Four Country Songs That Tell a Story

The sources of country music

An inspired vision by Thomas Hart Benton
An inspired vision by Thomas Hart Benton
Country music claims some of the greatest story songs of them all
Country music claims some of the greatest story songs of them all

Harper Valley PTA and more


A song that attracts our attention or even touches our heart typically combines a nice melody with strong lyrics. We can certainly appreciate a song that offers only powerful words or a strong tune but when both are present, the song will usually be extremely popular. The lyrics don’t necessarily have to be profound, but an interesting thought or message will strike a responsive chord in our psyche and become memorable. Classic songs like Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again” or Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire” are examples of songs with great lyrics and music. These tunes still receive play on the radio, decades after they were first written and performed.

Some of the most creative songs of our generation tell a story. Often the tale is a simple one: boy meets girl, boy and girl fall in love; boy and girl either live happily ever after or break up. Love and heartache are popular topics, but musicians also write songs about the struggles of their youth, or hitting the road in search of a new identity or life. While basic themes comprise the majority of story songs, a few offer much more.

Occasionally a tune will tell a more involved story from start to finish, and these often become signature songs for their creators. Jeannie C. Riley’sHarper Valley PTA” is about a widow admonished by the local PTA for wearing her skirts too high. She attended the next meeting and listed the numerous transgressions of everyone in attendance, revealing them to be hypocrites. This song was so inspiring a television show was created based on its lyrics.

The ability of country musicians to set a story to music rivals anyone’s, and memorable tunes about ordinary people in unusual situations abound. Their creators are masters at regaling us with funny or tragic tales through music and, in fact, within all musical genres country music might be best known for this type of song.

Here are some of my favorite country story songs.


Country Music from Amazon.com

A Boy Named Sue

Johnny Cash

 

A Boy Named Sue (performed by Johnny Cash).  This song tells the story of a gunfighter whose father named him Sue before abandoning him.  Sue roamed from town to town in search of his father, bent on getting even for the indignity of his name.  He finally found him in a saloon playing poker and attacked him.  They fought each other viciously and finally drew guns on each other.  Sue’s father explained that he knew he wouldn’t be there to raise him, and gave Sue that name to ensure he would grow up strong and tough.  Sue owed his spirit and toughness to his father and when he realized this, he became almost sentimental.  He still hated what his father did and vowed to name a child of his own something normal, or failing that—anything but Sue.

 

Goodbye Earl

Dixie Chicks

Goodbye Earl (performed by the Dixie Chicks). A small-town girl named Wanda married a slimy deadbeat named Earl after graduating from high school, and shortly thereafter found herself the victim of physical abuse. Her friend Mary Ann arrived at the hospital to comfort her, and together they devised a scheme to kill Earl. Wanda served Earl a dish of poisoned black-eyed peas, wrapped him up in a tarp and dumped him in the woods. When the police investigated Earl’s disappearance, Mary Ann and Wanda discovered to their surprise that he was so disliked, no one cared that he was missing. Feeling justified in their act of vengeance and without fear of reprisal, they opened a small food market near the highway and settled into a simple but satisfying life devoid of the evil, wife-beating Earl.


The Devil Went Down to Georgia

Charlie Daniels Band

The Devil Went Down to Georgia (performed by the Charlie Daniels Band). The story of a boy named Johnny who was quietly playing his fiddle one afternoon when Satan appeared. Satan made a wager with the boy that if he could play a fiddle better than Johnny, the devil would capture his soul. Johnny, however, would win a fiddle of gold if he proved the superior musician. He brashly accepted the wager, warning Satan that he was “the best that’s ever been.” The devil played first and the demonic howl that emanated from his fiddle was both beautiful and eerie, but Johnny was unfazed. When it was his turn, he referred to Satan as “son” and told him to sit back and watch a real fiddler at work. Johnny played so beautifully that the devil realized he had been beaten. Johnny accepted his prize and told the devil to come back anytime he wanted to wager with him again.


