I’ve been spending a lot of time in my car lately — especially at night. Nothing is lonelier than a Georgia back road a long way from home. My satellite radio eases the pain considerably. There are news stations and comedy stations and sports stations galore — not to mention stations with every genre of music known to man. There is even a whole station dedicated to Elvis and another dedicated to Frank Sinatra and another dedicated to Jimmy Buffet.
I mostly listen to Willie’s Roadhouse — which plays the kind of country music I grew up listening to. Occasionally I’ll tune into Prime Country — or even The Bridge, which plays soft rock and pop — but usually it is Willie and his friends, like George Jones, Johnny Cash and Patsy Cline.
I listen to country music, not for the twang, but for the lyrics. There are some great messages — and even better lines — in some of those songs. I’m not talking about the silly lines either, like “Drop kick me Jesus through the goal post of life” or “My wife ran off with my best friend, and I miss him.”
Those are clever, but a lot of country music is pure poetic genius. The words paint a picture that stays in your mind for a long, long time and a lot of us can identify with a lot of the lines we hear when we are hearing country songs. Some of my favorite lines are words that I have lived and others aren’t.
I love George Strait’s classic, “Amarillo by Morning.” It’s about a rodeo cowboy. I have never ridden a bucking bronco or a bull, or even roped a calf, for that matter — but I have seen lots of rodeos — including some really big time contests like the Cody Stampede and the Calgary Stampede. So I get it when George sings, “I’ll be looking for eight when they pull that gate and I hope that judge ain’t blind … ” You don’t get poetry like that from a P. Diddy song.
Kris Kristofferson’s classic “Me and Bobby McGee” is sheer poetry from the first line to the last. Tell me the words don’t paint a picture in your head. “Busted flat in Baton Rouge, headin’ for a train, feeling ‘bout as faded as my jeans … ”
My favorite line in that song is “I’d trade all my tomorrows for a single yesterday … ” Now that’s powerful.
“Well I woke up Sunday mornin’ with no way to hold my head that it wouldn’t hurt …” Johnny Cash. The man in black. Boy do I miss Johnny Cash. I met him one time, backstage at the Fox Theater, with Lester Maddox. I miss Lester Maddox, too.
“I wandered so aimless, life filled with sin; I wouldn’t let my dear Savior in. Then Jess came like a stranger in the night. Praise the Lord! I saw the light!” That could be an anthem for so many of us. Hank Williams died shortly after recording that song and I pray that he had seen the light. I think of my old friend, Roger Jackson, every time I hear that song because I used it for his theme song the night we roasted him on his 40th birthday. Roger’s gone now and I miss him more than I miss Johnny Cash or Lester Maddox.
“Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots, and ruined your black tie affair.” Garth Brooks. Wow! I keep waiting on Trisha Yearwood to invite me down to Monticello to meet him in person. So far she hasn’t.
“He said ‘I’ll love you ‘til I die.’ She told him, ‘You’ll forget in time.’” Possum. George Jones. Maybe the greatest country song ever written. If not, it ain’t far behind whatever is.
Are you beginning to get the picture? Are you beginning to see why driving around the Georgia Piedmont late at night isn’t all bad? As long as I have my radio heroes to keep me company, I guess I’ll keep getting by.
There is a song by David Allen Coe about a would-be singer hitchhiking from Montgomery, Ala., to Nashville and getting picked up, as it turns out, by the ghost of Hank Williams. Hank asks him the musical question, “Drifter can you make folks cry when you play and sing? Have you paid your dues? Can you moan the blues? Can you bend them guitar strings? He said boy can you make folks feel what you feel inside?”
I suppose that’s the question for every writer, whether they are writing song lyrics or poetry or novels or weekly columns in a hometown newspaper. Boy can you make folks feel what you feel inside?
I hope I can, whether I am reminiscing about life in a mill village or whining about the changes in Southern society — or writing about country music, as listened to on a lonely Georgia back road, late at night.