Tag Archives: country lyrics

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

64 Comments

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