The Rules Of The Game No. 30: Life Ain’t Hard But It’s Too Long

Frank Kogan

There’s a new Willie Nelson album, Moment Of Forever, mostly but not entirely covers. Being hailed as one of Willie’s best ever (well, two of the three people I’ve talked to about it say so). I find it good but inconsistent. But the word “inconsistent” is wrong, in that I find his singing totally consistent and sometimes I connect thoroughly with it and sometimes hardly at all. And I can’t say why. In fact, I’m pretty sure I don’t get Willie Nelson. But I sometimes like him, despite not getting it.

Willie’s singing often verges on talking, since he puts so little juice into it that he seems to be barely sketching the melody. Yet he does get enough of the melody to make his tracks insanely beautiful, some of them. “The Bob Song,” on the new LP, is one of the great songs so far this year. I went back to listen to the original, by Big & Rich, on the little-noticed Big & Rich’s Supergalactic Fan Pak CD/DVD from 2004, which I’d entirely forgotten about (hadn’t recognized Willie’s track as a cover): found the original really annoying, too much Big and not enough Rich, which means that with Big Kenny dominating the vocals, B&R’s trademark close harmony was subdued and the song’s prettiness was dampened. And anyway they kept interrupting the music with shaggy-dog stories that were barely funny once, and not even inherently interesting—Big Kenny and John Rich going to a costume shop and dressing up like chickens and wearing Carmen Miranda hats, isn’t that hilarious—and only funny at all because Kenny thought they were funny, and it was amusing how much pleasure he got out of his bad jokes.

Willie’s version cuts out the yuks and is gorgeous with even less harmony than the Big & Rich. Some harmony shows up, a double-tracked Willie adding a second voice, I think, though it could be Big Kenny himself, who for sure appears in the background late in the song, not harmonizing but singing a countermelody (unless it’s John Rich not Big Kenny; I have trouble telling them apart when they’re in the higher register).

The lyrics are live-and-let-live platitudes, made interesting by the wordplay: “You swing from your tree and I’ll swing from mine/You have your lemons and I’ll have my limes/Funny we all act like monkeys sometime,” the implication being that tolerance is good because it allows people to get all goofy. Bob is a pirate, or so the lyrics claim, though no actual pirate behavior is mentioned—you know, stuff like fighting and kidnapping and plundering and killing, which is a pirate’s business but is not part of the song. Big & Rich typically sidestep such hard facts when they’re inviting everyone to join the human parade. But what Big & Rich do sometimes allude to is their own propensity towards destruction and self-destruction (from “Saved,” on their first album: “There was a time I tried to kill a man/Just for looking at me wrong”). The gorgeous harmonies on Big & Rich tracks carry with them a sadness no matter the content of the song, whether serious or silly. And with the sadness comes the idea that life isn’t something you easily get right. (So tolerance is good because people can’t help but act wrong, and somehow that’s part of a greater right.) On the Willie Nelson version of “The Bob Song,” a strangely echoing pennywhistle and a sousaphone add a sense of mystery while the primate in the foreground expounds his philosophy of life.

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To follow up on what I wrote last week about Miranda Lambert and the Nashville Scene’s Country Music Critics Poll, which she won handily, I did a little online research. I was wondering if people in the world at large shared pollster Geoff Himes’ view that there’s a big distinction between Miranda Lambert and Carrie Underwood and as a consequence a big difference in what fans of one or the other want. Geoff is claiming that we critics who voted Miranda are the sorts who like our own assumptions challenged and want to hear something we don’t already know, whereas the mass of fans who buy Carrie Underwood simply want reassurance and to hear their own ideas confirmed. Now, Geoff’s thesis is too stupid to even think about, but I was curious as to whether Miranda Lambert fans generally believe something similar themselves and whether Miranda fans and Carrie fans think in terms of there being an opposition between Miranda and Carrie.

