Saturday, February 14, 2009

GUEST BLOGGER: Graham Verdon

Posted by Marcus Sakey

Besides being one of my best friends, today's guest is an accomplished columnist and editor, an aspiring novelist, and a gifted songwriter. We were having a conversation about the creative process as it related to songs versus stories, and I found it so interesting I asked him to write on the subject. Be sure to check out his music at http://www.sonicbids.com/grahamverdon.


Country Music: Why the music we love to hate should get more respect from storytellers

I was watching an episode of Kath & Kim, a sitcom about a white-trash mother-daughter duo (the mother played hilariously by Molly Shannon), and it kicked off with a great exchange:
"Can you believe this? Country singers. All they do is cry in their beer over some girl or some daddy that don’t love ‘em, and then - BAM! - $10 million dollars."

"Maybe you should be writing country music. You have huge problems."

"Problems? My moms are doing just fine, thank you very much. Just got my own phone line put in my room. Solved all kinds of problems. You’re the one with the crazy-ass relationship and the crazy-ass wife!"

"Yeah, you’re right, man. I probably got a million songs up in here!
We’re gonna be rich!"

"You know it! Country rich!"

Besides being funny, this illustrates three country music truths:
  1. No one, not even white-trash characters created for sitcoms, admit to liking it, despite the fact truckloads of the music is sold (sort of like Celiné Dion CDs)
  2. Most of us live lives filled with the same cliched dramas that populate the very country music we disdain
  3. Everyone thinks it would be easy to write a country song
Country music is clearly the ugly stepchild in the family of popular music. But the truth is, for those working to achieve mastery in the craft of storytelling, country songwriters are close cousins.

We may like the creativity and innovation of a Radiohead, Beck or Air. But the stories contained in your average genre novel, for example, have much more in common with your average country radio hit than the majority of the songs of these “serious artists.” These serious artists are impressionist painters, creating miraculous moods with the interaction of lyrics and sounds. Most of us don’t really know what they’re talking about half the time, if we’re honest with ourselves.

Country music, on the other hand, strives to tell stories that hold universal truths, and to tell them succinctly and simply. It plays in themes so common as to be cliche. But as we know, all the best cliches achieve that status for a reason.

Just as the stories of genre novels follow conventions in character, structure, tone and theme, so too, country music follows traditional musical conventions. Country is not about innovative song structure or time signatures, and it’s not about experimentation in production. It’s not about stretching musical boundaries, and for many serious music appreciators looking for surprising sounds dancing around the edges of custom, this is an unacceptable sin.

But the very rigidity and straightforward nature of the sounds serves to put the words center stage. In country, the lyrics are the star, and the simple music the delivery mechanism of a compelling story.

In country music, more than in any other popular music genre, you’ll find colorful, three-dimensional characters moving through stories that include the basic beginning-middle-end story structure. Sure, each act is only 50 words long, but the structure is there. Country songs often work to bring a story to a satisfying end, which is rarely even a goal in other musical genres. Sometimes country song stories go even further, offering up sophisticated narratives that explore a theme from the perspective of multiple narrators. Sometimes multiple storyline intertwine, something you’ll never find in pop or rock. You’ll often find a plot twist arriving in the third verse or in the bridge. You’ll often find the bridge or the third verse working to build up the drama and create something like a “second act crisis”. Often the third verse moving into the final repetition of the chorus essentially is a dramatic, emotional climax, and a musical outro serves as a denouement.

Country music is basically an abridged, radio-friendly version of the great American folk tradition; the three chords and the truth brand of pop music. And so, you could argue that Sugarland and Brad Paisley (and the writers that make them stars behind the scenes), beneath all the big hair and sheen, are closer kin to Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan and Bruce Springsteen than are most the rockers more often associated with them.

The radio-friendly country writer is confined to three and a half minutes, a basic, traditional song structure and clean, unadorned production. It demands a discipline that any writer can appreciate. A genre novelist knows he doesn’t have the luxury of meandering through his mind, dropping personal observations about life into his story willy-nilly, but rather has to stay on the rails and serve the characters and the dramatic arc of the story. So does the country songwriter.