Ode to Billy Joe

Bobbie Gentry


Ode to Billy Joe (performed by Bobbie Gentry). This sad song is a period piece referencing actual places in Mississippi. A hard-working family sat at the dinner table one evening, and the mother informed them a local boy named Billy Joe recently committed suicide by jumping off a bridge. The reaction from the family was mixed; the father never liked Billy Joe, but the mother was more sympathetic. The older brother was once a friend and the daughter had an undefined relationship that she kept hidden from the other family members. They reminisced about Billy Joe’s life and wondered what could drive him to such an act, but in a detached way that indicated the boy’s death had no real impact on their own lives. The song never said outright, but implied the daughter and Billy Joe had a child together and threw the baby off the bridge rather than face the implications of their illicit affair. Billy Joe’s guilt subsequently led him to kill himself.


The stories are sometimes grim, but still well told

 

“A Boy Named Sue” and “Goodbye Earl” both dealt with serious themes in an amusing manner.  Parental abandonment and spousal abuse wouldn’t ordinarily be fodder for humorous songs, but the topics were handled in a way that told us these despicable actions weren’t to be tolerated.  While murder and attempted murder are hardly more acceptable, the whimsy of these songs made it possible to sympathize with Sue and Wanda and understand their acts of vengeance.  Johnny, meanwhile, kicked the devil’s butt and sent him on his way.  Each story was told in a manner that compels us to cheer for the song’s central character, and in the end we applaud their actions.  Of the songs listed here, only “Ode to Billy Joe” doesn’t attempt to amuse us.  It asks questions about life without offering answers—or a character to cheer for.

These are four of my favorite country “story” songs.  Do you have a favorite?

Comments 48 comments

coffeesnob 6 years ago

Mike,

I have been away from HP for a bit. This was a good hub to come back to. You are right that a good tune coupled with powerful lyrics creatge a popluar song. Music reaches us for some reason. And when the words speak into our lives we pay attantion.

CS


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

CS, welcome back. We missed you here! I love music and it is fun to write about--I just wish I had some musical talent. Hope you liked the songs here--they are odd but enjoyable in their own weird way.

Thanks for stopping by.

Mike


samboiam profile image

samboiam 6 years ago from Texas

Devil Went Down To Georgia is one of the greatest Country songs of all time. I like all the songs on your list. Thanks for this enjoyable read.


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

sambioiam, thanks for stopping by. I agree that 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia' is one of the greatest country songs ever. There is something uplifting about the story--taking on the devil and sending him packing can fire up anybody.

Thanks for your comments, they are greatly appreciated.

Mike


optimus grimlock profile image

optimus grimlock 6 years ago

A boy named sue! Cash,jennings,Haggerd,kristofferson,reed all told stories and were great at it! Amos mosses was right behind the devil went down to georgia!


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

optimus, thanks for reading. There were so many great country stars who could tell a story with their music it was difficult to choose who to select here. The country music genre mastered the art of storytelling, and the folks you mentioned were terrific. Thanks again for reading.

Mike


JannyC profile image

JannyC 6 years ago

This made me smile. Nice points about songs and their lyrics being meaningful.


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Janny! Nice to see you here. I'm glad you enjoyed my hub about songs. Hope you have a great Sunday!

Mike


Lady_E profile image

Lady_E 6 years ago from London, UK

I enjoyed reading this Hub. It's nice to read the interesting stories behind the lyrics/songs. My 2 Favourite Country songs are Lee Ann Womack. "I hope you dance". Beautiful Lyrics. I wonder if maybe she wrote it after having a baby. Second one is Kenny Rogers "Through the Years". Very old song.

Country music is quite refreshing. There's no head-banging. lol.

Thanks and Best wishes.


drbj profile image

drbj 6 years ago from south Florida

Hi, Mike - I have enjoyed listening to three of these songs but I had never heard "Good-by Earl" before. The one I listened to most was Bobbie Gentry's "Ode to Billy Joe." Catchy tune and intriguing lyrics. Like you, I imagined something had been goin' on between the daughter and Billy Joe.

Thanks for your time and creative effort putting this hub together. It's a winner.


