The late Steve Goodman once wrote a parody of a country song. It talked about trains, whiskey, pick-ups, prison. The song was a hoot. And it proved Goodman knew a lot about the music. He just didn't know the music.
Yes, hard-country songs tend to be sentimental, sexist, negative and full of cliches. But they're are also pressure packed with words licked clean by thousands of singers and songwriters. And those words have a resonance, much the way religion has given heft to words like: shepherd, crown, bread and lamb.Country music has its own share of hefty words - many of them, in fact, from the gospel tradition. The words trigger deep feelings. When Kris Kristofferson sings "lonesome," for instance, the word sounds like a cathedral bell.
So today we're offering a "hard-country liturgy" of sorts, a look at country terms that look like cliches, but still pack a country punch. Like most popular music, country deals with romantic love 90 percent of the time:
ANGEL: In country music male singers tend to swashbuckling roustabouts (Haggard, Yoakam, Jones), women often ply listeners with girlish, vulnerable voices (Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Janie Fricke).
And when men sing about women, the women usually end up on a pedestal or in the pit.
Good-hearted women are "angels" in country music. Kiss one good morning if you want to be happy, sings Charley Pride. Willie Nelson laments angels who fly too close to the ground. And every sin is forgiven, except personal betrayal. Women who've been around a bit are still angels - honky-tonk angels, fallen angels or even borrowed angels.
When an angel does you wrong, however, she's a "devil woman."
Every time I look you over, so real to life it seems, upon your pretty shoulders there's a pair of angel wings. (Freddy Hart, "Easy Lovin' ")
BED: This is the sacred shrine of country love, or else the most lonely spot in the universe, depending on the song. Paulette Carlson asks her lover's new love if she knows she's sleeping in the bed the guy made for Paulette, and the Statlers pine for that old bed of Rose's.
Sleeping single in a double bed, thinking over what I wish I'd said. (Barbara Mandrell)
BLUE: Sad. A good word for songwriters because the word already appears in hundreds of ready-made expressions. Puns abound. The Desert Rose Band tells us some guy is back and they're blue, George Strait toasts whoever holds his baby blue tonight. And then there's the best known "blue" pun:
You've found someone new; and don't it make my brown eyes blue? (Crystal Gayle)
BODY: The passions. Hard-country songs usually play the body (passions) off against the head (common sense) and heart (romantic love). The puns often become the "hooks" or catch-lines for the songs. Janie Fricke can't love a guy's body if his heart's not in it, and leering old Conway Twitty tells a woman not to say a word. He's already heard what her body's saying. In country music, the body's a dangerous thing with a life of its own.
If I said you had a beautiful body would you hold it against me? (The Bellamy Brothers)
HEART: Romantic love. More hook lines have been built from the word "heart" than any other word in the music. "Home Is Where the Hurt Is" (The Jordanaires); "Hearts on Fire" (Eddie Rabbitt); "Missing-You-Heart" (Sawyer Brown); "My Heart Has a Mind of Its Own" (Susan Ray).
The word shows up a lot in tandem with the word "hand," which means devotion, as in: "I put a golden band on the right, left-hand this time." (George Jones)
You're giving me heart trouble . . . you're a regular heartache. (Steve Wariner)
LADY: A woman with poise, style and serenity. Women with class remain ladies, no matter what their bodies do. The word also has a chivalrous feel to it, as if the singer were an Elizabethan troubadour or minstrel singing about the lovely fair maids of Tennessee.
In short, rock music descended from the blues and jazz, country music comes to us from British folks songs. And words like "lady," "highway" and a love of "roses" are remnants of that tradition.
Now she's a lady, down on love . . . she has her freedom, but she'd rather be bound to a man who would love her and never let her down. (Alabama)
LONESOME: My favorite word in all country music. It's often used as a synonym for "lonely," but it's very different. This is country's version of existential angst, for general aloneness. "Lonesome" is Tom McGuane's "sadness for no reason.'
The Brazilians have a word "saudade." Linguists say there's no English translation. The word basically means sad, full of nostalgia and loss, homesick, but with a hint of distant sweetness. Linguists should listen to more country music. "Lonesome" is the word they want.
Hear that lonesome whistle blow. . . . I'm so lonesome I could cry. (Hank Williams)
But it gets a little lonesome when I hear somebody saying, "Looky yonder, here comes Jody and the kid." (Kris Kristofferson)
STRANGER: This is the most feared man in country music. Women turn to strangers when their mates aren't treating them right, or when they want to rebel. Men are terrified of the guys because they represent part of a woman's life they have no part in. The word comes down from gospel music, but also from the Western tradition - Willie Nelson, for instance, is called the Red-Headed Stranger. And Merle Haggard's band is the Strangers." It also makes a good word for hook lines
If you're thinking about a stranger, well, there's one coming home. (George Strait
There are hundreds of others words, but that's enough for a primer. Country music - much like the writing of Kahlil Gibran and velvet paintings - is seen as the bottom rung of sophistication. And people with a small amount of taste find it self-satisfying to look down on the music with tasteful contempt.
Still, like boxers, hobos and other folks at the bottom of the totem pole, country songwriters have no fear of speaking from the heart and trying to be honest. They have nothing to lose. And if that honesty shows up as cliche, well, as they say, cliches are cliches because they tend to be true.