So you wanna be…a Country Music Star?Posted: September 12, 2011
It’s good to be back again friends. This week we will leave the SEC and begin a new series. And this week, I’m back on track (sort of) making my Monday deadline. I’m sure many of you think Southern Blogger can pop out cartoons and stories in a hurry (or my inflated ego assumes that), but you may be surprised to know he often suffers from writer’s block (and also suffers from the habit of referring to himself in the third person). So here I am on this virtual cartoon barstool, for this week’s post, attempting to figure out how to write a good country song.
It ain’t easy.
Sure it’s easy enough to write a clichéd country song. “My woman left me for my dog and I have no beer…wait…I have no truck to find a woman…no the woman drove the truck to run over my dog….no no…I don’t have a dog or a truck but my woman looks like one….”
See…even that’s pretty tough…and I’m running out of ink and bar napkins.
Of course, if I was a crass commercial country music fan I could churn out a song pretty easy. I could brag about how country I am in the suburbs of Nashville, or could write about honky badonkadonks (thereby officially burying a slang word), or could glean from the latest pop styles and throw in a faded steel guitar to pass it off as country.
Yeah I could do that, and make a lot of dough, and I could also draw smiley faces on celebrities, charge you for the privilege and call it a blog…
But I have too much integrity for that and so do you gentle readers!
Nope, we’re going to go deep into our Southern roots and our grandparents’ record collections and discover what makes a REAL country song…one that has heart, brings tears, raises cane, and will last for decades.
For that we need to understand what makes a real country song and singer work.
- Southern Blogger
(Click any Picture to Enlarge)
Sharecropper’s Sons and Coal Miner’s Daughters
If I had to put the key to a good country music performance into one word it would be “authenticity”. Country music is about life; its joys and sorrows, ups and downs, wild times and hangovers. It is one of two musical genres that sum up the self-contradictory nature of Southern culture. The other form of music that does this is blues.
In reality country and blues are at their roots the exact same music. To me a good country artist is a white man who sings the blues, and a good bluesman is a black man who sings a country song. The point being they are the same genre (one Scotch-Irish twang and the other West African call and response) segregated by record labels back in the day. Consider that Ray Charles’ “Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music” owes a lot to Hank Williams, and Hank Williams owed a lot to the black bluesmen he listened to in Alabama, who in turn borrowed from Appalachian Irish balladeers, who in turn owed a lot to African rhythm and so on and so on… (I will devote an entire piece to the blues at a later date).
Good country singers also come from somewhere. And that “somewhere” is usually nowhere. We only know of Dyess, Arkansas because of Johnny Cash, Pigeon Forge, Tennessee because of Dolly Parton, and Butcher Hollow, KY because of Loretta Lynn. These artists escaped the sharecropping, economic depression, and isolation of their communities yet never entirely “left” home. They struck out to survive, but would never have made it without their home experiences. Seeing the key to the contradiction here? Even some of the best “country” music can come from “un-country” places. (See: Springsteen, Bruce/ New Jersey).
The Wild Side of Life
Good country music reflects the heart of America. It also reflects its dark underbelly. Country artists often write of dark times and dark places precisely because they have been to those dark places themselves. Many of the most famous country stars (and stars of any genre for that matter) have been self-destructive. Their lives are often sad, we wonder what went so wrong for them, we lament the wasted talent, yet also forget that the very trouble, pain, and heartbreak that destroys such lives and wastes such talent produces compelling lyrics. Again, we are self-contradictory people.
Take George Jones for example. I dare anyone to find a more authentic voice out there. George Jones has lived a thousand lives and you can hear them all in his voice. He grew up in the roughneck parts of East Texas, survived the chair throwing honky tonk scene, a stint in the Marine Corps, and the trouble that follows young stars who make it big quick in Nash Vegas. The man’s blood is made up of one half Jack Daniels and the other half sorrow. He is our genre’s Keith Richards. And he has survived, thrived, and been to hell and back.
