It’s been nine years since I started listening to country music and, unwittingly, placed my feet on the path that led to the birth of Tennessee Walt. (For further details of this story, check here.)
The people who have known me longer than that are, for the most part, baffled by my new taste in music—not to mention my new performing career. To those who knew me as a devotee of 1960s rock and, above all, of Broadway and Gilbert & Sullivan, it seems almost unnatural that I now spend my time listening to Ernest Tubb and the Carter Family. It’s as if it calls into question whether I actually ever cared for the Savoy operas at all.
I’ve tried occasionally to explain what it is that appeals to me about classic country, but it’s difficult to make it comprehensible to anyone who isn’t already familiar with the music—and people who know the music don’t need me to tell them why they should like it, because usually they already do.
Recently, though, while writing a letter to a friend (yes, I still write letters. I’m old.), I found myself talking about four specific songs, two of which I was confident she knew and two of which I was pretty sure she didn’t. The letter was mailed a couple of weeks ago, but the subject has stuck in my head and produced this essay—a probably-doomed attempt to explain what it is that I love about country.
I’ve been writing country songs for slightly more than two years, but I’ve been writing songs in other genres (mostly musical theater) since the 1970s. I’ve spent decades looking at songs and trying to figure out what they do and how they do it. One of the most obvious differences between Broadway and country, or between Gilbert & Sullivan and country, is that they do what they do in different ways; one of the less obvious similarities between them, though, is that often they’re doing the same thing, albeit in ways different enough to mask the similarity.
Take a classic songwriter’s subject: a person in love with someone with whom he or she desperately wishes not to be in love. This is a country staple, and it doesn’t matter much whether the singer is a man or a woman—witness the Hank Williams classic “I Can’t Help It If I’m Still in Love with You” (1951) and the equally classic Kitty Wells hit “I Can’t Stop Loving You” (1958), written by Don Gibson. However, it’s equally the subject matter of the Oscar Hammerstein II/Jerome Kern perennial “Can’t Help Loving That Man,” from Show Boat (1927) or, for that matter, Gilbert & Sullivan’s “The Hours Creep On Apace,” from H.M.S. Pinafore (1878).
The styles of these four songs are quite different, but they follow the same structural model: The singer makes clear how miserable he/she is, how badly love has treated him/her and, by implication, how much better life would be if he/she weren’t in love … but concludes that love is beyond any power of reason and that he/she doesn’t really have any say in the matter. (The H.M.S. Pinafore song doesn’t specifically conclude this, leaving the question up in the air at the end of the song, but the character already has reached that conclusion, narratively speaking, by choosing to leave her family and her life of luxury to elope with a penniless suitor.)
Of these four songs, the two that are closest in style are, interestingly, not the two country songs but rather “I Can’t Stop Loving You” and “Can’t Help Loving That Man.” Both are big, emotional ballads for female singers treading the intersection of love and despair, and both evoke the traditions of the blues—the former organically, since country’s roots in the blues are no secret, and the latter inorganically, as two New York theater veterans craft a blues pastiche for a musical set on the Mississippi in the 19th century.
[Note: Part of that pastiche is reflected in the dialect for the show’s black characters, and the score for the show identifies the song as “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man.” However, I’ve heard it sung my whole life by singers, both black and white, as “loving that man of mine”—including by Billie Holiday, here—and I’ll refer to it as such. For a more extensive consideration of dialect song titles, check here.]
Musically, the other two songs seem light years apart. The spare instrumentation of Williams’ recording seems to come from some planet other than the one on which the operatic lushness of Sullivan’s orchestration was created. Williams’ plaintive quaver is a world away from Josephine’s flamboyant coloratura (here rendered by Reinet Behncke and the Loveland Opera Theatre, an artist and a company with which I was previously unfamiliar, but both of which impress me).
In reality the two songs are closer than might be suspected. Williams and Sullivan came out of different musical traditions, but both were clear on one thing: The music was there to serve the words and the emotional arc of the lyrics. Sullivan was inarguably far more knowledgeable a musician than was Williams, but the grade-school dropout from Alabama gives his melody as much emotional power as the Leipzig Conservatoire graduate does. (As for the lyrics, Gilbert shares with Williams a penchant for using local references as a means of giving his songs relatability: Josephine’s “everything that isn’t old from Gillow’s” name-checks a posh London furnishings store in the same way that Williams’ “Hey, Good-Looking” (1952) mentions “a hot-rod Ford and a two-dollar bill.”)