Megavitamin profile image

Megavitamin 6 years ago

I love all the songs on this list! The Devil Went Down to Georgia isn't just hailed as one of the greatest Country songs of all time, but one of the greatest songs ever period. Thanks for the great list!


John B Badd profile image

John B Badd 6 years ago from Saint Louis, MO

Those are some great songs. Kenny Rogers "The Gambler" is another of my favorites.


Garlic Angel profile image

Garlic Angel 6 years ago from Dublin

Oh,, Johnny Cash,, I Love him and I love Country Music.. I am bookmarking this article for sure,,, Thanks again Mick.. Garlic Angel :-)


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Elena, I love 'I Hope You Dance,' as well. And, I've always been a big fan of Kenny Rogers. I was tempted to put a fifth song in and include 'The Gambler.'

I've liked country music for a long time. It has gradually transformed into something different from its Grand Ole Opry roots, and in many ways it has become what rock used to be, as rock has also transformed. More of the lyrics and melodies I find pleasing these days come from country music than any other single musical style.

Well, I appreciate your stopping by and hope you enjoyed your Sunday.

Mike


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

drbj, thanks for reading. Never heard 'Goodbye Earl' before? The first time I heard this song was watching the Dixie Chicks performing at some awards show, years ago. I thought "Holy cow! (or holy something... I don't remember what...) I can't believe their singing a song about murdering a guy, even if he is a wife-beater!" The crowd went wild, and it was clear this song struck a chord with listeners.

I always loved 'Ode to Billy Joe' and actually saw Bobbie Gentry perform it in Las Vegas, a long time ago. When I heard it live, that was when I really listened to the lyrics and wondered what this story was really about. It is an amazing song that should not be forgotten.

Well, thanks again for your comments. Take care.

Mike


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Megavitamin, thanks for reading. I agree completely with your assessment of 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia.' That is a great song, never mind how it is categorized. The audacity of the lyrics is wonderful, and Charlie Daniels plays the fiddle pretty well himself. I've been playing it over and over since posting this.

Thanks again.

Mike


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

John B Badd, thanks for reading. As I mentioned in a comment to Lady_E above, 'The Gambler' almost made my list as a fifth song. I balked only at making the article too long to read. It is a great song, and Kenny Rogers is a wonderful musician.

Thanks again for reading.

Mike


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Garlic Angel, thanks for reading. I'm a huge Johnny Cash fan also--I've spent many a road trip playing Johnny Cash tunes while driving through Kansasand Colorado in the middle of the night. He was one of the best.

Thanks for your comments, they are greatly appreciated.

Mike


E. A. Wright profile image

E. A. Wright 6 years ago from New York City

It's so true that country music has the market cornered on putting incredibly outrageous and silly stories into song -- and I'm not even a country fan.


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

E.A., thanks for stopping by. Country music really tells a story like no other musical style, and their ability to do this is in part what helped me to appreciate country music.

Thanks again, I appreciate your reading.

Mike


Shinkicker profile image

Shinkicker 6 years ago from Scotland

Great Hub

I love music that tells a story, goes back to the old folk music of Scotland and Ireland that told tales of seafarers, lovers, country folk and nature.

I never tire of hearing 'A Boy Named Sue and 'The Devil Went Down to Georgia' is a classic. I like 'The Gambler' too.


H.C Porter profile image

H.C Porter 6 years ago from Lone Star State

Wow, I love your picks! What great songs-each unique and great in its own special way. I absolutely adore The Devil Went Down to Georgia :) It is one of those songs that you can listen to on repeat and it won’t make you fall asleep. I may have to steal your country theme for a hub; you have given me some new concepts to consider writing about :) Rated Up and Awesome!


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Shinkicker, thanks for reading. I considered adding 'The Gambler' to this list--if I put in a fifth song, it would have been that one. Glad you enjoyed this.

Mike


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

HC, thanks for coming by. I agree with you, Devil Went Down to Georgia can hold up over repeated play. Truth is, I've been playing all these songs a lot since I wrote this. They are not only fun, but inspiring in their own way. Thanks for the ratings, and I look forward to reading your own country hubs. Take care.

