Country Song Structure

No, this isn’t a post on how I’m drunk because my lady left me and my dog died. Though this is the best version of that ever. It’s about Country song narrative structure, or at least structure. You really can’t listen to Country radio and not be aware of this. It’s typical Verse-Chorus-Verse, often telling a story, but the aspect that gets used so often in Country tunes is that there is a revelation in the penultimate verse that changes the meaning of the chorus. Up until the penultimate verse, the listener thinks the song is about one thing, but then once that verse plays it becomes about something else. One beat-you-over-the-head example of this is Randy Travis’s “Three Wooden Crosses.”

The first verse-chorus combo goes:

A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher,
Ridin’ on a midnight bus bound for Mexico.
One’s headed for vacation, one for higher education,
An’ two of them were searchin’ for lost souls.
That driver never ever saw the stop sign.
An’ eighteen wheelers can’t stop on a dime.

There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway,
Why there’s not four of them, Heaven only knows.
I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you,
It’s what you leave behind you when you go.

— And so we think there are only three crosses because the hooker went to Hell, but hold on with your rush to judgment you hasty judgers. At the end we find out that there are only three crosses because the hooker didn’t die. In fact, she was given a bible by the dying preacher and she found God and had a son who became a preacher and the singer of the song. And so, ” There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway, Why there’s not four of them, Heaven only knows,” becomes not about the mystery of judgment but rather the unknowable plan of God.

I used to think that the brilliant part about this general structure was the moment of revelation when you go “Oh! I get it! How clever!” but now I realize that there’s something even better . . . you can only listen to the song with that moment of revelation once. Every time after that you know the intended meaning of the chorus. The song has two meanings: one the first time you hear it, and another for every time after.

Brilliant.

Oh! And on the theme of Christian themed music. Today was the beginning of A Very Special Acoustic Christmas going on heavy rotation at home. See the main Tift Merritt post for details. The album is awesome.

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