You know, summer is barely half over, and I'm already tired of cheerful, bouncy summery songs that are all about beer, babes, beaches and bongs. I'd like to hear some down-and-dirty country tales of woe and misery, some meaty songs with some genuine human life and emotion in them, some tales of adversity and reality. And, lo and behold, I looked in my stack of new CDs and found that I had plenty on hand. I know there is truth in Willie Nelson's famous lyric: "Sad songs and waltzes aren't selling this year." Well, they never really sell in any year. That doesn't mean we can't enjoy them.
(Warning: You will never hear any of these songs on American Idol. And you will never hear any of these singers attempt any over-the-top AI vocal gymnastics.)
"Dead Flowers," Miranda Lambert: This is "Dead Flowers," as written and sung by Miranda Lambert. It's vastly different in content, but not in tone, from the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards song of the same name. Lambert's composition is about as grim. But it follows a different path to a different but equally dismal conclusion. Where the Jagger-Richards tale ends up with the narrator in a "basement room with a needle and a spoon," Lambert's central character reaches a different conclusion.
Lambert's narrator considers her stagnant life with her love interest, whose love and interest have dwindled to the point that she is reminded of the dead Christmas tree lights and other signs of former life around her. She sings, "All he can say is, 'Man, ain't it such a nice day'/Hey, I guess it'll just go to waste/Like dead flowers."
"Dead Flowers," Caitlin Rose: This is the Jagger-Richards song, originally performed by the Rolling Stones and re-recorded here by the talented, quirky singer Caitlin Rose. She infuses the song with a country gothic feel (as opposed to the Stones' British gothic feel), adds a lonesome-sounding steel guitar and takes it down-home. This appears on a seven-song EP by the same title. Rose is a musical free spirit, whose song portfolio includes "Shotgun Wedding." When she was once asked what her Neil Diamond influence was, she said she used to roll joints on Diamond's greatest hits album.
"My Way to You," Jamey Johnson: This first single from Johnson's forthcoming, as yet-untitled new album (due in the fall) continues his exploration of the darker recesses of human experience and emotion. There is redemption, though, at the end of "My Way to You."
A lot of people are saying Johnson is the future of country music. He has the compelling voice and the mesmerizing songwriting chops to be just that. I fervently hope so. But I am wondering if the future of country music will allow any sort of such logical and just outcome. It may well be a future consisting of a gaggle of indistinguishable pop and rock singers. And their success will depend not on their musical prowess but on their photogenic factors and their ratings on the hot scale.
Here, Johnson sings, "From an Alabama porch to a dirty bar room floor/Burnin' bridges down I never even crossed/From when I didn't have a care to when I didn't have a prayer/I never once thought I was lost/Somehow I knew I'd find my way to you."
"My Way to You" will be available as a free download on Johnson's Web site on Aug. 3 and then as a paid download on iTunes and other digital sites beginning Aug. 11.
"Indian Summer," Brooks & Dunn: Ronnie Dunn and Kix Brooks wrote this with their friend, songwriter Bob DiPiero. It's not a new story, this tale of love and infatuation that changes and withers, but it's one that continues to connect with listeners.
Indian summer, the season itself, is an invigorating warm spell, usually in late autumn. In this song, it offers a tantalizing lure of "the wonder, the hunger, and the sound of distant thunder/Indian summer" that leads directly to the lovestruck young high school couple becoming "tangled in a moment of truth/Bottle of wine in a motel room." And we know where that can lead -- to many endings, almost all of which are sad. The song's emotional delivery is aided immeasurably by the simple fact that Ronnie Dunn remains one of the finest singers of country music, past or present.
"White Dove," Levon Helm: A track from Helm's second solo work since his recovery from throat cancer, this former stalwart of The Band remains one of the most expressive singers in recent American musical history. His new CD, Electric Dirt, is an eclectic cross section of music, with songs by writers ranging from Muddy Waters to Randy Newman to Pops Staples to the late Carter Stanley of the Stanley Brothers.
Helm's world-weary voice is shown to great advantage in a tearful lament to mother and dad and a way of life in Stanley's "White Dove." He sings, "White dove will mourn in sorrow/The willows will hang their head/I'll live my life in sorrow/Since mother and daddy are dead."
"Shankill Butchers," Sarah Jarosz: She is perhaps the most intriguing young bluegrass-inspired singer and musician working today. And she only recently celebrated her 18th birthday and released her debut CD, Song Up in Her Head. With an enchanting voice straight from a fairy tale, Jarosz can draw you into even a malevolent story. This is a grim tale of a gang of notorious, throat-slitting loyalists in the 1970s in Belfast, Northern Ireland, who specialized in violently terminating Catholics. Here, Jarosz covers the Decemberists' song "Shankill Butchers." Sample lyrics: "The Shankill Butchers run tonight/They're waiting until the dead of the night/They're picking at their fingers with their knives/And wiping off their cleavers on their thighs."
I really don't want to become a butcher or live in a basement room with a needle and a spoon or be a star high school football player who scores the winning touchdown under the Friday night lights and then ruins two lives with a Saturday night motel room touchdown of another kind. But songs like these are the equivalent of quick journeys into believable fiction. The songs become very cathartic, cleansing and uplifting. Good for their creators.