Mike


prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

Nice share although I was touchd by the first one, Sue hehe, you see I have a soft heart and I stopped and think a bit, how empty Sues life mut be -- fatherless but at least he saw his father in an unconventional manner, thanks Mike, Maita


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Hi, Maita. Glad you liked "A Boy Named Sue," it has always been one of my favorites. You are indeed very kind-hearted, of course, and you're right--it must have been a sad, empty life for this man looking for his father. It was interesting that in the middle of a knife fight, he saw why his father named him Sue and felt affection for him. You're correct, his relationship with his father was quite unconventional.

Thanks so much for stopping by, I appreciate it very much.

Mike


Daniel 6 years ago

Bobbie Gentry's Ode to Billie Joe is my favorite story song. Tom T. Hall stated in print that it was his favorite and was an inspiration for his writing Harper Vally pta. I'm glad their has been a seriou re-evaluation of her work. She won the grammy hof award for O.T.B.J in 1999 and in 2008 she was inducted into The Mississippi Musicans hof. Australia's Raven Records has re-issued her Capitol catalog to steady sales and are combing the vaults for a cd of un-released tracks. One is her take on Billie Holiday's standard of 'God Bless The Child' and it is a stunning cover.


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Daniel, thanks so much for reading. I am a fan of both Ode to Billy Joe and Hrper Valley PTA, and I am certainly in favor of these fine songs and the artists who created and performed them receiving all the accolades due them. They are not just great songs, these are a little slice of American culture.

Thanks again for stopping by.

Mike


Loves To Read profile image

Loves To Read 6 years ago

Mike i really loved this hub. It may tell our age but the music of that era is as good today as it was then. I always loved Bobby Gentry's "Ode To Billy Joe" and although i knew they had some kind of relationship i never thought about them getting rid of a baby.!!!!!!!

Sadly "Goodbye Earl" is not available to view here in Aus for some reason. Thanks for the memories.


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Loves To Read, thanks for your kind words. I find this music holds up quite well over time. The stories told and the morals they contain, while sometimes amusing, are pertinent and, in their own way, timeless. Too bad you couldn't listen to "Goodbye Earl," it's a great song if somewhat cold-blooded.

Thanks again for your kind words.

Mike


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Yo Mike! I've enjoyed all of these but "Goodbye Earl". "Earl" was done very well! There are some great actors in that video. I loved them all. It's been some great time traveling here. Thank you Sir!


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Micky, thank you! I greatly appreciate your taking the time to read so many of my hubs, and I'm glad you enjoyed the music here. When I first heard "Goodbye Earl" it was on some awards show, and I couldn't believe what they were singing about. I do enjoy the story and the music, as grim as it all happens to be.

Thanks again for taking the time to view my work.

Mike


Pollyannalana profile image

Pollyannalana 6 years ago from US

Fun hub, and I know a good one I really remembered wrong a few nights ago, asking my husband about the "Ruby, Don't Take Your Guns to Town" and felt a fool when he reminded me it was "love" not guns, but as I say I was always a tom boy! Well, it has been awhile. Polly


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Hi Polly! When I was reading your comment and saw "guns" instead of "love" I wondered for a moment if I had the words wrong myself all those years. That would certainly change the meaning of the lyrics, wouldn't it???

Thanks for the comment and the chuckle!

Mike


pmccray profile image

pmccray 6 years ago from Utah

Mike!!! Harper Valley PTA . . yesss you named quite a few of my favorites. It's sad that the newer generation of CW have gotten away from old school. They seem more into making it mainstream dialing for dollars instead of staying true to the genre. Excellent hub . . rated up and shared.


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

pmccray, thanks for stopping by! It's been a long time, and I hope you're doing okay. Harper Valley PTA and Ode to Billy Joe are both classics in country storytelling, and I've loved those songs for decades. You're correct, CW has changed a lot over the years--it is more like rock and roll used to be in many respects. In fact, in a lot of ways, it more closely resembles classic rock than contemporary rock does (at least sometimes).

