Song Analysis: I Wish Grandpas Never Died

Riley Green’s I Wish Grandpas Never Died is a very good song, and I’ve been listening to the other tracks on his first album and looking forward to the next with much enthusiasm. Many thanks to my buddy Cart who turned me on to this one.

Right from the get-go it’s clear this is going to be a very strong category song.

I wish girls you love never gave back diamond rings [Hard Times]
I wish every porch had a swing [No category, just nice]
Wish kids still learn to say “sir” and “ma’am”, [Nostalgia]
how to shake a hand [In context, ditto]
I wish every state had a Birmingham [The South]

I wish everybody knew all the words to Mama Tried [Country Music Aspirations and Inspirations]
I wish Monday mornings felt just like Friday nights [implied Hard Times and/or Raisin’ Hell, but not substantive enough to qualify]

The first verse alone hits four, with most of these reinforced with additional category hits later on. The song also goes on to hit Love & Modes (“I wish the first time, seventeen, she was my everything kiss in a Chevrolet, could happen every day”), Raisin’ Hell (“and back road drinking kids never got caught”) and America (“I wish everybody overseas was gonna make it home”). More to be said on America category in a separate post, but this is one where we’re appropriately more liberal in our analysis to capture the spirit of the category cf Modes which really requires a more literal reference.

God/religion is the only category not mentioned. Green circles around the category, but ultimately, for purposes of this song, Sundays spent on the creek bank and death not explicitly memorialized with religious component.

Though less explicitly than some other songs that list things (e.g., Something ’bout a Truck, I Love This Life), this is a song that lists things. It shouldn’t be interpreted as a knock on this fine song to remark that it’s easier to hit a higher number of categories in ca song that lists things. The format is just more flexible when there’s no specific plot to be advanced. Going back to first principles, the number of categories doesn’t itself create a good song, it’s just an indicator. And so re-emphasizing the point on this commentary not taking anything away from the song, it should be reminded that one of the very best songs there is – and the only other known song to also hit 8 categories – Kenny’s I Go Back is also a song that lists things.

If I had one complaint/suggestion it would be to scrap the electric/steel guitar, in particular the short solo, in the recorded version. To me this undermines what is considered in the following para and for a moment, in what is otherwise a nice and special song, makes it feel just a bit cookie-cutter.

This song is effective because Green lists things that allow the listener to situate themselves in a time when their grandpas were around (or at least when the listen imagines that Green’s grandpas were around), looking back nostalgically to how things were when they/he were growing up. The nostalgic listings lead up to and culminate in the heartfeltly delivered title line at the end of the chorus. Taken out of context some of the lyrics look cliche – pop country antennas of course go up to feel out any reference to Bud Light or similar. But the strong weight of other lyrics (I love e.g. the lyrics on Copperhead and good dogs), including the capstone re: grandpas, make the song authentic and make us feel good about giving the benefit of the doubt to lyrics like Bud Light, which in context are credible. Overall, the lyrics use the categories to effectively situate the song’s nostalgia – the activities, the music, the emotions, etc – that take the listener back to the time of grandpas being around. 

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: May We All – Florida Georgia Line

May We All is the second single off Florida Georgia Line’s new album Dig Your Roots, and a solid song.

I wasn’t particularly impressed with this album’s first single, H.O.L.Y. The gents at FGL are great vocalists, which if you didn’t know it before this song, is evident right from the first verse – despite and not because of all the auto tuning. But even in the context of professing love with religious metaphor – some of which lines are not bad, though also not original – the vocal effort and range seem out of place and at times ham-handed especially because of the auto-tuning and especially in the chorus (i.e. the “H.O.L.Y” aka “high on loving you”). There is something to be said for FGL’s change of pace in the song itself and in the act of releasing this as the first song off their new album. It is a new direction for FGL, one that feels more like adult contemporary than country, but on the other hand it doesn’t mention Fireball and avoids bro-country cliché. At the end of the day I think the OK lyrics of the verses and FGL’s vocal displays are undermined by the self-importance of the song, particularly of the choruses, and the vocal processing.

Turning back to the song at hand, for important starters this song rings true as sung by FGL, which means something for any song not written by the artists themselves but particularly so for a song like this which is so nostalgic. By contrast Luke Bryan, one of the singers the primary writer Rodney Clawson initially considered for the song (i.e. as a potential purchaser), would not have been as good a fit at this point in his career. Maybe after Bryan co-wrote the small-town great Rain Is a Good Thing, but as Bryan’s career has staked claimed firmly in bro-country, I think this song would have come off as pandering rather than genuinely wistful.

