Telling it like it is, mostly

I’m a fan of country music. Always have been, and always will be. Sure, a lot of country music is “treurig” (described by one of our kids’ teachers as the “my wife left me and my dawg died” school of music), but I find nothing wrong with becoming melancholy as some poor lovelorn soul wails on about his broken heart or his wayward lover.

Sometimes, even, the wave of melancholy that washes over one while listening (or singing along) to a sad country song fortifies one with a thankfulness that one’s lot in life is not as bad as the singer’s, even if some dreadful event (like the death of a pet) has befallen one.

Of course, many hardened music fans deride country music entirely as soppy and sentimental tosh. In so doing they deny themselves the pleasure of the insights into some of the stories behind the songwriters, the songs and the singers.

Take Patsy Cline and her famous Crazy as an example (ah, the late, beautiful Patsy Cline. One of the all-time greats of the country music industry). Willie Nelson (who everybody knows as a pot-smoking geriatric but who, in fact, has been one of the driving forces behind country music since the 1950s, as both a prolific and generous songwriter and an accomplished musician and singer) wrote the song early in his career as a professional songwriter. He sang it one night in a bar to Patsy’s husband who, in turn, recognised it as ideal for his wife. He insisted, there and then, that they drive to the Cline’s home, awaken Patsy, and sing the song for her.

Being a God-fearing country boy of modest means from small-town rural Texas, Willie was reluctant and insisted on staying in the car (it was 2am). Patsy, however, duly emerged in a dressing gown, listened to the song, loved it, and made it her own. Just writing this and thinking how her haunting voice caresses those plaintive lyrics brings tears to my eyes.

And many of the songs were written after specific events in the songwriter’s life. Take the statuesque bottle-blonde Dolly Parton’s song Jolene, about a worker in the Parton’s bank who had an obvious crush on Dolly’s husband. Dolly herself (almost as famous, and just as spiritual, as Willie Nelson and who once remarked “honey, it takes a lot of money to look this cheap”) has shaken up the US music industry, and caused many a raised eyebrow, with some of her lyrics which have tackled, head-on, prickly topics such as mysogyny, gender based violence and prejudice, often at times when discussing such subjects was considered impolite or, worse, taboo.

But one can take just about any contentious subject or development of the 20th century and there will be country songs about it. War, and its futility and tragedy, get the full treatment, particularly considering America’s role in conflicts worldwide in the decades since the end of World War 2. Kenny Rogers had one such hit with Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, and the Dixie Chicks had one with Travelling Soldier, to name but two, both about the awfulness of the Vietnam War.

And, of course, there are any number of songs about transport in its various guises. Horses, naturally, loom large, but more modern modes get the country treatment, too: John Denver’s Leaving on a Jetplane, and Willie Nelson (again) with City of New Orleans (about the demise of an iconic train), for example. Not to mention the Travelling Wilburys with End of the Line (another train song).We’ve even had a few in Afrikaans that would qualify as Country-style transport songs. Recently an Afrikaans train song entitled Transkaroo, originally written as a tear-jerker by Bles Bridges, has made a migration from country to light classical following its adaptation into an instrumental by the guitar duo, CH2.

Marriage, its joys and hardships, and breakups, are common Country song themes. Willie Nelson (again) has had a few songs on this subject, which is not surprising, really, considering the number of relationships and marriages he has enjoyed, or that his various wives have endured.

And sometimes the views expressed in the lyrics are not designed to please the politically “woke”. One such is a recent song by a relative country music newbie, Blake Shelton, named I’ll Name the Dogs, a pithy, non-feminist commentary about the division of responsibilities in a family in which he sings to his wife “You name the children and I’ll name the dogs”.

But the last word has to go to Willie Nelson (again) and another geriatric weed-smoking great of country music, Merle Haggard, who sang a song which many would say sums up the state of the world today. It’s named It’s All Going to Pot.