“You should write a song about that!” Any songwriter will tell you he or she hears that almost every day. Especially if, like me, they tend to write about the less-explored detritus of life, like raisins or Mr. Bubble or missing Barbie doll shoes.
I imagine that phrase is also uttered frequently in Nashville corporate boardrooms or wherever they come up with the ideas for the drivel that passes for country music these days. T-shirts and bumper stickers seem to be the main wellspring of inspiration for the lightweight, tongue-in-wallet music that continues to flood iTunes and radio like a deluge of sticky twaddle.
Now, don’t get me wrong—I love funny or clever titles. Country music has always been known to celebrate wordplay. Some of the best titles use a contradiction to set the stage for the classic country themes of cheating, drinking, smoking, screwing, and lying. Some examples: “I Guess I Had Your Leavin’ Comin’,” “She’s Actin’ Single, I’m Drinkin’ Doubles,” “Pick Me Up On Your Way Down,” and that timeless classic, “She Won’t Get Under Me ‘Til I Get Over You.” Clever, cute, and the rhythm built into titles like this tell you that it’s going to be a fun song, not something that should be taken too seriously. More Homer and Jethro than Gilbert and Sullivan.
But that trick can go bad. As much as I hate the syrupy, sentimental songs that are being written today, it’s the laziness of the bumper-sticker song that really chaps my hide. With thousands upon thousands of talented songwriters struggling to have their work heard, it’s galling that something as trite as “Here’s a Quarter, Call Someone Who Cares” even gets recorded, let alone becomes a hit song. “Shit Happens,” “What Part of No Don’t You Understand,” “My Give a Damn’s Busted”…I could go on. The music buying public eats this stuff up like pork rinds. I suppose any day now some empty hat will release “Horn Broken, Watch For Finger.”
But what exactly is it that separates a genuinely witty country song from a cheesy, insulting country song? It’s a fine line, and a subjective one. But, like a guy trying to find a hooker at a cosmetology convention, I know it when I see it. Let’s take drinking songs, for instance. Some great titles (which usually mean a great song) include “I’ve Seen the Light (At the End of the Bottle)” by the Revenants, “Hundred-Proof Lovin’” by Jason and the Scorchers, “Drink Up and Be Somebody” by Merle Haggard, and “Tonight the Heartache’s On Me” by the Dixie Chicks. The thing is, all these songs are great, classic tunes that hold up. One of the best of all time was from Faron Young: “Wine Me Up.” It’s a great tune that fills the dance floor any time I play it. It’s not just a rickety scaffolding that supports a chuckle-producing title like “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” and “Billy’s Got His Beer Goggles On.”
The aforementioned contradictions are just one of the many devices used in cooking up a good title. For me, if a title is good enough, the song will damn near write itself. When it comes to songwriting, I look more to country hits from the ‘50s and ‘60s for my inspiration, because that’s when the best stuff was written. My songs like “Too Tired To Cheat” and “My Heartache and Me” harken back to a more pure era. No irony, no smarmy bullshit mathematically designed to push all the right buttons on the Country Music-buying demographic, the median of which seems to be a 28-year-old mother of three who feels unfulfilled and oppressed. Yeah, she might actually like some of my songs, but I’m not writing them for her. I’m writing them for me. Hey, I have to have something good to listen to!
But seriously, when it comes to separating the wheat from the chaff in country music, it boils down to putting in the work. You can hear a title like, say, “Old Weakness (Coming On Strong),” and know it’s probably going to be a quality song. But when you hear the similarly-titled “My Strongest Weakness,” well, you just know it’s going to be a waste of time. You see how small the difference is? “Old Weakness” is a clever title, using a contradiction, but it’s also rhythmic, evocative, and you can probably figure out from just the title what the song’s going to be about. “My Strongest Weakness,” on the other hand, feels like, yeah, it’s kinda clever, but whoever wrote the title was probably on a deadline and felt like this was enough to allow them to move on to the next potboiler. It’s too succinct. What’s the song about? Men with porn addictions? Krispy Kreme donuts? The guy in the Keystone Light commercials? Skipping mass? Who knows? That title just doesn’t try hard enough.
So the next time you overhear a clever turn of a phrase, or some evocative comment that might well launch a great country song, think twice before you tell your songwriting friends that they should write a song about it. Number one, it’s probably already been done. Number two, your friend is probably busy, since he spends so much of his time writing snarky blogs about Modern Country and how it’s driving our nation straight to hell and maybe we should just let Jesus take the wheel.