Let’s be honest. Country musicians are obsessed with the cracking and crumbling of hearts. Jimmie Rodgers was known as “The Blue Yodeler” for the grave lament in his songs and Hank Williams always seemed to be in a virtual weep as he sang “Your Cold, Cold Heart” or “With Tears In My Eyes.” It challenges logic that both artists rode to superstardom on the fiery tail of heartbreak. But what’s logic got to do with it? There is no denying that a sad love song feels damn good. In fact, the sadder the song, the better it feels. Why is that?
In honor of Valentines Day, we’ve consulted with our local ambassadors of love and heartbreak in country music. We spoke to John Howie of Two Dollar Pistols, Melissa Swingle of Trailer Bride, Tift Merritt from the Carbines, Thad Cockrell from the Starlite Country Band, Chip Robinson of the Backsliders and John Bemis of Hooverville. This is what they have to say.
The Independent: What is your most beloved country heartbreak song?
John Howie: The one that’s always ripped my heart is a song by Charlie Pride called, “I Can’t Believe You Stopped Loving Me.” You know with a title like that, it’s just all laid out. That song has made me actually cry before, in moments when I was not necessarily susceptible to feeling that way … like I wasn’t drunk, basically. I was going through kind of a rough time and it knocked me right out of my seat. The way he sings it, he just sounds so in shock. You know, “This is the worst thing that has ever happened to me and I can’t believe it. I absolutely can’t fathom this kind of pain.”
Melissa Swingle: I’ve got a lot of heartbreak songs. It’s hard to pick my favorite one. It would be like picking a favorite child.
John Bemis: You know, George Jones has this song, “I’m Not Ready Yet,” classic heartbreak there. I find it really sad because the person who is talking in the song is saying these lines about how “I can’t believe I’ve left you a hundred times but you don’t know it.” Basically, he’s always backing out at the last minute and he [George Jones] has this real straight-up country delivery. It’s a little the way Motown will have these songs that are just sad as shit, right? But the delivery on them is kind of peppy. A lot of those country guys will do that too. The delivery is just kind of straight-up country, but you listen to the lyrics and you’re like, “Holy shit, that’s depressing.”
What do you find attractive about lost love and heartbreak?
Chip Robinson: God! I think a lot of times people have a hard time expressing what they feel. If you are going through a bunch of shit in your life and it’s driving you fucking insane, you just ball it up and keep it in until you can find some way of letting go of it. Then someone else does it for you and touches something in you, touches a chord and speaks something for you because they’ve been through the same kind of experience.
John Howie: There is something about the directness [in] dealing with those subjects that I just find very appealing. I mean, there is very little in country music that is oblique or even implied for that matter; it’s [country music] very straightforward and doesn’t seem to be quite as concerned with dancing around those subjects, my case in point being that Charlie Pride song or “He Stopped Loving Her Today” by George Jones. It just goes straight for the throat. I think that, in this idea that other people have shared this experience that seems so singularly horrible, there is something kind of appealing.
Melissa Swingle: What’s attractive about country music is the fact that you can whine about lost love and heartbreak and it’s OK in country music. And you can whine and be really maudlin and tear up and order another beer. You can sing about heartbreak with punk rock and any other genre, too, but country music is the most whine-able. Well for instance, the lap steel–that sound kind of reinforces the whining. It cries. Country music cries like no other genre.
John Bemis: I think love is the most important thing for most people, and country music has just always given this bare-bones delivery to it. Nothing is really sugarcoated the way Britney Spears or someone is going to do it. I like that kind of rawness. And a lot of times you have these tough, bad-ass honky-tonk guys who sound like they’re letting their guard down. They’ll even do those kind of vocal inflections as if they’re crying. For me, I don’t get depressed by listening to them at all. Somehow I find them to be gut-wrenching, but yet, at the same time, they get me fired up. You feel like someone is just putting it out there in a real honest way, the way punk rock puts things out there in a real honest way.
