My father-in-law expressed his love by making useful wooden gifts. The rest of the time he was stoic and difficult to know, in the manner commonly depicted by public radio humorists.
One Christmas he gave each of his daughters a stepladder he’d bought at Menards. After taking it completely apart, he glued it up solid as a rock, then glazed it with a beautiful, thick coat of varnish. It was unshakable. You could jig on the top step, were high jigging called for.
Turns out there are many uses for such a ladder.
It would be ideal, in a country song, for eloping (if the second story window weren’t too high; it’s only a step-ladder) or, if you were to fudge just a little and think of it as “golden,” for climbing to heaven during Johnny Cash’s apocalypse.
Also, one could place oneself on the lowest rung, then think of the ladder as “The Country Music Biz.” Then one could simply work one’s way up it.
Or possibly the fact of my father-in-law bestowing the ladder as a sturdy gift to his daughters as a coded gesture of affection would be a good story to sing.
Alternatively, of course, you can use the ladder when your babysitter allows your children to harbor a stray alley kitten who wanders into the driveway while you’re out for the evening, and when the kids beg to keep it you can’t say no because the cat you already inherited from a neighbor is a dud, frankly, and you didn’t realize it but you’re sort of in the market for a decent cat, but instead of a decent cat that alley kitten grows into a Wild Thing who manages to teach (by example) your other cat how to crawl up inside the artificial Christmas tree and just strip the damn thing bare, just, oh, chew and rip and tear it artificial limb from artificial limb, biting the lights till they short, removing any ornaments you might have carefully placed before realizing how far this wild alley cat would go to ruin Christmas to the point where you have to pack up the formerly high quality artificial tree and sadly return it to the basement, then come back upstairs to look at the space cleared for the tree where now there are only torn-off fake needles.
At this moment, your wife may conceive to bring the sturdy ladder in from the garage and wrap Christmas lights all around it. Mine did exactly that. It makes a gorgeous, glowing, festive, A-shaped substitute. Cats can clamber over it and if they occasionally gnaw and short out a strand of lights, it’s an easy replacement. From the street the ladder-tree looks just like a tree-tree, only brighter and merrier.
I’ve tried to work all that into a country song, but so far it’s too complicated.
In any case, those are some of the ways a ladder might serve a country music purpose.
For me, personally, my father-in-law’s sturdy ladder has performed a central role in my Nashville journey.
Four or five years ago, my wife had had enough of the kitchen wallpaper’s unclean-looking French vanillaness. She’d grown to resent its not-really-woodcut woodcutty-vining flowers in their cloying burgundies and royal blues which the previous residents had considered stylish a decade ago.
Down it came.
Anytime we’ve done home improvements that require the ladder, over the years, we’ve always avoided our usual radio presets and tuned in country. Up on a ladder, you really need something you’re not overly familiar with: you can’t keep coming down and angrily switching the station because they’re playing, again, incredibly, “Brown-Eyed Girl” or “All She Wants To Do Is Dance” or some yelly Melissa Etheridge song that was barely tolerable when it was released, but now some programmer thinks we want to hear every day.
CDs aren’t a good alternative because they’re vulnerable to spackle. Also they end every 45 minutes and the unlistenable filler songs need to be skipped, which again the ladder makes impractical. You can’t sit up there and seethe.
Dull silence isn’t much of an option.
So, constrained to the laddertop, at some point we determined that the local country station provides the most reliable flow of something fresh and tolerable.
A window on another culture!
Most of the songs are stories, too.
It turned out we could sort of get on the Nashville wavelength, after a short period of adjustment.
Also, there’s a homey quality to country music that’s appealing when working on the house. One’s DVR might fill up with the work of the Davids Chase and Simon; one might have instantly agreed with one’s wife that a trip during the second trimester to see an off-Broadway Mamet show is the best way to celebrate a just-confirmed first pregnancy; one might have even, years back, rocked the local club scene (strapped to an accordion, admittedly) till beer-soaked hours that were sometimes wee.
Still, when you’re up on the ladder masking off the crown molding, listening to the musical tale of the farm kid who painted a heart on the town water tower in John Deere green summons a sort of coziness.
At least for us.
“Have you heard this one?” my wife asked one day, her voice floating down from the ceiling as I crossed the threshold of her work zone in my office clothes, looking to hang up my car keys after the commute.
The song was called “What’s a Guy Gotta Do?” by a guy named Joe Nichols and ‘tis a damnedably clever little thing about hanging out and trying to hook up with a girl and failing, generally: "Had an old man tell me, ’Boy, if you were smart/You’d hit the produce aisle at the Super Wal-Mart’/So I bumped into a pretty girl’s shopping cart/All I did was break her eggs and bruise her artichoke heart…"
For some reason, until then, it had never hit me that this, this, this… this music, this synthesis of humor and empathy, was absolutely the same set of skills I used as An Advertising Guy Who Once Wrote Songs For a Band. Duh.
Duh duh duh.
The headline of an ad is like the title of a country song. The musical hook is like the art direction. The verses are like tightly written copy.
So I said, “You know what? I’m going to see if I can sell a song to country radio.”
Of course, I knew there wasn’t, like, a P.O. box where you sent your songs and waited a month and heard them come out of the radio. I knew there was more to it.
But I had no idea.
To think: were rock radio tolerable from the top of a ladder, I might never have tried to court Nashville.