A few years ago, I asked friends to send me a list of the greatest country songs ever recorded. Country music constituted a huge void in my musical library — and really it was embarrassing. I should know SOMETHING about it. The only country songs I can remember hearing as a young man were:
— The oeuvre of Kenny Rogers.
— The Devil Went Down To Georgia
— That Dolly Parton song from “9 to 5” (I guess it’s called “9 to 5” but I was partial to Sheena Easton’s “9 to 5” which includes the seminal couplet: “He takes me to a movie or a restaurant/To go slow dancing, anything I want.”)
— That Rainy Night Eddie Rabbitt horror show that more or less played nonstop on the radio from 1980-1983.
— Willie Nelson something or other.
— The theme from “Dukes of Hazzard.”
Yes, I do suppose that covers the grand tradition of American country music that goes back 100 years to the mountains of Appalachia and roars through Hank Williams and Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn and so on. But it got worse. By the mid-to-late 1980s, I realized that I really didn’t have to listen to ANY country music if I did not want to — so I did not. I buried myself in REM, U2, Michael, Pearl Jam, Nirvana and Springsteen compact disks, with some Blondie and Smiths and 10,000 Maniacs and Public Enemy and Elvis Costello and Sinatra to provide some contrast.
But one day, maybe, you wake up and realize that you should explore as many worlds as you can in this lifetime. I had all these friends who listened almost exclusively to country music, or at least countryish music. What did they know? What was I missing? And I realized that so much of the music I did like — including, most obviously, Bruce Springsteen — came from the country tradition.
So I asked friends for this list of the greatest country songs. My one caveat was that the songs had to be pure, unalloyed country songs. I didn’t want any crossover country songs. I didn’t want anything that might play on pop radio. I didn’t want any alternative country. I wanted the real stuff. I wanted the best country songs from the beginning through today.
I still have the playlist … I should list it off here sometime. I’m playing it now.
In fact, Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love)” is playing now.
So baby let’s sell your diamond rings
Buy some boots and faded jeans and go away.
This story isn’t really about country music, but what I found joyous about the songs, what I have come to truly appreciate and even love about country music, is the sheer earnestness of the lyrics. You know that old riddle:
Q: What do you get when you play a country song backward?
A: Your wife back, your truck back, your dog back.
I liked that riddle back when I never listened to country music because I thought it spoke of how silly country music can be. But I like the riddle more now that I’m more of a fan because it is the sheer commitment of country music that is its power. Country music at its core doesn’t hide from feelings or try to wrap them up in symbolism or showiness. “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” is about, yes, that he stopped loving her today. That’s it. He finally moved on.*
*I should add here — because I realize now that I have undersold the power of “He Stopped Loving Her Today” — that people unfamiliar with the song might not realize what I mean when I say, “He finally moved on.” So, to put a country music plainness to it: He died. That’s why he stopped loving her. The singer is attending the man’s funeral, the man who said he would love her ’til he died.
Ah, now the playlist is playing Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” which has become one of my favorite songs, period:
I turned 21 in prison serving life without parole
No one could steer my right, but Mama tried. Mama tried.
Mana tried to raise me better, but her pleading I denied
That leaves only me to blame ’cause Mama tried.
That refrain gets me every time. There’s no poetry in there — it’s almost anti-poetry, the plainness of the words, the refusal to hide anything out of plain view. And yet, that’s the very thing that makes it poetic.
Anyway, there is one song on the playlist that did very little for me when I first heard it. I used to skip over it when its turn came up. The first time I heard it, I thought it sounded TOO country, you know, almost like a parody country song.
It was painted red.
The stripe was white.
It was eighteen feet
From the bow to stern light.
OK, come on, it’s a song about a boat. Really? A boat with a “75 Johnson with electric choke.” I have no idea what that means. I know nothing about boats. I get seasick on amusement park boat rides.
But as the power boat song goes along, it begins to morph into something different.
And I would turn her sharp
And I would make it whine
He’d say, ‘You can’t beat the way an old wood boat rides’
Just a little lake ‘cross the Alabama line
But I was king of the ocean
When Daddy let me drive
I suppose what had always kept me from listening to country music in the first place was that I know nothing about this life. My Daddy didn’t take me fishin’ or huntin’ or boat ridin’. We didn’t live on a farm with a dirt road cuttin’ through — I grew up in Cleveland, for crying out loud. We didn’t talk with apostrophes replacing Gs. Heck, I don’t think I ever once called my father “Daddy.”
No, my father is “Dad,” and he speaks with a thick and basically unrecognizable accent that most people seem to think is Greek. During the week, he worked in a factory. In his free time, he was the anchor on his bowling team, winner one year of the Cleveland Open in chess and lover of Paul Newman movies and Johnny Carson’s “Tonight Show.”
