Years and years ago, about 130, I moved to Morgantown, West Virginia, leaving the Air Force to attend college, and I remember driving around Morgantown engaged in a critical investigation. Turning the dial on the car radio, I wondered just how bad the radio stations were going to be.
In the moves I’ve made during my life, about 130 from state to state, there was always an anxious question as to how bleak the musical wasteland would be. Anyplace I lived, I got to know which radio station had a blues show on Sunday evening, which station had bluegrass on Saturday morning, always searching out what I could listen to.
One of the benefits of the internet is that we are no longer condemned to listen to local radio stations. I try to care that the internet may have harmed radio, but considering the idiotic pop trash I have heard on the radio, my tears dry fast. If commercial radio gets destroyed, it is no loss. Listening to music on internet stations now, like Pandora, is like that moment in The Wizard of Oz where the black and white world suddenly changes to color. “Ohhhh, my God! There are so many kinds of music. Who are all these amazing musicians?”
So now I can listen to real country music, not that hideous shit they play on country music radio stations. No Randy Travis for me, whining maudlin patriotic lyrics that a 12-year-old could have written. No more country-radio drivel about fond memories riding around with Daddy in the pickup truck. Give me Dwight Yoakum falling off a bar stool.
I grew up with rock-n-roll, and glad of it. That music helped pull me into a bigger world. Even so, even in high school, even I knew that a lot of rock-n-roll had some of the dumbest lyrics we’ll ever hear. “Ooh, baby, wanna rock you all night.” Repeat 10 times.
Once I got over the youthful indiscretion of hating country music, and began to actually listen to it, I realized that one of the truly cool things about this music is the attention to language. Something I noticed early on is that wordplay happens frequently. This is so important, in fact, that vocal styles in country require much clearer articulation than the sometimes gargled shrieking of rock-n-roll. In country music, the words matter, and the listener is supposed to hear them.
One nice example is “She’s a good-hearted woman in love with a good-timing man” (Good Hearted Woman,Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings). With the repetition of “good” we also have the shift from “woman” to “man” and the radical change in the adjective used, going from emotion to partying.
Another clever use of language is found in “You’ve got to kiss an angel good morning, and let her know you think about her when you’re gone. Kiss an angel good morning, and love her like the devil when you get back home. (Kiss An Angel Good Morning, Charley Pride). The writer here is using both “angel” and “devil” in double meanings, with the Heaven/Hell contrast, but also using “devil” ironically as something good, to emphasize an intense erotic experience.
A fun use of irony is also in the line “I’m always here at home till closing time” (Swinging Doors, Merle Haggard). Here the writer was looking for a new way to express the incredibly common country motif of men hanging out in bars. The narrator in this song spends so much time in the bar that he seems to have settled down there.
A different aspect of the focus on language in country music is the attention to telling stories. There is a kind of forward narrative in many country songs, so that by the end the listener finds out where the song goes. Here are a few examples:
War Is Hell (T. G. Sheppard): a young man is introduced to sex by an older woman whose husband is off at war.
Give It Away (George Strait): a man remembers the ending of his marriage, and his wife’s lack of interest in their possessions in her haste to get away from him.
Busted (George Jones): a man is desperately poor. This song almost sounds like a theme song for The Grapes of Wrath. To make the song more brilliant, the music itself has a strong Cajun influence. Go listen to it now.
The title of this blog entry, by the way, is the ultimate George Jones song, also telling a story.