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.