From time to time, I write about topics that have absolutely nothing to do with sleep medicine or doctoring. This is one of those posts.
The other day my 9 year-old asked me, “So what makes a country song a country song? Besides the accents, I mean.” He sure knows how to start a conversation. I started off by explaining the mechanics of what gives the sonic qualities commonly identified with country music: the instrumentation (banjo, fiddle, and a “steel ride that’s so strong it sends chills up your back”); the cadence and groove of the rhythms (whether they be swing or straight 4:4); the vocal melodies and bass lines informed by blues, bluegrass, and spiritual roots. However, I spent most of my time talking about what, in my opinion, really makes a song country: the lyrics, which tend to tell stories–stories that most listeners can relate to easily at least on some level. The unique combination of sounds and narratives is what makes country music an indelible part of the fabric of our culture, and so characteristic and representative of American life. I thoroughly enjoyed this conversation, which triggered some of my oldest and most cherished memories.
I was born and raised in the midwest. Cliché as it may be, my earliest memories do in fact include corn fields, deeply sharp cheddar cheese, cow manure, silos, and Kraft carameled apples at Thanksgiving. Radio listeners in south central Wisconsin at that time had two choices: National Public Radio or country/western music. Talk radio was boring when you’re 4 years old, so I naturally gravitated toward the music. My first musical memories were not nursery rhymes, but Roy Acuff, Hank Williams, Ernest Tubb, Hank Snow, Red Foley. My parents did the best they could to nourish my budding musical interests. Some weekends we would brave the snow and drive from Whitewater to Janesville, where there was a K-Mart. K-Mart was a wondrous place. Brightly lit and smelling of candy and popcorn, it housed all my favorite stuff. The snack counter was way over there; the plastic dinosaur figures were over there; the fish and turtle tanks were over there. And there, just off to the right, was the music isle, big black records filled with music waiting to be heard. Every once in a while we’d return home with a new country album, which I proceeded to wear out from endless listenings.
If you’re a country fan, you know that country has passed through multiple eras in its long, rich history. I’ve loved many of these eras, but my favorite classic country songs span from the late 1950’s to the early 1970’s, when spare western tunes were gradually overtaken by more lush songs with stronger harmony vocals, orchestral flourishes, and electric slide guitar. And as always, the songs that stuck to my gut the most were the ones that told those great stories, plaintive tales of love, loss, and American life. Millennials may have difficulties imagining a world without smart phones, internet, or video games, but it is precisely that, imagination, that we children relied on to supplement the quality of our lives in those days. These songs gave me the opportunity to exercise my imagination, thus becoming a gateway to great adventure and exploration. Although I was too young to comprehend many of their themes fully, I captured my first glimpses of independence and adulthood through them.
Eventually, growing up and relocating to a city (Wichita, Kansas) triggered a move away from country for more exciting pastures (rock and metal! jazz and fusion! alternative! world music!), where I meandered joyfully for decades. However, my intense love for music has deep, unmoving roots: the country music I fell in love with years ago. In recent years, I have come full circle and discovered “new” country, which I will write about in an upcoming post. For now, however, just because I can, because I’m in a nostalgic mood, and because as a scientist I can’t resist an attempt to quantify the unquantifiable, I will list here some of my favorite songs with which I grew up. There are just so many great songs I love, and I’m sure that if I re-do this list a year from now it’ll look quite different. But here today–and sure to make some of my more head-bangin’ friends recoil in horror–I present, Letterman-style, my top 10 country classics, from the perspective of a wide-eyed, music-lovin’ midwestern elementary school boy. If you have a spare couple minutes, I invite you to explore a little American history–my history–through song. As Gentleman Jim Reeves once sang, “welcome to my world.”
10. Smoke! Smoke! Smoke! (That Cigarette) — Tex Williams. My dad smoked; everyone did, it seemed, in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. I used to love opening Dad’s pipe pouch, pulling out a big wad of moist, flaky brown/red tobacco, bringing it up to my nose, and taking in its rich, woody fragrance. However, when it came to the actual smoke itself, I remember nothing but how vile it smelled; it permeated the house, particularly after dinner, when Dad would relax with his pipe. There was no complaining about it, nor were there inklings to complain; the smoke was just a normal component of family life, as routine and inevitable as the sun rising and setting. So I was intrigued to discover–by listening to this classic novelty song–that a grown-up shared my disdain for the stuff, even though he himself “smoked ’em all my life, and I ain’t dead yet” (indeed, Willliams died in 1985 at the ripe ol’ age of 68). Luckily, I never became a “nicotine slave” later in life, in part due to this song. Thanks, Tex!
9. L.A. International Airport — Susan Raye. From Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” to Loretta Lynn’s “Woman of the World” to Minnie Pearl’s “How to Catch a Man,” myriad country songs have chronicled the longstanding struggle for female empowerment and the woman’s complex relationship with the man. I couldn’t have cared less about any of that, however, when I was 6. Big jet engines and exotic travel, on the other hand: who needs some kooky relationship with a man? Despite my youth I could sense the melancholy in this otherwise cheerful-sounding song, but all I could focus on was being at that huge airport, wherever “L.A.” was, 747’s roaring all around while I watched all these strange, unfamiliar people, like college kids trying to make their way home. Way home from where? I obtained my private pilot license when I was 17. This song is my first memory of wanting to fly.
