Listen and Weep...to Old School Country
It’s a riddle on par with which came first, the chicken or the egg: do people listen to country music because they’re sad and lonely (misery loves company), or does country music make people sad and lonely (misery breeds company)? I’m talking old-timely, hard-core, hillbilly, pedal-steel guitar twanging here—not the popped-up modern spinoff.
It doesn’t get much sadder than these lyrics from “Hello Darlin’” warbled in 1970 by Conway Twitty, who has just bumped into an old sweetheart:
Nice to see you
It’s been a long time
You’re just as lovely
As you used to be
What’s that Darlin’
How am I doin’
I’m doin’ alright except I can’t sleep
And I cry all night till dawn
The soundtrack of the 1971 film “The Last Picture Show” introduced me to old school country: the likes of Ernest Tubb and his Texas Troubadours, Hank Williams, Sr., and Bob Wills and his Playboys. I was smitten and remain so. The genre had formed a strain feeding into Rock ‘n’ Roll with crossovers by the likes of Johnny Cash and Sonny James, but Hank and the boys (Kitty Wells, too) stayed put.
Here's a typical despondent stanza penned and sung by old Hank, from “I’m so Lonesome I Could Cry:”
Did you ever see a robin weep
When leaves begin to die?
Like me, he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome, I could cry.”
Hank might well be even sadder than Conway, perhaps the saddest of all—no wait, how about this lament by Patsy Cline: “I Cried All the Way to the Altar.” That must have been a fun wedding.
How about Dolly Parton and Porter Wagoner, who harmonized, “If teardrops were pennies and heartaches were gold, I’d have all the riches my pockets could hold.”
I don’t know if country music has made me sadder. I listen to a classic station whenever I’m in the car, playing dirges like “Long Black Veil.” It’s about a guy who goes to the gallows for murder rather than trotting out his airtight alibi: he was in the arms of his best friend’s wife (I would have fessed up). She visits his grave, of course, at night, when the cold winds moan, to cry o’er his bones.
Surprisingly I don’t feel any the worse when I get out of the car. I may feel even better because it is hard to be as dismal as the characters in those songs. Indeed, Patsy Cline crying at the altar made me laugh. And I couldn’t wait for the excruciating lyrics to follow in Junior Brown’s song to an old flame: “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead.”
And I have never cried all night till dawn. Have you?
That said, there clearly is something appealing about reveling in the sorrows we all share. Life is replete with sadness and longing, leavened by sporadic interludes of joy and happiness. But disappointment and grief haunt our futures. Who doesn’t have regrets, lost loves and friendships, mourn the death and sickness of relatives, and ponder the what-might-have-beens. Some of us will leave this vale of tears much sooner than we care to.
Life is simply not fair. And despite our large brains, we humans are not overly rational beings. We can see it in our own small spheres and in the larger world as well. It is hard to be optimistic about the future of our beleaguered planet, given the recent outbreak of atavistic wars and the increasing hostility of nations to one another—not to mention of people within the same nation toward one another. All this sound and fury when there is one looming and overriding challenge that we all share and are largely ignoring. I’ll bet you can guess what it is.
So forlorn old school country ballads may be the least of our worries. Besides, they are aesthetically pleasing. There is no over-orchestrated wall of sound to upstage the lyrics, or the riffs from the steel guitar or the mandolin. The melody absorbs surplus sadness like a sponge. As a bonus, the vintage performers—check out Webb Pierce online—sport the most outrageously colorful, rhinestone-infested outfits this side of a rodeo clown. Their happy haberdashery stands in sharp contrast with their lugubrious lyrics.
Yes, it’s not all gloom and doom in them thar hills. There are ways to deal with life’s slings and arrows. Honky Tonkin’, for one, according to old Hank, who was anything but sad and lonely when he belted out “Settin’ the Woods on Fire:”
Comb your hair and paint and powder
You act proud and I’ll act prouder
You sing loud and I’ll sing louder
Tonight we’re setting the woods on fire
There’s wisdom in country music, too. Listen once more to the late Porter Wagoner. He speaks to today, to our time of bewildering plenty and want:
How many times have you heard someone say
If I had his money I could do things my way
But little they know that it is so hard to find
One rich man in ten with a satisfied mind