Why you can understand country music lyrics

“The world is full of people whose notion of a satisfactory future is, in fact, a return to the idealised past.”

Robertson Davies, “A Voice from the Attic”, 1960

I think one could make the case that this is the dominant theme of modern country music.

I was challenged a while ago to spend a few weeks, as an exercise in personal diversity, listening to one of the pop country music stations in Phoenix. I concluded that the theme of “longing for an idealized past” was at the heart of nearly every country song. Even the instrumentation — the “breaking voice” style of singing, the Dobro and slide guitar, the “plain folks” lyrics, the lack of any grit to vocals — all sustain that theme. Of course it takes a bit of imagination to get all of country music to fit into one broad theme, but once you start listening for it, it becomes more clear.

Perhaps the exception is the style that might be called “good timey” — fast, danceable tunes that sound tailor-made for roadside taverns. But even there, one could say that the music is creating a nostalgia for an imagined past era of “good folks just havin’ fun after a day of hard work.”

The musical style of pop country is interesting in its very drabness. Not that the musicianship or instrumentation is poor. Major country records and acts have top session musicians, excellent recording engineers, working in state-of-the-art facilities. The singers and musicians themselves all sing and play very well. The singing is always on-pitch, on-key. The musicians never miss a beat.

And that’s where the drabness comes in.

Every upbeat song has about the same beat, which is sustained throughout the song. No rests, key changes or unexpected reversals as you might find in a Brian Wilson, Laura Nyro or Gershwin tune. No surprises at all. Each ballad keeps the same beat, about the same as all the other ballads. And they’re all played exceedingly well.

Most of all…you can always hear all the lyrics. Every single word. In fact, you’d be hard-pressed not to hear every word.

And that’s because a country pop tune is first and foremost a narrative…a story. That’s probably why people quote favorite lyrics from country tunes and not rock/alternative tunes. With a rock tune, you can barely understand the lyrics. And, as one critic pointed out many years ago…you’re not supposed to. Rock is about rebellion and raw energy and unfiltered emotion. As the character Dewey Finn in “The School of Rock” declaimed, “It’s about stickin’ it to the man.”

So with rock, rock n roll, alternative rock and the like, the point is not necessarily to tell a story. In fact, if you ask anyone about the lyrics to the top rock songs of the past 50 years, you’d be hard-pressed to get a coherent answer. Go ahead: ask someone what the song “December” by Collective Soul is about:

Don’t scream about
Don’t think aloud
Turn your head now baby
Just spit me out
Don’t worry about
Don’t speak of doubt
Turn your head now baby
Just spit me out

(Answer: it’s about the band’s bitter relationship with their former manager, Bill Richardson.)

or “Plush” by Stone Temple Pilots:

Where ya going for tommorrow?
Where ya going with that mask I found?
And I feel, and I feel
When the dogs begin to smell her
Will she smell alone?

(Answer: it’s based on a newspaper article Scott Weiland had read about a girl who had been kidnapped and found dead outside of Seattle. The lyrics are a metaphor for a failed obsessive relationship. The “dogs” are sex-hungry men who see women as nothing more than objects, like pretty plush dolls.)

So, rock lyrics often do have a story behind them — when they’re not simply a product of a drunken romp in a whiskey-filled lion-claw bathtub — but the story is not the thing. With the best rock, you can hum the opening bars and people immediately recognize the distinctive sound — think “Greeneyed Lady” by Sugarloaf, or “Under Pressure” by David Bowie and Queen or even the plaintive opening to “Money for Nothing” by Dire Straits.

Country tunes, on the other hand, are eminently understandable, like little Hallmark movies.

Watch country dancers at a Graham Central Station or Handlebar J’s (or your own favorite dance emporium.) None of that (sometimes awful) spastic gyrating and free-form movement that you find at other clubs. No, the couples — always couples — are…stately. The men, cowpokes or dudes, are the essence of gentlemanly movement. No smiling or grimacing and, thank god, no O-faces. The guys look like some polite throwback to a kinder, gentler era of formal English baroque line dancing. The women — excessive leather fringe and Halloween makeup aside — are treated as “ladies” as they twirl…two, three times…and always return neatly to the cowboy’s formal embrace.

Where have all the cowboys gone? They’re freeze-dried and waiting. Just add a tear for the simpler life of bygone times.

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One comment on “Why you can understand country music lyrics

  1. John B says:

    You forgot about Charlie Pride… Jeez, you could write a trilogy about the only black man ever to sing country.

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