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.

Songs for the Trump Era: Shuttin’ Detroit Down

Off John Rich’s Son of a Preacher Man album and co-written by Rich and John Anderson (a great songwriter), Shuttin’ Detroit Down is a song I can’t help but think would make a marvelous addition to Pres. Trump’s campaign trail playlist. It’s a pop-country song of stark populist contrasts that self-consciously screams heartland, and though a pre-Trump bailout-era 2009 song, it feels pretty darn relevant today.

The song focuses on the contrast between the hard-working and self-reliant real world folks against the D.C. bailout boss man jet-setting crowd. The people getting their hands dirty building real things and working hard to improve their lot versus the entitled city-dwellers who sell “make-believe” and game the political system to their advantage on the backs of working folks. SDD elides over the fact that it was the auto-industry too, and not just big banks, that received bailouts and perhaps, as one of the reviews of the song I read suggests, ventures a bit too far into class warfare in seeming not to draw a distinction between success as a result of hard work versus profiting at others’ expense. But the general contrast, in any event, is a powerful one, with the unfairness of farmers auctioning ground and hard-working auto-workers left with nothing while others pull the strings of big government for personal profit.

The highlights of the song are the verses about the narrator’s dad, first instilling in the narrator a sense of fairness, work ethic and individual responsibility. Then as a contrast to these ideas, the people “losing billions” and coming to folks like his dad to get rescued and “Well, pardon me if I don’t shed a tear / they’re selling make believe and we don’t buy that here”. And finally the unfairness in his father, towards the end of his career, with callouses on his hands not having nearly enough to show for his years of labor. These lines make the themes of the song personal and focus the listener’s attention on the song’s protest: that there really is something wrong going on here and it’s affecting real people’s lives.

The instrumentals of the song hit SDD’s themes home perfectly, and combine with the only average lyrics to make this a good song. To begin with, the background piano, drums and a bit of electric guitar set the mood and jump in at the right places to make the song not one of despair, but rather as a “fightin’ mad” protest song. The acoustic guitar, particularly prominent at the start of the song, and the crying fiddle and steel guitar – instruments that sound like the heartland feels – add to the song’s purpose: the protest that things are backwards and “what the hell is going on around here!”

Overall the song is a success. Despite lyrics that are hit or miss and could have done a bit better at zoning in on the problem, the song still manages strikes a real chord, especially through the great melody and instrumentals, in focusing attention on the plight of hard-working folks with good values with a strong measure of deserved indignation.

Songs I Don’t Think Are Particularly Good Songs – “Grab A Beer”

Although I generally prefer to focus on songs I think are good songs, I’ve recently been nagged by “Grab a Beer”, a Dierks Bentley song that has started popping into one of my Spotify-created playlists. It’s not new song, in fact it’s from an extended play album called Country & Cold Cans that Dierks released in 2012 shortly after Home and a couple years before Riser, and written by Jaren Johnston.  Anyway, this is not a good song.

The gist of the song is an articulation of a number of scenarios in which grabbing a beer would be appropriate with Bentley as narrator encouraging the listener to do so. There’s certainly nothing objectionable about a celebration of beer drinking, a generally enjoyable activity.  Billy Currington’s Pretty Good at Drinkin’ Beer, for example, hits the same theme in a hokey and thoroughly enjoyable manner.  But in Dierks’/ Johnston’s song the beer-grabbing scenarios are unpleasantly cliché and the narrator’s rock-and-roll encouragement of partying, replete with faux feedback from a supposedly enthusiastic crowd, are contrived.  And I find particularly unpleasant the geographical references “From New York City down to Little Rock, I said everybody grab a beer” and “the East Coast baby all the way to LA, I said everybody grab a beer” which strike me as just random rhyming filler.

One of the saving graces of a particular class of juvenile (often) bro-country party songs is that the narrator will sometimes give a few winks and nods to the listener, letting them know the song is to be taken at least partially in jest. As just one example, Toby Keith’s Red Solo Cup is another song I don’t think is a particularly good song.  But that the lyrics and delivery are selfconsciously silly establish the song’s purpose as a bona fide diversion, rather than pretending to be something more (i.e. a serious country music song, even if it’s one about light-hearted subject).  Grab a Beer takes itself too seriously even as a good time party song.  The one lyric I thought might be going in the right direction is the use of the word “plural” because it is a funny word to be a country song.  But in context the song doesn’t express any awareness that this might be kind of funny.

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.

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.

A Comprehensive List of Things Appearing in “I Love This Life” that LoCash Loves

  • my boots broke in
  • my camo hat
  • driving my truck across the railroad tracks
  • a fresh cut field with a first frost on
  • how it [a fresh cut field with a first frost on] shines like gold when the sun turned on
  • the sound of them wheels [presumably the wheels of LoCash’s truck when driving across the railroad tracks] with my baby singing along when “The Boys Of Summer” comes on – it’s not entirely clear in context whether LoCash has an independent love for when “The Boys of Summer” comes on or whether the aforementioned song coming on modifies LoCash’s love for the sound of them wheels with my baby singing along, perhaps to an unspecified song; I think it is the former
  • my small-town world
  • a country girl
  • a Friday night
  • this life
  • that county line bar where they all know my drink
  • the way she throws her hands up when that cover band plays – really the same editorial comment here, and in the next item, as to “when ‘The Boys of Summer’ comes on”; again, in context, I think the better understanding is that LoCash specifically loves the way and the taste as modified by these specific circumstances rather than as loving, in each case respectively, two separate things
  • the taste of her lips when she’s been sippin’ that wine
  • that ragged old barn that my grandpa made
  • that little white church out on 109

Additional things LoCash may love, but for which their love is not clearly expressed: 

My understanding from the song is that LoCash also loves “the sound of an ol’ dirt road rollin’ through my mind” however they do not explicitly profess a love for this. In addition, LoCash notes that “I still get drunk on her every time” which, while not specifically professing love for her, I think is best interpreted through the metaphor and in the context of the song listing things that they love as loving her.

Addendum: Songs listing things can be great (see, e.g., Kip Moore’s “Something ‘bout a Truck”) as, of course, are songs with unbridled optimism and enthusiasm for the great things in life (see, e.g., Kenny Chesney’s “Life is Good”). Preston Brust (together with Chris Lucas, LoCash f/k/a LoCash Cowboys) talks about writing this song here, saying “We got to talking about how there was so much negativity on the news. We were kind of fed up with it that morning. [We said] Let’s get back to the stuff that we love, the little things. Let’s make a laundry list of all the things we love, and let’s call this song, ‘I Love This Life.’” What a perfect mentality for writing country songs!

NB: As this song was co-written by Brust, Lucas and two other writers, and sung by both Brust and Lucas – in the first person – I have sort of just assumed that both members of LoCash each love all of the items in the song, I think it’s better that way.