Singing is weird.
We laugh to show we’re a little bit out of control—I read that somewhere. Evolutionarily it builds confidence among confidants if we seem unguarded with them, and laughter’s bizarre musical scale shows we’re not faking our bonding. Something like that.
But the urge to sing?
It’s not just that. During my college years I came home to visit, and on a couple occasions Dad would be out on his tractor mowing the pasture with his Bush Hog mower attachment. Mom would greet me, before Dad realized I was there, and make a “Shh, listen” motion with her hands.
Out in the pasture on the tractor, Dad thought he was in a cone of noise. He assumed his voice was drowned by the roar of the engine and swishy slicing of the Bush Hog blades. He’d loudly sing on the tractor in a big, round baritone, his vocal frequencies somehow uncancelled over the distance of a couple acres by the other audio waves.
“He’s been doing this a lot,” Mom would say, her voice low, as if he might hear her.
It was never clear what the songs were; we couldn’t make them out. Knowing my Dad’s almost Victorian upbringing by his grandparents it was probably some old Victor Herbert tune, or something John McCormack or Caruso made famous on one of the red-label RCA Victrola recordings of which Dad was especially proud—in the 1930s the Spencer, Indiana, town judge had given the Victrola records to Dad because, as Dad quotes the judge saying in a high, old-man voice, “Your family is musical.”
And the judge said that because Dad’s uncle had been a touring Chautauqua bandleader, Will Maupin, who was in the same circuit as Sousa. One year your little town would get Sousa, the next year Maupin, then Sousa, then Maupin, Sousa, Maupin, etc, etc., right up until Chautauqua died and Will Maupin came home to Spencer to administer music lessons to low-talent/no-talent kids in a small, bare room.
Or maybe Dad was singing “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” or “You Picked A Fine Time To Leave Me, Lucille,” from the period in the seventies when he and mom were strangely open to the songs on the radio. I don’t know what he was singing. But out there in the noise, when he thought he was perfectly alone, he would release an enormous bird of song.
It’s a weird impulse, to holler a song for no one. Maybe it got handed down from the Maupins. Who knows?
When I think I’m alone, I’ll sing, too. Not well. But since I’m alone, quality is less important than answering the urge.
It happens a lot when I’m cruising along after dark walking our dog. I wonder if the dog picks out words that accidentally command him to do confusing things, or if he just ignores anything sung?
When I’m working on a new song idea I’m not sure the dog appreciates the trouble I’m going to, making sure my often-overstuffed-with-lyrics verses and choruses are singable.
Hey, you flyover people. Look down. See the lights of that little town? That’s me, padding along in the dark along Logan Street with an oversized mutt, trying to discover what’s fun to have come out of your mouth.
It’s a proud moment when you hit on something especially rewarding to pronounce. I often think how dancingly happy Warren Zevon must have felt when he summoned the lyric, “Little old lady got mutilated late last night.” Say that aloud. S’lovely.
So, okay. A Nashville story. One time a couple years ago I’m playing a song for a young publisher, who looks at me and says, “That’s a killer hook. That’s an achy-breaky hook. I’d say I hear a hook like that one in a thousand songs.”
Achy breaky! The gold standard. Ah, thank you sir. The heart, she soars.
I’m trying to look intent and somewhat serious, but the corners of my mouth shakily force a proud smile. Little cash register boop-beeps begin sounding from heaven. He keeps speaking: “Unfortunately, of course, y’know, I hear ten thousand songs a year.”
I’m one in ten? Is that… good? No? It’s clear his ‘ten thousand songs’ thing means, “I like it—but I’m still not buying.”
Somehow the math doesn’t compute.
I guess, as we’re often told, they’re looking for writers-not-songs. “They” want writers who can repeat success, who can churn, who can bring them not one but a dozen achy breaky hooks.
That day was not My Day.
The song, by the way, is inspired by the universe of boyfriends who are sluggish toward asking their girlfriends to marry them. There’s a million stories about us guys putting off Popping The Question too long. I certainly have a story—or, rather, my wife does. Lots of us procrastinate the big moment, for a list of reasons.
So the song amounts to people yelling at a guy to ask his girl to marry him. And the guy needed a name. I started trying out “country” names. Dakota. Cody. Zack. None of them felt right. So I just gave up and subbed in the ubiquitous country name “Bubba,” sort of as a placeholder.
I started singing, while walking the dog, “The ring, Bubba, ring, Bubba, get to the ring…”
That was fun. At the beginning of the chorus, and then again at the end: “… Put that girl out of your suffering/You’ve said she’s the one since the spring, Bubba/Ohhh/Get to the ring, Bubba, ring, Bubba, get to the ring, oh, ring, Bubba, ring, Bubba, get to the ring.”
Dog ignored it, but other than “Sit,” “Biscuit,” and sometimes “No,” what does the dog know about lyrics, really?
Maybe somebody’s Dad will be bellowing “Ring, Bubba, ring, Bubba” from the seat of a Ford 8N tractor someday. Will the circle be unbroken? I can dream.
Which is, of course, another lonesome act that can be done walking the oblivious dog.