The Triumph of Tears: Country Music’s Liquid Core

“I am 20 years old. I am having a baby in a few days. The song ‘One More Day’ is my song for her. I am unable to keep my daughter. The song makes me cry every time I hear it. … Thank you for giving me a song that I can listen to and think of her.”

If you think country music has lost its power, you ought to read more fan letters and fewer professional reviews. The letter quoted above is one of nearly a dozen Arista Records reprinted in a brochure it distributed to solicit Country Music Association award votes for Diamond Rio and “One More Day,” the group’s hit from earlier this year.

While the brochure’s aim is strictly business, it also reminds us that country music is the only form of popular music that considers sentimentality a virtue rather than an artistic defect. At its best, country music doesn’t simply invite us to witness personal calamity, it insists we weep along with the victims.

“Seven years ago,” says another letter, “our son died in an auto accident on the way to school. He was 15 years old. There have been countless times that I have wished for ‘One More Day.’ Thanks for helping me express my grief.”

When they are in a sentimental mode, country songwriters create situations that are more dramatic, circumstances that are more bleak, victims who are more vulnerable and outcomes that are more devastating than those we normally experience in real life. But these are the very elements that make the music so emotionally cathartic, particularly when the artist conveys the feelings with sympathy and conviction.

Besides the wistful “One More Day,” the other sentimental pieces in first-round contention for the CMA song of the year award are “Grown Men Don’t Cry,” “I’m Already There,” “The Chain of Love” and “The Little Girl.” Custom has been kind to such songs. Earlier CMA award winners include the lachrymose “Country Bumpkin,” “Back Home Again,” “Lucille,” “Chiseled in Stone,” “Where’ve You Been,” “Go Rest High on That Mountain,” “Holes in the Floor of Heaven” and that wettest of all weepers, “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” which twice won the prize.

Other songs of similar hue demonstrated their fan appeal by going No. 1. Among these are “Big Bad John,” “Sing Me Back Home,” “No Charge,” “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold),” “Love, Me,” “Life Turned Her That Way” and “What Mattered Most.”

Sentimental music doesn’t provide us the emotional distance or shadings of character to encourage a proportionate response to adversity. Instead, it pushes our face into it, and we can either cry along with the crowd or retreat to the small comforts of cynicism.

Since songwriters control what they write, we know that “Big Bad John” doesn’t have to die in the mine; that the “Little Girl” doesn’t have to see her parents killed; that the old couple in “Where’ve You Been” doesn’t have to disintegrate before our eyes; and that the spurned suitor in “He Stopped Loving Her Today” doesn’t have to be made so obsessive that he dies of a broken heart. What would activate the best part of our humanity, though, if these characters weren’t pushed to such extremes?

Now that the record industry has perfected its airplay and sales charts, maybe it should create a “Heart Chart” to track the songs that really make a difference.