The nostalgia hits home right from the start of the song with the prayerful “May we all” introducing the thesis of the song: getting to grow up in “our red, white and blue little town”. Most of the lyrics in this song are good, to just take a look at the annotated chorus:

May we all know that nothing ain’t cool ‘til you wear the new [off] [A few of the lyrics sites I’ve found online hear the last word of this line as “one”, an oversight that sorely misses any message at all that this song has. But the line itself hits the old is good motif and converse repudiation of all things new being automatically better pairing nicely with the overall nostalgia of the song.]

The sound of a quarter rollin’ down a jukebox [This is probably the best line in the song – we can all remember those diner/ bar jukeboxes (even as we listen to this song on our phones) and what a great auditory image. It’s not the jukebox itself or even the song playing out of it, but the sound of coin clink chunking its way down the coin slot.]

Play the Travis Tritt right above the Tupac [Here I visualized the flipbook pages of that diner jukebox where 8 or so tracks were listed vertically with the corresponding entry numbers next to each selection and making the selection for Tritt, which happened to be located alphabetically above Tupac (with Tupac mentioned for timing/ generational context). In an interview with Tyler Hubbard he suggested this was a throwback to the sort of diverse combination of music CDs he had at that age. Notwithstanding hardcore country fans’ sure objections to this reference, I say I don’t love it but fine. The reference to Tritt is a solid musical inspirational throwback on its own.]

[Before] you get lost down some road [Note: most of the lyrics I see online hear the first word here as hope, but I hear this as “before” which I think is better. In either event ain’t no hurry to get anywhere, it’s just driving for the sake of driving, this guy imagines perhaps with some friends from the jukebox diner in the back seat and then of course the girl riding shotgun mentioned a couple lines later.]

Slow rolling with the top off the back of a Bronco [Still no hurry to get anywhere, in contrast to the fast-paced big city or modern world. And despite use of the term “slow rolling” I don’t think we have a bro-country hook here.]

Buy a cold sixer with a cashed-in lotto [Again I think this steers clear of introducing any bro-country, just the solid enjoyment of a good six pack on a couple fortuitous extra dollars.]

She’s smilin’ with her hair blowing out the window [Some pleasant summertime happiness and carefreeness here, always good.]

Where you ‘bout to go? Yeah, you learn to fly and if you can’t then you just free fall [Here, I get a little lost. I don’t understand what this line adds to the song. It’s hard to think of freefalling without Tom Petty coming to mind but this doesn’t seem to be a reference, and in general I don’t appreciate the link to the rest of the song. But I don’t think this lack of apparent synchronicity does lasting damage to the song, and of course it’s a nice slow rhyme back to May we all.]

To focus in on a few more lyrics:

Coming in after the opening line of RW&B little town, “Kinda place you can’t wait to leave but nobody does/ ‘cause you miss it too much” is a nice lyric encapsulating the tension explored in so many country songs between hometown love, growing up and nostalgia versus the desire to leave and explore for bigger better things.

May we all do a little bit better than the first time / Learn a little something from the worst times / Get a little stronger from the hurt times
May we all get to have a chance to ride the fast one / Walk away wiser when we crashed one / Keep hoping that the best one is the last one

These lyrics are OK. The tone with which they are delivered suggests there is something meaningful behind the lyrics. Interpreted in the context of the music video as about a car race and attendant literal crash they certainly don’t mean anything and I think trivialize what in the generality of the lyrics could be interpreted as significant. The generality of the lyrics by themselves at least admit of the opportunity for the listener, having just been made nostalgic for their hometown or other small town America, to graft their own experiences onto doing better than the first time, learning from the worst times, etc. The lyrics themselves (i.e. out of context) are nice. The trajectory of the song could have culminated in the nostalgic narrator returning to the small town he was once ambivalent about with wife and 2.1 &c. Or we could have just had another catchy verse about small town America and left it at that, without trying to overreach and make the song about more than face value. But as is, I don’t see a link here to the rest of the song and so am a bit frustrated at the apparent intention to impart a message without giving it substance.

This song is most successful where, and because generally, it doesn’t try to do too much. When the song embraces nostalgic references, it does so in just the right way. Most of the song is content being about nostalgia for nice small town America, and it does so simply and without pretension, by listing nice small town Americana. Listing things can make for a good song (see, e.g. I Love this Life). The pace of the song is really nice. The verses are a bit slower then the chorus picks up the tempo so that the rhymes rhyme perfectly and segue one into another. The bass line of the choruses avoids being oppressive and combined with the catchy rhyme scheme reaches just the right head bob along level. May We All doesn’t have the sustained catchiness of Cruise or achieve the significance of message of Dirt, but it finds a satisfactory home somewhere between the two.

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)