country time
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The Need to Make Believe

The last thing I made was my bed. Soon I will make some toast, and later today I will make plans for this weekend. We all make things, abstract and actual, every day. Some people just make do and others make deals, but we all make believe. That capacity for fiction serves us well, though sometimes too well.

One of my favorite songs from the fifties is about that beautiful but beguiling ability to pretend things are other than the way they are. Why accept the end of a relationship when you can pretend it never happened? I've listened to many covers of "Making Believe," one of [...]

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Pickup Artists

Rock and roll has its Mustangs; easy listening has its Volvos; rap its Beamers, Benzs and Bentleys, but country music has always had its trucks. Big rigs and long-haul truckers got some airtime, but country has always seemed especially enamored with pickups; I grew up hearing Joe Diffe sing that “there’s something women like about a pickup man.”

There’s been a little surge of truck love in the last few years: Lee Brice’s melancholic “I Drive Your Truck,” Luke Bryan’s melodramatic “We Rode in Trucks,” and Tim McGraw’s hillbilly rockish “Truck Yeah” to name a few. Even Taylor Swift has ridden shotgun, having fallen in one of her [...]

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Standing by Your Man

The year was 1968. In May, Wynette sang courageously about the heartbreak of “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.” Then, in September, she offered the heart-aching advice to “Stand By Your Man.” Both songs topped the charts, but she’s remembered mostly for the staying, and not for the going—which is odd, since Wynette divorced five different husbands.

It’s odder still since “Stand By Your Man” is not so much revered as reviled. Women are accused of standing by their men, not applauded for it. Political wives are almost always judged by this standard, at least since 1992, when Hillary Clinton invoked the song during an interview with 60 Minutes. She and [...]

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The Infinite Lives of 'Jolene'

Dolly Parton does it all in only two hundred and two words. Eighty-four fewer than the Gettysburg Address; one hundred and thirty-six more than the Lord’s Prayer. Two hundred and two words, one of which is repeated thirty-one times: Jolene. Parton wails her name like a banshee. Five times Jolene; once Jolene, Jolene; six times Jolene, Jolene, Jolene, Jolene. Parton says the name Jolene thirty-one times in less than three minutes. It’s a story song, and the story is as familiar as they come. Where there was happiness, now there is heartache. A woman loves a man, but that man loves Jolene; the woman confronts Jolene and pleads with [...]

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Girls in Country Songs

The beginning of Maddie & Tae's video for "Girl in a Country Song" is familiar to any CMT viewer: two sun-tanned hotties in cowboy boots and bikini tops walking on a dirt road, ogled by plaid-shirted men hanging out on their pickup truck's tailgate. But then we pan past some hay bales to Maddie & Tae, two blonde nineteen-year-olds from Texas and Oklahoma, respectively, holding guitars and rolling their eyes. "Well, I wish I had some shoes on my two bare feet," they sing, "And it's getting kinda cold in these painted-on cut off jeans." In the rest of the song, Maddie & Tae not only call out [...]

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How to Be a Black Country Star

The Statler Brothers were a gospel band most famous for the years they spent as Johnny Cash's backup singers and opening act. In 1979, they released a song called "How to Be a Country Star." "There's questions," it began, "we're always hearing everywhere we go: like how do I cut a record or get on a country show?"

Their comical answer was a rambling list of what today we'd call shout outs: "learn to sing like Waylon or pick like Jerry Reed," "put a cry in your voice like Haggard," and "get a hip band like Willie." On and on the song goes, naming more names than a teacher [...]

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Why Did Women Throw Their Panties at This Man?

On February 4th, 1990, the sound system of the Second United Church of Christ in Lexington, North Carolina malfunctioned. Those gathered for worship at 11 o’clock that Sunday heard an unexpected voice over the microphone. According to The Dispatch, the newspaper for Davidson County, Donese Scott, who lived across the street from the church, was talking to her friend Revoda Jeffries on a cordless phone, which was picked up by church’s sound system. The two women chatted as Ms. Scott prepared a bath and climbed into the tub.

“God Almighty,” Ms. Jeffries said to Ms. Scott, “I can’t believe my husband stood in line hours to get the seats, [...]

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The Anthem of the Working Stiff

I don't know what men are made of, though a song I love begins: "Some people say a man is made out of mud." Perhaps the dust of Eden got wet with the kiss of the Lord and made mud, and from that Adam was made, but that's not what Tennessee Ernie Ford meant when he sang "a poor man's made out of muscle and blood."

"Sixteen Tons" is the anthem of the working stiff. Ford didn't write the song and he wasn't the first to record it, but his version from 1955 has worked its way into the assembly-line-addled ears and labor-worn hearts of workers ever since. Whatever [...]

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The Original "Say My Name"

Joe Allison had trouble hearing his wife, Audrey, on the phone. “Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone,” he’d say. One day, she wrote it down so they could turn it into a song. A singer called Jim Reeves recorded that song, “He’ll Have To Go” in October of 1959; it topped the charts by February of 1960.

“Put your sweet lips a little closer to the phone,” Reeves says, only he’s not a husband who can’t hear his wife, but someone whose someone is with someone else: “I’ll tell the man to turn the jukebox way down low,” he sings, “And you can [...]

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The Song That Made The Pill OK

Loretta Lynn wrote and recorded “The Pill” in 1972. Her label didn’t release it until 1975, but three years wasn’t long enough to cool the controversy stoked by Lynn, one of the biggest names in country music, singing the praises of oral contraception to an audience of “unliberated, work-worn American females.” The Associated Press’s lede about the song in February of that year read, “To some, Loretta Lynn’s new song ‘The Pill’ might be too bitter to swallow. But to the country music star it has the sweet taste of success,” selling some 25,000 copies a day. The New York Times even gave it a [...]