Time between the glory days and the golden years
She did the work of twenty able men
Sent Tommy off to school to be an engineer and
Sarah went to try out all the sins
She took to taking tea out in the Belvedere
Bourbon in the evenings by the fire
As if the Great Depression never made it here
As if she had defeated her desire
She just wanted to ride in a Delahaye 135
She just wanted to ride in a Hudson Commodore
No need to worry anymore
Hudson Commodore, Jason Isbell
Even if your exposure to country music consists of tuning into the CMA’s each year because there’s nothing else to watch, you’re probably aware that some segments of the country music community are sickened by the fare currently being served up on Top 40 Country Radio. At least once a week at Saving Country Music, the always blazing Trigger does a riff about an “ultra-synth, completely inorganic, Macbook-composed ode to the Metrosexual lifestyle” or “watered-down swill served up by an Applebee’s fry cook covering the bar’s swing shift”. He does a real good job with the $50 words like “misogyny” and “objectification,” and also with the four-letter variety. I don’t disagree with much that he has to say on the subject; I just find it hard to get all that worked up about it. For me, Top 40 Country Radio has become like the lost Oakland neighborhood of Gertrude Stein’s youth; there is simply “no there there” anymore.
There was a time – and not all that long ago – when country-music lyrics took you places. You could find yourself on a highway wondering what kind of accommodations you'd find at a place that advertises “rooms to let fifty cents” or staring past prison bars while “time keeps dragging on.” And you don’t have to travel back half a century to find those places. It was just 2014 when Eric Church took us with him on a boyhood road trip to Talladega with that wonderful opening lyric, “it was the summer before the real world started and the deal was we would get to go, if we cleaned it up and got it running, daddy’s old Winnebago.” I’ve never been to a NASCAR race, but I remember my summer “before the real world started” and having rewards like that dangled in front of me.
Turn on a Top 40 Country station today and try to figure out where you are. You’re nowhere, unless you're in a truck bed, back seat or cornfield. And these aren't real places, just words repeated as an incantation to try to re-conjure the commercial success of 'Country Girl (Shake It for Me).' Listen to the opening lyrics of Lady Antebellum’s 'You Look Good:' “on a boat, on a beach, in the water, in the sand, in the back of a bar.” There’s no attempt to make those places come alive for the listener, to give you a sense of their texture, of the sights and sounds you might encounter there. The words are just syllables used as rhythmic stepping stones to get you to the hook in the chorus. They could just as easily be “do-wa-diddy-diddy-dum-diddy-do.” If you don't believe me, look at the line in the second verse, “New Year’s in a pent.”** Have you ever been to a “pent?” You probably have, except like all of us who speak English, you call it a “penthouse.” Only a lyricist (and I use that term loosely) who knows that their lyrics don’t have to mean much of anything could write something like that.
I want a country music lyric to take me somewhere, maybe even to a place I've never been, to sit me next to a woman in a hotel lobby and talk to her about what her life is like after she’s done her best to raise two kids by yourself, and now they've moved on. And when I go there, I want to go in style. In a Delahaye 135. Otherwise, I'm not listening.
**I’m assuming this is the meaning of “pent” and not slang for something you usually find in a less public place, which would just make the lyric even more ridiculous. (If you're not hip, look it up in Urban Dictionary. This is a PG blog!)