Song Analysis: Riding With Private Malone

In analyzing a country song we start, as always, with the text. On a quantitative basis RWPM hits at least six of the nine categories of country music, and arguably two more. It’s less hokey and more meaningful than the following summary suggests, but the short version is the plot tracks a soldier getting out of the service and stumbling across a ’66 Corvette previously owned by the deceased title character Private Malone who ends up acting as the narrator’s guardian angel when he gets into a car crash.

Proceeding chronologically, the song hits America first with the narrator’s military service, later followed up by the service of PM plus of course the quintessential Americana of the car itself. Next is Modes of Transportation, when we see the narrator is looking up a newspaper ad for an old Chevy that turns out to be the ’66 Corvette that he fixes up and that the song is built around. After buying the car, our narrator reads the Nostalgic note left in the glove box by Private Malone from years ago, passing on his dream of the car to the new owner, the fact of the note a consequence of PM having died for his country – Hard Times (see also the fiery crash near the end of the song). Then in the second verse we see the narrator driving past all the girls in town, not Love but at least a nod to the category, and picking up country on the radio – a reference to country music though perhaps not Musical Aspirations and Inspirations. The third verse begins with the narrator Raisin’ Hell by driving too fast and ends with a witness seeing the (God/Religion) spirit of Private Malone rescuing the narrator from the crash, which spirit had been riding shotgun with the narrator all along.

It’s even more impressive that the song hits so many categories because it’s a story-telling song, rather than a song that lists things. For me it’s ultimately an American story of salvation, the title character giving up his life for country, the narrator restoring the car and living out the dream of Private Malone and then of course the narrator getting saved by God/Private Malone. Through the note-turned-chorus the song reaches back to the original dream of Private Malone and through the narrator the realization. It features the narrator in the first verse searching, the second restoring and exhilarating and the third coming close to his downfall but ultimately being rescued. And what especially makes the song so good is the depth and breadth of story it manages to pack into four minutes and change, with so many economical lyrical hooks punching above their weight to import for the listener bigger ideas and feelings into the song. This is one of the abilities of great songwriters that never ceases to amaze and delight me as a listener – the ability to create in a self-contained song and with just a few words an entire universe by drawing on meaning from our own real lives

The song was written by Wood Newton and Thom Shepherd and first recorded by David Ball, though I prefer the version Shepherd recorded. While Ball’s version is also good and I think his delivery of the choruses are on point, overall his rendition feels more to me like he’s capturing the story from a third-person perspective, whereas Shepherd’s version rings truer to me in the first person, which is an important part of the power of the song.

Song Analysis: EYB’s Saltwater Gospel

In the interests of not burying the lede: I don’t have a problem with Saltwater Gospel, but I’m not crazy about it. I don’t think it stacks up against some of EYB’s very high quality songs, but at the same time it comes across much better performed by them than it would have if the song had gone to one of the pop-country regulars.

Eli Young Band has been one of my favorite groups for a long time. I remember seeing them way back when they were an opener at Texas Independence Day in NYC all the way up to what I think is the most recent time I’ve seen them: playing at the Georgia Dome with ZBB and Kenny Chesney. They’ve always deserved (and craved) a wider audience and it was awesome to see them get just that with Even If It Breaks Your Heart and Crazy Girl. (They’re also schedule to play in November at Brooklyn Bowl – more about that in a future post.)

My first reaction to hearing Saltwater Gospel was that it felt like a Florida Georgia Line song. And sure enough EYB didn’t write the song and the songwriters – Ashley Gorley, Nicolle Galyon and Ross Copperman – initially seemed to have folks like Kenny and Jake Owen in mind for the song. I’ll save for another day the so interesting topic of commercial songwriting and an exposition on singing/ performing versus singer-songwriting, but suffice it for now to say that there’s a whole to be said for folks performing their own material or, in the absence of that, at least only recording other folks’ songs that are authentic expressions of the singer’s own thoughts and feelings.

The articles I’ve read about SG take great pains to point out that, in their view, this isn’t just another “beach song”. That’s right in the sense that the song isn’t about loading your truck up with Bud lights, picking up some girls in swimsuits and going down to the beach to party. The other point the articles seem to focus on is that the authors have professed that they don’t want the song to be listened to as a diminution of the importance of actual church-going. I didn’t interpret the song that way (though I don’t think the music video helps) and any bone to pick I have with the song isn’t on that account.

Saltwater Gospel does have a nice point. It is definitely awe-inspiring to stand at the edge of the ocean and feel the power and majesty of what God created. Listening to the song more casually the first few times (i.e. at the gymnasium and not focusing so intently on the lyrics) I interpreted the song as a quasi-baptism song, with the singers relationship with God consummated via the ocean standing in for the formal religious rite. On closer listen, I think this is reading too much into the lyrics, and maybe this would have been too far anyway, but the nice point of feeling the awesomeness of God’s ocean still stands. In a world where there’s an embarrassment or reluctance, if not outright cynicism, towards declaring reverence for something , it’s no small feat to identify something as meaningful and stand behind it.

