Saturday, August 18, 2007

Loser friendly and alt country punning

Language-oriented blogs haven't plowed the rich soil that is country music very much, though Geoff Pullum's note on Language Log almost a year ago is striking, quoting "a contemptuous Bob Newhart joke about country music":
I don't like country music, but I don't mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means ‘put down’.
As Pullum points out: "Once again, it's vocabulary size as the measure of intelligence and wisdom and culture, isn't it?" Direct vocabulary building is for SAT overachievers and such of course. It's like getting muscles in the gym: Some stuff you should come by honest (OK, -ly, if you want), through clean hard work. If you've ever taught languages, you know that vocab tests don't tell you much. A better indication of skill is creative use of language, the ability to play with it.

Country artists trade constantly on how they play with language. If you don't listen to country, or the revival of real country artistry known as "alt.country", "No Depression" and by other names, you're probably thinking of work like the Bellamy Brothers':
If I said you had a beautiful body, would you hold it against me?
Or maybe songs like Bobby Bare's that pun endlessly on truck, trucker, truckin', see esp. compound forms in mother. As much as I love those classics, the new guys are cold brilliant.

I thought about this topic while listening to David Ball's "Loser Friendly", from his album Amigo (he got known first as part of Uncle Walt's Band, I think.) It's set in a bar, like the Derailers' brilliant "(I'm) Takin' a bar exam" and a million other songs. The pun on user friendly is easy enough that the phrase is certainly part of general usage now (it has an Urban Dictionary entry). But, man, does he work that little pun hard for a few verses — sadly, the lyrics aren't on-line and I haven't transcribed them. But I can smell stale beer.

Then, minutes after hearing Ball, Banjo & Sullivan came on. They are masters of this art, like the particular song:
"I'm At Home Getting Hammered (While She's Out Getting Nailed)"
See here for the full lyrics.

What does it take for poetic genius to be recognized?

8 comments:

Erin said...

When I listened to country (nigh on ten years ago now) I remember enjoying the plays on words often employed there, but I never really thought about it as more than what any good lyricist would do. Now I'd say many country songwriters and stage musical lyricists have a lot in common that I enjoy.

Mr. Verb said...

Never thought about comparing them to stage musicals, but that probably works. If people figure that (real,not Kenny Chesney/Garth Brooks) country lyrics count as 'good', then I'm happy enough. Thanks.

Pippin, the Gentle Pup said...

Hey Mr. Verb,

Aaron Fox has talked a lot about country music and language (but he doesn't have a blog that I know of). Have you ever listened to "Back When" by Toby Keith? It seems like a kind of standard country nostaligia--and then you get:

Back when a hoe was a hoe
Coke was a coke
And crack's what you were doing
When you were cracking jokes
Back when a screw was a screw
The wind was all that blew
And when you said I'm down with that
Well it meant you had the flu

And it's suddenly about race relations (or somethig like that), but still nicely veiled as nostalgia.

Mr. Verb said...

Oh, yeah, good point -- although I haven't read the book yet. Catherine Davies at the University of Alabama has done some work on language and identity too, much of it about the band called "Alabama". So, yeah, there's some good academic work, but I don't know of much blogging.

Took me a minute to figure it out, but "Back when" is Tim McGraw, not Toby Keith, by the way. I didn't recognize the songwriters when I found them, but turns out, the first author, Stan Lynch, started out playing with Tom Petty. No idea what this means, but fwiw ...

Nice pic, by the way.

Pippin, the Gentle Pup said...

I don't know why I wrote Toby Keith--I know it's Tim McGraw (I think it's my own freudian slip of merging the singer of Courtesy of the Red White and Blue with Back When). D'oh.

Nice blog by the way

Mr. Verb said...

Thanks ... trust me, when you get old, you'll be glad you remember two relevant names to get confused.

pc said...

It's funny you mention this...at the LSA institute, a few of us were talking about how it's kind of weird that hip-hop is such a hot topic in sociolinguistics, whereas country music - arguably just as interesting from a language-and-culture kind of perspective - really doesn't have much work done on it (save Davies, as you've mentioned). I didn't know about Fox's work and will have to check it out!

Mr. Verb said...

Good question. I suspect this plays a role: Country was traditionally about social and economic class, in fair part. Issues of class have been pushed off the radar, for all intents and purposes. (When George W. Bush can peddle himself as a good old boy ... game over.) Fox tackles that topic head on, which is much of why I really need to read the book.

The rise of 'NASCAR accent' alone would be worth some attention.