The fine print giveth
November 15, 2012
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There’s a line in Thomas Rhett’s new single “Beer With Jesus” where the singer is asking “tell me how’d you turn the other cheek, to save a sorry soul like me” that didn’t even register when I first listened to the song. While it was playing in the background the other day my ears zoned in on that line and my reaction was to arch an eyebrow in admiration at the songwriters’ simple and direct way of communicating. In the setting of the song – modern-day Southern Baptist fundamentalism – it would have been easy to reach for a hackneyed phrase straight out of the hymnal and my ear is still half-expecting “wretched soul” or something equally pretentious when I hear it. But they’ve kept it direct – even conversational – enough to effectively personify the narrator in the process, and that plainspoken bit of talk is why I want to hear the rest of what he’s got to say. So I say good on Rhett and co-writers Rick Huckaby and Lance Miller. They’re paying attention to the details.
So I got to thinking about other songs and the importance of just one word or line. Would “Sunday Morning Coming Down” be as important in the annals of country music history if Johnny Cash hadn’t bucked network television executives’ suggestion to substitute Kris Kristofferson’s lyric, and sing “home” instead of “stoned”? Likely it would have still become a hit. And as long as people still find themselves feeling hung over from a Saturday night, the song itself is strong enough to stand alone as a vivid retelling of such mornings. Still, “wishing Lord that I was stoned” reveals a grit and hair-of-the-dog pluck in the singer where wishing to be home sounds like he’s just given up. It changes the entire perspective. Kristofferson is of course a master of imagery, due in part to his attention to the details.
On John Hiatt’s superb “When We Ran”, Linda Rondstadt spends the first three minutes of the song wailing and gnashing her teeth about a lover that got away. She finally concludes “the mind is just a loose cannon and the memories are rollin’ dice“, letting the listener in on the fact that she’s acutely aware of the absurdity of her obsession with the past. Otherwise, we’d expect to see her walking Main Street, carrying a suitcase, faded rose in her hair. It’s also near the end of Lori McKenna’s voyeuristic “Your Next Lover” that the singer’s cool sentience is told when she sings in the bridge “I hope she reminds you nothing of me and as crazy as it sounds I hope she’s beautiful“, with no discernible amount of either sadness or bitterness. These are details that round out their song’s characters. If they were one-sided, would we care about these misfits and their lives? Would we relate their situations as easily to our own? I don’t think so. We relate to them because Hiatt and McKenna didn’t shirk their responsibility to the details.
All of these songs are favorites because they give the listener a glimpse inside the psyche of the song’s characters. I believe it’s that attention to detail that separates the good songs from the really great songs. TV Bishop Fulton Sheen’s famous quote “the big print giveth and the fine print taketh away” runs opposite to these and many other great songs in which the fine print giveth.