Unpopular Culture is a new series that considers working-class and radical culture. We will present essays, capsule reviews, and historical accounts in an effort to reinvent our understanding of the relation between culture and politics.
Johnny Paycheck’s 1965 single “The Girl They Talk About,” written by Larry Lee, finds its freshly jilted narrator reacting to rumors about his erstwhile lover.
Now she’s gone, so carry on
Tell me the latest evil about her
‘Cause like the old saying goes
Absence makes the tongue go louder
And in the presence of her absence
The worst in her comes out
It always seems, the girl in my dreams
Is the girl they talk about
She’s gone, but she leaves traces. Memories, dreams, rumors. She is talked about. As Lacan wrote, “through the word—which is already a presence made of absence—absence itself comes to be named.” This is why there are country songs.
A country song names something that has gone missing. Your first love, your only home, your last dollar. The singer is left to reckon with empty space, in words that inevitably fall short. If the lack produces desire, it also produces speech. Absence makes the tongue go louder.
As steel guitarist Lloyd Green remembers it, New York businessman Aubrey Mayhew financed his new independent record label, Little Darlin’, with gold coins of unknown provenance. He carried them to the bank in a case lined with purple velvet, returning with a leather pouch of $100 bills.
It was a gamble, but Mayhew’s ace in the hole was Donald Lytle. Born in a small village in Ohio, Lytle spent his youth hopping freight trains, before trying to clean up his act by joining the Navy. He was eventually thrown out for brawling with superior officers and subsequently escaping from the brig so frequently it wasn’t worth the trouble to hold him. By the mid-sixties, he was an aspiring country singer stuck playing bass for George Jones and Ray Price, occasionally stepping up to the microphone for a scene-stealing harmony vocal.
Mayhew had heard of Lytle and his remarkable singing voice, and set out to Nashville to track him down. Finally finding him sleeping under the Shelby Street Bridge, Mayhew christened him Johnny Paycheck, ostensibly after a Chicago boxer, but perhaps really after his wishes for the singer’s role in his own future. He borrowed the rest of George Jones’s touring band for sessions, and stood back while his new employees produced some of the greatest country music on record.
The pitch black humor of the Little Darlin’ material is unparalleled, reaching nihilistic depths that bring it closer to film noir than to most popular music. The band swings like a drunken lurch and twangs like an anguished howl, bursting at the seams without dropping a stitch. The singer, who makes no attempt to disguise his unrefined accent, moves from a fragile sigh to a lustful growl and back, often within the same syllable.
Like many of their contemporaries, Mayhew and Paycheck wrote and selected material that dealt with despair, betrayal, and self-destruction, themes that took country music further from its gospel roots than ever before. As Mayhew would later tell journalist David Hoekstra, “I didn’t want to do what anybody else was doing, so we came up with the most extreme things we could.” This extremism is openly stated in Paycheck’s final Little Darlin’ single: “If I’m Gonna Sink (I Might As Well Go to the Bottom).”
But the great country songs of the era shared another defining characteristic, in their emphasis on linguistic ambiguity. Like their speakers, the words of country songs are promiscuous. If you’re speaking or writing prose, when dialect clashes with standard language, when a figure of speech contradicts literal description, when a seemingly straightforward phrase has more than one meaning, you probably call it a mistake. If you’re writing a country song, you might call it a chorus.
Linguists have a name for a statement with a seemingly inevitable destination that ends up somewhere else: a garden path sentence. It’s typical in comedy, as in a million Groucho Marx lines: “Outside of a dog, a book is a man’s best friend. Inside of a dog, it’s too dark to read.” This device is also called a “paraprosdokian,” which means “contrary to expectation,” though there is some controversy over whether this is really a term from classical rhetoric or a modern neologism.
In any case, rhetorical garden paths are endemic to country music, often taking the form of deconstructed idiomatic expressions. In George Strait’s “You Look So Good in Love,” by Glen Ballard, Roury Michael Bourke, and Kerry Chater, the word “in” is a hinge, turning from a physical descriptor to a state of being. Liz Anderson’s “(My Friends Are Gonna Be) Strangers,” as sung by Merle Haggard, includes a line in which both the figurative and literal connotations of an idiom are simultaneously at play: “The only thing I can count on now is my fingers.”
