Let’s Burn a Country Music CD

Folks who’ve heard a bit of country here and there and are looking to get a little more involved have often asked me for country recommendations. I never got the chance to swap vinyls but I do remember sharing cassette tapes and then, the crown-jewel of childhood music sharing, mixed compact discs. There’s still something wonderful about a burned CD mix, especially with the song titles written in sharpie on the front of the CD. In the spirit of putting together a mixed CD for you dear reader and friend, I thought I’d share what I would now put onto a mixed CD as a country music primer.

At least for the CDs I’d make as a kid, you could typically get 22 or so songs to fit on there, so that’s the list I’ve put together. By way of qualification, I don’t mean to suggest that I think the below songs are the best or even my favorite 22. This isn’t the country mix I’d choose if stranded on a desert island with only my boom box and one CD. And neither is this a listing of the songs I think represent the country music canon. Rather this is intended to serve as an introductory flight of country songs – a tasting of different eras and styles, so a new listener can wet their beak. It’s for this reason I’ve intentionally omitted certain artists or songs, especially if they are more well-known or contemporary. For example, it’s hard to put together a list like this and not include a song like The Devil Went Down to Georgia or anything by Johnny Cash, Garth Brooks or Dolly Parton. Similarly, if we were (virtually) doing one of those data CDs you could get more songs on, I would surely have put something by Carrie Underwood, Patsy Cline, Reba, Hank Jr., and Tim McGraw on here. But anyway I’ve tried in my selections to put together a mix that reflects at least some songs and artists folks might not be familiar with already together with some classics, so a listener can decide what they like best and what country roads they’d like to further explore.*

1. Mama Tried – Merle Haggard
2. L.A. Freeway – Guy Clark
3. Pancho and Lefty – Townes Van Zandt
4. Lost Highway – Hank Williams Sr.
5. Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain – Willie Nelson
6. Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man – Conway Twitty & Loretta Lynn
7. Forever and Ever, Amen – Randy Travis
8. Guitars, Cadillacs – Dwight Yoakam
9. Independence Day – Martina McBride
10. Me and Bobby McGee – Kris Kristofferson
11. Mountain Music – Alabama
12. Stand By Your Man – Tammy Wynette
13. Kiss an Angel Good Mornin’ – Charley Pride
14. Copperhead Road – Steve Earle
15. Wide Open Spaces – Dixie Chicks
16. He Stopped Loving Her Today – George Jones
17. Chattahoochee – Alan Jackson
18. I Can Still Make Cheyenne – George Strait
19. The Road Goes on Forever – Robert Earl Keen
20. This Time Around – Randy Rogers Band
21. Texas on My Mind – Pat Green
22. Colder Weather – Zac Brown Band

*This virtual CD is also presented with apologies, since I’ve not given credit to the songwriters or original recording artists in some cases, and instead I’ve listed the singers whose rendition I’d like to be on our CD.

Songs About Specific Things – Heartbeat Love Songs

One of the sub-types of Love songs that I really like are what I think about as “heartbeat love songs”. The connection between the heart and love is pretty obvious, and too many songs to name use broken hearts, heavy hearts, full hearts, etc as metaphors for feelings of love both good and bad, including at least two songs I’m familiar with actually called “Heartbeat” (a Chris Young-recorded song and Carrie Underwood co-written and recorded song). But the type of song I’m thinking about is where the rhythms and basslines of the song create a heartbeat sound that jives with the lyrics (and instrumentals) of love in the song.

Conway Twitty and George Strait are two of the masters of these types of songs. I’d Love to Lay You Down is a good Twitty example. The heartbeat rhythm is so prominent, particularly in the choruses, and I like the way it comes to a halt between stanzas almost as if the heart is no longer beating when Twitty is not professing his love. And it also effectively comes to a crawl when Twitty, a bit ominously, sings “when a whole lot of Decembers are showing in your face/ your auburn hair has faded and silver takes its place” but then comes back full force as the next set of lyrics start in “you’ll be just as lovely and I’ll still be around/ and if I can I know that I’d still love to lay you down” – the heartbeat rhythm coupling with the lyrics to affirm that the narrator’s love will still be there.

