Heartaches (and Headaches) by the Numbers

Country Music's Passion for Multiplying, Dividing and Subtracting Emotions

From Hank Williams‘ “Half as Much” to David Frizzell’s “A Million Light Beers Ago,” country music is saturated with songs that use numbers to signify the scarcity, abundance or perseverance of strong emotions.

A list of all these songs would extend from here to “The Twelfth of Never” (yes, there were two country troubadours — Slim Whitman and David Houston — who charted covers of this 1957 Johnny Mathis pop hit). So instead of attempting completeness, let me just run down a few examples of this genre that rattle through my mind 24/7.

“One in a Row,” Willie Nelson
Writer: Willie Nelson
No. 19 in 1966

Here Nelson is plagued by a notoriously inconstant lover, to whom he bitterly complains, “If you can truthfully say/That you’ve been true just one day/Well, that makes one in a row.” Also check out Diamond Rio‘s inconsolably mournful “One More Day.” Written by Steven Jones and Bobby Tomberlin, it reached No. 1 in 2001.

“Two Divided by Love,” the Kendalls
Writers: Marty Kupps, Dennis Lambert, Brian Potter
No. 53 in 1972

Originally a 1971 pop hit for Grass Roots, this lament advises us, “Two divided by love can only be one/And one is a lonely number.” Four years after releasing their version, this father-and-daughter duo blew the doors off country music with “Heaven’s Just a Sin Away,” which topped the charts for four weeks. Also check out Emmylou Harris‘ make-the-best-of it “Two More Bottles of Wine.” Her recording of the Delbert McClinton song topped the chart in 1978.

“Three Days,” Faron Young
Writers: Faron Young, Willie Nelson
No. 7 in 1962

There’s not a lot of hope in this one: “Three days that I dread to see arrive/Three days that I hate to be alive/Three days filled with tears and sorrow/Yesterday, today and tomorrow.” Also check out the faux folk fable, “Three Wooden Crosses.” Doug Johnson and Kim Williams wrote Randy Travis‘ hit that reached No. 1 in 2003.

“Four Walls,” Jim Reeves
Writers: George Campbell, Marvin Moore
No. 1 for eight weeks in 1957

With his baby out honky-tonking, the lovelorn lad in this song faces the claustrophobia of being home alone and thinking, “Four walls to hear me/Four walls to see/Four walls too near me/Closing in on me.” Also check out Faron Young’s regretful “It’s Four in the Morning,” a Jerry Chesnut composition that spent two weeks at No. 1 in 1972.

“Five Minutes,” Lorrie Morgan
Writer: Beth Nielsen Chapman
No. 1 in 1990

Morgan has had enough in her first No. 1 single. She’s got her suitcase packed and is waiting for a taxi. So when her neglectful bozo walks in, she blasts him with, “Lately you’ve forgotten what loving me’s about/Well, now you’ve got five minutes to figure it out.” Tick. Tick. Tick.

“Six Days on the Road,” Dave Dudley
Writers: Earl Green, Carl Montgomery
No. 2 for two weeks in 1963

This is the supreme trucker’s song. It combines all the classic elements of loneliness, highway hazards, pride of job, the competitive spirit, name-dropping of truck brands and low-grade eroticism. “Six days on the road” it announces, “and I’m gonna make it home tonight.” Steve Earle recorded this song for the soundtrack of the 1987 movie, Planes, Trains and Automobiles. His version went No. 29 in 1988.

“Seven Year Ache,” Rosanne Cash
Writer: Rosanne Cash
No. 1 in 1981

Forgive me for succumbing to the urge to say that a seven-year ache is what you get after six days on the road. I just couldn’t help myself. But, no, it’s really about trying to talk some sense into a mate who’s tempted to graze in fresher pastures. Is that a common problem? Also check out the even more mystifying “Seven Spanish Angels,” recorded by Ray Charles and Willie Nelson and written by Troy Seals, Eddie Setser, It reached No. 1, 1985.

“Eight More Miles to Louisville,” Grandpa Jones
Writer: Grandpa Jones
Never charted

In Grandpa’s day, the roads were narrow and twisted — if they even existed. This fact explains the joy in his voice when he twangs, “Eight more miles to Louisville/The hometown of my heart.”

“Nine Pound Hammer,” Merle Travis, Tennessee Ernie Ford
Public domain
Never charted

This much-performed folk song dwells on the hard life of the working man, a condition Travis examined more closely in his 1955 numbers-oriented hit for Tennessee Ernie, “Sixteen Tons.”

“Ten Rounds With Jose Cuervo,” Tracy Byrd
Writers: Casey Beathard, Marla Cannon, Mike Heeney
No 1 in 2002

Next to penicillin and long conversations with Deepak Chopra, the surest remedy for love gone bad is — as Byrd illustrates here — repeated ingestions of tequila, interspersed by forcing upon strangers convoluted stories about the bitch who did you in. Our motto: Country Music When Medicare Fails.

Bonus

“11 Months and 29 Days,” Johnny Paycheck
Writers: Johnny Paycheck, Billy Sherrill
No. 34 in 1976

More than most country artists who sang about the experience, Paycheck actually knew what it was like to serve time. This one reveals him at his unrepentant best.

I also have an unexamined fondness for Jimmy Martin‘s “Twenty-Twenty Vision (and Walking Around Blind),” Dwight Yoakam‘s “A Thousand Miles From Nowhere,” Kathy Mattea‘s “Eighteen Wheels and a Dozen Roses” and John Conlee‘s “The Backside of Thirty.”

If you have any questions, just call “Lonesome 7-7203.” (Hawkshaw Hawkins took the Justin Tubb composition to No. 1 for four weeks in 1963.)

Or, better yet, call 911 and get me out of this maze.