These phrases work by refusing to take a metaphor at face value. If a metaphor is a substitution of one thing for another, leaving the word itself absent in its own description, the double entendres of country songs are the return of the repressed. Often this deliberate ambiguity is used to destabilize a song’s seemingly straightforward outer surface: its title. “That girl who waits on tables/Used to wait for me at home,” as Bob Parker wrote for Ronnie Milsap; or, “It was always so easy to find an unhappy woman/‘Till I started looking for mine,” as Sanger D. Shafer and A. L. Owens wrote for Moe Bandy; or, “On the other hand/There’s a golden band,” as Don Overstreet and Paul Schlitz wrote for Randy Travis. What is initially displaced by a familiar colloquialism is excavated by a pun.
Such linguistic destabilization can also take the form of metonym. Instead of one thing being substituted for another, they are syntactically linked— take Ashley Monroe’s brilliant 2013 song, written with Shane McAnally, “Two Weeks Late.” A song that starts out being about getting behind on the rent changes subject when the title interrupts the idiom: “a dollar short and a day late.” The link here is not what the phrases signify, but simply the word “late,” which functions as a trap door to meaning. The chorus becomes a performance of parapraxis, the slip of the tongue that reveals an unacknowledged truth: “I’m a dollar short and two weeks late.” Once this slip has articulated the song’s latent subject—the singer’s pregnancy—other lines take on new implications (“My mama says it looks like I’ve gained some weight”; “I’ve got a secret that I’m gonna keep”).
Elsewhere, a garden path is extended over several sentences, the standard-bearing classic being George Jones’s “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” Bobby Braddock’s lyrics carry understatement to its most absurd possible extreme, never explicitly mentioning the death of a friend alluded to by every line. By the end, the song’s mordant absurdity begins to seem like the only authentic way to talk about that most serious of subjects.
Their characteristic irony makes country songs a target for those who see them as melodramatic and overwrought, for those who consider them the butt of a joke. But country listeners are sophisticated enough to be in on the joke, to recognize the coincidence of the tragic and the comic as an inexorable consequence of the ambivalence inherent in language.
Joe Poovey’s “He’s in a Hurry (To Get Home to My Wife)” is, among other things, a good joke. The punchline is given away by the title, but it’s a pleasure to wait for each verse to reach it. The words describe a man of seemingly unimpeachable virtue, who denies any temptation that might keep him out too late—away from the woman he’s having an affair with, who happens to be married to the narrator.
This kind of sexual betrayal, whether faced with feeble impotence or violent fantasy, is a constant in the Little Darlin’ catalog. The most notorious Johnny Paycheck single is the self-penned “Pardon Me, I’ve Got Someone to Kill,” in which a man tells a stranger his plans for the murder-suicide of his wife, her lover, and himself. “I know you’ll excuse me if I say good night/I’ve got a promise to fulfill.”
The gothic themes dealt with here fell out of favor in the classic rock era, before resurfacing with metal and gangsta rap. Their presence in country originates in the dark narratives of American folklore, with its murder ballads and biblical allusions. But they were fully relocated to an urban milieu by country music’s greatest songwriter, Hank Williams, in the 1950s. His electrified, rhythmically propulsive music was the setting for stories of losers so beaten down by the world their failures became heroic. The style took on the name of the urban southern bars where his band played and his characters got drunk: honky-tonk.
Richard Leppert and George Lipstiz have written that in a “golden era” of the nuclear family, suburbanization, and consumerism, honky-tonk country singers “avoided the kinds of closure and transcendence historically associated with male subjectivity.”
In that context, Hank Williams’ fatalism and existential despair rebuked dominant social narratives and spoke directly to the internal psychic wounds generated by the gap between lived experience and an ideology that promised universal bliss through the emergence of romance and the family as unchallenged centers of personal life.