Maybe my favorite example of this type of song from Strait is Love Without End, Amen. The song showcases a couple different types of love: father and narrator as son, narrator as father and son and God as father and narrator as son. In each verse getting into a fight at school, trying a father’s patience and leading an imperfect life cause the listener to question whether love would triumph in that circumstance and the bassline becomes less prominent when the question is posed. Then when the chorus comes in the heartbeat rhythm picks back up affirming the triumph of love as the lyrics do the same. Two other nice examples are Strait’s Ocean Front Property and Fool Hearted Memory, in the later of which the heartbeat bassline is offset by an almost crying fiddle (and in the former some steel guitar), because of course these are hard times, heart break love songs. When Did You Stop Loving Me is another great, Strait heartbreak, heartbeat love song.

Plenty of other artists and songs get in on the heartbeat action, and most do so in a less obvious way where the heartbeat bassline is not quite so front and center. Alabama and Randy Travis are a couple more of my favorites. For instance, Travis’ Deeper Than the Holler is a wonderful song where the country boy narrator sings about the strength of his love, comparing it metaphorically to all of the country boy things he knows (“higher than the pine trees growin’ tall upon the hill”, “purer than the snowflakes that fall in late December”, etc). Behind these sweet lyrics, kicking in with particular strength in the choruses which are the parts of the song where Travis is really expressing his love, is the heartbeat bassline.

Somewhere there’s got to be an evolutionary biology study that tells us how of course we find the heartbeat rhythm comforting and associate it with love (listening to our own all day, mother clutching a kid close to show affection or protect, one lover putting their head on their mate’s chest, etc). But whatever the reason, when country songs combine this back beat with lyrics and instrumentals that team up to sing out the sub-themes of the type of love the song’s dealing with – heartbreak, nostalgic love, family love, romantic love – we get some songs that I think are really moving.

A ½ Bunch of Other Moments I Like in I Got a Car

The first moment I like – adding on to my previous post – is the conversation of the choruses. These vary a bit across the song but the gist is below. The matter-of-fact lyrics combined with Strait’s signature ballad delivery and the easy tempo of the song make this really nice listening. It’s like a great little taste of I Can Still Make Cheyenne in terms of delivery, though the content is more straightforwardly optimistic.

And I said, “well I got a car”, she said, “there’s something
At least it’s a start”, I said, “it’s better than nothing
“I ain’t in no hurry but I’m ready when you are”
And she said, “where do you think all this is going?”
I said, “there ain’t no way of knowing”
I guess I hadn’t thought it through that far
“But I got a car”

The second to last line of the chorus is arguably part of the dialogue, but I prefer to hear this as inner monologue, which I think makes the exchange more pure. I also really like, in the second chorus, the addition of the line “And I can’t promise you the moon and stars” after a variation of the aforementioned and contested second to last line of the above, which I think focuses attention on the simplicity of the “but I got a car”.

Second, I like verse below. One of the best vehicular escapism songs ever is Born to Run – perhaps a country song in another life – harnessing pent up energy (“The highway’s jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive”), desperation (“‘cause baby I’m just a scared and lonely rider”), adventure and release (“Together we could break this trap / we’ll run till we drop, baby we’ll never go back”), young love (“But I gotta know how it feels / I want to know if love is wild / Babe I want to know if love is real”) and some other powerful themes. Clearly Strait’s song is different in delivery but hits some of the same themes.

So we let the wheels turn and the windows down,
we let ourselves go all the way through town,
she never said stop and I never asked her why.
We drove into the night when outta nowhere
she said “I’d give anything to never go back there”,
and I kinda wish this day would never end.
She said, “I could use a change but I don’t even know where to begin”

Similarly in this verse I haven’t put quotes around the second to last line. Because the lyric is clearly “wish” I think this is intended to be part of what the girl is saying to Strait, but I prefer to pretend the word is “wished” and that this were part of Strait’s inner monologue, himself reflecting on and enjoying the experience too as the girl expresses her feelings. I also hear the first three lines and the next three lines as one ongoing, lightly-punctuated sentence each, which captures the cascading and unplanned adventure that’s being conveyed better than a bunch of short separate sentences.

Third, I like what is (for me) the ambiguity of the last verse:

We got lost in the miles, lost track of the days
‘til we finally found a stopping place
when the doctor said, “you know what’s on the way?”
And we found ourselves in a little white house,
one Sunday morning rain pouring down
She said, “I think it’s time but all the lines are out”
And her eyes teared up and she said, “what are we gonna do now?”

