Ever since Trace Adkins released his most recent album, X, last November, I’ve been intrigued by the song ‘Til the Last Shot’s Fired’, and I wanted to explore a few aspects of the song. Most of the debate I’ve seen so far over at The 9513 has centered on the appropriateness of the West Point Cadet Glee Club’s choral singing at the close of the song, but I want to look at a couple of aspects of the substance of the song itself.
The song is written by Rob Crosby, a one-time recording artist who had some modest chart success in the 90s before settling down as a professional songwriter, and songwriter/producer Doug Johnson. Crosby has recorded ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ himself, on his 2007 independent release Catfish Day; you can hear a clip of his version here. While I always like to hear a songwriter’s original version, I must admit I much prefer Trace Adkins’ vocal on this track. Trace’s deep baritone voice is capable of bringing real gravitas to a song, when he finds one worthy of it. He certainly does that here.
‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ may not be the very best song on X (I would give that honor to ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’), but it is the most interesting. Often in country music, the subject matter of war and soldiers is limited to an expression of patriotic pride. I’m not suggesting there’s anything wrong with that per se, but it is only part of the story, and this song treads less familiar ground.
One of the things that particularly strikes me about this song is the fact that of the four wars it references, at least two of the protagonists are fighting on the losing side, and another is questionable. The Civil War soldier we ‘meet’ first is quite definitely on the Southern side. Both songwriters are from the south, Carolina and Georgia respectively, so perhaps that was the natural emotional choice for them. The death of the young man killed in the D-Day invasion, who is the second person Trace voices, is less complicated – the U.S. was clearly on the right side, morally speaking, as well as the victorious one, in World War II. Finally, two further wars are referenced more briefly: Vietnam, which was one of America’s less successful military excursions, and Afghanistan, which is a conflict still to be fully resolved. Only one of these young men could truthfully be said not to have died in vain.
If this was a deliberate choice by the writers, and the phrase, “I’m still hoping, waiting, praying, I did not die in vain,” suggests it might be the very heart of the song’s meaning, then why did they include WWII as one of their examples? This soldier’s death is a personal tragedy for his family, but one which would normally be presented as being worth the sacrifice. Are the writers really suggesting here that no death in war is worthwhile? This makes the use of the army cadets’ choir all the more puzzling. I’m still not sure quite what the writers intended to convey here.
The other unusual thing about this song is its use of religious imagery. Most country songs about religious belief and life seem pretty firmly grounded in Protestantism, with a particular focus on Baptist beliefs. I was very surprised, the first time I heard this song, to hear the chorus callling on “sweet mother Mary”. I’m not sure if this was a deliberate personal choice by the writers, or what it signifies to them, but it certainly struck me as unusual to hear something I would associate with Catholicism. It also strikes a bit of a dischord with the final track on X (and its leadoff single), ‘Muddy Water’, where the protagonist seeks baptism in the river. I wonder if this factor might affect the song’s chances on radio if it is released as a single?
What do you think of this song in particular? And do you have any other war songs worth listening to?
Listen to Trace Adkins – ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired.