Among all the recent country songs about slipping off into the backwoods to party or fool around, none creeps me out like Dierks Bentley’s “The Woods”. It’s a sweet song, both a come-on to a lover and fond reminiscing on youthful freedom, but his “what happens in the woods stays in the woods” chorus sparks something else in my brain, perhaps put there in the Friday the 13th ‘80s.
It sets off an image reel of scary bad things happening in the woods, bringing back so many televised images of teenagers running for their lives in a place where no one can hear them scream. When Bentley sings, “our little secret’s safe in these trees”, I can’t help but think of dead bodies wrapped in plastic, buried under the leaves, and Bentley singing the line with an evil grin. Then I think back through the song, remember him telling her to leave her iPhone at home, and all of his “c’mon baby”s, and I shiver. I start to think of the song as a portrait of a psychopath.
Of course you may listen to the same song and hear nothing but a tender, nostalgic ode. But let your imagination run and it’ll spook you – and then let that feeling influence how you hear the rest of the album, and you’ll keep getting spooked. You’ll start hearing more frightening things between the lines – like when he sings, “I wanna be so close / you can wear my skin like a new set of clothes” (“Breathe You In”); his death fixation during the lusty “Gonna Die Young”, where a hearse is following him around; or the song “5-1-5-0”, where he gets so obsessed with a woman that he goes insane. “This little bit of you I got / it ain’t good enough!”, he sings, and you wonder both what he wants and what he has.
Popular music is in part one big story of romantic obsession, and the singers are often telling stories through song that walk that thin line that wobbles between passion and crazy. The sentiment behind most of the love songs that you think of as sweet would drive you quickly away if someone was actually saying those things to you. Country music’s history of intense men makes it especially easy to listen to the music this way, to imagine the essential story of country music as a horror tale. That’s even if you set aside songs that are purposely scary, where the singer is taking the role of a murderer; like Johnny Cash singing “Delia’s Gone”, for example. Also set aside songs where revenge or violence is used as a political metaphor or evocation of the old West (say, Toby Keith and Willie Nelson’s “Beer for My Horses”). I’m more interested in inadvertent crazy, the ways we can hear hidden stories within a song, hear connotations and suggestions that the singer and songwriters perhaps didn’t intend and might not even be aware of.
For example, Keith Urban’s degree of romantic obsession freaks me out, especially the songs where he’s declaring his love for a woman he sees walking down the street, who doesn’t know him at all, like in “Standing Right in Front of You”, where he watches her walk by and gets mad that she won’t stop and proclaim her love for him. In songs like that, Urban can go quickly from seeming like a beefcake loverman to an unhinged stalker. Take that perspective – that of a man who builds whole fantasy worlds around a stranger – and transfer it into his other songs, and something like “I Want to Put You in a Song” sounds like a threat. The woman in his bed in the background of the cover of Get Closer, is she alive?
It’s not the brutish macho cowboys who I know could beat me up that scare me most in country music. It’s what’s hiding behind the perfectly coiffed hair and big smiles of the modern country-pop star that makes me nervous. Like, for example, the toothy grin of Jake Owen on the cover of his Barefoot Blue Jean Night album. There’s something I don’t trust in that smile. When he beckons a girl to take a car ride to “Heaven” with him or calls a woman in the middle of the night and tells her his heart is bursting with love that he needs to give her, his creep side comes out into the open.
Sometimes, it’s more a sleazy vibe than a violent one that I get from these singers, like Luke Bryan in “Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye”, essentially breaking up with a girl and then asking her to give him something he’ll remember her by. “Girl rest your head / one more time in my bed”, he sings. I say, Girl, run, and fast! Elsewhere on his LP Tailgates and Tanlines, he keeps ordering women to dance – on his tailgate, on the roof of his car – to the point that it feels like a pathology, or at least a fetish. His “I Knew You That Way” covers a one-night-stand, but one where they might not both be completely willing participants: “I held you closer than I had a right to hold”.
Like “The Woods” and other backwoods songs, Bryan’s “Muckalee Creek Water” is mostly about escape, but there’s still something amiss. The menacing hard-rock guitars tell me he’s not idling away on a lazy Sunday, but running away from someone. He leaves his truck and phone behind, hides his face behind the brim of his hat and gets in a boat he had hidden sometime earlier. He remembers fondly when his dad taught him to kill crawdads, then kills squirrels, then kill rabbits. And then…what, or who, else might he kill?
A longing for peaceful isolation, far from city life, is what drives songs like that one. Perhaps I’m too much of a city boy to keep my imagination from running wild about life in the country. Then again, I’ve visited the beach a lot, and I still don’t fully trust Kenny Chesney’s version of escape, either. He jokes about going “coastal” on us, not “postal” (on the Hemmingway’s Whiskey track “Coastal”), but is there a real difference? “You got to watch that man / he’ll go coastal on you”, is a punchline, but it also sounds like a real warning to me. Instead of pulling out a gun, he’s going to pull out sunglasses, sunscreen and a handful of sun. And he’s gonna be insane.
On Chesney’s albums, he “goes coastal” so often that I find it hard to believe him. Everything in his beachside anecdotes sounds so perfectly manicured, from the beach itself to the wise fisherman dispensing life advice to him at the bar, that it has to be fiction. Combine those beach vacations with the other dreams that run through every Chesney album – mainly, nostalgia for high school – and I start to imagine him not as the stud on the beach but as a daydreaming, middle-aged employee at a travel agency, staring at photos of exotic locales and creating his own stories around them.
No doubt Kenny Chesney would take offense to that, just as Bentley wouldn’t like to know that it’s possible to hear his songs as narratives of a psychopath. But imaging their meaning my have a darker edge is possible, and that possibility is what makes music exciting. There’s a balance of power between the singer and the listener, and it can shift either way. There’s a prominent fallacy when it comes to songwriting that says someone writes a song with one message in mind, someone sings it, and that message is delivered to the listener intact. The truth is, there are plenty of points where that message changes, if ever it were solid in the fast place, and a key one – the most important one – is in the listener’s brain. There are many ways to listen to a song. Listen from every possible direction, every possible perspective, and see what you can find.
A warning, though: Those characters coming out of your car radio, following you on the hidden speakers as you walk through Walgreens, just might start get weirder on you. Those tunes that you thought innocuous might haunt you as you sleep, might terrify you once and for all.