From its earliest days, country music has thrived on tales of personal tragedy; spinning them into finely wrought narratives of betrayal, despair and untimely death that never shied away from the gruesome details. The reasons for this preoccupation with the cold hard facts of life are many and varied. Country's roots in 19th century murder ballads, its emergence during the Great Depression, and the fact that it pitched itself to a decidedly adult audience while rock and pop were busy pandering to teenagers, could all be seen as contributing factors.
The end result, in any case, is a truly deep and rich vein of depressing music. And this week on the show, we took our pickaxes to it in search of the mother lode of misery. To help us in this daunting task, we enlisted the services of our good friend and long-time country aficionado, Peter Galvin. Here are some of the gems he unearthed for us:
George Jones - He Stopped Loving Her Today
It's virtually impossible to engage in a discussion of depressing country music without mentioning George Jones. (Indeed, Curtis Edmond, who has compiled one of the web's most extensively "best of" lists of depressing country songs, devotes an entire section to the man!)
And the jewel in the crown of Jones' morose oeuvre is He Stopped Loving Her Today, a song that he initially refused to record because he thought it was "too sad" (or, more accurately according to Pete, too tasteless...)
The song is ostensibly a third-person tale of undying, unrequited love, which starts out as touchingly tragic but quickly veers towards the unhealthily obsessive (Kept some letters by his bed / Dated 1962 / He had underlined in red / Every single I love you)
Then, all of a sudden, the pining vanishes... The narrator visits the song's protagonist and finds him dressed up in his Sunday best and smiling for the first time in years. The reason isn't immediately revealed but as the chorus rides in on a wave of high-fructose Nashville orchestration and Jones tosses out a reference to a "wreath on his door", it all becomes clear - he's dead. (This means that the aforementioned "smile" is actually the result of his cheeks being stapled back by the embalmer!)
As a final twist of the knife, the song ends with the protagonist's beloved visiting his grave and Jones gratuitously observing that: This time he's over her for good.
Never before have the mawkish and the maudlin been combined with such casual brutality... Here's a video of George performing this grim masterwork.
Porter Wagoner - The Cold Hard Facts Of Life
This song is a classic example of the country-fied murder ballad. In its original incarnation, murder ballads served as a kind of pre-mass-media tabloid reportage of notorious slaying. Typically, the slaying would be a "crime of passion" in which a woman who was "guilty" of infidelity or inconvenient pregnancy would be knifed or bludgeoned to death by her lover.
In the country version of the murder ballad, real events have been replaced by fictional scenarios which are often constructed to deliver a moral lesson in the most macabrely sensationalist way possible. (An especially notorious example of this is Ferlin Husky's anti-drink-driving jeremiad, Drunken Driver, in which a man who abandons his kids for the booze runs them down while driving in a state of inebriation.)
In The Cold Hard Facts Of Life, Wagoner takes the murder ballad morality play and twists it into something far more cynical. The song follows a man who's come home early from a business trip. He decides to surprise his wife and stops off at a bottle shop to pick up some champagne. While there, he hears a shady character at the counter boasting about how he's off to "party" with a woman whose husband's out of town on a business trip. After following the guy, the protagonist discovers the "woman" is his wife, catches the two of them "in the act", then knifes them to death. The song concludes with him solemnly declaring: I guess I'll go to hell or I'll rot here in the cell.
The moral?... Well, on a superficial level, there's the glib misogynistic insinuation that women are not to be trusted. But any moral superiority that the "victim" might have gained from this "revelation" is immediatedly annulled by his murderous response; a response that is swiftly punished by a penal life sentence and the prospect of eternal damnation. It's a classic "sin begats sin" scenario but the only person who's left alive to learn anything from it defiantly signs off asserting: but who taught who the cold hard facts of life...
So, the undeserving suffers and the wrongdoers are punished BUT in the process the undeserving becomes a wrongdoer and gets punished by a higher power and, because he was originally undeserving, he clings to his self-justifications and ultimately learns nothing... The only conclusions we can draw from this are that human beings are self-serving, self-justifying, self-destructive and self-deluding. Definitely, the facts of life at their coldest and hardest.
For a mp3 of this track and decent sized scan of the brilliantly cheesy sleeve that the album was released in, follow this link.
Willie Nelson - Little Things
Unlike Jones' magnum opus which wallows in pining passivity and Wagoner's Cold Hard Facts which dwells on the consequences of blind reactive violence, Willie Nelson's Little Things is about a different and far more modern response to rejection/betrayal - passive-aggressive stalking.
The song is basically an extended message to an ex left on an answering machine. He starts off by apologising for intruding on her life and then passes news about their child's progress at school and, because it's delivered by Willie in that vaguely vulnerable, matter-of-fact style of his, we have no reason to expect that it will get any more sinister.
Then, however, he brings up their former neighbours just so he can cattily mention that: they broke up just like us. And it spirals down from there - the house they used to live in has been torned down, that part of town has been razed to build a freeway, AND IT'S ALL YOUR FAULT, YOU BITCH!!!
Well, actually, that last part isn't in there, but its an obvious subtext, and that's what makes it so depressing. It's not so much the content, but the way we get lured in by Willie's trademark genialty then sucker-punched by bitchiness.
Here's a video of Tammy Wynette performing the song with almost unbearable pathos.
The Flying Burrito Brothers - Hot Burrito #1
The final song in the segment was delivered with something of a confession by Pete - this is the song he's listened to after every relationship break up he's had. And it's not hard to see why. Unlike the other three songs on this list, there is no maudlin melodrama here; just a sincere and sorrowful first-person lament for a lost love constructed like an imaginary "conversation" with the missing other half.
We aren't given too many details about the break up, but it's clear that the narrator's ex has quickly moved on to someone else. Rather than use this as an excuse to descend into bitter rancour, the narrator tries to maintain his dignity and shore up his ego by reminding himself that he was her first sexual love.
Just as this starts to dip dangerously close to boastful assertions about "teaching her everything she knows", the chorus arrives with this heartbreaking but carefully underplayed couplet: I'm your toy, I'm your old boy / But I don't want no one but you to love me
At present, the narrator is hopelessly fixated on what he's lost. He knows it, but he also knows that the world keeps turning and one day he will find himself in another relationship. From where he stands though, he is incapable of believing that he could ever move on and reciprocate another's affections...
And that is exactly how one feels in such a situation, and it is that which makes it such a perfect post-breakup song.
The writer of this song was country-rock pioneer Gram Parsons, a man with an unearthly beautiful "crying"quality to his voice; something which is clearly on display in parts of this incredible performance of it. (YouTube link, once again)