Admit it; you look at The New Yorker cartoons first. No shame – we all have our weekly magazine quirks. I always start at the back of both The Economist and New York magazines to check out the weekly Obituary and Approval Matrix. When The Week Behind darkens my inbox, my first click is the Country Song of the Week…despite the editor’s dubious taste in Country Music.
If he has chosen well, the rest of my week nestles into the comfort of a wise story well-sung: clever lyrics, raspy voice, giddy-up rhythm, and maybe even a lonesome steel guitar. That beats a good Economist obituary any day.
Country music is the quintessential American music. It is music “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” Nobody needs a score or conductor to play country music…it’s a hum-a-few-bars learning experience. Jazz and blues aficionados may argue otherwise, but America is a big place…bigger than the coastal jazz centers or the urban blues nests. Only country music has absorbed the many diverse American immigrant musical cultures from the Irish fiddle to the West African banjo, the Spanish guitar, Austrian harmonica, German accordion, and Amerindian and African drums. Only country music has synthesized them all into a genre wide enough to tell the story of great triumphs and tragedy but filled with incidental moments of celebration and mourning, love and loss.
What Kind of Country?
Over the last hundred years or so, the country music trunk has produced many branches. There is the catch-all country western genre, of course, but also country swing, country rock, country soul, even in the case of Lyle Lovett, country eastern. Then the branches get downright twiggy with outlaw country, hillbilly country, cowboy country, honky-tonk country, Nashville and Austin country, tejano and conjunto country, even Canadian prairie country. Seems like everybody wants a piece of the country music pie, even New York which this week added a country music radio station to its listening line-up for the first time in 17 years.
At the risk of trying to box this amorphous, all-inclusive monster, I’d suggest that a country song can’t be country music if it doesn’t tell a story…a story with action, characters, and setting. A country song, in short, needs to be a little slice of narrative fiction set to music. Country songwriter Harlan Howard described it as “three chords and the truth,” while singer Hank Cochran advised country songwriters to “make it short, make it sweet, and make it rhyme.” Other country songwriters have chosen to go with the three piece summary like Johnny Russell’s “Red necks, White Sox, and Blue Ribbon beer” or Jack Ingram’s “Dim lights, thick smoke, and loud loud music.”
It also doesn’t hurt to flavor a good country song with puns, double entendres, or linguistic contradictions. In many cases the song title alone tells the story like Roy Clark’s classic “Thank God and Greyhound You’re Gone,” Jerry Reed’s “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft),” or Willie Nelson’s “Roll Me Up and Smoke Me When I Die” (also the title of his new best-selling memoir). Sometimes a teaser title can lead into a punch line chorus like Jamey Johnson’s “High Cost of Living” rolling into “ain’t nothing like the cost of livin’ high.” Regardless of where the language hooks fall, the good songs make you smile.
Blues with a Twang
…unless, of course, they make you cry. Sad country songs are just the blues with a steel guitar twang. They bring relief to the workingman whether he’s picking cotton, digging mines, punching a clock, or more recently muling dope across the border to pay the bills. They console the spurned lover. They mourn the untimely death. They lament the drought and hard weather. You name the burden, and there’s a country song to ease it on down. However, the biggest tears seem to fall with broken love, whether in Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” or, from the king of sad songs, George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” God, I get weepy just thinking of that last one.
While country music needs to make you want to smile or cry, it also needs to make you want to dance. They don’t call it “boot-scootin'” music for nothing. But it’s not all about some drunken kicker dancing by himself. Country music inspires social dancing…that’s right, the kind where you touch your partner, like in a good swinging two-step, or you touch everyone while do-si-do’ing a good square dance. The dance list goes on and on including the Cotton Eye Joe, the Lindy, all sorts of line dances, and even Appalachian clogging. I guess when “Sunday morning’s coming down,” you might as well dance.
My bar is set very high for The Week Behind Country Song of the Week. That’s why I click that tab open first. If the editor hasn’t selected a song that tells a good story and makes me want to smile, or cry, or dance…well…then I’m not sure I care what he thinks about Art, Politics, or Culture either. As Waylon Jennings opens his song Luckenbach Texas, “The only two things in life that make it worth livin’, are guitars that tune good and firm feeling women.”