Country Lyrics as Poetry

While I know very little about country music in general, in the specific I love the music of Tom. T. Hall. Tom T. Who? OK, mebbe before your time. He was born in Kentucky in 1936. You would know he was from Kentucky just from the bluegrass you can hear in many of his songs.

Tom T. Hall is a songwriter, as well as a performer, and it is really through his songwriting that he’s known as “The Storyteller.” I love music that tells stories (probably why I love Broadway musicals), and all his songs sound like flash memoir set to guitar (banjo, etc.).  I tend to think of him as “The Poet” because his lyrics are poems.

Factoid: His most well-known song Hall didn’t record himself: “Harper Valley PTA,” which was recorded by Jeannie C. Riley in 1968. The song was a #1 hit and won a Grammy and a CMA award.

The other day I was driving the Gardener’s car. He had an old Tom T. Hall CD of mine in the CD player. (Yes, he uses a CD player and a flip phone). As I listened to the song “Country Is,” I thought some of the sentiments seemed familiar to those I discovered while writing Kin Types.

Watch for the oppositional images, the paradoxes, but the whole thing isn’t framed that way.

Country is sitting on the back porch
Listen to the whippoorwills late in the day
Country is minding your business
Helping a stranger if he comes your way

Country is living in the city
Knowing your people, knowing your kind
Country is what you make it
Country is all in your mind

Country is working for a living
Thinking your own thoughts, loving your town
Country is teaching your children
Find out what’s right and stand your ground

Country is a having the good times
Listen to the music, singing your part
Country is walking in the moonlight
Country is all in your heart

First, he sets us on the back porch in a peaceful scene that feels inviting. You don’t have to be “country” to enjoy hearing the “whippoorwills late in the day.”

Then he sings:

Country is minding your business
Helping a stranger if he comes your way

That is a paradox. You mind your beeswax, which sounds isolationist. But you also help someone in need who crosses your path. Wow, does that ever sound like these lines from the first poem of Kin Types, “Advice from My Forebears.”

If they come to your door, feed them. Then send

them on their way.

That comes from the philosophy of my mother’s Dutch family. You don’t get embroiled in other people’s business, but you do help them when they come to you–then send them back to their own business.

That second stanza tells us what the song is about. Because country is a mental state, it’s what we make of it. It’s up to us. We can be country and live in the city where we meet and interact with diverse people everywhere we go. But we also need to “know” our own kind. That really came home to me as I worked on the poems of Kin Types. As a kid, I really didn’t appreciate my family. I saw what I thought was lacking or limited in them, even listened to stereotypes, but didn’t try to imagine what it was like to be my parents or their parents or grandparents. To know myself I had to learn to understand my family. Now I feel I know my kin and kind. I don’t always like them, but I understand and love them. I think it’s important to look at the line this way because otherwise we might jump to the conclusion that knowing our own kind means associating only with your kind. But it doesn’t.

The first half of the third stanza is more paradox, although it doesn’t appear so on the surface. People who are country work for a living. They aren’t independently wealthy (and if they were they would still live off what they make by working). And someone who is country might be employed by a big company or a boss who tries to impose a will on the workers. But if you’re country you keep your opinions! From there on the stanza respects loving one’s own town (which reminded me of my blog The Family Kalamazoo and how Kin Types arose from that setting) and the honor in “finding out what’s right,” which I love. It’s FINDING OUT, not KNOWING what’s right (sorry for shouting–I couldn’t help it). It’s keeping a questioning open mind and having the courage to stick up for what you have learned is right. These are traits I discovered in my own relatives by researching their stories.

The last stanza is sentimentalized and brings the listener to the song of the moment. We better be singing our part. Finally, that last line takes the earlier line, “Country is all in your mind,” and now adds that it is also in your heart. We have become “country” through our minds and our hearts.


I couldn’t help but think of the Vegas victims and survivors while listening to this song and others by Tom T. Hall. My heart is with them.

My son and “new daughter” love country music and attended the concert in Huntington Beach the weekend before the terror in Vegas. I thought to myself, “They so easily could have been there.”  Although I don’t go to concerts and couldn’t name most of the current country performers, I feel as if I could have so easily been there. After all, we’re all a little bit country.