I'm glad you liked my hub, and it's nice to see you back. Take care and have a good weekend.

Mike


epigramman profile image

epigramman 6 years ago

..well I love country music - especially country and western music - so you have done me a great service here by another labor of love and a well-researched hub - I say bravo - and as a surprise to you I have arranged all three of the Dixie Chicks to end up in your bed tonight.

Rock on brother - whoops sorry I should have said that in your Moody Blues hub - another great one - like my favorite song of theirs - Isn't Life strange!


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 6 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Epigramman, thanks for reading. All three of the Dixie Chicks? That is quite the generous offer, and I should get busy picking up around the house before they arrive.

I appreciate your taking the time to read my work, and hope you will continue to stop by. Thanks again.

Mike


Bizziebee profile image

Bizziebee 5 years ago from La La land, California

Love your country song story pics, I love them all!!


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 5 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Bizziebee, thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you enjoyed the article and songs. Take care.

Mike


ruffridyer 5 years ago from Dayton, ohio

When I read the title, Ode to billy joe, was the first song that came to me. I always figured the girl had a close tie to billy however it didn't occur to me a baby was dropped off the bridge. Unless she was really overweight someone would have noticed she was pregnant. By the way, have you seen the movie with robby benson as billy joe.

I never took A Boy named sue serious, After he grew up he could call himself robert. Besides the Gambler Kenny Rogers had a great story with Coward of the County. That was made into a T.V. movie too. My favorite C&W ballad is Jed Strunks Daisy a Day. It was my wifes favorate, When she died 3 yrs ago I recited it at her funeral. A great hub.


Randy Harper 5 years ago

One song I did not see in the article or any of the comments is The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia originally recorded by Vicky Lawrence and recut by Reba. Great lyrics and production, especially Reba's version.


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 5 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

ruffridyer, thanks for stopping by. You really know your country songs well, and any of the ones you mentioned could have been included in this list.

I remember the movie with Robby Benson as Billy Joe, but only vaguely. I think I watched it on late night television once, but have very few memories of it. It is a tribute to the strength of these songs that their stories can become movies.

Thanks again for your insights.

Mike


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 5 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Hi, Randy. The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia is a great song, and admittedly one I overlooked while writing this article. If I ever wrote a second article, it would certainly make the list. thanks for your comments.

Mike


KF Raizor profile image

KF Raizor 4 years ago

My favorite story songs are "Della and the Dealer" by Hoyt Axton, "Broken Engagement" and "Knoxville Girl" by the Louvin Brothers, and "Coat of Many Colors" by Dolly Parton.

Thanks for the story song Hub!


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 4 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

KF Raizor, thanks for stopping by. The songs you listed here are all great, and I enjoy them, too. There is such a wealth of material to choose from, it was difficult to pick a few songs for this article. I could write this several times with complete different songs.

Thanks again.

Mike


Vista15 profile image

Vista15 3 years ago from Columbus, OH

You apparently never saw the movie, Ode To Billy Joe. They did NOT have a baby they threw over the bridge. It was a rag doll, they had transferred Billy Joe's shame to, but it wasn't enough. Billy Joe McAllister jumped off the Tallahache Bridge because he was raped by they men he worked with and he could not accept the fact.


Mike Lickteig profile image

Mike Lickteig 3 years ago from Lawrence KS USA Author

Vista, thanks for your comments. My piece here explored the mysteries and legends of this country song--not the movie. I did in fact see this picture, filmed almost a decade after the song was made. When the screenplay was written, Bobbie Gentry admitted she had nothing in mind as to why Billie Joe committed suicide when her song was written, giving the writer the freedom to select any rationale he saw fit. The story made for the movie was based on the song--it was not a literal retelling of it, and the movie's interpretation is no more or less valid than any other conjecture about the song. In fact, even the difference in the spelling of the name (Billie Joe in the song, Billy Joe in the movie) suggested a retelling of sorts and there is no reason to accept the movie as an official telling of the tale, even though it was a good one.

Thanks for your interest and your comments.

Mike

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