Thursday, August 28, 2008

What country and crime have in common.

Hard to believe, I know, but every now and then, more often lately, I can't stand to hear another news story. I don't care if it's about approaching Iranian nukes, George Bush overcoming his fear of horses or just the weather forecast, some days the sound of Maura Liason's voice makes my ears bleed.

When that happens, I hit the radio button that takes me to my guilty pleasure, country music.

I've been a secret listener for years and for a long trip across the big flat middle of the US, nothing beats country at 4 a.m. when you're cranking on caffeine and dexedrine and the headlights of the closest car look like dim and distant stars.

I grew up in a time when AM radio could go from Roger Miller to the Stones, to Ray Charles and the Beatles, all in a half hour block. So I was listening to country music before I knew I was listening to country music. Before my first kiss, I could sing all the lyrics of Miller's "King of the Road."

A few weeks ago, I turned away from the news and landed smack on Miranda Lambert singing a song called Gunpowder and Lead and the chorus blew me away:

I'm goin' home, gonna load my shotgun
Wait by the door and light a cigarette
He wants a fight well now he's got one
He ain't seen me crazy yet

"He ain't seen me crazy yet." Goddamn, that's good, and it's as close to noir as any writer could hope to get. That the song is from an album called "Crazy ex-Girlfriend" just makes it that much better.

In the following weeks, every time I listened, I heard echoes of themes from crime writing. Like this from Toby Keith (my listening is unspoiled by any political views the singer may or may not have. I don't give a fuck.) It's a song about getting older and I understand TK took the recurring title line from something Burt Reynolds said to him, and that makes it all the better.

I ain't as good as I once was
I got a few years on me now
But there was a time back in my prime
When I could really lay it down

What man hasn't felt his youth slip away but out of pride, hung onto some shred of the guy he used to be. It's something I'm writing about now in my ongoing WIP.

And is there any better advice for a writer of crime fiction than this by Brooks and Dunn?

If you're world's got somethin missin
Just put a girl in it

Country music has its share of weepy numbers. Right now there's a maudlin piece of crap called You Can Let Go Now where a woman sings to her father that title line, first as a little girl learning to ride a bike. As soon as you hear it, you know that by the end of the song, that old man is going to be breathing his last in a hospital room. Maudlin and predictable, not something any writer should emulate.

There's a lot of God and Jesus in country, and that can be OK. Merle Haggard did "Crying Holy" and Carrie Underwood does a number called "Take the Wheel, Jesus," which I'm ashamed to admit I like. It's a weeper, yes, but it isn't nearly the crapfest that "You Can Let Go Now" is.

And I'll be the last one to condemn a little honest sentiment and faith in our characters. Just don't turn it into a Valerie Bertinelli movie.

I looked up the top 100 country music tunes and one list looked like this, and while I could argue that "Crazy" is a better selection from Pasty Cline, I can't complain about her being in second place after "Ring of Fire."

Here's the entire top 10.

1. Ring of Fire - Johnny Cash
2. Sweet Dreams - Patsy Cline
3. Mama Tried - Merle Haggard
4. He Stopped Loving Her Today - George Jones
5. Whiskey River - Willie Nelson
6. I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry
7. Faded Love - Bob Wills
8. Orange Blossom Special - Johnny Cash
9. King of the Road - Roger Miller
10. Cryin' Time - Ray Charles

So, tell me, what do you like to hear when you're on a long drive on a lonesome road and the only thing on your mind is a broken love or that convenience store just ahead, open and empty and just begging to be robbed?

Talk to me.


Anonymous said...

Toby Keith? Jesus, I will just shoot you. I'd shoot you in the leg for the Hillary-body-language post, but you get it square in the nuts for listening to young country.

Do yourself a favor and check out George Jones White Lightning, or Buck Owens and the Buckaroos Waitin' In Your Welfare Line or Bud's Bounce, Don Rich Chaparral, Roy Clark Pink Velvet Swing, or John Doe The Meanest Man in the World. I shit you not -- all are worth the price of a download.

I only recently turned on to George Jones. The fact that you style your hair and sideburns like him may have had something to do with it, Dave. Wife-beating drunkenness aside, he's a gem.

Thanks for the post -- I shall look into Miranda Lambert; she sounds like my kind of chick.

