I’ve been kind of busy, so I haven’t written a column in awhile. One reason is, I’ve been spending more time with my dad because my mom is moving out—something which easily could have happened many years ago but didn’t—and he can’t quite accept it. In the process he’s offended my wife, and made my sister so angry she and her husband have forbidden Dad from contacting them directly: only by leaving a brief voicemail may he speak with them, until he “regains their trust.”
This would not make a good country song.
I know some people think it would.
Maybe in the right hands. Or maybe if I were aiming at the folk or alt-country satellite radio channels.
Or if a genre of music called “Augusten-Burroughs-hop-step” springs up, I might work it up for that.
But Nashville, contrary to the belief of people who don’t really listen to country radio, doesn’t hardly ever want a downer. Very few downers.
“Remember: your target is driving her minivan to drop kids off at school in the morning before she goes to work,” is the frequently quoted advice of one well-known songwriting columnist.
Yet my “normal-music” friends are always hearing some depressing or complicated human situation and declaring, “That would make a good country song.”
They look over at me. I shrug. I wish I could produce a notebook, spiral-bound at the top, like the one Columbo concealed somewhere in his raincoat, so I could satisfy them by avidly scribbling down the mordant, money-making details.
A married woman who was in one of our circles of friends is a therapist. The husband of another couple in that circle was struggling with The Bottle and began going to her for help. Next thing we didn’t know but strongly suspected, they were sleeping together. Then the next thing anyone with eyes knew, the therapist was pregnant. When she had the kid, rumor said it looked like Drinker. Today she and her (cuckolded?) husband are raising that child as a couple, and the now-divorced former(?) Drinker bought a house catty-cornered from that family so he’d be present as the child grew up.
This is just not Nashville material. Even if you think it is.
I could be wrong, but I think it’s too much. For one thing, it’s complicated.
Once I heard a producer say, “There are three topics in commercial country: love, partyin’, and inspiration.”
He then proceeded to name a bunch of songs on the radio at that moment, and classify each one under those categories. “That song about the guy taking the tractor on another round, another round…? That’s not about farming,” he said, like a Southern sophomore English teacher pushed to exasperation by one more student’s lame attempt at critical analysis of Julius Caesar. “That’s about not giving up.”
As he ticked through a bunch of currently popular Nashville songs, none of the “love” songs were cheatin’ songs. Or divorce songs. Or sad songs, even, unless you count unresolved longing as sad.
(Do I need to even say there were no mama songs, no train songs, no I-was-in-jail-when-my-dog-died songs? There haven’t been in years.)
Most of the songs that fell under “love” were themed around “I love you a lot,” or “I hope you love me” or “We are about to have sex” or “I like having sex with you” or “I still love you and now I miss you and wish I were back with you so we could have more sex.”
Old men justifying the behavior that resulted in them sitting alone in moldering farmhouses, angering their daughters and getting banned from seeing their grandkids—that’s really too heavy. Having the baby of a man you’re supposed to be counseling for alcoholism—that’s not a party song, a love song, or an inspiration. For most people.
When I take out the trash, I open our backyard privacy fence into the alley and it reveals a world we mostly (though unintentionally) ignore: our house was built in 1926 by the town druggist, and apparently sat pretty much alone in the neighborhood until after World War II when a bunch of small, two-bedroom houses were built across the alley. In the postwar home directly behind us lives Steve from the street department.
Steve’s a great guy, the kind of guy you want on your side when libertarians gain control of the government and the world’s systems fail and we’re all on our own, haggling, shuffling through accumulating trash and the remains of buildings that have burned, surviving by our wits—not the kind of wits that Noël Coward or the so-called celebrities on Match Game had, but the kind displayed by the characters who are still alive at the end of Westerns and bleak movies about dystopian societies.
Soft-handed writers who have never shot a gun and aren’t sure which hole in their Jeep’s black, dirty engine is for brake fluid are in trouble when the libertarians put a man in the White House.
So I’m always glad to spend some time chatting with Steve from the street department when I swing open the gate and find him displaying competence in his backyard.
One day he put down tools similar to none of the tools I own, and came over to talk. He’d been to the hospital recently. Everyone in his family but him has died young from cancer. He figures it’s in him and he just doesn’t know it. His brother Dave just died from it. Dave is the person who convinced him, Steve, to stop partying hard a few years ago. Basically, Dave saved Steve from the skids, whatever the skids are, exactly. (I’m the one who is saying “skids” here, not Steve.)
After describing some of what he considered his debauchery (though it didn’t sound really all that bad to me), Steve looked off down the alley and said those days were gone for good. Especially now: “I got Dave watching me.”
I thought that maybe would make a good country song.
With some luck, it might fit that “inspirational” category.
“I got Dave watching me.”
I banged it together into a hacky, clichéd, bartender/guy-at-the-bar conversation. No one liked it. I see, with distance, how unaffecting it was. At the time, I was just thinking, “Well, let’s go down the checklist.”
- I had written it in third person to prevent the remark, “What artist wants to sing a confession that he was an out-of-control drunk or addict?”
- I included concrete details.
- I felt there was a sense of movement in the verses, so that the second verse wasn’t just a repeat of the same ideas we’d already heard.
- I’d made the melody of the chorus different and more soaring than the melody of the verse.
I tried to apply the craft I’ve learned.
But I’d made it dull. And fakey.
“It’s unconvincing,” said one person I showed it to.
I think it’s still a good idea. I might come back to it. But these heavy topics: Nashville is a little spooked by the idea of that mom in her minivan wrinkling her undeniably cute suburban nose and punching the button on her radio that lets her hear the ads on the local lite rock station instead of the ads that are coming up after your heavy, depressing song about which someone would never say, “It really gets you up and going, ready to face the day.”
If I’m honest, I think it takes more bravery than I currently have to write the difficult details a song like this is going to demand of me.
(A pause, while I think about what I just typed.)
I probably better get over that.
It’s not worth anyone’s time for me to redecorate my mess of clichés with a different mess.
Most things I love, I love because they’re “well written” (including songs, but not just songs—books, movies, critically acclaimed cable TV series). By “well-written,” I almost always mean “willing to force me to confront uncomfortable things and somehow making me thrilled to do it.”
A friend of mine talks about a novelist who taped three words to her computer as a reminder: “It gets worse.”
I hate to do that to my characters. I hate to put Steve from the street department through anything unpleasant.
But for some reason, when it gets worse and characters go through truly difficult and emotional experiences, convincingly, I emerge inspired.
And, yeah, I guess occasionally those well-written works of searing art are featured on Lon Helton’s Country Countdown USA syndicated radio show. Not often, though.
I think I’ll work on a couple party songs for now, while I’m dealing with my dad.