For me, this is the song’s success: the recognition of this awesomeness. I don’t think the song’s lyrics are so adept at developing this initial recognition – the Amens and “I’m in heaven watching all these waves roll in” feel ham-handed, although I prefer and like the lyrics of “When I’m lost I know where to get found again” and especially “Yeah, I got all the proof I need.  And it sure makes me believe” the latter of which I think really encapsulates the point of the song. Overall my take-away is that the song doesn’t feel much like EYB but despite some pop-country trappings, has something original and meaningful at its core that appeals.

Good Sunday Songs

Each day of the week is almost like a mini stage in life attached to certain activities and emotions and I like country songs that speak to this. Songs like George Jones’ “Finally Friday” and Garth’s (and Jones’) “Beer Run (B Double E Double Are You In?)” – neither written by Jones or Brooks – and Steve Azar’s “I Don’t Have to Be Me (‘til Monday)” – co-written by Azar – are great Friday songs.  They’re about checking out of work and blowing off steam from the week maybe with some beers.  The feel of a day like Friday or Monday or Wednesday is more straightforward, but Sunday has its own, less obvious, feel: basically collecting from the past week/end and the Take-This-Job-And-Shove-It-bosses and all of those George Jones six packs, reflecting with self, God and family and resting (and gearing) up for things to come.

Zac Brown Band’s “No Hurry” is one of the great Sunday songs. It’s great for a lot of reasons, but in terms of lyrical content really hits the Sunday vibe.  ZBB explicitly ignores of the boss calling on the telephone, household chores that need to be done and bills to be paid in favor of relaxing retreat:

There’s nothing wrong with an old cane fishing pole / and the smell of early spring
Sit down in a fold-up easy chair / on a quiet, shady river bank
Let the world go on without me / wouldn’t have it any other way,
cause I ain’t in no hurry today

The song takes the Sunday concept a little further, as a broader approach to life, and also focuses on getting right with the Lord – faith a core of the Sunday reflection and improvement themes.

Toby Keith hits the same themes in “My List”. This is fine song, not written by Keith but delivered well.  The narrator starts off crossing lots of weekend chores off the to-do list, but then comes around to those more important things in life to take care of.  The strength of this song (in addition to the direct but soft rhymes) is the really nice things on that life list:

  • like go for a walk, say a little prayer
  • take a deep breath of mountain air
  • put on my glove and play some catch
  • wade the shore and cast a line
  • look up a long lost friend of mine
  • sit on the porch and give my girl a kiss
  • raise a little hell, laugh ‘til it hurts
  • put an extra five in the plate at church
  • call up my folks, just to chat
  • stay up late, then oversleep
  • show her what she means to me
  • start livin’

Listing activities turns out to be a pretty effective means of conveying the Sunday theme. By sort of aggregating the feelings associated with each individual listed activity set in context, we get a sum total of Sunday.  Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday” does it the same way, listing out church-going and family BBQ imagery in particular along with other typical Sunday activities.  My favorite verse is:

I stroll to the end of the drive / pick up the Sunday Times / grab my coffee cup
It looks like Sally and Ron / finally tied the knot / well it’s about time
It’s 35 cents off of ground round / Baby cut that coupon out!
That’s what I love about Sunday

The wedding announcements are a nice Sunday tradition, and it’s also the vivid routine of lazily and leisurely walking down to the end of the driveway to grab the paper. And it’s especially, in the context of the love- and family-oriented song, the family-driven and romantic love with which we imagine the narrator pouring over the coupons with his wife.  The music videos and album artwork associated with these songs are consistent with the themes: the narrator being outside communing with nature (even holding church outside), creating lasting memories with kids (of course weaving in baseball, what could be stronger father-and-song bonding?), retreating with and protecting family or laying on a couch looking up to God in the middle of a wide open field.

Other songs get at the same theme without such explicit listing. Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” is also a great Sunday song.  While the tempo of the song is clearly in the “I’m in a Hurry” vein of the title, the content repudiates the rushing mentality and messages a slow down.  Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down” – one scarcely imagines being sung by anyone other than Johnny Cash – is another great example.  The song starts with the fallout from (and a bit of continuation of) the previous Saturday night and quickly turns to introspective reflection with the narrator taking in the Sunday sights, sounds and smells – kids playing, church songs and bells ringing, frying chicken – and engaging with God in thinking about the course of his life.

The feeling of Sunday is multi-faceted and hard to dig into and meaningfully capture, but I think there’s really a huge payoff in the form of such nice music when songs put this task in focus and are able to execute successfully.

