“But the cat was cool, and he never said a mumblin’ word.”
Or, did he in an amazing song?
Who shot J.R. was the biggest mystery of 1980, but a year before, if you were a country music fan, the real mystery was who shot the Dealer.
When you play music over and over, after a while, the only place to go is to get lost in the lyrics. Country music is a great place to do that.
In 1979, Hoyt Axton released “Della and the Dealer” as a single from the album, “A Rusty Old Halo.” Axton was never a country superstar, but he was a gifted songwriter with a gravely voice that made his own songs so authentic. In a Hoyt Axton song, you feel like you are there. Axton’s biggest hit was a duet with Linda Ronstadt in 1973 called, “When The Morning Comes,” which reached number 10 on the US Country Chart. “Della and the Dealer” peaked at 17. One of his best-known songs was actually performed by Three Dog Night. You might know it, “Joy To The World.” Sadly, Axton only lived 61 years, and died after suffering two heart attacks within two weeks. He left us with an amazing catalog of music to cherish and quite a mark on country music.
Let’s set the stage first. In “Della and the Dealer” four characters pile into a pickup truck and leave the city, heading out west. Here is the cast. There is Della, the Dealer, a Dog named Jake, and a Cat named Kalamazoo. The Dealer was not a card dealer. He was a drug dealer. If you were a child of the Seventies, you just loved the idea of a dog and cat heading out on this journey with two people, and probably pictured your own pets making the trip. I certainly did, and my cat never said a mumblin’ word about all the adventures I put her through.
As an adult listener, you knew there were four people in that truck. The Dealer and Della were in a relationship, and the other two were along for the ride.
You get the idea that the group was a bit of a powder keg. Trouble was on the horizon, and it came when they arrived at a café in Tucson. A fifth person entered the picture at the café, a guitar player named, Randy Boone.
The events that unfold at the café are murky in a way. Axton, as the narrator, knows the story intimately, and is retelling it with a sly wink at the listener. He does let us know that he was a personal friend of Randy Boone.
When the foursome arrived at the café, Randy Boone and Della became lovestruck. Randy played her a love song, and Della “got a fire in her eye.” The Dealer, we know from the song, was just a bad dude. He was a killer, evil, mean, used cocaine, and most likely, was abusive to Della. You can hardly blame her for falling for Randy. He was kind to her. Well, it all went to hell that night. The dealer, in a jealous rage, pulled out a knife and was going to kill Randy Boone, until maybe, the Dog stepped in and shot the Dealer. Did I mention, the Dog had a gun? He did. The lights went out, the Dealer’s body was on the floor, and Della, Randy, the Dog and the Cat ran for the back door, got in the truck and fled the scene of the crime.
And this is where the mystery begins. Was Hoyt Axton just retelling his friend Randy’s tale, or was he one of the characters in the song? We know for sure that Axton was not the Dealer. Dead men don’t tell tales. He was also not Della, for obvious reasons, and he was not Randy Boone. That leaves three possibilities. He was only a narrator. He was Jake the Dog, or he was the rye drinking Cat. Let’s explore.
This is certainly a possibility. He was a friend of Randy Boone, and could have been told the story in detail. Any good songwriter is always in search of inspiration for their next song, and after a tale like this, the song would practically write itself.
Let’s look at this as a possibility. It would be easy to assume that Jake the Dog didn’t like the Dealer. If the Dealer didn’t treat Della well and Axton, as Jake the Dog, was a personal friend of Randy’s, then it would be easy to believe that Axton was protecting both Della and his friend Randy. I have always wondered if Della was the Dog’s sister. If Axton is the Dog, then he suggested stopping at the café to see Randy Boone.
He could have been. We are led to believe that the Cat did not or could not talk. So, either he had a speech problem, “mumblin’ word,” or he was just “cool” as the song says and never tells what he knows. If Axton were the Cat, then the irony would be that he found a way to tell this story by changing the names to protect the not so innocent.
If I had to give my opinion, I would say that he was Jake the Dog. It makes the song that much better for me when I believe that Axton was the dealer’s murderer and the hero. What are your thoughts? Will this mystery ever be solved? We did, finally, find out that Sue Ellen’s sister, Kristin Shepard, shot J.R.
Written by: Nick Rainey