Was there any song that made you fall in love with country music?
Thad Cockrell: The first song that I can remember–I wasn’t eating dinner or something, or maybe eating too much, I’m not sure, but nonetheless–I got sent up to my room, and we had this old AM radio. In Kansas City [the country station] was 60 or 64 on the AM dial, and I remember hearing Charlie Rich’s “Behind Closed Doors.” What a great song for being locked in your room, huh? I was absolutely mesmerized, and I must say that I was no older than three.
John Howie: That would have to probably be “She Thinks I Still Care” by George Jones. I heard that as a youngster, when I was getting back into country music, and I’m talking about being 20 or 21 years old here. My dad and I were at a used record store in Durham and I said, “Will you help me pick one out here?” and he recommended this two-record set that I still have that was of George Jones’ ’60s stuff–I think the original recordings. As soon as I heard that song again, I was just like, “Oh, my God! Why did I ever go away from this?”
Melissa Swingle: I first fell in love with country music with Hank Williams, Sr. Of course, all his songs are about lost love and heartbreak. I don’t know if I even liked country music until I heard Hank Williams, and then that just opened a door for me. I was about 9 or 10 and I heard just one of the common songs, “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” one of the common ones on the radio and I thought, “Wow, that’s really sad. That man is sad,” ’cause he really sounded sad. It was true sadness, not fake.
Tift Merritt: I definitely think Emmylou Harris’ Quarter Moon and Ten Cent Town, that record was probably one of the first country records that I got my hands on and I was like, “Oh, this is what they haven’t been telling me about.” I was probably about 18 or 19. “One Paper Kid” was on there. There was a lot on that record that was beautiful. That was the first record that I was like, “This is slaying me.” I mean, I listened to it so many times that I had to get rid of it eventually.
Would you consider country music romantic?
Thad Cockrell: Oh, it’s incredibly romantic. For me personally, most of it’s about love. Most songs, period, are about love, but why do I find country music romantic? I guess because anybody that can hurt that bad about love obviously has amazing ideals about love.
John Bemis: Yeah. I think a lot of those guys are very romantic. I mean, boy, Buddy Miller–it doesn’t get more romantic than a lot of his songs. Amy and I, we’ll sing “Don’t Mean Maybe” together. We’ve often said, “That’d be a good one to have at our wedding,” and it’s the “I’ll be your Mr. if you be my Mrs.” kind of thing. “I love you baby and I don’t mean maybe.” But yeah, those guys are sappy.
Tift Merritt: Well damn it, yes! It’s wishful. Country music doesn’t have what it wants. So, yes, it’s longing and romantic. I mean, the subject matter of a country song: This guy does not have what he wants. He’s either broke or he’s missing a girl or he did a girl wrong or he’s working in a mine, that sort of thing. There is a distance between what people want and what people have or where they are and where they want to be.
Was there ever a song that was present or was a key ingredient to falling in love for you?
John Bemis: Every time I hear Joni Mitchell’s Blue, that’s the album; no matter what song it is on that album, even the ones that are pretty goofy. I mean, we [Bemis and his fiancée] played that record a million times when we were first going out and it just became the standard. Not the CD, it was the record. That’s the one I really associate with falling in love.
Melissa Swingle: Actually, my husband and I fell in love to Bob Dylan, not really country music. But he’s kind of countryish, I read something somewhere that Bob Dylan’s favorite music to listen to, or at least it was a while back, was Hank Williams. He would listen to the same Hank Williams tape over and over.
Thad Cockrell: There’s two songs, neither one of which are country necessarily. One is Neil Young’s “Harvest Moon” and the other is Etta James’ “The Nearness of You,” which, as far as love songs, probably goes down as my all-time favorite love song. I was [seeing someone] and it was amazing because we’d end up dancing and we didn’t need any music; like we would literally dance outside. We were out in Colorado and we would just start dancing and both of us, without saying it, would always play that song in our heads and we’d keep that same time without singing out loud or anything