Songs About Specific Things: Being Thankful That What You Wanted to Happen Didn’t Happen

One of my very favorite specific topics that some country music songs are about is being thankful in retrospect for things that didn’t happen. In particular, things that at one point the singer/ narrator very much wanted to happen. A couple fantastic songs are great examples:

Garth Brooks’ “Unanswered Prayers” – Garth recounts how he wanted, and would pray every night, to spend his life with a particular woman, but then upon running into the woman years later realizing that despite those feelings at the time he was very much meant to be with his wife and not that other woman concluding “I guess the Lord knows what he’s doin’ after all” and reflecting: “sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers” and “some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers”.

Darius Rucker’s “This” – Hootie goes through a number of these unanswered prayers: the girl that turned him down in high school, the college he wanted to attend until he got a rejection letter, his mother passing away and many other “misses”:

For every stoplight I didn’t make / every chance I did or I didn’t take
all the nights I went too far / all the girls that broke my heart
all the doors that I had to close / all the things I knew but I didn’t know
Thank God for all I missed / cause it led me here to This

It’s not a celebration of these things specifically but a recognition in retrospect that “nothing’s a mistake” and “it all makes perfect sense” because everything led to up to the great life (in this case, baby sleeping, wife laughing in his arms, rain on the rooftop and the football game about to start) he has now.

Walt Wilkins’ “Trains I Missed” – Wilkins similarly goes through loves lost, bridges burned, rivers never crossed, roads not taken, maps not read, attempts to get away from God and other hard times. And at the end of song Wilkins reflects that “the hell and the hurt” led him to finding his way and celebrates the good things in life “and the moments I find myself right where I’m supposed to be”, toasting the trains he missed.

I really like this topic. These songs have the character of the “everything happens for a reason” reflection and thanking God figures prominently into each song. (What beautiful lyrics: “just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care / some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers”). They serve as a nice “take it easy” reminder that the stoplight turning to red right in front of you isn’t what’s important – or a big deal. Everyone’s had life experiences that didn’t turn out the way you hoped at the time, which is why hard times is one of the essential 9 Categories of Country Music. Maybe, like Garth, it was someone you would have done anything for, who you loved and prayed that God would let you spend the rest of your life with but that you didn’t end up with for one reason or another. Or any other unanswered prayer or metaphorical missed train. We can all consider our own life experiences in the context of Garth’s prayers, Hootie’s winding road and Wilkins’ litany of missteps and empathize with those singers, or even graft our own life experiences on to their words and melodies and hear the song as if it were written about us. Songs like this turn the hard time on its head by celebrating all those even better things that never would have happened but for that hard time, turning the initial sadness into wonderful optimism.

The 9 Categories of Country Music

A few years ago my friend Dan and I discovered the 9 categories of country music. These subject areas and themes are the ones most frequently appearing in the best country music songs, crafted and defined to be broad enough to apply across the spectrum of country music and specific enough to capture the important topics covered in a particular song. Our theory was that, at least as a rule of thumb, the more categories a song hits the better the song. This certainly isn’t a hard and fast rule – Wagon Wheel, one of the unquestioned contenders for qualitatively best country song doesn’t stack up particularly impressively on our quantitative metric. It’s certainly true that by focusing lyrically on even just a couple of these categories a country song can be great. Nevertheless, our theory is that there’s at least a very strong correlation between the number of categories a song hits and how good that song is.

In no particular order the 9 categories are:

  1. Love
  2. Hard Times
  3. Raisin’ Hell
  4. Nostalgia
  5. Musical Aspirations and Inspirations
  6. God/ religion
  7. The South
  8. America
  9. Modes of Transportation

I can’t recall hearing a country song that did not hit at least a couple of these categories, and probably the average is around 3.5 categories. Of course, one of the key issues in analyzing country songs for the number of categories represented is how strict or loose a construction to put on each of the categories. I hope to explore each of these categories in depth in future posts and what I mean by the level of construction will become more clear. But just to give a bit of color on each of the categories by way of example, consider the following lyrics from the lone song that our analysis has uncovered as hitting 8 of the categories, Kenny Chesney’s I Go Back:

  1. I go back to a two-toned short bed Chevy/ drivin’ my first love out to the levy (Love)
  2. And I go back to the loss of a real good friend/ and the sixteen summers I shared with him (Hard Times)
  3. And I go back to the feel of a fifty yard line/ A blanket, a girl, some raspberry wine (Raisin’ Hell)
  4. After graduation and drinkin’ goodbye to friends (Nostalgia)
  5. “Jack and Diane” painted a picture of my life and my dreams (Musical Aspirations and Inspirations)
  6. So I go back to a pew, preacher and a choir/ singin’ ‘bout God, brimstone and fire (God/ religion)
  7. I go back to the smell of an old gym floor/ and the taste of salt on the Carolina shore (The South)
  8. Not represented (America)
  9. I go back to a two-toned short bed Chevy/ drivin’ my first love out to the levy (Modes of Transportation)