Anyway, my research being rudimentary, I’ve not yet answered my questions, but I did discover that: (1) Miranda Lambert found two abandoned puppies by the road who would have died if they’d been left exposed much longer, and she is keeping them. Their names are Jessi “Blue Eyes” and Waylon Shooter. “I feel like the Lord was watching over them on Monday, but more than that over me because they are a huge blessing in my life and I will love them for the rest of their ‘Doggone’ life.” (2) Miranda voted for Carrie Underwood when Carrie was on American Idol (this info from a Carrie Underwood fan forum). (3) Miranda Lambert is the nicest person ever (this info also from the Carrie Underwood fan forum, from a girl who got to meet Miranda at a meet and greet). (4) Not surprisingly, the Carrie fans who also like Miranda don’t see the two as being particularly opposed, though the general opinion is that Miranda is more of a rocker. (5) Several of the customer reviewers at said they hoped for Miranda’s sake that the material wasn’t autobiographical, since Miranda seemed to be having a rough time with romance (none of the reviewers expressed a concern that she might kill a boyfriend or burn down houses, however). (6) A few of the Amazon Miranda reviewers did take swipes at Carrie (and at Gretchen and Taylor) and took the line that Miranda was real country and raw, unlike overproduced Carrie etc. (one dipshit, who identified himself as a fan of alt-country, said that “pop country is trite, immature, and targeted at rather low intellects”; not that I altogether disagree, but I think the same can be said for alt-country), but most didn’t mention any such thing. (7) Back to the Carrie Underwood fan forum:

Maggie: “I was skeptical [about Miranda Lambert’s Kerosene album] at first too but I bought it and I like it. I like New Strings probably the most … then Kerosene, Me and Charlie Talkin’, and There’s A Wall. I was actually listening to it today. I like the other songs too but some of them are a little depressing but they are still good.”

Xmismisx: “mostly all country songs are depressing”

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I’ve been thinking about Miranda Lambert’s self-consciousness, how she uses it: didn’t really notice this line in “Kerosene” until the other day: “Life ain’t hard but it’s too long/Livin’ like some country song, ha!” the stereotype being that country songs are sad songs (e.g., somebody-done-somebody-wrong songs), but Miranda as the narrator in this country song is saying I’m not livin’ a long country-song life, I’m gonna burn down the joint instead. Certainly there are many previous country songs with destruction and murder, but since I’m not that well-versed in the history of the genre I don’t know how many see explosive violence against an ex-lover as a way of liberating oneself from the confines of a sad way of living that the genre takes for granted. I’m guessing not a lot. In any event, the genre merely takes sad lovers for granted artistically—that is, as a stock condition that the genre can feed off of, but not necessarily as a condition of life.

What genres do, they don’t simply give you a set of beliefs and values and conventions, but sets of problems and puzzles—artistic, social, moral. A double message of country is “This is how we live our lives” and “We don’t know how to live our lives.” Such conflicts give the genre something to do, something for songwriters to gnaw at.

A couple of years ago I put “Kerosene” as the second track on a mixtape I called “Love Goes To Building On Fire,” the first track being the equally incendiary “Independence Day” by Martina McBride. But in “Independence Day” the self-immolation murder-suicide is by an abused wife in a no-win situation (it’s not a way out but a signal that she had no way out), whereas in “Kerosene” you have a bored, restless, jilted narrator saying “You’re not getting away with it, I’m leaving my explosion as a mark.” Yet that line about life being too long if lived as a country song makes “Kerosene” a bit more than a vengeance song, but rather a self-conscious claim of stepping away from the known universe as defined by country songs. I don’t want to make too much of that line—it’s just a line: many people don’t pick up on the nuances of a particular lyric, and many people (like me until just a week ago, after three years) may not have noticed the line at all. The sound is what attracted me to the song. But there’s no surprise that that particular line is in a song with that particular sound.

And there’s no surprise I like the sound, since the unison pounding could come right off a British Invasion record by the Yardbirds or Kinks or American imitators like Count Five or the Velvet Underground. And the harmonica part is right out of the Beatles’ “I Should Have Known Better.” One thing that works well on the current album, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, is that she switches beats from song to song without losing the flow. But other than the four weepers (some of her songs embrace what others eschew) everything is played with pressure, whether it’s the fast two-step snap of “Dry Town” or the claustrophobia of “Down” or the hard-rock violence of “Gunpowder and Lead.”

A question might be, “Okay then, why does this young woman choose country as her genre?” I’d say in answer that she chooses it because country provides the pressure: forms and constraints that chafe at her and stimulate her.

Keep the conversation going at koganbot(at)

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