By In Family, Music


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.”)

— Elvira.

— 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.

38 Responses to Drive

  1. Gerry says:

    Awesome, Joe. I have the same memories of teaching my daughters to drive. Happy Father’s Day.

  2. Dale says:

    Awesome, Joe. And I don’t even like country music. But I do miss my dad.

  3. murr2825 says:

    Very funny, poignant, and as always, resendable.

    Happy Father’s Day, Joe, and all Dads today.

    You may have heard this before but it’s Dolly’s version of 9-to-5, slowed down from 45rpm to 33.

  4. Gordon Hewetson says:

    He stopped loving her today because he died.
    “He stopped loving her today
    They placed a wreath upon his door
    And soon they’ll carry him away
    He stopped loving her today”
    The flip of this is Merle Haggard’s “Today, I Started Loving You Again”

    My Top Ten Country artists
    Johnny Cash
    Dwight Yoakam
    Emmylou Harris
    Hank Williams
    Waylon Jennings
    Merle Haggard
    Willie Nelson
    Ralph Stanley
    Patsy Cline
    George Jones

    Contenders include
    Steve Earle
    Billy Joe Shaver
    Dale Watson
    Loretta Lynn
    Buck Owens
    Kelly Willis
    Junior Brown
    Marty Stuart

    • Jim Walewander says:

      My dad listened to a lot of country music in my youth – and you couldn’t escape He Stopped Loving Her Today.

      It never occurred to me as a kid that the guy had died. Now I know better, of course. And, being older, I wonder if the guy actually offed himself. Anyone?

      • Brent says:

        Having grown up in a small town, I am fairly certain he drank too much, smoked too much, worked sh**&y jobs that paid too little but beat the Hell out of his body and put himself in an early grave that maybe he kind of wanted to go to, because she left him.

  5. Keith W. says:

    Townes van Zandt, Live at the Old Quarter, Dallas TX is a great album that you don’t even have to be a country fan to enjoy.

  6. Owen says:

    So does “Desert Skies” by the Marshall Tucker Band not count as true country?

  7. Frank I says:

    Thats the song that made me an Alan Jackson fan. I was just starting to listen to country music when I heard that song. It still gives me goose bumps

  8. Gesge says:

    I think it’s ok to dislike certain genres and remain ignorant of them. I hope the day never comes where I feel obligated to listen to rap.

    • invitro says:

      While I can sympathize with that statement, I encourage everyone who thinks all rap sucks to give a try to pre-1992 rap. Strong examples can be found on the “Yo! MTV Raps” collections that can be searched for on youtube and spotify. This is rap when it was creative, catchy, and often very funny, and before rap got obsessed with violence, misogyny, guns, bling, drugs, and the other stuff that gangsta rappers love. It’s at least almost as good as the best Top 40.

    • Rob Smith says:

      I’m sure my parents felt that way about Rock when I was growing up in the 70s and blasting Led Zeppelin from my room. Now every TV show, every ad and every Super Bowl halftime is accompanied by Rock music. Rap is ubiquitous today & has crept into, yes, TV shows, ads and the Super Bowl (but of course, the NBA completely) . Some of it’s really not that bad. Eminem is awesome. A hate to say it, but some of 50 Cent’s stuff is pretty strong. Granted, just like with Rock, there is a lot of trash out there.

      • invitro says:

        I listened to an entire Eminem album a few years ago and it scared me. I mean, really scared me, and I don’t scare easily. I think it was that one where he raps about murdering his wife or ex-wife or something, sorry I don’t know much about him. That’s something… you usually have to get somewhat into the avant-garde (some Public Image Ltd., Suicide) before finding truly unsettling music. I might have to give the MM’er another shot.

  9. Ross S says:

    Fantastic essay, Joe. Thanks to being blown away by some recent rock/country discs — Jason Isbell, Chris Stapleton — I’ve been making a similar trek backwards. Would love to see your full list of songs, or even a Spotify playlist of them.

