My Kind of Country

Country music from a fan's point of view since 2008

War and Religion: Some Thoughts on Trace Adkins’ ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’

traceadkins1Ever 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.

22 responses to “War and Religion: Some Thoughts on Trace Adkins’ ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’

  1. lanibug February 20, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    I love his song Arlington — and as much as I am not a fan of Big and Rich, I adore 8th of November —

  2. Occasional Hope February 20, 2009 at 7:16 pm

    Yes, I like both those.

  3. Leeann Ward February 20, 2009 at 8:18 pm

    Intriguing post, Occasional Hope! This and your last post are excellent. You’re an awesome addition to this team, in my opinion.

    I’ll have to mull this one over some more before commenting on it.

    I really like “Arlington”, but never got into “Eighth of November” to be honest.

  4. Chris February 20, 2009 at 8:53 pm

    Hmmm… Sounds like an interesting song. I’ll have to listen to it soon.

    Would you recommend Trace’s new album?

  5. Brady February 20, 2009 at 10:56 pm

    Good write-up, Occasional Hope and thanks for the back story on the songwriters.

    I don’t think the “I’m still hopin’, waitin’, prayin’/I did not die in vain” line is supposed to be the heart of the song, but is solely in reference to Vietnam and Afghanistan. As for the choice of wars, those are some of the big ones in US history–Afghanistan for it’s recency, I guess. The lyric seems to be more about giving a voice to the dead and humanizing the numbers, trying to hammer home the cost of war, and attempting to convey the camaraderie amongst soldiers.

    I’m not sure the writers were necessarily cognizant of the loss vs. won count, or more to the point, they weren’t trying to say anything that revolved around the outcome of the wars mentioned. I don’t think there’s really any amount protest in this song or that the writers were suggesting that no death in war is worthwhile. The “in vain” line probably would have been more prominent if it were supposed to be interpreted that way.

    There are plenty of war/soldier songs that go beyond patriotic pride, although there are quite a few of those. We created a playlist awhile ago that highlights some of them and some of the readers brought up some excellent contributions as well. Though it doesn’t get many comments, it still receives quite a bit of traffic.

    Not including those, there are songs like Hal Ketchum’s excellent “Sparrow,” Justin Townes Earle’s “Lone Pine Hill,” The SteelDriver’s “Sticks That Made Thunder,” and Randy Kohr’s “Two Boys from Kentucky.” Those last two are bluegrass, but they came to mind.

  6. Occasional Hope February 21, 2009 at 5:36 am

    Thanks for your comments, Brady. You’re probably right about the “in vain” thing only applying in the song to the last two in context – but I would have thought it also applied to the Confederate side in the Civil War, which is definitely what the soldier in this song is fighting for. The line is also the bridge in the song, which always seems like a place to put a significant line.

  7. Occasional Hope February 21, 2009 at 5:45 am

    Chris: Yes, I think this album is definitely worth getting. Trace has one of the great voices in country, and although he’s sometimes let down by applling song choice, most of the songs on X are good. With the exception of ‘Sweet’, which is horrid, the rest range from decent to great (‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’, ‘Sometimes A Man Takes A Drink’, ‘I Can’t Outrun You’. It really restored my faith in Trace after all the Honkytonk Badonkadonking and similar rubbish. You could also look at his debut, Dreamin’ Out Loud, and his other 90s releases, Big Time and More, which are very good and you might be able to find cheap or used copies of.

  8. Razor X February 21, 2009 at 11:18 am

    I took the “in vain” thing as referring to all of the conflicts referenced — sort of as the soldier’s dying thoughts, which obviously take place before it can be known whether his and others’ sacrifices are in vain.

    I also don’t think “in vain” is meant to suggest that no death in war is worthwhile; it’s more a matter of hoping that the side you’re fighting for prevails, because who wants to make that sort of sacrifice for a cause that ultimately fails?

    It’s nice to hear something of substance from Trace again, but I’m guessing that this is too serious a topic for airhead radio, so I don’t expect it to be released as a single. I really do like the song, but I think it would have been better without the chorus joining in toward the end; it just sounds out of place to me.

  9. Occasional Hope February 21, 2009 at 11:50 am

    Yes, the chorus does sound off. When Trace is voicing several different characters in the song it’s almost redundant to have multiple voices at the end, as well. But that’s a production misstep rather than a fault in the song.

    It would be the perfect song to play on 11 November each year.

  10. Brady February 21, 2009 at 11:31 pm

    I think Razor X is on to the most plausible explanation, where other analysis tries to determine whether the war was justifiable in retrospect, the dying soldier can’t really know the outcome. The tense does seem to be a little confused at times, though.

    Since first hearing this song, I thought it’d make for a cool Highwaymen type collaboration.

  11. lanibug February 22, 2009 at 5:33 pm

    Leann, I think I got into “Eighth of November” because my father had a similar situation in Vietnam, and the first time I heard the song on a award show, all I could do was cry and think of what my father goes through each year on the day —

  12. Razor X February 27, 2009 at 2:02 pm

    As reported at Country Universe, Amazon MP3 has the digital version of this album on sale for $5 today (Friday) only. I hadn’t planned on buying it but for $5, why not?

  13. Occasional Hope February 27, 2009 at 2:18 pm

    Yes, that sounds like a bargain. I think you’ll find enough to make it a worthwhile purchase.

  14. Razor X February 27, 2009 at 2:33 pm

    I already agree with your assessment of “Sweet”.

  15. Leeann Ward February 27, 2009 at 3:45 pm

    Yeah, I bought it today for $5, because I probably wouldn’t have bought it for full price. I actually think this song is wonderful. Even the choir is fine with me. People’s criticisms of the choir kind of spooked me out, so I was expecting that it would be creepy or something, but it turns out that I don’t mind it at all.

    ,As for the dying in vain line, I like that there’s just that glimmer of doubt; it seems human, which I love.

  16. Occasional Hope April 6, 2009 at 4:19 pm

    Trace’s performance of this at the ACMs was absolutely wonderful.

  17. Meg April 6, 2009 at 6:55 pm

    I agree it was a highlight and wonderfully meaningful performance, from Trace’s interpretation, to the choir, to the introduction by the wounded soldier and the fact the song’s proceeds when downloaded will help the Wounded Warrior Project:

  18. Neil Alexander Walker May 20, 2009 at 3:34 pm

    I love this song. I am Southern by birth and through my father’s line, but I’ve spent most of my life in California with my mother’s side of the family. Yet, after 28 years away from that small Southern town where I was born and learned to walk and talk, I feel so drawn to the tragedy and futility of the War Between the States. I think every Southern boy imagines he could have stood with his people and stopped the Yankees. I don’t think Trace’s motivation in singing the song was to point to the uselessness of war, rather, I think he was trying to highlight how sad and deserving of continual remembrance the life and death of an American soldier is.

  19. Pingback: Trace Adkins – ‘Til The Last Shot’s Fired’ « My Kind Of Country

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