I understand this as separated into the following components. (a) “lost in the miles” and “stopping place” – continuing the car and driving metaphor – representing Strait and the girl continuing the relationship that started so auspiciously with “I got a car”, (b) a big time jump between the third and fourth lines of perhaps having raised multiple children and (c) finding themselves (Strait and the girl) alone again after their kids having left the nest (lines being out perhaps a metaphor for having cast their kids out into the world), and then nostalgically re-kindling their relationship going back to the car/ the original come on line where it all started/ the start of new adventures in life together. But it’s also possible (especially with “got your things in the back” in the next verse”), there’s no time lapse in (b) and the lines out in (c) are a more literal reference to something like phone lines and they’re just on their way to the hospital because “it’s time” for the baby. In fact, this second scenario is not only possible, it’s also how Strait interprets the song (see below). I heard the song in a different way, but I’m really OK with either version.

Third and a half, I like Strait’s (brief) reflections on the song that I heard online. Maybe I just need to get more plugged in to stuff like this, but I wish there were more interviews where singers talk about the songs they sing and/or write. He said “The car’s a metaphor for love, but it’s a vehicle to carry the song in”. Before even getting to this I like Strait’s genuineness in talking about what the song means. To me at least it’s important that even if someone hasn’t written a song, that as a listener I can believe the song means the same thing to them that it does to me. Usually that comes through (or not) in the delivery of the song itself and the consistency of the song with the singer’s body of work, persona, etc, and it did here. But it’s also nice to get a little extra-song confirmatory evidence that it’s not just that Strait is master at singing ballads – his own and others – but that he also relates to and appreciates this song. But anyway, I like what Strait said about the use of the car in song, because that’s how I see the song as well and I appreciate his showing insight into the song writing lens even more so, again, because Strait didn’t write the song.

A Couple Songs Featuring Efficient Usage of Modes

One of the reasons Modes is such a strong category is the versatility of the subject matter. There’s a whole range of roles that cars and other vehicles and driving and the open road can play in songs. They can be freedom, evoke nostalgia or say something about the kind of person their driver is or wants to be. Or they can be a project to be worked on, a status symbol, a place for religious experience or high school hijinks or just a means to get to wherever Friday night is. Without driving too far down the road of Modes in the abstract which I’ll save for a more comprehensive post on the category, I got the treat of hearing I Got a Car and That Ain’t My Truck back to back on my Spotify which reminded me of what a great category Modes is.

A great commonality in both songs is how the authors channel the power of the category to convey really the entire themes of the respective songs in just a few lyrics. In I Got a Car, a George Strait song off Love is Everything (written by Tom Douglass and Keith Gattis) and I think one of Strait’s best offerings in the last 5 years, the title line is used in different contexts throughout the song as a statement of unspoken opportunity.

And she said, “where do you think all this is going?”
I said, “there ain’t no way of knowing”
I guess I hadn’t thought it through that far
“But I got a car”

The above is just the end of the first chorus and in talking to a girl for the first time Strait doesn’t need to expound on the adventure or escape the car can afford them, he just needs to state economically that he’s got a car. Ditto for when the title line is used later on as a metaphor for the start of a life spent together and then a nostalgic rekindling of love. In each case Strait in fact specifically says he doesn’t know all of the things that might happen or that the characters might do together but instead allows the simple line of having a car do the heavy lifting, allowing the listeners – plural because in this case the listener is both the girl within the song and the audience outside of the song – to envision their own possibility.

Similarly in That Ain’t My Truck, co-written by the singer Rhett Akins (alongside Tom Shapiro and Chris Waters), it’s one line that conveys the whole theme of the song, here by channeling the idea of car (or truck) as an extension of self and place in the world.

That’s my girl, my whole world
but that ain’t my truck

The image of someone else’s truck parked in front of a house where your truck should be parked efficiently captures the range of complex emotions – loneliness, betrayal, sadness, etc – explored in the rest of the song, attendant to losing the girl the narrator loves. But it’s not necessary for Akins even to verbalize that his girlfriend has chosen someone else and that he’s no longer wanted, that another truck is in his space says it all.

There’s plenty more to like in both of these songs, but I particularly appreciate the less-is-more approach both sets of songwriters took in building up the respective stories (and in I Got a Car’s case, chapters) but then deferring to the powerful associations the listener can make with “a car” in Strait’s song or “the truck” in Akins song by just putting one simple lyric out there.