Now, let’s be serious: universal themes don’t necessarily mean deep lyrics. But country writers know their work is to be consumed as little three-and-a-half minute slices of life by radio during drive time. So, they know they can’t obfuscate the message with too much subtlety. (Of course, pop music in general is not the place to look for depth. Take another look at the lyrics of your top five pop songs of all time and you can likely see the bottom just below the surface.) And so, country songwriters know they are often only providing a paint-by-numbers framework, and they expect that the listener will put things in the complicated context of their own lives, they know we will fill things in with all the shades of grey from the content of our own experiences. That’s how we all make our favorite songs our own, isn’t it?

The stories country writers are striving to tell are the ones we all seem to need in our fiction. Country music is about loves blooming, dying or long dead. It’s about the sharp angles of love triangles, and the tattered remains of love ravaged by dishonesty or dried out by neglect or carelessness. It’s about outrunning the ghosts of the past, and the hope that tomorrow will yield something greater. It’s about winning big or losing bigger, and the glory in both.

It’s about our lack of satisfaction in the big relationships in our lives; the maddening spaces we all try to narrow between us and our loved ones.

Basically, country music’s about our day-to-day struggles to be good, happy humans with all those other pesky humans around. In 200 words or less.

So, next time you’re out with a posse of your good friends, drinking too much and solving the world’s problems, listen to the stories leaking from the hearts of those in your beloved circle. You’ll hear country music to the uneven rhythm of clinking glasses.

Graham Verdon is an editor of custom magazines specializing in vice: gambling, booze, cigarettes and cars.

In his spare time he tinkers with the first five chapters of his novel and writes shiny, happy songs in the pop, rock and country genres. He says you haven’t tasted freedom until you’ve written from the perspective of a 14-year-old girl.

Click here to listen to some of his work.

Graham will be checking back to respond to comments and questions, so please, fire away.

13 comments:

Michael Dymmoch said...

Eleanor Taylor Bland told me year ago that she loves country music because of the stories it tells. And I still have to listen all the way through Dolly Parton's "Jolene," Randy Travis' "Three Wooden Crosses," and "What was I thinking?" by Dierks Bentley.

the Bag Lady said...

To say nothing of the fact that country music is generally easy to listen to; you can two-step to it, and even, God forbid, be able to sing along! That must be why it appeals to so many of us (admittedly old) country folk.

I just find it so difficult to sing along to: boom, muthafucka, chuckachucka, kill your mutha.... I'm sure they must be telling a story in there somewhere, but it's so hard to understand the lyrics.... OMG, I must be old.

Jon The Crime Spree Guy said...

This is part of a song by David Allan Coe who wrote the perfect country and western song:

Well, a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song
And he told me it was the perfect country-western song
I wrote him back a letter and told him it was NOT the perfect country-western song because he hadn't said anything at all about
mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin' drunk.
Well, he sat down and wrote another verse to the song and he sent it to me
And after reading it, I realized that my friend had written the perfect country-western song.
And I felt obliged to include it on this album. The last verse goes like this here:

Well, I was drunk the day my Mom got outta prison.
And I went to pick her up in the rain.
But, before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got runned over by a damned old train.

Dana King said...

Nice to see country music get some love. I was trained to be a classical musician, but grew up listening to country and western, so I was never a snob about it. I tend to gravitate more toward the old Western cowboy songs than some of the more pop-oriented country, but that's because of the stories, as you noted. I'll put the storytelling abilities of Delbert McClinton, Willie Nelson, and the late Johnny Cash up against anybody.

Steerpike said...

Nice one, Graham - I'm glad to see that dry wit of yours remains intact. ;)

I always assumed country music was popular in The Country, a place I never visit, and that's why it does so well despite the fact that no one I personally know can stand it. I'd never paused to consider the deeper Hero's Journey context of your average country song, since I smallmindedly assumed that it was all just a big nod to Appalachia, another place I never visit.

And at the same time, Dana above refers to greats like Johnny Cash, who even I - self-centered elitist that I am - can recognize as a musical genius. Thanks to both of you for providing some context.

Graham Verdon said...

To all responders:

So true that the classic country artists like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Johnny Cash have earned their place as giants in the realm of musical storytelling.

It's "new country" that tends to get a bad rap, often for good reason, I think. And yet, the focus on storytelling remains at the fore even in the radio hits of country music today.

The twang and slick production puts so many off, but beneath that the stories remain.

Mentions of open roads and broken hearts seem cliche to many. And yet when most cityslickers that I know dream of a perfect holiday, it more often than not involves an open road. And three beers in with old friends, talk of lost love always comes around the corner.
:)
We all live in a country song.
Cheers all!
Graham

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