Jazz tends to be cool and dispassionate. Rock is impetuous, swaggering and love-addled. Rap is a cannonade of verbal confrontation. And gospel music is message, message, message above all else.
Alone among the formats, country music dares to be sentimental, to bare its emotional vulnerabilities to the world and thereby risk the ridicule and denigration of more sophisticated minds. Tears come with the territory. And the more weeping the better.
Sick kids, crippled kids, dying kids, abandoned mothers, imprisoned fathers, star-crossed lovers, dead dogs — we’ve got ’em all.
Just reflect on this dolorous ditty from 1896 called “In the Baggage Coach Ahead.” It centers on a young man sitting in the passenger coach of a train and holding a crying baby. Pretty soon, the other passengers become annoyed at the noise and call out for him to keep the baby quiet.
Then a lady approaches: “Where is its mother/Go take it to her/This lady then softly said/I wish that I could/Was the man’s sad reply/But she’s dead in the coach ahead.”
Now that’s country.
Prepare to feel a few lumps in your throat as you hear these other woeful tales:
“Old Shep,” Red Foley (1935)
“Old Shep” is a dog lover’s “Amazing Grace.” In it, a boy and his dog romp together through “hills and meadows,” and once Shep saved his master from drowning. Alas, those golden days can’t endure forever. “So the years moved along and at last he grew old/His eyesight was fast growing dim/Then one day the doctor looked at me and said/I can’t do no more for him, Jim/With a hand that was trembling, I picked up my gun/And I aimed it at Shep’s faithful head.” I can’t go on.
“Mommy Please Stay Home With Me,” Eddy Arnold (1944)
“A mother went out on a party/She left at home her baby son/He cried and begged her not to leave him/But she would not give up her fun.” When this song was recorded, it was unseemly to think that mothers might need some relief from incessant child-care. But this mother pays dearly for taking a break. She dances and drinks a little too much and returns home to find her baby “in raging pain and nearing death.” And here’s where it all falls apart: “The doctor came and looked on sadly/The case was hopeless he could see/The baby died, these words repeating/Please, mommy, please stay home with me.”
“Searching for a Soldier’s Grave,” Wade Mainer (1947)
Tens of thousands of American soldiers killed in World War II were buried in foreign fields, and many parents felt driven to seek out the locations of their sons’ graves and go mourn them there. “You ask me, stranger, why I made this journey/Why I crossed three thousand miles of rolling waves/Like many others, my loved one was killed in action/So I’m here, I’m searching for his grave.”
“Give Mother My Crown,” Flatt & Scruggs (1956)
Unlike the mother depicted above, this one is so unrelenting in supporting her children, she virtually works herself to death. “She labored so hard in this world below/She didn’t have things most mothers know/Raising her children on a widow’s small pay/Washing and ironing since dad passed away.” The singer voices the hope that if there’s a reward waiting for him in heaven, it will go instead to his mom. What a good son!
“D-I-V-O-R-C-E,” Tammy Wynette (1968)
The folks who manufacture Kleenex probably doubled their sales the year this weeper came out. Since the boy in the song is a wise 4-year-old, his mother has to spell out certain words to keep him from learning what she’s talking about. “Our d-i-v-o-r-c-e becomes final today/Me and little J-o-e will be goin’ away/I love you both and this will be pure h-e-double-l for me/Oh, I wish that we could stop this d-i-v-o-r-c-e.”
“Teddy Bear,” Red Sovine (1976)
“Teddy Bear” came out at the height of the CB (citizens band) radio craze when everyone who had one — especially long-haul truck drivers — assumed a poetic name or “handle” to identify themselves in their over-the-air messages. “Teddy Bear” is the handle of a little boy who’s “crippled” and can’t walk. His dad was a trucker who died “about a month ago” in a snow storm, and his mother has to work “just to make ends meet.” He hears her crying sometimes at night. So Teddy Bear’s only companion is his dad’s CB radio with which he talks to truckers rolling past his home. His one hope is to ride in an 18-wheeler once again, just as he used to do with his dad. But he knows that’s not going to happen. Or will it? You take it from there. My tears have just short-circuited my keyboard.
“Unwed Fathers,” Tammy Wynette (1983)
Here we see the differences between the lives of unwed mothers and those of the men who’ve abandoned them. “From a teenage lover to an unwed mother/Kept undercover like some bad dream/But unwed fathers, they can’t be bothered/And they run like water through a mountain stream.”
“I Wouldn’t Go That Far,” Reba McEntire (1991)
This song and the next are from McEntire’s landmark album, For My Broken Heart, recorded soon after seven members of her band and her tour manager were killed in an airplane crash. It is one of the darkest — and best — country albums ever made. “I Wouldn’t Go That Far” is the plaintive musings of a woman who placed her career above her love life, who “wouldn’t go that far” with the man who demonstrated time and again he adored her. Years later, she meets him and his wife and children. “He said he was proud of all my success/He guessed both of us had found happiness.” To which she ruefully reflects, “I wouldn’t go that far.”
“All Dressed Up (With Nowhere To Go),” Reba McEntire (1991)
The scene is crushing: An old woman is waiting in a “retirement home,” all dressed up for the family that never comes to visit her. “As Ruby watches all the others leaving with their families/The nurse tells her it’s time to come to dinner/She says she’s expecting company, they’re just running late/But the nurse knows the truth too well, she just sighs and walks away.” For My Broken Heart also yielded the heartbreaking “The Greatest Man I Never Knew” and the tragically wistful “If I Had Only Known.”
“She’d Give Anything,” Boy Howdy (1993)
In contrast to the woman in “I Wouldn’t Go That Far,” this lady is eager to give her all for love. “She can find someone to hold her/But that wouldn’t be enough/She’d give anything to fall in love.”
“He Didn’t Have to Be,”
Brad Paisley (1999)
How about a song that brings tears of joy rather than pain? Well, here we have one. Told from the perspective of a son who’s watching his mother go out on a date that, to him, looks something like a “job interview” for a substitute father. Finally, his mom meets a man who not only doesn’t run away when he discovers she has a son but actually embraces the kid. “And then all of a sudden, oh, it seemed so strange to me/How we went from something’s missing to a family/Looking back, all I can say about all the things he did for me/Is I hope I’m at least half the dad that he didn’t have to be.” This was Paisley’s second single and first No. 1.
Brett Eldredge (2010)
Let’s end this lugubrious odyssey by returning to a nursing home, where so many other sad stories coalesce. The narrator works as a janitor at the home and, on Sundays, leads the old folks in singing hymns. “Katherine Davis, room 303,” he tells us, is the “sweetest soul you ever could meet/I bring her coffee every day.” Then comes the twist: “She calls me Raymond/She thinks I’m her son/Tells me get washed up for supper/Before your daddy comes home.” And “Raymond” plays along with her pitiful delusion.
Is there any other form of music — save country — that would take us into these dark corners and make us feel emotionally cleansed for having gone there?