And now for the weekly Perry update:

Perry and Kana


Filed under #AmWriting, Art and Music, Essay, Inspiration, Kin Types, Nonfiction, Poetry, Writing

64 responses to “Country Lyrics as Poetry

  1. You deconstructed that song beautifully Luanne. I think it is probably a much needed global aspect of human relations, not just country folk, not just American. And cats in boxes <3 😀

    • Pauline, thank you so much. What a great perspective! And, yes, nothing better than cats in boxes ;)! How is your art coming along? No blogging lately or did I miss posts? xo

      • You have missed nothing Luanne! Two months since my last post – apparently I am ‘on a break’ 🙂 I am being extraordinarily sanguine in my creative endeavours and have about ten projects scattered about the place in various stages of undress. Currently I’m on a mission to get something – anything – completed. Wish me luck!

  2. I loved this, Luanne! I’m not a big fan of country music either, but I do like how the songs always tell a story…some are quite sad.
    Well, the Gardener and I must be related. I still have a flip phone and I listen to CD. 🙂 Great photos of the cats! <3

    • You two are definitely related! You’re right about some of them being so sad. I like the happier ones, generally, or the unusual stories like Harper Valley PTA or Ode to Billie Joe.

  3. Terrific post, Luanne. It makes me think I should take another listen to country music. Great kitty photos. My Chapman is a big fan of boxes, like your guys. His favorite beds (never mind that he has deluxe cat beds here and there) are long, low rectangular boxes.

    • Thank you, Elaine. I don’t really know much about contemporary country, but when I like something, I like it ;)! Ah, dear Mr. Chapman. He’s such a gentleman, saving the deluxe cat beds from wear and tear so that they always look pretty! I like to think he would get along good with my guys.

  4. One of my faves! Excellent post, I love it. He is a nice man and I can’t think of any song of his that I don’t enjoy.

  5. The best thing about country music – any music really – is the story told but not all songwriting is as good as Tom T. Hall’s that’s for sure. A country classic to be sure. As always, you bring a sharp eye to looking at this song and linking it to your own poetry and its universality. You’re a classic too, Luanne!

    • Back atcha, Susanne. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. How is your writing coming along? Have you been able to spend the time you want on it?

  6. “To know myself I had to learn to understand my family.”—That’s so true, isn’t it? We’re a product of genes AND environment, and both of those come from our families.

    Love the cute cat pic! If only boxes could make the rest of us so happy. 😁

    • Hahaha, I think I might like a box if it were big enough and had wine in it. Nobody could bother me in there ;)! Felix has to hide in the kitchen sink to get any rest from Perry who constantly wants to chase him. I think the sink operates like a box for him!
      Re the understanding family, yes yes yes. I really didn’t until I started writing about them in earnest. That made me think more and imagine and research.

  7. Johnny Cash immediately comes to mind. Such an amazing poet!

  8. A wonderful analysis of a lovely song that is new to me. I, too, am a fan of Johnny Cash, and thought Joaquin Phoenix and Reese Witherspoon quite amazing in Walk the Line

  9. I appreciate what you have written here. Country seems to be about surviving. Now I need to go listen to T. T. H.

  10. I’m not really a country music fan either, but I agree about your deconstruction and cats in boxes! 🙂
    When we get a package we always leave the box in the dining room for a bit for the cats to play with.

  11. This reminds me of one of my favorite folk/country songwriters Nanci Griffith. she is at her best when writing and singing about family and the little moments in life that define us. one favorite is Love at the Five and Dime.

    Loved your analysis.

  12. I remember Tom T Hall. He was one of my parent’s favorites. They listened to him often, which meant, I listened to him often 🙂

    • I think my son loves squirrels so much today from listening to Hall’s “I Love.” he has those lines “I love leaves in the wind, pictures of my friends / Birds of the world and squirrels.” And the way he sings “squirrels” is charming ;)!

  13. I love songs that tell a story! So much more interesting than wailing about bad luck.

  14. This is wonderful post about the relationship between poesy and this particular song. Thanks, Luanne! – and I love that the photo you posted on Perry’s update is in black-and-white!