    On Father’s Day, I can’t think of a better country tune to play than Guy Clark’s “Randall Knife”:

  10. Ed Davis says:

    Beautiful, Joe. I’m old school. Hank Williams “Your Cheatin Heart,” Roy Acuff “Wreck on the Highway,” Bill Monroe “Wayfaring Stranger.”

  11. Brad says:

    Joe, bring the father of a daughter myself, if Drive makes you blubber, you might not want to listen to Kenny Chesney’s hit, There goes my life. It is a fabulous song, and I guarantee it will make you cry.

  12. Donald A. Coffin says:

    Incidentally, if no one has mentioned it, Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” should be on your playlist. A lot of Steve Earle should be on your playlist.

    • invitro says:

      I loved Steve Earle before he went full proggy retard, listened to all his albums through The Mountain frequently, went to three of his (awesome) concerts. I thought of most of his music as more roots music than pure country, though. He was of course the #1 practitioner of what used to be called “alt-country”. I’ve been expecting his classic albums: Guitar Town, Exit 0, Copperhead Road, Train a Comin’, I Feel Alright, and El Corazon to be acknowledged as seminal American classics by the hipsters for a long time now. Just one pick to click: “Fort Worth Blues”, the ode to Townes Van Zandt, last song on the last album listed above.

  13. invitro says:

    I can’t see Joe listening to that Public Enemy album more than once.

  14. Harlan Howard, one of the greatest country songwriters, once referred to a country song as three chords and the truth. Hank Williams was called “the Hillbilly Shakespeare.” Bill Anderson, who has had a #1 song on the country charts ever decade since the 1950s, wrote the line, “He put the bottle to his head and pulled the trigger.” Yes, there are plenty of musical genres that we can like or dislike, but there is a lot more going on in country music than those who are snobbish toward it realize.

    • Marc Schneider says:

      Agreed. Having grown up in Tennessee and wanting to disaffiliate myself from anything involving what I considered the “redneck” South, I did look down on country. But, as I got older and, having moved away, I found that I liked a lot of country although I don’t listen to that much. Liking particular genres of music is very much about your own identity.

  15. Joe says:

    David Allen Coe’s “You Never Even Called Me By Name”

  16. duffy01 says:

    Country is the best genre because it encompasses all of life. Kris Kristopherson’s Sunday Mornin’ Coming Down and Hank Williams’ I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry are the my favorites.

  17. thoughtsandsox says:

    Sawyer Brown’s – “The Walk”

  18. Mike Williams says:

    Joe, as a guy who spent plenty of time traveling and away from your home, I think you might appreciate “18 wheels and a dozen roses” by Kathy Mattea.

  19. Gordon Hewetson says:

    Celebrating the Cavaliers and the joy for the great folk in Cleveland
    Billie Joe Shaver – Hottest Thing in Town

  20. Victor says:

    Joe, watch “Be Here to Love Me”, the documentary about Townes Van Zandt. It will blow you away, as will his music. One of the best 4 or 5 songwriters in American music of any genre.

  21. Seamhead says:

    Jamey Johnson – “In Color”
    Great song

  22. Tom says:

    Country music grows on you. My dad used to listen to it, and I would tease him and call him redneck. But it grew on me. I used to listen in college, and my roommates would make fun of me and call me redneck. Flash forward a year or two, and one of the same guys would say hey let’s go play some pool and listen to some country music. Country music is real life

  23. Seamhead says:

    Here’s one of my favorites that reminds me of my Dad.

    • Chris says:

      DBT is a great band for this…but anything by Jason Isbell would be right up Joe’s alley I think. Springsteen even said Southeastern was a “lovely record”.

  24. Frank Evans says:

    Joe, you’re the best sports columnist or blogger in the country. When you write about your relationship with family – whether your parents or daughter – you elevate to a special level.

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