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.
One of these days I’d love to make it to the CMAs and even if the 51st has been sitting on my DVR for a few weeks now I’ve been looking forward to watching on TV. The show’s about more than just the music that actually takes home the awards (some thoughts on last year’s CMAs here). I enjoy all the country stars taking turns performing – seeing them transition from their seated roles with family/spouse to performing up on stage and then back again makes them more interestingly human. And I like seeing these country performers recognize each other, especially when everyone in the audience is on the same page, singing along to a country classic – like Tulsa Time or Don’t Rock the Jukebox, a couple of 2017’s examples. I also like seeing great songwriters get recognized for their critical role in making country music.
In terms of live performances, one of the high points for me of this year’s show was Eddie Montgomery, Rascal Flatts and Dierks (H/T to him for getting in on this great performance) singing My Town in tribute to the departed Troy Gentry. She Couldn’t Change Me was among my first favorite country songs and there have been so many MG song I’ve loved over the years and Gentry will definitely be missed. I was surprised at how much I liked No Such Thing As a Broken Heart by Old Dominion, which made it onto my post-CMA Spotify playlist for further consideration. Luke Bryan’s performance and T-Swift’s no-show were lows.
Looking at some of the awards, Little Big Town was a poor choice for Vocal Group of the Year – especially stacking up against Rascal Flatts and ZBB, either of which should have handily beat them out. I suppose I should refresh my familiarity with LBT to understand why they keep winning awards/why people like them. I also didn’t care for the choice of Miranda Lambert as Female Vocalist of the Year. If ever Carrie or Reba are in contention I can’t see how the award goes to someone else, unless perhaps Jennifer Nettles or Martina McBride are involved.
One of the winners I actually felt pretty good about was Jon Pardi for New Artist of the Year. I’m not quite sure how the CMA determines who’s new since I remember listening to Missin’ You Crazy and Up All Night driving around in my good old Jeep in 2012-13 (especially since the radio stations were pushing his songs real hard then) but at least, of the folks nominated, I think he was the best choice. Pardi actually (co-)writes most of his songs and strikes a pretty good balance between Billboard pop country, traditional country and country rock. I was also pleased and surprised to see Jason Isbell’s name come up via nomination for Album of the Year even if he didn’t get the award. This nomination also led indirectly to my being aware that there’s a thing called the Americana Music Association with its own awards show which I’ll definitely need to check out.
Inductees into the CMHOF this year were strong. Alan Jackson is one of my absolute favorites – and based on live reactions clearly a favorite too of the CMA crowd – a rock solid performer who seems to increasingly represent the backbone of traditional contemporary country. And Jerry Reed with the classic East Bound and Down and Don Schlitz who wrote Forever and Ever, Amen, Deeper Than the Holler, The Gambler and too many other great songs to name.
Cheers to a fine show. As they say: next year in Nashville!
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.