Don't Listen Too Closely
Every pop-country song contains two basic parts: the lyrics and the music. Usually, it’s the lyrics that capture the listener first, and then the melody creeps into the audience’s unconsciousness and plants itself there. Soon, one can’t think of certain words or phrases without the tune intruding. Both elements are important, but the conventional wisdom that says it’s the words that sell the song. Jim Lauderdale better hope that’s not true. His latest effort (actually he has released two new albums simultaneously, this one is country, and the other is bluegrass) has some fine self-penned tunes, but the lyrics are truly awful. How much is Lauderdale’s fault is unclear. All songs are credited to Odie Blackmon/Jim Lauderdale except for two, which are listed as by Leslie Satcher/Jim Lauderdale and by Shawn Camp/Jim Lauderdale. That may not mean other people wrote the words and Lauderdale wrote the melodies—they may have collaborated on both parts together—but boy, the lyrics suck.
Rather than catalogue the complete list of stinkeroos, let me just offer a few examples of the different types of problems. Before I do, let me make one thing clear. Despite the bad lyrics, this is a pretty good record. Lauderdale understands how to capture the feeling of a song in both his vocal delivery and his guitar playing. If one heard this album on a crowded dance floor or a noisy barroom where the words were indistinct, one would be mightily impressed with Lauderdale’s overall grace and style. The individual songs succeed despite their verbal limitations because Lauderdale sings each note as if it mattered. He doesn’t over emote, but makes plain when he is sad or happy by bending or stretching the syllables when needed. His guitar playing understates the emotions expressed as if stoically presenting a manly front while the singer narrates the situation.
But oy, the words…. There are three basic problems. First, conceptually the lyrics reveal a lack of imagination. Several of the songs have promising premises. One says, his girlfriend is in a “Honky Tonk Mood Again”, but this leads nowhere. The result of his girl’s wildness is—she wants to go out and dance all night—no drinking, fighting, sex with other partners, etc. Gee whiz. And then if one is feeling good, as in righteous, there’s “I Met Jesus in a Bar”. Lauderdale receives no revelations, and indeed all Jesus does is listen. He might as well have met Jesus in a church or a bus. Then there’s “Two More Wishes”. What would you wish for if you left the party with the person you thought were your true love? Suffice it to say, whatever you are imagining is more exciting than what Lauderdale was thinking.
Then there’s the bad grammar Perhaps that’s meant to appeal to real country people who are supposedly stupid and don’t talk right, but that stereotype should have been obsolete years ago. A title like “If You Never Seen Her Smile” is just the most overt example of this type of error, but there are many. But the most egregious faults are the banal images and trite sentiments repeatedly expressed. Consider “She’s Got Some Magic Going On” with a quatrain like “Must have a potion in her pocket/she makes me fly just like a rocket/She took a wounded dove/And healed it with her love” that wouldn’t even pass muster in a junior high school poetry class. Unfortunately, the record contains lots of similar uninspired verse, as evidenced by titles like “Playing on My Heart Strings”, “Right Where You Want Me”, “You Can’t Stop Her” and other songs whose fill-in-the-blank lyrics are clear by the song titles.
Artists like Dwight Yoakam, George Strait, the Dixie Chicks, Patty Loveless, and Ralph Stanley have covered Lauderdale’s material in the past and even had best selling records with them. Lauderdale’s latest album reveals his many talents, but the title reveals an unintended irony. It’s called Country Super Hits Volume One. One hopes Lauderdale is being funny rather than hopeful. My guess is that none of the songs will ever hit the top of the charts. That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard, just not too closely.