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.

Good Sunday Songs

Each day of the week is almost like a mini stage in life attached to certain activities and emotions and I like country songs that speak to this. Songs like George Jones’ “Finally Friday” and Garth’s (and Jones’) “Beer Run (B Double E Double Are You In?)” – neither written by Jones or Brooks – and Steve Azar’s “I Don’t Have to Be Me (‘til Monday)” – co-written by Azar – are great Friday songs.  They’re about checking out of work and blowing off steam from the week maybe with some beers.  The feel of a day like Friday or Monday or Wednesday is more straightforward, but Sunday has its own, less obvious, feel: basically collecting from the past week/end and the Take-This-Job-And-Shove-It-bosses and all of those George Jones six packs, reflecting with self, God and family and resting (and gearing) up for things to come.

Zac Brown Band’s “No Hurry” is one of the great Sunday songs. It’s great for a lot of reasons, but in terms of lyrical content really hits the Sunday vibe.  ZBB explicitly ignores of the boss calling on the telephone, household chores that need to be done and bills to be paid in favor of relaxing retreat:

There’s nothing wrong with an old cane fishing pole / and the smell of early spring
Sit down in a fold-up easy chair / on a quiet, shady river bank
Let the world go on without me / wouldn’t have it any other way,
cause I ain’t in no hurry today

The song takes the Sunday concept a little further, as a broader approach to life, and also focuses on getting right with the Lord – faith a core of the Sunday reflection and improvement themes.

Toby Keith hits the same themes in “My List”. This is fine song, not written by Keith but delivered well.  The narrator starts off crossing lots of weekend chores off the to-do list, but then comes around to those more important things in life to take care of.  The strength of this song (in addition to the direct but soft rhymes) is the really nice things on that life list:

  • like go for a walk, say a little prayer
  • take a deep breath of mountain air
  • put on my glove and play some catch
  • wade the shore and cast a line
  • look up a long lost friend of mine
  • sit on the porch and give my girl a kiss
  • raise a little hell, laugh ‘til it hurts
  • put an extra five in the plate at church
  • call up my folks, just to chat
  • stay up late, then oversleep
  • show her what she means to me
  • start livin’

Listing activities turns out to be a pretty effective means of conveying the Sunday theme. By sort of aggregating the feelings associated with each individual listed activity set in context, we get a sum total of Sunday.  Craig Morgan’s “That’s What I Love About Sunday” does it the same way, listing out church-going and family BBQ imagery in particular along with other typical Sunday activities.  My favorite verse is:

I stroll to the end of the drive / pick up the Sunday Times / grab my coffee cup
It looks like Sally and Ron / finally tied the knot / well it’s about time
It’s 35 cents off of ground round / Baby cut that coupon out!
That’s what I love about Sunday

The wedding announcements are a nice Sunday tradition, and it’s also the vivid routine of lazily and leisurely walking down to the end of the driveway to grab the paper. And it’s especially, in the context of the love- and family-oriented song, the family-driven and romantic love with which we imagine the narrator pouring over the coupons with his wife.  The music videos and album artwork associated with these songs are consistent with the themes: the narrator being outside communing with nature (even holding church outside), creating lasting memories with kids (of course weaving in baseball, what could be stronger father-and-song bonding?), retreating with and protecting family or laying on a couch looking up to God in the middle of a wide open field.

Other songs get at the same theme without such explicit listing. Alabama’s “I’m in a Hurry (And Don’t Know Why)” is also a great Sunday song.  While the tempo of the song is clearly in the “I’m in a Hurry” vein of the title, the content repudiates the rushing mentality and messages a slow down.  Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down” – one scarcely imagines being sung by anyone other than Johnny Cash – is another great example.  The song starts with the fallout from (and a bit of continuation of) the previous Saturday night and quickly turns to introspective reflection with the narrator taking in the Sunday sights, sounds and smells – kids playing, church songs and bells ringing, frying chicken – and engaging with God in thinking about the course of his life.

The feeling of Sunday is multi-faceted and hard to dig into and meaningfully capture, but I think there’s really a huge payoff in the form of such nice music when songs put this task in focus and are able to execute successfully.

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.

Songs About Specific Things: Being Thankful That What You Wanted to Happen Didn’t Happen

One of my very favorite specific topics that some country music songs are about is being thankful in retrospect for things that didn’t happen. In particular, things that at one point the singer/ narrator very much wanted to happen. A couple fantastic songs are great examples:

Garth Brooks’ “Unanswered Prayers” – Garth recounts how he wanted, and would pray every night, to spend his life with a particular woman, but then upon running into the woman years later realizing that despite those feelings at the time he was very much meant to be with his wife and not that other woman concluding “I guess the Lord knows what he’s doin’ after all” and reflecting: “sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers” and “some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers”.

Darius Rucker’s “This” – Hootie goes through a number of these unanswered prayers: the girl that turned him down in high school, the college he wanted to attend until he got a rejection letter, his mother passing away and many other “misses”:

For every stoplight I didn’t make / every chance I did or I didn’t take
all the nights I went too far / all the girls that broke my heart
all the doors that I had to close / all the things I knew but I didn’t know
Thank God for all I missed / cause it led me here to This

It’s not a celebration of these things specifically but a recognition in retrospect that “nothing’s a mistake” and “it all makes perfect sense” because everything led to up to the great life (in this case, baby sleeping, wife laughing in his arms, rain on the rooftop and the football game about to start) he has now.

Walt Wilkins’ “Trains I Missed” – Wilkins similarly goes through loves lost, bridges burned, rivers never crossed, roads not taken, maps not read, attempts to get away from God and other hard times. And at the end of song Wilkins reflects that “the hell and the hurt” led him to finding his way and celebrates the good things in life “and the moments I find myself right where I’m supposed to be”, toasting the trains he missed.

I really like this topic. These songs have the character of the “everything happens for a reason” reflection and thanking God figures prominently into each song. (What beautiful lyrics: “just because he doesn’t answer doesn’t mean he don’t care / some of God’s greatest gifts are unanswered prayers”). They serve as a nice “take it easy” reminder that the stoplight turning to red right in front of you isn’t what’s important – or a big deal. Everyone’s had life experiences that didn’t turn out the way you hoped at the time, which is why hard times is one of the essential 9 Categories of Country Music. Maybe, like Garth, it was someone you would have done anything for, who you loved and prayed that God would let you spend the rest of your life with but that you didn’t end up with for one reason or another. Or any other unanswered prayer or metaphorical missed train. We can all consider our own life experiences in the context of Garth’s prayers, Hootie’s winding road and Wilkins’ litany of missteps and empathize with those singers, or even graft our own life experiences on to their words and melodies and hear the song as if it were written about us. Songs like this turn the hard time on its head by celebrating all those even better things that never would have happened but for that hard time, turning the initial sadness into wonderful optimism.