All my friends say the same thing about country music: they like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, and alt-country like Whiskeytown or Gillian Welch. But they hate modern Nashville.
They joke that all the songs are about cheating, which isn’t true, and complain the production is too slick, which maybe it is but the songs do sound good on the radio.
Eventually someone accuses the songs of being “formulaic.”
And they are.
So are sonnets, I argue back: the pattern is set, yet Petrarch or Keats had to do something original within the rigid form.
That’s the sort of argument that occurs to you on a long drive.
Five hours from Indianapolis to Nashville is a decent stretch of time to have things occur to you: 45 minutes south to the drive-thru Starbucks in Columbus, Indiana, then an hour and a half to Louisville through Mellencamp territory. Then it’s an hour to Elizabethtown, where I-65 is carved out of clifty walls of what I assume is limestone. Another hour gets you to a weird-looking Corvette museum in Bowling Green, and another hour to Nashville.
Then reverse on the way home, through the night with the trucks. Four-ish I’d roll into bed beside my wife, who would murmur a greeting, ask the time, say “Mmm” and go back to a less-sound sleep. I’d get to work by nine.
That was when I was taking a weekly songwriting class. All the way down and all the way back in the same day.
Having taken several classes and seminars now, and having spent, therefore, hours and hours in that commute, I feel I have had adequate time for reflection and can here capture The Six Things I Suspect Prevent You From Enjoying A Well-Crafted Modern Country Song:
1. It isn’t ambiguous.
2. Its unironic sentimentality is unsubtle.
3. Its perfect production values are at odds with its pretense of simplicity and down-homeness (as opposed to, say, the perfect production values of a really fun hip-hop or pop song that somehow express opulence or exuberance).
4. The singer is not trying to soften his or her Southern accent and might be playing it up, which is an issue for you, because it causes you to assume the singer has conservative views, which perhaps you do not share. Those views (or their corollary, an unwarranted display of defiance) may, in fact, be the subject of the song, or the song promised by the DJ to be coming up after a commercial break.
5. Your friends would bully you if they knew you could sing along with Taylor Swift, so you resist any situation in which you might even accidentally risk exposure.
6. Knowing that some large number of modern Nashville acts sing songs they haven’t written themselves, you see it all as “product,” something for sale and that vaguely offends you.
Am I right? Maybe not on all, but some?
Well, I can’t address each of The Six Things right here and now. Especially your bullying friends. Seriously, what is their deal?
Let’s just talk about the ambiguity for a second, as we roll at 70 miles an hour past blank Kentucky fields and grown-up fencerows as the sun on our right casts shadows of trees and telephone poles across our path, half an hour from Music City.
We have plenty of time to over-analyze things.
Ambiguity is pleasing, for some reason, to us alt-whatever fans. Somewhere in modern music, maybe with Dylan, maybe before that, lyrics became personal code. Now any song that isn’t on Country Radio contains lyrics you have to bring your own ideas to—words that might mean one thing, might mean another.
That’s not gonna fly in your Nashville songwriting classes.
And you know what? Turns out it’s a lot harder to find an interesting way to say something clearly than to encode it.
When I was in a rock band—a Basement Tape-like project we’d inflict on rooms full of Midwestern club goers—I wrote lots of songs. And I considered it, oh, poetic or at least normal to leave something for the audience to infer.
As a result, I confess that most of the time I knew kind of what I meant but not exactly what I meant: “My wife says I’m grinding my teeth to the beat of ‘La Bamba’,” I would lurch up to the microphone and sing, launching into a stream-of-conscious verse that gave way eventually to my chorus: “I don’t know what we’re doing/But we’re not doing too bad/Considering/Everybody Makes Me Mad.”
People seemed to enjoy it.
That song would have made the Nashville songwriting class teacher mad. Her eyebrows would have risen higher on her forehead as she’d irritably ask questions she’d have known I couldn’t answer: “Who are you talking to?” she’d ask, annoyed that three minutes of her life had been squandered. “Why is the singer telling us this? What’s the thesis you’re advancing—what’s the main point I’m supposed to take from the song?”
I knew better than to bring that one to class. But the songs I did bring were just as vulnerable to The Prodding And The Wondering-Aloud and the Rising Eyebrows.
And they still are, four years later.
In my car on the way to the first class was a fresh CD of songs I’d written that I thought were in the country style. There it lay, riding shotgun, a little reflective Memorex disc on which my name and cell phone were written in Sharpie marker.
I know now the songs on that disc were ambiguous, formula-ignorant, detail-deficient, undisciplined collections of half-thoughts, generalizations, unsympathetic narrators and vague, unexamined ideas.
Since you hate modern Nashville so much, you elitist, maybe you’d have liked the songs on that CD. More likely, though, nobody would enjoy those half-breeds, those clumsy tweeners that were neither Lennonish wordplay nor efficient, conversational, well-observed, surprising, touching, funny evocations of the real life of actual people.
No wonder the teacher’s dog bit me when I showed up that first night.