David Terrenoire said...

I take a back seat to no one in my regard for Buck Owens and George Jones. But radio doesn't play the good old stuff. I may have to get satellite for that.

JD Rhoades said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JD Rhoades said...

Definitely looking for Miranda Lambert after that. "You ain't see me crazy yet..." Right up my alley. My current fave is a group called Drive By Truckers, who sing a song called "Cottonseed" that's pure essence of redneck noir:

I came to tell my story to all these young and eager minds
To look in their unspoiled faces and their curious bright eyes
Stories of corruption, crime and killing, yes it's true
Greed and fixed elections, guns and drugs and whores and booze

It goes on like that for verse after verse, with the tag line: I put more lawmen in the ground than Alabama put cottonseed.

FUCK yeah...

pattinase (abbott) said...

Lucinda Williams is a favorite. Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Feist, Janis Joplin.

Graham Powell said...

You seem to have forgotten "Family Tradition", "A Country Boy Can Survive", and the rest of the Hank Williams, Jr., oeuvre.

Jessica said...

Miranda Lambert is FABULOUS! She writes almost all of her stuff, doesn't conform to the normal standard, and puts on a HELL of a show! Definitely go see her if you have a chance. She's amazing.

Gonzalo B said...

Give Jesse Dayton a try. He's a virtual unknown but those who've heard him really like him. Probably one of the best of the current crop of country artists and far more versatile than any of them.

Scott Moore said...

Ah . . . country music. My wife and my friends just don't understand . . . Hey, I think I'm writing a country song right there!

Beyond the obvious Hank Williams/Cash/Haggard/Jones "Mount Rushmore" of country, I would submit a couple of sometimes overlooked classic era guys:

Hank Thompson ("A Six Pack To Go")

Ray Price ("Heartache By The Numbers", "Crazy Arms")

And more recent artists I like:

Steve Earle ("Guitar Town" or almost any album)

Dwight Yoakam ("Guitars, Cadillacs" album)

Kim Richey ("Bittersweet" album)

Lucinda Williams ("Car Wheels On A Gravel Road" album)

George Strait - Almost 60 number one hits in 28 years is unprecedented in any genre of music.

David Terrenoire said...

Thank you, Scott.

We need to do some country. I'm thinking Waits/Earle/Hammel/Williams (take your pick which Williams).

I find myself bereft of band at the moment, so I'm up for that.

Anonymous said...

I'm barely awake here so will have to post tomorrow after gallons of coffee ... BUT ... was wondering when/if you'd heard Miranda's. Can you get that picture of a woman who's had ~enough~ and waiting on him to give it right back? No doubt about her intent.

From the list you posted for my heart breaking (for the 100th time?) I'd go with #'s 1, 2, 4 (I just weep listening to the heartache), 6 (oh that voice) and 10 in rotation. Also, Lyle Lovett, John Anderson, reaching back a little with Vern Gosdin, and Dwight Yoakam. Patsy Cline, of course.

Loretta Lynn - her earlier work and her latest she did with White -- the respect he showed her was something else. (oh and their video of Portland Oregon was great, check it out).

I don't care for much of the wiggle-butt, cowboy hat wearing current country pop and have pulled out a pile of cds and old albums and been listening to them. Also, I find stations that'll stream. Carlene Carter might be an interesting choice.

But as much as I love country for the heartache, I've been listening a lot these last couple of weeks to r&b. Lorraine Wilson's Stay With Me (talk about begging and screaming), Miss Aretha for setting him straight while your heart's breaking and David Ruffin.

And what? bereft? what happened? (And I'd forget about the middle Williams and stay with the granddaddy and the grandson -- who's played here a number of times.)

You know, I want a ~story~ when I listen to country, not some pop sugar puffs.


Beneath the Carolina Moon said...

I've heard that if you don't like some country music, then you've never been in love. I guess even closet county fans count. (one could probably write a country song about being closet country). As for why you possess intimate knowledge of the qualities of Valerie Bertinelli movies? We all have out noir secrets eh? Whatever happened to the great Johnny Rodriguez songs like I've Been Throwing Horse Shoes Over My Left Shoulder?

Anonymous said...

Gonzalo B -- I agree with you about Jesse Dayton and also like his duets with Brennen Leigh.