I’m a closet country music fan. No one suspects me. I’m thoroughly urban, born and raised in Manhattan, transplanted to Philly. I’m not religious. I’ve never driven a pick-up truck. Or worn cowboy boots. But ever since my husband put Ricky Skaggs’ Highways and Heartaches in the tape deck (remember those?) in our beat-up Datsun (and remember those?) on a cross-country trip decades ago – causing me to sing along with Ricky at the top of my lungs as we barreled across Wyoming – I’ve loved it.
As I was listening to Ricky recently, reunited through the magic of Spotify, I was thinking about why. A good part of it has got to be the content. Even as a twenty-something, themes of teenage angst wore thin. Country music is about the trials and tribulations of being an adult. The mundane details of married life, the joys of parenthood, common hardships like fighting with the boss, being late on the rent, and drinking too much, to name a few. And then there’s that mega-hardship: divorce. Lots of divorce. How many heavy metal songs can you name which cover this topic? Or hip-hop? Or singer/songwriter? Not many. But country music is full of them. Given my line of work, that’s got to be a reason I’m so taken with the genre.
We’re all familiar with the incomparable Tammy Wynette, telling us that the D-I-V-O-R-C-E will be final – tomorrow. But what about her lesser known classic tale of domestic discord, Kids Say the Darndest Things (Last night while I watched TV, one rushed through the door/’Mommy, Daddy’s telling someone on the phone/Don’t call me here no more’). Or a new discovery from Buck Owens and Rose Maddox, Mental Cruelty, which actually contains a courtroom scene (Mental cruelty, that’s what I heard her say/Mental cruelty, to the judge that day/I sat there in silence so she could be free/And listened to her lyin’ words/Mental cru-el-ty.) And I’ve got to include Tim McGraw’s Do You Want Fries With That?, a contemporary rant directed at the man who stole his wife, delivered from the drive-in window of a fast-food joint. The lyrics are so excellent they require a longer excerpt:
I thought that was your voice/I thought that was my car/Now we ain’t ever met before/But I know who you are
You’re living in my house/And I’m living in a tent/And don’t laugh, this second job of mine/Is paying both our rent
You’re out here buying Happy Meals/And I’m eating rice and pintos/You so much as crack a smile at me, man/I’ll come through this here window
Well you took my wife/And you took my kids/And you took that life/That I used to live/My pride, the pool, the boat, my tools, my dreams, the dog, the cat
Yeah I think that’s just about everything/Oh I almost forgot/Do you want fries with that?
These songs and others in the genre are tongue-in-cheek but somehow comforting at the same time. We recognize our lives in the lyrics; we feel camaraderie in the shared mess of human experience. And we laugh at ourselves, which sets this genre apart from so much popular music where songwriters take themselves and their problems so very very seriously.
If you have suggestions to add to my country/divorce playlist, please let me know. In the meantime, if I ever start to take my profession too seriously, I’ll just sit down and listen to Arty Hill’s courtroom drama, told from the bar stool: I Might Have Been a Lawyer (But I Couldn’t Pass the Bar).