Consider the heartbreak that comes through in the songs “The Grand Tour” and “He Stopped Loving her Today”. Others may have written his songs, but the listener suspects that George at least lived them. The rocky love and hate relationship between Jones and erstwhile wife and fellow legend Tammy Wynette is also quite compelling in song. She tried to change him, he drunkenly refused, she threw away his car keys, and he drove to the liquor store on a lawn mower. You can say Tammy Wynette was wrong to “stand by her man”, but you forget how tough Southern women are. George may have thrown bottles at her, but you can be sure she picked them up and threw them right back!
Seeing the Light after Saturday Night
No one better illustrates the pain, suffering, and lost promise of a life cut short than country music’s greatest legend Hank Williams. Dead by 29, Hank wrote so many chart topping, genre creating, standard setting songs, he has gone down in history as the “Hillbilly Shakespeare”. Doubtless many of Hanks fans, most of who came to know him in song decades after his passing glory in the life and lyrics of country music’s original outlaw. But they’re only hearing half of the lyrics…
The key to understanding Hank Williams and indeed to unlocking much of the enigma of Southern culture is to understand that after Saturday night comes Sunday morning.
Hank Williams may have “Honky Tonked” with a “hot rod Ford and a two dollar bill” and “bawled his woman out every night after loving her every morning” but he paid the price. And he told you in song. Hank understood he was a sinner and that sin was punished. Whether through divorce proceedings, custody battles, hangovers, and heartbreaks, he paid a price for his exploits. And in song you also hear of hope…hope of forgiveness and redemption through an authentic religious belief. He lived it up on Saturday night but on Sunday morning he “Saw the Light”.
Staying True to what (Pigeon) Forged You
You don’t have to necessarily be a hell raiser in order to be an authentic country star. Some stars have stayed true to their Sunday school raising their entire careers and have been no worse off for it musically. Take for example Dolly Parton. Dolly’s career has spanned over four decades. She started out as a talented duet partner, then branched out as a chart topping pop country solo artist, then became a movie star, then entrepreneur, and finally has returned to her roots (do wigs have roots? I think so) to just plain be Dolly again (not that there was ever anything plain about her). She has kept the same husband, stayed out of trouble, made millions for her hometown, and has never lost that sass and class that makes her the spiritual embodiment (okay you can throw a joke in here if you must) of Southern womanhood.
Consider this…her partner and mentor for years on the country scene was the king of hillbilly “bling” Porter Wagoner. Porter discovered Dolly when she was a shy country girl and turned her into a big star. She eventually left on her own but penned the tune “I Will Always Love You” as a tribute to him. It is one of the greatest country love songs of all time, and it was about a platonic relationship.
Image isn’t Everything (Outside of Music Row)
Whether you “Walk the Line” or are the type that would rather “shoot a man in Reno just to watch him die”, to be an authentic country voice you have to be somebody rather than just play somebody. Take for example Johnny Cash. Now Johnny Cash didn’t exactly live out each and every word of his songs. Had he done so he’d have been doing far more concerts at Folsom Prison since he’d have been doing life there. The key to Johnny Cash and why he has nearly universal appeal is his empathy.
Cash may not have been locked away in San Quentin, but he’d spent enough days in jail to know what it meant to be behind cold, steel bars. He wasn’t a forgotten Pima Indian war hero like Ira Hayes, but he knew the highs and lows of going from obscurity to fame back to obscurity. He’d been a sharecropper’s son, seen his brother die young, spent lonely nights abroad, fought internal demons, popped pills, smashed out lights and bottles, and lived to tell about it. He could preach to the sinners because he knew he was as big a sinner as them all.
If someone asked me what America “sounds like” I’d put a Johnny Cash record on as the soundtrack. His voice connects us to our past yet remains for all times. Yet many of today’s “country” stars, some of them quite “Big” and quite “Rich” simply want to CASH in on the “man in black” logo, the aura, the “street cred”. But you can’t become Johnny Cash in a Music Row studio, GQ photo shoot, or mall kiosk. You have to LIVE it.
So friends, to write a good country song, observe the world, experience it, empathize, then sit down, and spill your troubles (just try not to spill your Beam). If we can learn to do that, we can all write our own country song…LIFE. Oh…and go grab me some more bar napkins please.
Thanks again for reading!
- Southern Blogger
NEXT WEEK: So you Want to Write…a Southern Novel