8. Walk On By — Leroy Van Dyke. Hilariously, I thought this song was just about encountering a friend during a casual stroll down the street. It is, in fact, a song about a secret love affair, but it never occurred to me to wonder why the singer was telling the woman that he loved her but that they had to pretend they didn’t know each other in public. What I recall mainly is simply enjoying the melody, the pleasant ambling shuffle, and the notion of standing on a street corner hanging out.
7. El Paso — Marty Robbins. Marty was famous for his fictional tales of the Old West. This one is my favorite. As a young boy, of course, I was more interested in the gunfights and all the blood in the street than the love story about Faleena. I also loved the vocal harmonies, the beauty of which contrasted sharply with the harsh, tragic lyrical content. El Paso is a great example of how much can be conveyed in one short song.
6. A Boy Named Sue — Johnny Cash. I LOVE Cash. Always have, always will. I genuinely mourned when he died in 2003. He’s the first music star I remember actually seeing and admiring visually, having watched him host the Country Music Awards in 1973. There are so many great Cash songs burned permanently into my brain, but I suppose this one remains my favorite. Its story is completely absurd, dark and funny at the same time, and I was able to comprehend its implications despite my age. It made sense to me, years before that mangy “Morris the Cat” feller came on the scene and caused me sixteen tons of trouble. Today I raise my children to do their best to stay sharp and learn how best to survive in this harsh world, even though I named neither one of them Sue.
5. The Three Bells — The Browns. Like another favorite of mine, Ferlin Husky’s “Wings of a Dove,” this song runs on the same Christian themes I grew up with in Sunday school, but once again it was its story that drew me in more than anything else. I’ve always loved the concept of a narrative of a fictional character’s entire life in a single song (a rich tradition that carries on today; Kip Moore’s “Hey Pretty Girl” is a very recent example). As a boy pondering this story of little Jimmy Brown, I wondered what my own path would be, where it would take me, and whether my soul might also some day wing its way to Heaven.
4. Detroit City — Bobby Bare. We traveled all over Michigan when I was a boy. I remember well our family outings to Muskegon Lake (with my dad’s friend, Uncle Jerry, and his family) and East Lansing, but I have no childhood memories of Detroit except the images derived from this classic. And man, the images in my head weren’t pretty. I pictured our poor protagonist crying at the auto plant, sobbing at the bar (see 2. below), and curling up in a ball crying in his bed at night, pining wistfully for home. There was something vaguely comforting about listening to a grown man express such misery, loneliness and pain so openly: the story made me feel better about having my own moments of sadness and other emotions to which even the happiest of people occasionally may be prone. I felt sorry for the guy, truly, but ultimately I was glad as all git-out that I wasn’t him.
3. From a Jack to a King — Ned Miller. I recognized that this song had something to do with love, but I mainly enjoyed listening to ol’ Ned sing about face cards. I remember wondering if the “game” that he feared losing referred to something other than just a round of poker. And who was this Lady Luck, anyway? Was she the same person as the Queen? Anyhow, I loved the melody, shuffling cadence, and vocal line of this short but sweet song.
2. Rednecks, White Socks and Blue Ribbon Beer — Johnny Russell. What the heck is a bar to a 7 year-old? I loved this song and I played it over and over, working hard to imagine what the place was like. I still see the images in my head, the very same ones I formulated as a boy: cramped and dark, a neon PBR sign flashing through a haze of orange smoke off to the right (I used to see those cheap plastic signs at our neighborhood supermarket; I must’ve put 2 and 2 together), a wood, leather-trimmed bar off the left (Uncle Jerry’s bar, actually, from his Michigan cabin), a pool table with balls and a couple cues scattered across it. One thing I could not figure out, however: what the heck are all these weird people doing there, anyway, this “4:30 crowd?” Do they want to be there in the first place? Is someone making them be there? The actual purpose of a bar was one of the big mysteries of my childhood. For some reason all the grownups I asked never gave me satisfactory answers to my questions.
Ready for my all-time favorite classic country song? . . .
1. Yesterday When I Was Young — Roy Clark. As a boy I spent hours analyzing this song. I remember laboring over its meaning and struggling to understand the underlying theme of its lyrics. My tender little brain was awash with questions. Wait, what does he mean, yesterday? Of course I was young yesterday! Or is Roy singing about himself? He wasn’t young yesterday! He’s old! Was he singing about remorse over having done something particularly heinous earlier in life, or was he simply aging and expressing natural regrets that people inevitably have when they become old? And if the latter, does that mean I’m going to feel this way when I become old? Will I hate myself someday for being happy now? What are “arrogance and pride?” Are they good or bad? Why doesn’t he explain these things? Why does he have to “pay for yesterday?” There were so many intriguing, unsettling contradictions within: love and destruction, wild pleasures and pain, songs that will never be sung, friends that drift away. It wasn’t until as an adult, of course, that I came to understand the bare truths of this stone cold classic: life is short, dummy!; don’t squander your youth; seek to understand and accept your mortality; don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re going to be young and bulletproof forever. These are warnings you cannot hope to comprehend truly until you are older than young, even when they are sung to you a million times. However, Yesterday When I Was Young forced me to think and ask questions about such principles of humanity as a little boy, which is about as close to becoming enlightened as was possible at the time. When I met Roy Clark many years later, as a young man, I was too star-struck to remember to thank him for this musical gift he bestowed upon me yesterday when I was young.
Some time soon I will write about my thoughts about contemporary country music (with another top 10 list!), which is in many ways very different from these classics. ‘Til then, “one little kiss and Faleena goodbye!”