is convinced that Private Andrew Malone saved his life and he realized that the Corvette was a dream of Andrew Malone’s when it was new and since Private Andrew Malone saved his life, it was his responsibility to continue the dream into the future.
Private Andrew Malone Leaves a Lasting Legacy
On March 23, 2001, Wood Newton and Thom Shepherd introduced Riding with Private Malone at the Opry Star Spotlight in Nashville. Wood Newton said that he never dreamed that country singer David Ball would like the song. He said that David heard the song when he and his partner Thom performed it at a songwriter’s show in Nashville and David Ball told them he wanted to sing it. Ball learned the song, worked it up, and recorded it in Wood Newton’s studio on Music Row in Nashville.
Riding with Private Malone was featured on David Ball’s album Amigo. It was released as a single in August 2001, and so many people identified with the song that it immediately took on a life of its own.
By the week of September 8, 2001, Riding with Private Malone had reached number 55 on the U.S. billboard Hot County Singles & Tracks. By the end of the year, it had climbed to the top ten, making it the second independently distributed single to make the country top ten of that year.
Music critics liked Riding with Private Maloneas well. Rick Cohoon of Allmusic noted that the song combined two elements that country music fans loved patriotism and the supernatural. He said that “Ball’s performance drives the peace.”
Billboard Magazine’s Deborah Evans Price also gave Riding with Private Malone a favorable review when she said that the song incorporated the ingredients that make traditional country songs geat – patriotism, tragedy, survival, “and, of course, a cool car.” She also commended the story and David Ball’s “powerful delivery.”
The story of Riding with Private Malone is timeless. The soldier who read the classified
advertisement for the car could be a returning veteran from any war and the Corvette and Private Andrew Malone under different names and guises can come from any historical era. The song came out a month before the terrorist attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and its themes also commemorate the hundreds of people who did not return home that day.
Besides its underlying themes of patriotism, tragedy ,and survival, Riding with Private Malone gives hope, continuity, and a sense that the memory and legacy of those who didn’t make it home will always be riding with us and with future generations.