As Johnny Paycheck tells it, this disavowal of the absent American Dream can result in psychosis. “(Like Me) You’ll Recover in Time,” written by Paycheck and Mayhew, gives voice to a man addressing his ex-wife—she left him for another man, then eventually that man left her. It’s almost standard stuff for a pop song—say, Del Shannon’s “Hats Off to Larry.” Except in Paycheck’s case, he’s welcoming her to the mental hospital where he’s been committed since her departure. “This jacket they make us wear/Is not so bad, you’ll find.” The song’s final couplet implies that her arrival may have been only a hallucination.
Though the sexual anxiety that troubles these songs comes from a masculine voice, the critique of gender normativity in country music has always been open-ended. In a genre that was never swayed by the rigid notions of authorship that classic rock inherited from modern literature, the inclination to trace a statement to a speaker of a fixed sexual identity is frequently frustrated. In a recurring example, songs that became closely associated with male performers like Merle Haggard or Bob Wills were originally written by women like Liz Anderson or Cindy Walker.
In the case of songs written and performed by men, it’s useful to deploy the Willis Test. As the cultural critic Ellen Willis worked in the sixties and seventies to formulate a strategy for feminist analysis of rock and roll, then dominated by male authors, she strove to avoid a repressive rubric that would silence male expressions of rage, frustration, and sexual aggression. These were necessary to defend because they had to be claimed for women as well.
A passage from a 1971 essay suggests an unheralded musical predecessor to the Bechdel Test for cinema:
A crude but often revealing method of assessing male bias in lyrics is to take a song written by a man about a woman and reverse the sexes. By this test, a diatribe like [the Rolling Stones’] “Under My Thumb” is not nearly so sexist in its implications as, for example, Cat Stevens’ gentle, sympathetic “Wild World”; Jagger’s fantasy of sweet revenge could easily be female—in fact, it has a female counterpart, Nancy Sinatra’s “Boots”—but it’s hard to imagine a woman sadly warning her ex-lover that he’s too innocent for the big bad world out there.
Johnny Paycheck is a rare case of a songwriter demonstrably passing the Willis Test. His song “Apartment #9,” written in collaboration with its original performer Bobby Austin, presents a man describing his meager new accommodations to the woman who threw him out of their shared home. It became best known as a signature hit for Tammy Wynette, herself a great songwriter, whose reversed version is even more credible.
Just as “If I’m Gonna Sink” summarized the Little Darlin’ project at its conclusion, Paycheck’s first hit on the label announced its intentions. “A-11,” by Nashville stalwart Hank Cochran, finds a morose barfly racing to the jukebox to stop a newcomer from putting on his former lover’s favorite song. “It was here she told me that she loved me/And she always played A-11.”
The jukebox is a common symbol in country music; it’s only natural for such a self-reflexive rhetorical style to identify the material circumstances of its existence. Beneath the vulgarity of its vessel, the jukebox is inscrutably complex: a source of testimony, a proliferation of voices, a collection of sensations—all available for a price. The jukebox, like the songs within it, is a commodity suffused with a mess of meaning. Yet it too represents an absence: “Jukebox records don’t play those wedding bells,” as Merle Haggard sang in Snuff Garrett and John Durrill’s “Misery and Gin.”
We might call the jukebox an agalma—the classical Greek term for a plain container holding a precious object. This was how Plato understood the universe. For Lacan, it described the object of desire as such, which is inherently elusive: once had, it can no longer be desired. Never hearing A-11, the song-within-a-song, is the singer’s only way to preserve his desire to hear it. It has to stay in its box.
The song-within-a-song is itself an absence. It is so charged with meaning that to hear it would be unbearable, yet it remains unknown to us. Unlike the Shakespearean play-within-a-play, it does not comment on the text in which it is set, because it is never present. Instead, it stands in for an impossible ideal that the best country songs, like the Little Darlin’ Johnny Paycheck singles, come as close to as an artwork is capable of coming.
Hearing a great country song can be disorienting. Your natural instinct to parse the words along a linear pattern betrays you. You are led in several different directions at once, and your reactions begin to contradict themselves. You find yourself laughing, then shedding a tear, then reaching for a drink, wishing you’d never heard the song in the first place. Then you walk back up to the jukebox with another quarter.