So why do I love the country songs and hate the other two? Well, I don’t, of course. Ms. Behncke’s rendition of “The Hours Creep On Apace” is thrilling, and some performances of this song that I heard decades ago (Kim Lupinacci’s and Patricia Gallagher’s come to mind) are still green in memory. Holiday’s “Can’t Help Loving That Man,” which I prefer to original artist Helen Morgan’s, is a wonderful combination of exaltation and despair. (Of the various stage and screen versions, my favorite is Lonette McKee’s from 1994, which I saw live; I had no idea a filmed version was on YouTube until I sat down to this essay.)
At the same time, while the theatricality of the Hammerstein/Kern and Gilbert/Sullivan songs is brilliant, they don’t give me the same emotional pop that I get from the Wells or, especially, the Williams. What country lacks in wit, polish and virtuosity (as a voice and as a singer, Wells doesn’t belong in the same room as Behncke, Holiday or McKee), it makes up in simplicity, directness and emotional power. And that’s what I respond to in country.
The most obvious manifestation of this is brevity. The Williams and Wells recordings together aren’t as long as the Gilbert & Sullivan recording—the lengths are, respectively, 2:18 for Williams, 2:12 for Wells, 3:17 for Holiday and 4:48 for Gilbert & Sullivan. The latter two songs have extensive introductions before they get to the meat of the material, whereas Williams and Wells dive right in. The third line of Williams’ song is the title, as is the first line of Gibson’s; Hammerstein doesn’t get to his until the ninth line. (As a “scena,” the H.M.S. Pinafore song doesn’t really have a title.)
It would be foolhardy to argue that Hank Williams and Don Gibson weren’t masterful lyricists, but they were masters of a different kind of art than Oscar Hammerstein or W.S. Gilbert. The earlier artists were masters of structure, with impeccable meters and carefully developed ideas. They used poetic imagery and deft rhyme schemes to produce lyrics that read like poetry.
In classic country music, polish and structural intricacy are beside the point. Country certainly has its poets (Kris Kristofferson is every bit a match for Hammerstein or Gilbert), but the typical country song uses simple rhyme schemes, often with off-rhymes or even unrhymed lines, uneven meters and ideas that are more stated than developed. In part, this is simply because they don’t have the time or the space for development—Williams’ verse-chorus-chorus song has only 14 lines, while Gibson’s verse-chorus-verse has only 12, versus Hammerstein’s 31 and Gilbert’s 32—but it’s also because they don’t want to be clever. They want to be, to use a country touchstone, authentic.
Their songs don’t develop, in the sense that Broadway, opera and Tin Pan Alley songs develop, taking an initial idea and expanding it, exploring it and, often, ending by turning it on its head. Country songs are emotional snapshots: A man passes an old girlfriend on the street, doesn’t even speak to her, and can’t get the moment out of his head that night. A woman wants to look forward, but can only look back. These ideas not only aren’t developed, they defy development—the songs are about stasis, which is the absence of development. This is also what the Hammerstein/Kern and Gilbert/Sullivan songs are about, so the fact that their lyrics are allowed to develop the idea actually introduces a tension between form and content which is absent in the Williams and Gibson songs.
This tension is manifested in both the words and the music, which become rhetorical, even melodramatic, as they evolve in the Gilbert/Sullivan; and upbeat and danceable as they’re developed in the Hammerstein/Kern. In both instances this is a function of genre convention—H.M.S. Pinafore is an opera and Show Boat is a Broadway musical, and each form comes with its expectations—but they fly in the face of songs which are, at their hearts, personal and sad. Country can certainly be melodramatic or danceable, but it doesn’t have to be. A sad idea can become a sad song, and does.
I don’t often try to explain what it is that country means to me, because I don’t feel the need to. I’ve become a performer of this music partly because I’ve always been a performer and this is the music in my life at the moment, but mainly because, as an actor, as a director, as a playwright, even as a journalist and editor, I’ve always found it more effective to show people something than to tell them about it. Why do I love country music? Here’s a piano, let me show you.
It’s probably true that at this stage in my life, having lost my parents and too many friends and colleagues, having experienced joys and disappointments that I’d never have imagined 30 years ago, I’ve found myself in a place where strong, deep emotion resonates with me. I respond to that in music, and I find that the emotional heart of Hank Williams and Don Gibson, or of Hank Williams and Kitty Wells, beats more strongly than that of Oscar Hammerstein, Jerome Kern, W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, or of Lonette McKee and Reinet Behncke.
My admiration for the artistry of Hammerstein, Gilbert et al. remains undimmed, and I am in awe of the talents of Ms. Behncke, Ms. McKee and Ms. Holiday. These are world-class artists, and their work is immortal.
Right now, though, they don’t speak to me the way Hank Williams or Kitty Wells do. There’s a simple, direct power in a great country singer and a handful of pickers that I don’t find in a Broadway or opera star with a powerful chorus and an orchestra pit full of virtuosos. That’s the music I want to listen to, and the music I want to play.