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. 

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)

 

Album Review: All Night Party – Casey Donahew Band

Casey Donahew Band’s newest album – All Night Party – is strong.

As personal background I’ve been fortunate enough to see Casey Donahew Band at NYC’s Texas Independence Day concert the past couple of years and they’ve been awesome. They – and Randy Rogers Band, who is also strong in concert – have stolen the show with the energy and enthusiasm of their performances.

This album seems to mark a bit of shift in CDB’s approach to more of a mainstream sound, but not a shift that is wholly unwelcome, or maybe if unwelcome is the wrong word, not begrudged and definitely not disappointing. Taken together the album features a diverse blend of party songs and cowboy tunes that showcase themes of love, raisin’ hell and nostalgia, featuring the lyrical originality that for me makes CDB a true standout. This is a Texas country album – and a very good one.

Kiss Me is a song that I could see receiving significant radio play and hitting the Billboard charts. Aside from the Keith Urbanesque intro, this song strikes a great balance of vintage CDB emotion and realness. The lyrics are not overwhelmingly original but the sincerity of the delivery and the intensity of the build up, starting with the bridge into the first chorus and particularly through the second chorus, make this a great song.

Country Song has a catchy chorus with wonderful lyrics that the listener can empathize with, in general and with reference to CDB in particular, along with a nice blend of nostalgia and rowdiness. Each metaphor that CDB employs seems better than the next, “beat up truck on an old dirt road”, “that first kiss when you’re holding on tight/ when two boys love one girl and you know they’re gonna fight”, “high school rebel pretending that he’s strong” in each stanza piling one on top of the other lending credence to the increasingly impassioned chorus where we see CDB performing on stage. Just like a good country song, the metaphors throughout this song, including where we see CDB performing on a stage too small, are imbued with emotional complexity and originality.

College Years is a bit of an empty song in my book – the generic, cliche lyrics fail to summon the nostalgia I think the song intends to evoke to hearken back to college and the inclusion of Love and Theft doesn’t add anything. Kip Moore is fine singer and songwriter, but his name popped into my head in an unflattering capacity when listening to this song, and I was surprised at the coincidence but not the fact of seeing his name on the songwriting credits.

What Cowboys Do is the album’s first cowboy song, a low-tempo ballad that, while not a feature of the album is certainly a solid song, the lyrics and emotion offset well by what sounds like an electric violin, in particular with lyrics like “I’m strong as a freight train and just as steady” allowing Donahew to showcase the kind of smooth, strong vocals that make him a great singer of not only upbeat Texas country rock songs but also emotional ballads.

The album features a number of party songs, including Feels This Right and Going Down Tonight, both upbeat, fun, “I’m not trying to live a love song tonight” kinds of songs. These songs incorporate themes that are prevalent in today’s bro-country movement, but in stark contrast to most bro-country songs when Donahew sings lines like “I like trucks and I love beer”, “I’m looking for a bonfire and some pasture land”, “I’m pouring moonshine shots into Dixie cups”, “I lost my keys and can’t find my phone/ everybody’s passed out so I party alone” we can hop on board because these lines are delivered in an original context that pairs nicely with the simplicity of these lyrics and a sincerity that makes the lyrics believable. Although I don’t think these songs are the best on the album, the blend of popular bro-country themes, Hank Jr. rowdiness and CDB originality make me confident that CDB will find larger commercial success.

That’s Why We Ride, the first song I’d heard off the new album, is a catchy cowboy tune that takes me right back to CDB gold like Stockyards. The lyrics and subject matter of this song perfectly match the tempo, highlighted by some restrained electric guitar that I can see being broken out into its fully glory in concert, creating a powerful, fun and passionate song that just makes me want to get out onto the highway and throw the hammer down. For me this song comes in at #2 on this album between #1 Country Song and #3 White Trash Bay.

Like College Years, I was similarly not surprised to see That Got The Girl was not a Casey Donahew song, the island-inspired sound, easy chorus and simplistic lyrics sound more similar to Kenny Chesney’s more recent albums than a CDB original, but in contrast to College Years this made for fine listening.

Josie Escalido – a nice old timey feel, Texican-inspired song, with thoughtful lyrics

White Trash Bay is wonderfully CDB, very much in the mold of White Trash Story, White Trash Story – II, Double-Wide Dream, etc. This song is infused with the CDB sense of fun and humor that shines through so strongly in Donahew’s original lyrics. It’s exactly songs like this that serve as a reminder – there are only a handful of artists on the same level as CDB in terms of creativity. This feel-good song will enter the CDB pantheon of great white trash-themed songs.