My first blog post, back in February, was titled “What Is Country Music?” That question—or, rather, its kissing cousin, “What is it that you like so much about country music?”—is in my mind again today.
It’s been there since July 10, actually, when I had a brief conversation with a young friend, herself a brilliant musician (take a bow, Valerie Grehan!), about what goes on in a Tennessee Walt show and why it is that I do it. Explaining that I do country music on a piano, without steel guitars and fiddles, that I don’t yodel or assume an accent other than my own, I found myself talking about whether what I do actually is country music at all.
Spoiler alert: It is. What makes a country song country is that its words and music are written by songwriters whose native language is country music. I saw the New York City Opera do The Pajama Game and, you know what, with world-class opera singers and a stupendous opera orchestra, it was still a Broadway show, not an opera. If the words and music are by Hank Williams, Cindy Walker or Willie Nelson, it’s a country song whether it’s accompanied by a guitar, a piano or a Theramin.
OK, so what I do is country, at least to me. What is it about it that I like so much?
Mostly the words. Some of the greatest melodies ever written were written for country songs, but almost always the music is in service to the words. Many of country’s greatest songs were written to existing tunes, and Country Music Hall of Fame member Hank Thompson is on record (in his authorized biography) as saying that country’s most iconic songwriter, Hank Williams, “was mainly a lyric writer,” even suggesting that many of the tunes credited to Williams were actually by Fred Rose. To Thompson, who knew and worked with Williams, what made a Hank Williams song was the words.
I’ve been a word person all my life and a song lyricist (mostly for musical theater) since the 1980s, but started writing music on a regular basis only in 2015. Perhaps it’s no surprise that I ended up in country, which is a lyric-driven genre in the same way that opera and jazz are music-driven genres. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any number of brilliant song lyrics written for operatic arias or jazz songs, but merely that the success or failure of a song in those genres seldom is due to its lyrics.
When people say that “country songs tell stories,” what they mean is that the songs are built around the words. Since the dawn of commercial country in the 1920s, one of the givens of the genre has been that recordings are mixed so as to put the vocal—and, thus, the lyrics—front and center. A country singer whose voice is so soft or whose diction is so poor that his lyrics can’t be understood has no future in the genre.
Country isn’t the only word-driven genre, of course. As a devotee of Gilbert & Sullivan since 1973, I can attest that musical theater is one. Cabaret is another. So are rap and hip-hop. Why am I into country so much more than I’m into even musical theater?
My passion for country music dates from 2009, when I was 48 years old. I don’t think that’s accidental. One of the historical facts about country music, dating back to the 1920s and beyond, is that—unlike most other forms of American popular music—it’s always been written for grownups, not teenagers or twentysomethings. The market for country music always has skewed way older than that for popular music in general.
This isn’t only my opinion. According to a 2011 article in Billboard, that year the average country-music fan was 45 years old. Only 13% of country fans were between 18 and 24, the bracket which accounts for the overwhelming majority of sales in pop, rock and hip-hop. 20% were between 45 and 54, 16% between 54 and 64 and 16% older than 65.
I don’t have numbers for the 1930s, the 1950s or the 1980s, but I’d bet that they were, if anything, more skewed toward older listeners. The kids in the 1940s were going nuts for Frank Sinatra; it was their parents who bought records by Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow and Hank Williams.
What kids want out of music has never been the same as what their parents want. The 18-to-24 bracket wants music they can dance to, and that makes rhythm more important than words. The 54-to-64 crowd may dance (this 55-year-old certainly does), but they’re most drawn to songs they can listen to while cleaning house, washing dishes, driving, enjoying a drink with friends—all much better contexts in which to hear the words to a song.
Country’s first superstars were Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family in the late 1920s, and since then country songs only rarely have treated young love, the topic of topics for rock, Tin Pan Alley, pop and Broadway. Instead its songs have dealt with the complicated world of grownups, treating such topics as alcoholism, adultery, poverty, sickness and violence, real-world concerns which don’t turn up much in the rest of popular music (other than the blues, one of country’s parents). Like folk, country has produced songs for people who responded to music that reflected life as it is, and were willing to lay down their money to hear it.
The most grownup aspect of country is its willingness to explore complicated emotions. Most other forms of popular music deal with broad, monochromatic emotions such as jubilation, unrequited love, despair and the like. Country deals with nuanced emotions—regret, guilt, doubt, distrust, remorse and so forth—and in so doing it reflects the complex, deeply compromised world in which most grownups exist.
Three songs that have been much in my consciousness lately, as I prepare them for inclusion in my act, are focused on regret. This is one of the classically nuanced emotions, blending happiness and sorrow alongside ambivalence, uncertainty and, sometimes, a whisper of hope.
