Some of the most memorable country songs are the ones which surprise you, the story song with a twist in the tale, or the song which suddenly goes in a direction you really weren’t expecting. Sometimes the effect is desigend to make you laugh; sometimes it may bring you to tears; there are some songs which simply stop you in your tracks in shock the first time you hear them.
That happened to me the first time I heard the Billy Yates/Monty Criswell song ‘Flowers’, on Yates’ self-titled first album in 1997 (also notable for the first version of the song ‘Choices’, subsequently recorded by George Jones). ‘Flowers’ has also been covered by former Nashville Star winner Chris Young and (with a few lyrical changes) by Australian Adam Harvey, yet even knowing the twist to come, it has never lost its force for me. One of the reasons this song is so effective is that it breaks a lot of the conventions of country songwriting. Instead of the usual verse-chorus pattern, we have a series of hookless verses with the chorus sung through twice at the very end. The title does not appear until the very last word of the song.
Rather than spell out the story here, I suggest you listen to the song yourself if you haven’t heard it before (and try to avoid looking at the tags).
A surefire way to make the listener cry is to not reveal until late in the song that the subject has died. For instance, Rebecca Lynn Howard and Trisha Yearwood both recorded ‘Melancholy Blue’, written by Harlan Howard and Tom Douglas; in this song the protagonist is wandering restlessly unable to get over someone, but it is presumed that he has just left her until the last verse, when she visits his grave. The vocal is imbued with sadness before that, but the impact on the listener is doubled by being delayed.
Even in a song whose subject is as well known as ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today’ (written by Bobby Braddock and Curly Putman) it is only halfway through that it is truly obvious that the reason the protagonist has stopped loving the woman who has left is that he has finally proved himself right when “he said ‘I’ll love you til I die'”. Similarly, although there must always be a sense of looming doom in a Vietnam-era story featuring a soldier, it is only at the end of Bruce Robison’s ‘Traveling Soldier’ (most famously recorded by the Dixie Chicks) that the young man’s death is announced. It is perhaps almost as much of a shock to the listener as to his unfortunate sweetheart.
Harlan Howard and Bobby Braddock, obvious masters of the successful twist, teamed up togther to write the top 10 hit ‘I Don’t Remember Loving You’, recorded by John Conlee in 1982. Again, I’m going to suggest you try listening to this if you don’t remember it, to see if it surprises you.
Harlan Howard also co-wrote the much recorded 60s classic ‘The Streets Of Baltimore’ with Tompall Glaser. This tale of a farmer who moves to the city and a factory job to satisfy his wife’s love of the city lights ends with him heading home to Tennessee, while his wife is implied to have dropped into prostitution (“my baby walks the streets of Baltimore”).
Curly Putman wrote another much-recorded classic story-with-a-twist (or series of them) in the form of ‘The Green, Green Grass Of Home’, which opens with what appears to be the story of a prodigal son’s return home to be reunited with his parents and sweetheart. The twist: not only is it all a dream, but the protagonist is in jail and about to be hanged – he will indeed return to the “green green grass of home”, but only to be buried beneath it.
More recently, Randy Travis’ last big hit, ‘Three Wooden Crosses’ was built around the suspense of seeing which of the passengers in a bus wreck survived. The final revelation that it was the prostitute who survived is perhaps less of a surprise than the fact that she became the mother of the narrator’s minister. Also on a religious theme but in a more pop-country style, the intensely emotional Jimmy Wayne hit ‘I Love You This Much’ does not lead to a reunion between father and son, but instead builds up to the narrator realizing that despite a lifetime’s indifference from his own father, “he had not been alone or unloved all his life”.
Some twists are used to comic effect, as a punchline for a funny song. Examples might include Johnny Cash’s ‘One Piece At A Time’, in which an auto worker sneaks out parts from his assembly line over a period of years, in order to build his own vehicle. The twist is that he hasn’t taken into account changing designs, and ends up with a lot of parts which don’t quite fit together. George Strait’s bar-room conversational pickup in ‘The Chair’ (written by Dean Dillon and Hank Cochran) ends with the protagonist’s casual admission that he started out with a lie (“It wasn’t my chair after all”) – possibly not earth shattering, but the point of the song, and the line people remember from it.
A good twist is one which goes against expectations. There is a flourishing sub-set of country songs which use the three verse structure to set up a cyclical story or create a “twist” which is in the end predictable. This does not necessarily make it a poor song; it is the kind of song where the chorus means something different each time, and it can be extraordinarily effective, but it has been used sufficiently often that the “twist” is obvious in advance.
A song which subverts and twists that every convention to startling effect is Patty Loveless’ 1995 hit ‘You Don’t Even Know Who I Am’, written by Gretchen Peters. This song opens with a neglected wife leaving her husband with nothing but a note, saying,
“You don’t even know who I am
You left me a long time ago…
So what do you care if I go?”
In verse two, he reads the note:
“And he called her to say he was sorry
But he couldn’t remember what for”.In the second chorus we get his parallel take on their sterile marriage, ending bitterly, “What do I care if you go”.
The first time I heard this song I fully expected a third verse to turn it around and reunite the couple, but it just ends there. This is a sting in the tale harsher than any twist.
What songs have most surprised you the first time you realized what was really going on? And which are your favorite songs with a twist?