Four Country Songs That Tell a Story
The sources of country music
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’s “Harper 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.
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A Boy Named Sue
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 (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
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?
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