It’s fitting that “Riding With Private Malone,” country music’s latest “ghost song,” is creeping up the chart during America’s scariest holiday season. In deference to the three or four people who have yet to hear the David Ball single, we’ll keep the surprise ending secret. But, trust us, it does involve a ghost — and a very muscular one at that.
Country music oozes with stories of miraculous appearances. Mind you, we’re not talking about songs like Tim McGraw ’s “Everywhere” or Doug Stone ’s “I Thought It Was You,” in which a heartbroken guy thinks he glimpses his former — but still very alive — lover every time he turns the corner. No, we’re referring to certifiably dead people who have a penchant for making encores.
Take, for example, the ancient Jimmie Rodgers morality tale, “Mother, the Queen of My Heart.” This is the story of a boy and his mom who once led an idyllic life in Texas, “down where the bluebonnets grew.” On her deathbed, the mother calls the lad to her side and admonishes, “Son, don’t start drinkin’ and gamblin’/Promise you’ll always go straight.” He promises and then, as Texas boys will, launches immediately into a life of debauchery. Ten years later, he’s down to his last dime in a draw poker game. But luck is with him. He has a great hand. All he needs to fill it is a queen. When he’s dealt his card, he turns it over, and there’s a picture of his mother. This turns out to be the very sign he needs to quit his rowdy ways. “My winnings I gave to a newsboy/I knew I was wrong from the start/And I’ll never forget my promise/To my mother, the queen of my heart.”
Some country music ghosts are hitchhikers, and some are the drivers who pick them up. One of the most chilling of these tales is “Bringing Mary Home,” charted in 1965 by the Country Gentlemen. Here, the driver sees a young girl standing by the road “on a dark and stormy night.” He stops and she gets into the back seat and says, “My name is Mary/Please won’t you take me home.” He drives on to the house to which she’s directed him, but when he turns to let her out she is gone. A woman comes out and explains it all: “Thirteen years ago tonight in a wreck just down the road/Our darling Mary lost her life and we miss her so/Thank you for your trouble and the kindness you have shown/You’re the thirteenth one who’s been here bringing Mary home.
In Red Sovine ’s “Phantom 309” (1967, 1975), it’s also dark and raining when a hitchhiker flags down a trucker at a lonely crossroad. The truck driver introduces himself as “Big Joe” and says he calls his rig “Phantom 309.” A few hours later, he drops his grateful passenger at a truck stop and tosses him a dime for a cup of coffee. The hitchhiker goes inside and announces that he’s having a cup on Big Joe. The room turns quiet. Finally, someone explains that Big Joe died 10 years ago when he crashed his truck to avoid hitting a school bus that had stalled at the very crossroad where Joe picked the hitchhiker up.
There’s another phantom at the wheel in David Allan Coe ’s “The Ride” (1983). In this saga, a guitar picker is thumbing from Montgomery to Nashville when a “half-drunk and hollow-eyed” man in an “antique Cadillac” stops to offer him a ride. The man is dressed “like 1950,” and the car radio is playing “solid country gold.” Raise your hand if you’ve got this one figured out. Bingo! It’s the mournful shade of Hank Williams , who imparts to his bedazzled passenger this bit of wisdom: “If you’re big-star bound, let me tell you it’s a long, hard ride.”
Restless Hank surfaces again in Alan Jackson ’s “Midnight in Montgomery” (1992). As Jackson relates it, he is “on [his] way to Mobile for a big New Year’s Eve show” when he stops his Silver Eagle at Williams’ grave in Montgomery. As he stands there, he says, “a drunk man in a cowboy hat took me by surprise/ … He said, ‘Friend it’s good to see you, it’s nice to know you care’/Then the wind picked up, and he was gone, or was he ever really there?” The faithful will recall that Hank was also on his way to “a big New Year’s Eve show” when he died in the back of his Cadillac.
Garth Brooks has sung often of the irresistible lure of the rodeo, beginning with his first single, “Much Too Young to Feel This Damn Old.” But in “The Beaches of Cheyenne,” he elevates the topic to a mythic level. In the story, a bullrider leaves his lover in California to compete in Cheyenne. He draws “a bull no man could ride” and promises he’ll withdraw from the competition. But he doesn’t and is killed. The woman goes crazy, the song says, and runs into the ocean. The authorities never find her body, “just her diary by her bed.” The diary reveals that, in her anger, the woman has told her rodeo-obsessed lover, ” … I don’t give a damn/If you never come back from Cheyenne.” Since ghosts are the residue of great passion, the spirit of the aggrieved and guilt-ridden lady lingers: ” … if you go down by the water/You’ll see her footprints in the sand/’Cause every night she walks the beaches of Cheyenne.”
John Michael Montgomery ’s “The Little Girl” (2000) fits into the ghost-song category as well. In it the little girl who’s never been to church declares that Jesus was at her side — physically, not metaphorically — on the night she witnessed her father kill her mother and then himself.
“The Highwayman,” the 1985 hit for Willie Nelson , Johnny Cash , Waylon Jennings and Kris Kristofferson , is all about reincarnation, with a highway robber, a sailor and a dam-builder meeting violent deaths only to return “again and again and again.”
Fortunately, these country spirits are generally benign. If they do not always do good, at least they do no evil. So who knows? Maybe the ghost of the early ‘90s will pop up one day and everybody will love country music again. And again. And again.