Sweet Potato Pie and I Shut My Mouth: The Narrative Craft of Country Music.

As a writer, I often find myself delving into other mediums of art for inspiration, longing to improve my craft by taking cues from the masters of forms of media outside my own. Literature and film have always been close friends, swapping plots and characters freely, but often I find country music just as inspiring and insightful as some of my favorite books when crafting a story’s rhythm, imagery, tone, and setting. Listed are four songs with exceptionally good narratives and characters in which writers could take some cues.

  1. “Paradise”—John Prine

    Country music doesn’t get more literary than John Prine. For over thirty years now, Prine, a past Poet Laureate and Grammy winner, has been creating characters that have a vividness to rival some of Faulkner’s, but his most essential cut will always be “Paradise” from his first album. The narrator of the story, assumedly Prine, tells of taking trips as a child to his parents’ hometown, a place “beside the green river…where the air smells like snakes.” Reflecting on and longing for the places of youth has a long tradition in American literature, including in To Kill and Mockingbird and Huckleberry Finn, and “Paradise” taps into the same sentiment with the lines: “When I die, I’ll let my soul roll on up to the Rochester Dam, and I’ll be half way to heaven with paradise waiting, just five miles away from where ever I am.” “Paradise” is undeniably American in both theme and imagery, and is a song in which Prine secures himself as a master of words.

  2. “Bob”—Drive-By Truckers

    Creative writing professors often advise their students that good stories put the conflict in the beginning, and I can think of few better example than when “Bob” starts: “Bob goes to church every Sunday, every Sunday that the fish aren’t biting. Bob never has to get dinner with the preacher because Bob never bothered getting married.” Few stories and fewer songs start that compellingly. “Bob” fleshes out its protagonist so clearly that it’s almost intimidating how well and concisely it’s done. So much of a character is fleshed out by a simple line like “He likes to drink a beer or two every now and again, he always had more dogs than he ever had friends.” “Bob” is pure literary elegance.

  3. “Cold Water”—Tom Waits

    Ok, ok, ok. I know Tom Waits isn’t exactly a country artist, but is liberal use of slide guitar, Appalachian junkyard banjos, double bass, and tales of heartbreak and longing make him an honorary member in my personal Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and The Carter Family. But no matter what genre of music is brave of enough to call Waits its own, the scenes of degradation and waste in “Cold Water” make it feel like a companion piece to John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row or Cormac McCarthy’s Suttrree, as all deal with squatters and ramblers struggling to stay afloat amongst urban decay. It’s also hard to top lines like: “I look forty-seven but I’m twenty-four. They’ve shooed me away from here every time before, but I’m watching TV in the window of a furniture store.”

  4. “Greenville”—Lucinda Williams

    Lucinda Williams is to country music what Flannery O’Connor is to the short story. Both womens’ work is so powerful and wonderfully jarring that it’s hard to imagine a time without them, as their influence on their respective mediums is so profound. Much like O’Connor’s work, “Greenville” is small tragedy coursing with both dark comic undertones and naked emotionalism. There are few better lines in contemporary country music than, “You drink hard liquor, come on strong, loose your temper whenever someone looks at you wrong.”

20 thoughts on “Sweet Potato Pie and I Shut My Mouth: The Narrative Craft of Country Music.

  1. Lovely. I just started seriously listening to country (classic and contemporary), and I keep having to explain to skeptical hipster friends why it’s rather brilliant. This is my new weapon.

  2. I think what you are saying when Emmylou Harris joined Lucinda Williams for a live version of Lucinda’s song “Greenville” in October 2010, it still didn’t make it less of a tragedy?

  3. It’s really too bad that you won’t hear any of these folks on country radio, and thus, only a minority of country fans get to hear this great stuff. Most country listeners are only exposed to Toby Keith’s pseudo patriotism and Jason Aldean’s trying-too-hard redneckness. Prine and Waitts are legends as far as I’m concerned and DBTs are one of my favorites. Lucinda Williams is in a league all her own. Great post.

  4. IMO, “Paradise” is probably the greatest country song written in the last 50 years. Country music is all about the ties that bind, the recontextualizing of folk traditions, the carrying forward of the old stuff – Prine writes a story about his childhood home in Muhlenburg County, which ties the personal narrative to directly to Muhlenberg County native Merle Travis’ coal mining songs (“Dark as a Dungeon”, “9 pound hammer”) 30 years before it, songs which transformed “hillbilly” music into country music and bluegrass. it is a great song and Prine is a great songwriter because he gets what country music should be about.

    1. I totally agree but part of me sometimes thinks that the super mainstream stuff is more powerful in a way, as it has some weird ability to connect with so many people. I’m not really into it popular country, but I think their is power in appealing to the populous.

    1. Yeah man. Country music just acts faux naive a lot of the times, but there are lot of hot dog songwriters. I think rock n’ roll often forgets the importants of lyrics and story, which is a shame.

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