  15. Luanne, I like the roots of country in love, family, nature and simple gifts.
    I love Perry coming more and more out of his shell. 💕 Kana is beautiful. 🎀
    This will sound so “wrong,” but when it happened we were on road trips down south heading to grandparents in Clearwater, FL.
    My Dad growing up in Cincinnati made fun of the old country songs singing his own version, “My wife left me, my son went off to war and my dog got run over by a truck.” This usually had twang and a bit of swagger while we giggled because it could keep on listing disasters one after another. “A bookcase fell down and scared my bird who flew out of the window. . .”
    My Dad loved Roger Miller’s “King of the Road.”🎵 “Trailer for sale or rent, rooms for fifty cents.. . .” Also, Johnny Cash!! He liked “A Boy Named Sue,” “Ring of Fire” and was moved to tears with, “What is Truth?”
    Our family went to see the Joaquin Phoenix movie with Reese Witherspoon in “Walk the Line.” We wished Dad could have been there. . .
    My very favorite “country” song I shared with my Mom when it came out awhile back. She cried during the video with Andy Griffith first sitting on a bench, later getting dressed all in white and Brad Paisley singing, “Waiting on a Woman.” Be prepared to cry, I think of my Dad waiting on my Mom (and sob. 😢) . . .
    On a positive note, going to order “Kin Types!!” Yay! I got a 104 work hours (argghh!) in two weeks’ paycheck and ordered a couple different (late) Fall reading. xo 💖

    • Yay, I hope you enjoy Kin Types, Robin! OK, I will find that song. Walk the Line was a wonderful movie. It brought to life a story that was really before our time and yet I know it affected my life when I was a kid because of Cash’s music. So funny about your dad! He had a great sense of humor!!!! xo

      • Thanks for seeing the humor in my Dad. So glad you will see if any of these songs are special to you. . . I do think Andy Griffith was like a second Grandfather in my feelings towards his character in Mayberry and in his Lawyer role, too. When he is telling the young man, through the song, about patience, this rings true in my mind. One parent or another may be the one which needs a dose of this. My Dad read the Sunday funnies to us, while waiting on my Mom for church. When she would come down the stairs (I have written this before. . .) He would look up and his glowing face would look at her and say, “And that’s why I don’t mind reading the comics!” 😊

        • What a beautiful story, Robin. It brought tears to my eyes! xo

          • I have these memories which are so fresh, I can get teary eyed too. When Dad got cancer, it only lasted four months. We did some wild things, roller coaster rides, going to Detroit to see the Indians play ball, and in the quieter moments I would come in to lie down with him for his naps. One time I asked, “Why did you set me up to believe men would become another half of my whole?” He said it was “their” loss, but try to “not expect as much since not everyone will know how to give of themselves.”

            You see, he never had an example, his Dad wasn’t home. He was in a Veteran’s hospital (PTSD, grand mal seizures) in Cincinnati.
            So, he said he used his “own ideas of what he most wished to have had as a father.” It kind of does make it hard to find someone when you have a father and two brothers who fill up so much of my heart. . . . Thank you for “listening” and it really makes me feel good. xo ❤

            • Aw, what an amazing father you have had, Robin. That is too bad about your grandfather. Were the seizures caused by the PTSD? What war was he in? I love that you got to spend so much time with your father when he had cancer. What a wonderful time he must have had in the midst of the bad time. I hope you know what i mean! xoxo

    • What a pretty song! So funny, though, at MY house I am always the one waiting ;).

      • Awww, this is so sweet for you to share this, Luanne. Each family has someone who takes longer to get ready or “dawdles.” I may be a guilty party to this “bad” behavior. 😏

  16. I love this Luanne – I loved your explanation of the song and how you related it to Kin Types.

  17. I’ve only just found your blog and already enamored. I was quickly inspired and LOVE that you have cats. Thank you for your words!

  18. “I like beer.” Well done.

  19. Thanks for a lovely post. The lyrics to Tom’s song are beautiful poetry. No wonder you call him a poet. Best to you, Luanne.

  20. OMG, I haven’t heard of Tom T Hall and the harper valley PTA song in quite a long time. My prayers are with the victims of Vegas shooting too. Perry and Kana look like they might want to get in those boxes.

  21. What a thoughtful and interesting essay! So true. I enjoyed reading it.

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