(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo)
Oh death, where is thy sting … and where is thy royalty rate? It’s remarkable that one of the very qualities country music was not so long ago criticized for — its reliance on death as a song topic — has returned as a song staple.
It’s not surprising. Whenever country music doesn’t veer off into its periodic cycles of trying to transform itself into pop music, the verities and mysteries of life and death have always been country music’s bedrocks. Why listen to country music that’s pretending to be light pop when you can get the eternal themes of life and death, passion and love, violence and tenderness, all wrapped up in a catchy three-minute song?
In country music’s history, death songs are mileposts. The genre-defining “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” begins with the singer watching the hearse come rolling up to fetch his mother’s lifeless body. George Jones’ great “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is eloquent in its evocation of death’s spell. Death has long been a handmaiden to country music’s success. Speaking about country music’s sincerity, Hank Williams said, “When a hillbilly sings a crazy song, he feels crazy. When he sings ‘I Laid My Mother Away,’ he sees her a-laying right there in the coffin.” Williams penned his own epitaph to his short life. When he died at age 29 in 1953, his new single release was “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive.”
In listening to current releases, death is again spreading across the country spectrum. George Strait’s new “You’ll Be There” is the fastest-starting single of his long career, debuting at No. 30 in Billboard. And the song, written by Cory Mayo, is an involved spiritual journey, beginning with “Hope is an anchor and love is a ship/Time is the ocean and life is a trip” and traversing on through the journey to a place where the “streets are gold.” Why? Because “you’ll be there.” Unexpectedly for Strait, we hear a heavenly choir and ethereal strings bolstering the inspirational message. And we’re treated to the sort of spare, laconic line we’ve come to expect from a Strait song: “I ain’t never seen a hearse with a luggage rack.”
Rebecca Lynn Howard’s current ode to a dead mother, “No One’ll Ever Love Me” (written by Christi Baker, Shari Baker and Kelly Shiver), finds the narrator singing to her late mother, lamenting that she can’t “say this to your face/Instead of talkin’ to your name carved in stone” — recalling perhaps the greatest country death song ever, Vern Gosdin’s “Chiseled in Stone.”
LeAnn Rimes’ “Probably Wouldn’t Be This Way” (written by Tami Lynn Kidd and John Davis Kennedy) also finds the narrator singing to a tombstone. In this case, she is addressing her late betrothed, telling him “You oughta see the way these people look at me/When they see me ’round here talking to this stone.”
Trace Adkins’ poignant “Arlington” is a tale told from the viewpoint of a dead soldier speaking from his grave at Arlington National Cemetery. The song was inspired by the death of Marine Cpl. Patrick Nixon, the first soldier from Tennessee killed in the war in Iraq. It was written by songwriters Dave Turnbull and Jeremy Spillman after meeting and getting to know Nixon’s father. Adkins told CMT.com the song was not intended in a patriotic vein, saying, “It’s just simply paying tribute and homage and respect to the people who gave that last full measure.” Indeed, the soldier, speaking from the grave, says he is grateful that “I can rest in peace/I’m one of the chosen ones/I made it to Arlington.”
Darryl Worley’s current single “If Something Should Happen” (also written by Dave Turnbull along with Jim Brown and Dan Demay) finds the narrator speculating on his possible impending death. He’s asking his closest buddy to watch out for his family if he doesn’t survive his cancer surgery. Similarly, Andy Griggs’ “If Heaven” (written by Gretchen Peters) features the narrator, seemingly at death’s door, singing a reassurance to his beloved that if heaven is what he imagines it to be, then “I ain’t afraid to die.”
Suicide, long a popular country topic, has returned in the form of Blaine Larsen’s “How Do You Get that Lonely” (written by Jamie Teachenor and Rory Lee Feek). A morose tale of teen suicide sung by an actual teenager, it has attracted a younger crowd of listeners.
Obviously, such songs tap into a common shared emotion. Whether they mark a return to country music’s traditional preoccupation with tragedy and death and sorrow remains to be seen.
Life expectancy used to be much shorter and illnesses claimed many victims at relatively young ages. Industrial accidents and coal mining accidents claimed many lives and inspired many country songs. Car wreck songs (like Roy Acuff’s version of the gory “The Wreck on the Highway”) replaced romantic death songs for a while when car wrecks seemed to be an alarming new threat to life and limb. These days, cars are safer, the workplace is relatively accident-free, and medical treatment has evolved to the point that people expect to live long lives.
People’s emotional life spans and durability, though, may have not have adjusted accordingly and may have become shorter than physical life spans. In times of duress, people tend to look to enduring, realistic themes. Especially in their music.