Ernest Tubb is my favorite country singer—not the one I think is the best (that would be Hank Williams), but the one whose music speaks to me most powerfully. Tubb is country’s consummate master of regret, and many of his greatest songs, including “Walking the Floor Over You” (1941), “Two Glasses, Joe” (1954) and “Thanks a Lot” (1963), treat this emotion.
Lately, though, I’ve been working on “Another Story” (1966). This poignant song, with words and music by Arlie Duff, focuses on a particular moment in a failed relationship, the moment at which the singer still feels the heartache of loss but also the awareness that the heartache won’t last forever.
I won’t say that your leaving doesn’t hurt me,
but it’s nothing that time can’t erase,
and someday this hurting will be over—
another story, another time, another place.
And one day I’ll be sitting with another
and suddenly a smile will cross my face.
If she asks me, “What’s so funny?,” then I’ll tell her:
“Another story, another time, another place.”
It’s a grownup version of Paul McCartney’s classic “Yesterday” (1965), written at almost exactly the same time. In McCartney’s young-man song, the jilted lover’s world seems to have come to an end; in Tubb’s recording, an older man, someone who’s been through this before, feels the pain but knows that the world will keep turning. The song is a masterpiece of ambivalence, an amalgam of love, sorrow, resentment, acceptance, regret and, yes, a certain kind of hope.
I didn’t hear this song when I was 19, but I doubt I’d have responded to it then. It’s not the kind of thing that a teenager understands. I heard it when I was 49, and it’s been with me ever since.
Another one I’ve been playing a great deal lately is the Johnny Cash hit “Guess Things Happen That Way” (1958), written by Cowboy Jack Clement. This is technically a young man’s song—Clement was 27 and Cash 26 at the time of its release—but it’s a country song, not a rock song, and its ruefulness is its defining quality. (One reason that the original arrangement, with its “ba-doop-a-doo” harmonies, has always grated on me.)
As in “Another Story” and “Yesterday,” this is a song about a failed relationship. Over a driving rockabilly beat, the singer talks to an unnamed friend who’s trying to cheer him up. The primary note is one of acceptance, but it’s a bitter, dissatisfied acceptance, spiked with anger, resentment and even a fatalistic kind of piety.
You ask me if I’ll miss her kisses?
Guess I will, every day;
I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.
You ask me if I’ll find another?
I don’t know—can’t say—
I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.
God gave me that girl to lean on,
then he left me all alone.
Heaven help me be a man and
have the strength to stand alone.
I don’t like it, but I guess things happen that way.
In its way this is a sadder song than “Yesterday,” because the singer knows that even his spurned love won’t last forever. There’s a certain grandeur in the anguish of a broken-hearted teenager who’s convinced that the world is ending, but that grandeur is denied the spurned lover in a country song. In “Guess Things Happen That Way,” part of the pain comes exactly from the realization that the world will keep on turning, that he’ll live through his hurt—not because he’s strong, not because he’s true, but simply because that’s the way things happen.
Finally, I’ve been working on one of the most perfectly written songs ever, in any genre, the heartbreaking “You Don’t Know Me” (1956). Written by Cindy Walker and first recorded by Eddy Arnold, it’s subsequently been covered by almost everybody in the world, from Emmylou Harris and Willie Nelson to Ray Charles, Elvis Presley and Bette Midler. I’m partial to Walker’s own recording, from 1964, overproduced but heartfelt.
This is one of the world’s most deftly powerful lyrics, an interior monologue addressed to an unidentified woman by a man who’s secretly in love with her. The tone of the song is regret in its purest form, regret not for something done but for something left undone, regret at the singer’s own weakness but also acceptance of it. His love will always be there, will always warm him and will always kindle longing and regret.
For I never knew the art of making love,
though my heart aches with love for you.
Afraid and shy,
I let my chance go by,
the chance that you might have loved me too.
You give your hand to me
and then you say goodbye.
I watch you walk away
beside the lucky guy,
to never, ever know
the one who loves you so.
No, you don’t know me.
There’s a strange, almost triumphant quality to the song, but its overarching quality is regret. The singer doesn’t plan to speak, doesn’t think that if he did speak or had spoken things would be different; he simply mourns the unattainable might-have-been. He doesn’t like it, but that’s the way things happen.
My experience of life is that in youth the world seems painted in primary colors or, if you prefer, in sharp, clear black-and-white. As we age, the colors fade, mingle and develop subtle gradations, until finally we realize that what to the young seems like gray is actually a complex tapestry of colors, perhaps muted but no less beautiful for that. Life is infinitely more complicated than it used to be, but all the sweeter for its complications, even for its sadnesses.
When I listen to country music, that’s what I hear. Rock, pop and Broadway offer songs of innocence; country offers songs of experience, songs that reflect the richness of the world around us. If it’s true that even the cheeriest country songs tend to have an undertone of darkness, they’re the richer for that, because life itself is like that.
It’s music for grownups. It took me almost a half-century, but I’m finally ready to listen.