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Nashville Scene Rhyme and Reason

A shopper's comparison of country songs

By Michael McCall

Despite recent evidence to the contrary, country remains the musical genre that most depends on the virtues of classic American songwriting. When all goes well, the lyrics of country songs build upon stories, sentiment, and clever wordplay, and the arrangements rely on melody, harmony, and structural repetition. But, as radio reminds us every day, these traits are just as likely to be trashed as treasured in the current rush to create something catchy and sterile.

With Fan Fair upon us, it seems like an opportune time to survey the current state of Nashville songwriting. Here's one fan's view of what's right and what's wrong with country music in 1997:

On the dance-song front, Lee Roy Parnell has released a number of impressive, up-tempo songs that manage to be wise as well as wild-eyed. "Every Night's a Saturday Night," the title song of his fourth album, compels listeners to move without insulting their intelligence. As is often the case in Parnell's songs, the rhythms swing rather than pound, and the singer combines an energetic groove with an engaging story line. Written by Gary Nicholson and Glen Clark, the song tells of how a new love has affected one man's life--even his coworkers and friends pick up on the new bounce in his step and the new smile on his face. The music is similarly joyous, especially in the way Parnell's deep-toned guitar work plays off the rollicking, barrelhouse fun of the piano.

Less successful is Lee Ann Womack's "Buckaroo." Written by Mark Sanders and Ed Hill, the song tells an overly familiar story about a woman who yearns for a real-life cowboy. "I ain't lookin' for a smart guy, school guy," the song begins--a good indication that this isn't going to be the most intelligent set of lyrics. Before long, the singer admits she's hunting "for a man who can tame a wild mustang"; the line is rhymed awkwardly with "lusting," which Womack enunciates as "lust-ang." Bad rhymes aside, does anyone believe a woman would walk up to a cowboy in a bar and proposition the stranger by calling him "buckaroo"? Womack is a talented singer, but she shouldn't let a couple of guys get away with representing what they think is a wild woman's point of view.

Now, on to songs about how adults deal with difficult turns in relationships. Complete with deliberately smooth, lush arrangements, Victoria Shaw's second album contains some of the slickest contemporary adult songs in current country music. But on the touching ballad "In Spite of It All," Shaw proves that slick doesn't have to mean shallow. With carefully edited words that evoke gentle emotions, the song--which the singer wrote with Tim James and Steven McClintock--tells of a woman's complex reaction to the sudden ending of a relationship that she would have preferred continue. At first, her heart "split in two," but she continues with her life one day at a time, eventually finding that she can once again love and trust, in spite of all that has happened.

Wise and wild-eyed Lee Roy Parnell:He can play a good, danceable country song without insulting his listeners' intelligence
On the other hand, the guys in Lonestar don't pull off the sensitive bit very well. "A Week in Juarez," written by Jim McBride, Sam Hogin, and Mark Sanders, begins with two young lovers from Texas running off in the heat of passion to Juarez, Mexico, where they elope. This kind of hastened romance does happen in real life, of course. So does the part about the couple winding up on the verge of divorce after the guy loses his job and the bills begin piling up. But then the song drifts off into a romantic fairy-tale land that exists only in country songs. With a cheesy, Mexican-lite arrangement tinkling in the background, Lonestar depicts the defeated young couple heading to see a lawyer, then, during the drive, suddenly rediscovering the love they have for each other; they end up making a break for the border to spend another week in Juarez. Yeah, sure--they're breaking up because of debt and joblessness, so to make it all better they take a spur-of-the-moment vacation in Mexico.

The songwriting in so-called "alternative country" circles tends to be much freer than the strict formulas followed by the briefcase professionals on Music Row. This freedom is perfectly illustrated by the rhymes of Rhett Miller, singer of the Old 97s, who puts his wordplay to good use on the band's outstanding new album, Too Far to Care.

In "The House That Used to Be," one of the album's more conventionally structured songs, Miller uses a brilliant rhyme sequence, though it's not the sort of thing you're likely to hear in a Top 10 country song. Lining up the song in a series of brief couplets, and displaying a brevity that Harlan Howard would admire, Miller unfolds a heartbreaking story in a rush of unusual rhymes: graveyard/scorecard, corn silk/spilt milk, Quaalude/cork-screwed, cold feet/side street, spit curl/showgirl, scarecrow/talk show. The rhymes alone suggest how colorfully detailed this tale is, yet all the cleverness culminates in an emotionally resonant climax. At the song's end, after rhyming "freight trains" and "Great Danes" to suggest the lonesome sounds of steam whistles and animal howls, Miller draws out the final line, "I hear the girl I lost forever," repeating it a second time for effect.

Contrast this with Clay Walker's new radio hit, "One, Two, I Love You," which, with all due respect to Mother Goose, confirms that country songwriting has slipped to the level of nursery rhymes. Written by Bucky Jones and Ed Hill, the song traces a couple who fell in love during kindergarten (hmmm....) while reciting "one, two, buckle my shoe." The second stanza skips to their separation during college, when the chorus shifts to, "One, two, I love you. Three, four, walk the floor. Five, six, come back quick, I don't want to miss you no more." By this point, though, bad grammar is the least of the song's problems. The final stanza wraps up with the married couple looking at their two kids swaying on a backyard swing before repeating, rather perversely, "One, two, I love you. Three, four, let's shut the door. Five, six, kiss after kiss...." It doesn't help that Walker sings it all with a blank sincerity that only reinforces the ridiculous premise of the lyrics.

Country music is at a crossroads these days. One route heads further into obscurity, and it's traveled by pros caught up in creating empty, unrealistic plots that they think are crafty and cute. The other route heads straight into the American consciousness; it's lined with believable stories that find fresh ways to talk about how people deal with real-life situations. For better or worse, Music Row controls the traffic flow at the moment. It's up to the powers-that-be to decide which direction gets the green light.

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