Our connection was baseball. We had other connections too, of course, but mostly it was baseball. In my memory, he is wearing that cheap little plastic glove, the sort that comes with wiffle ball bats in two-packs at the convenience store, and he’s wearing his work clothes, black shoes, oil still on his pants. He’s got a cigarette in his mouth, Kents, always Kents, and he’s rolling me ground balls in our postage stamp backyard — we have to go corner-to-corner just to get enough room between us to make the game of catch reasonable.
“Get in front of the ball,” he would say all the time.
“You play the ball, don’t let the ball play you,” he would say all the time.
“Remember, on pop-ups, take a step back first because it’s easier to come in than it is to go back,” he would say all the time.
I don’t know where a semi-professional soccer player from Poland learned those things.
Just an old half ton short bed Ford
My Uncle bought new in ’64
Daddy got it right ’cause the engine was smokin’
A couple of burnt valves and he had it goin’
He’d let me drive her when we’d haul off a load
Down a dirt strip where we’d dump trash off of Thigpen Road
OK, now the song is off to a short bed truck and dumpin’ trash. We didn’t have a short-bed anything. We didn’t have a pickup truck. We didn’t even have a dog. What we did have was a once-blue Chevy Nova, though I remember it mostly being a gentler shade of corrosion. The family story goes that once, for some reason, the truck filled up with water, I don’t remember why; it was probably a snow thing in Cleveland.
Anyway, there was no way to suction out the water — no way that we knew, anyway — so Dad decided to punch a couple of holes in the bottom and let the water leak out, a wise decision if his plan was to entirely rust out the car. That part worked. After a while, the entire floor of the back seat hard rusted out — you could literally see the road rushing by as you looked down. We kids loved it. We called it our Flinstones car.
That was not the only car we had, though. We once had a gigantic car, a Plymouth maybe. It was, I believe, 248 feet long. A neighbor sold it to us for $300. It was the first car we ever had with air conditioning, and I remember that when you turned on the air in that car you could actually see the arrow on the gas meter glide toward E. The greatest thing about the was that after we moved South for Dad’s work, we sold that car — for $300. I’m pretty sure that car is still in circulation somewhere after 35 years of people selling it for $300.
We had an ancient green Audi of some sort once. The engine dropped out of it. Really. We had a Pontiac T1000, the first car I remember us ever buying new. That was the most temperamental car. You have to talk with it to get it to start up. I’m very serious. I still talk to cars.
And then there was the Volkswagen Bug. It is the second-most-famous car in our family history behind the Nova because it literally started smoking on the way home after my father bought it “As Is” at a used car place. On the way home. My Dad took the dealer to small claims court. He lost despite a passionate Daniel Webster like argument against the concept of “As Is.”
Wait a minute … that’s the car I learned how to drive in.
And I would press that clutch
And I would keep it right
He would say, ‘A little slower son
You’re doing just fine.’
Just a dirt road with trash on each side
But I was Mario Andretti
When Daddy let me drive
Yes, wait, I remember that green Bug, with its long stick shift and sticky clutch. And my Dad would drive me to a barren parking lot where a supermarket used to be, and he would say, “A little slower, we’re in no rush.” And we would stop and start. I would choke out the engine. I would start it up again.
“It’s OK, just keep going,” he would say. Turning that steering wheel felt like opening up the waterfall at Hoover Dam. “Gently off the clutch and push the gas,” he said. And I would choke out the engine again. Dad would put his hand on my shoulder.
“Don’t worry,” he would say. “Someday it will be so easy you won’t even think about it.”
I’m grown up now
Three daughters of my own
I let ’em drive my ol’ jeep
Across the pasture at our home
You probably know by now that this song is Alan Jackson’s “Drive (For Daddy Gene).” I don’t remember which friend told me that it’s one of the great country songs ever made, but I’ll let you in on a little secret. The other day, I took our oldest daughter Elizabeth to a church parking lot. She’s almost 15 years old.
“OK,” I said. “Go ahead and drive.”
She had that look on her face, that scared but thrilled look, so familiar, so forgotten, and she sat down in the driver’s seat, and this horrible pain came over me, and that pain is over the dumbest and most obvious possible thing. I realized … she can reach the pedal. And she can reach the brake.
“One foot,” I tell her as she tries, like we all try, to use the right foot for the gas and the left for the brake.
“Slow down,” I tell her as the car tries ever so briefly to get away from her tentative grip.
“Press the brake, don’t slam it,” I say as we stop hard. The next time, the stop is a little softer. The next time, it is softer still, and she looks over at me and breaks out in this huge smile that says, “Look at me! I did it!”
A young girl two hands on the wheel
I can’t replace the way it made me feel
And he’d say
Turn it left, and steer it right
Straighten up girl now, you’re doing just fine
Damn it Alan Jackson. I’m a blubbering mess. Who knew that my life really is a country song? Happy Father’s Day to all of you.