Maybe it’s my recent relocation to Indiana, but I find myself listening to a lot of country music these days. I find myself consistently surprised by, well, first the fact that I’m enjoying it, and second, by the pervasive use of an almost rhetorical tactic in the songs.
At first I thought I may just be rediscovering the chorus in a different genre, but I soon realized that there was more to the phenomenon than that. The first experience I had with this phenomenon was with Tim McGraw’s “Don’t Take the Girl.” The song’s central themes were to which are common to country music, including fishing, true love, and loved ones dying. Initially, as a young whippersnapper, Johnny does not want his father to take “the girl” fishing with them. He expresses the sentiment in what turns out to be a near-chorus singing:
“Take Jimmy Johnson/Take Tommy Tomphson/Take anybody you want as/long as she don’t go/Take any boy in the world, Daddy please, don’t take the girl”
In the second verse, however, the chorus-meaning changes as Johnny, as an 18 year-old is held-up at gunpoint. This time, he begs the thief not to take the girl. The meaning is altered from “don’t take the girl” meaning “don’t bring her with us” to “don’t take the girl” meaning “don’t kidnap her.” A more literal contextual meaning to be sure, however the first verse had already set-up the expressions meaning.
Rather than another about face, the third verse leaves the meaning essentially unchanged, but tugs heavy on the heart strings. This time, Johnny’s “girl” has given birth, and we soon find out it was traumatic “momma’s fading fast” and Johnny pleads with his heavenly father “God, please don’t take the girl.”
Wrapping things up, Tim McGraw, or his sly songwriters, begin with the opening lines “Johnny’s daddy, was taking him fishin, when he was eight years old,” reminding the listener that this young couple started early, lived a full life of excitement (high school, muggings, marriage—assumed because it’s a good country song, and childbirth) all before Johnny lost the love of his life.
Now, many of country music’s gambits are at work here, but the ironic twist of a phrase, is the one that is most striking. And that twist of phrase seems to becoming more and more popular in the country music I listen to.
The tactic is repeated almost in an emotionally reversed sense in Dierks Bentley’s “How Am I Doin.” He expresses his emotion by stating variously that “I sometimes cry . . . I keep my friends with me . . stay busy . . don’t get much sleep.” Later, however we learn he is crying tears of joy, friends take him out, and doesn’t get much sleep because of the “sweet” female he meets. This time, the emotional pace is revved rather than slowed by the accompanying-tempoed music.
Dierks uses a slightly different tactic in his “Am I the Only One.” The emotional timbre remains the same throughout the song, but the chorus extensive chorus “Am I the only one who wants to have fun tonight? Is there any body out there who wants to have a cold beer, kick it ‘til the morning light. If I have to raise hell all by myself I will, but y’all, that ain’t right. It’s time to get it on, Am I the only one who wants to have fun tonight.” Is alternatively sung by Dierks, and his newfound complementary partying “country cutie” (who has a rock and roll bootie, which it would seem to be at odds with the rest of her country-cutie complexion. Alas, I digress).
Thompson Square uses essentially the same tactic in “Are you Gonna Kiss Me or Not” (just as an aside here, country music may give rap a battle for music with titles that make Word’s spellchecker red-lining crazy). The timid lover is variously the recipient of and undertaker of dialogue recreating the song’s namesake. Some similarities here can be seen to Tim McGraw’s kiss the girl, as a series of life events are marked with the exact same phrase. That is, a first kiss, marriage proposal, and matrimony ceremony where all marked by the chorus, beginning with “are you gonna kiss me or not”
A third variation on the theme is undertaken by Eric Church in “Homeboy.” This song accomplishes the country trifecta of simultaneously exalting pastoral small-town life and “hating-on” the urban, pant-sagging culture. The reason that this is great interest for us, of course, is because it is the harbringer of country taking the iconic play on words one step farther. That is, “homeboy” is used simultaneously in the noun sense as in “one who is a close acquaintance or brah” (Doyle’s definition).
Church uses an almost apostrophe like “Home boy,” when calling out to his long lost brother. Other times, church simply says “come on home, boy.” The emphasis of the comma is amplified because of the audible contrast to the more aggressive sounding “homeboy.” This plays into Church as the champion of a simpler, purer life “blue colloar forty, little house, little kid, little small town story.” His calling is friend, “home, boy” amplifies the slow pace of life changing the use of a slang term back into a sort of more well known phrase.
Of course, there are a few country songs that use tangential approaches to a similar theme. Tim McGraw’s “I Miss Back When,” laments the fact that words are used differently than they were “back when.” My personal favorite is when he mentions that, “when you said I’m down with that, well it meant you had the flu.” So while other artists use the same phrase to mean different things, McGraw uses common phrases to call back a more nostalgic meaning. Apparently there were lots of collaborations about having the flu “back when.”
Perhaps the most heavy-handed example of the country music trope described here is Joe Nichol’s “Take it off.” The phrase is used no less than twenty times throughout the duration of the song. Its amazing utility is used metaphorically to describe the weight off the world being lifted off one’s shoulders, as well as the more literal and classic uses describing ones beer cap, convertible top, and of course, pants. Here the phrase means essentially the same thing every time, but the amazing dexterity of the phrase is put on display. As are the clever innuendos one can use it for in myriad situations.
My foreign ear may be more astutely tuned to this device in country music because I am largely an outsider to the genre, but it appears to me that the gambit is used more in country music than any other I listen to. This could be because I have trouble deciphering what rappers, rockers, and emo-mumblers are saying at all. The clear, crisp, annunciation of country singers (in comparison only, of course) may allow for a new perspective on music.
More likely, however, is that the country music populous has an affinity for things that don’t change in an ever changing world. McGraw’s “Back When,” most clearly illustrates this, but “Homeboy” and virtually all the others lament a changing world. Country may be trying to reclaim phrases like “homeboy,” “down with that,” while other artists merely celebrate the party, in their own country way (i.e. “Take it Off”). Either way, the next time you tune in to a country music station—which if you live in Indiana, is more often than you may intend—listen for the word-meaning-switcheroo trope and I think you’ll find another level of enjoyment. Or at least, intellectualization can help me hid the fact that I’m becoming more “down” with country.