August 11, 2006
Today a new feature debuts that will support the oft-repeated contention that country music deals with real life more deeply than nearly every other genre, with only hip-hop rivaling it in that regard. Taboo will explore a different element of society that is often not talked about in pleasant company, and show how country music has done so, warts and all. First up, prostitution.
When Randy Travis was looking for material for his country gospel album Rise & Shine, he was surprised to hear this opening line on a demo tape: “A farmer and preacher, a hooker and a teacher, riding on a midnight bus bound for Mexico.” Not many gospel songs revolve around prostitutes, but you may be surprised how often these ladies of the night pop up in country music history.
Travis’ hit “Three Wooden Crosses” tells the story of a hooker who is the only survivor of a bus crash that claims the life of a preacher, who places his blood-stained bible in her hands before she dies. The narrator is revealed to be the son of that hooker, who read to him every night from that very bible.
It’s a classic tale of redemption, an unusual happy ending for a life walking the streets, at least in a country song. The only other memorable country song about a prostitute that has a happy ending is Bobbie Gentry’s “Fancy”, where a mother pushes her daughter into prostitution to lead her to a better life (“Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, and they’ll be nice to you,” her mother implores.) This song is also unique in that Fancy doesn’t earn redemption through spiritual salvation. Rather, her line of work leads her to great financial success and personal wealth. It’s better known today as a Reba McEntire classic. McEntire jazzed up the arrangement and her fiery vocal created what is arguably her strongest piece of work.
But enough about those happy hookers. In the annals of country music, prostitution has been mostly associated with the downtrodden, seedy parts of town and has been used to illustrate desperation and bad choices on the part of those women, when they’re given a back story at all.
In most country songs, prostitutes appear only on the periphery. In the Willie Nelson #1 hit “My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys”, the narrator indicates how far he’s gotten away from his dreams by noting he’s been “picking up hookers instead of my pen.” The tragic hero of Johnny Cash’s “The Man Who Couldn’t Cry” is “laughed at by a whore”, but is pleased in the afterlife, when he finds that “cancer robbed the whore of her charm.” Joe Ely is on the run from a “whore callin’ my name” in “I’m On The Run Again.”
The prostitute Alice from Dallas plays a bigger part in the classic Guy Clark tune “Let Him Roll”, but she’s the villain, choosing a life of the night over the settling down with the man who loves her:
Well he said, ” Son,” he always called me son
He said, ” Life for you has just begun”
Then he told me a story that I’d heard before
How he fell in love with a Dallas whore
He could cut through the years to the very night
That it all ended in a whorehouse fight
When she turned his last proposal down
In favor of being a girl-about-town
She shows up at his funeral in the end:
The Welfare people provided the priest
And a couple from the mission down the street
Sang “Amazing Grace” and nobody cried
Except some lady in black way off to the side
Well we all left and she was still standing there
The black veil covering her silver hair
Ol’ One-Eyed John said, ” Her name is Alice.
She used to be a whore in Dallas.”
Let him roll, boys, let him roll
I’ll bet he’s gone to Dallas, rest his soul
Let him roll, boys, let him roll
He always thought that heaven was just a Dallas whore
Female artists have generally been more sympathetic to those women of the night, particularly in the earlier years of country music. Barbara Fairchild sang a requiem for an aging whore who is too old to entice customers in “She Can’t Give It Away.” Jeannie C. Riley sang the saga of a woman who followed her man to Dallas and he was nowhere to be found, and now she’s on “The Back Side of Dallas”, “where every taxi driver knows her name.”
Both Waylon Jennings and Dolly Parton covered The Animals’ “House of the Rising Sun”. Jennings was the customer in his version, Parton the whorehouse employee. Parton, who was always fascinated by the whores in her hometown and modeled her image after them, often dealt with dark and seedy issues in her early work, and on the classic “My Blue Ridge Mountain Boy”, she’s longing for that innocent boy as she turns tricks to make ends meet in the big city:
New Orleans held things in store,
Things I’d never bargained for
Every night a different man knocks on my door
But late at night, when all is still
I can hear a whippoorwill
As I long for my blue ridge mountain boy.
One contemporary artist, Shelby Lynne uses the whore narrative as a slur to a gold-digging woman in her song “Buttons & Beaus”:
Your mama’s a gold-digger
For money she’ll spread
Her sticky fingers
All over his bed
She’ll do what he wants
And he’ll be a king
On her mind is the golden ring
Money changer, money changer
Don’t matter who she just gives it to strangers
Money changer, money changer
She’s a taker, and dirty knows no danger
Winds never change her
She directs the flow
Weather never worries
A low down ho
She’ll steal what he wants
And make him waste time
She’ll put on the language
Make him lose his mind
Finally, prostitution shows its continued currency in country music on the latest Todd Snider album, which features what is possibly the most sympathetic encounter with a prostitute ever recorded by a male country artist. Snider is a hustler that runs into an old high school love of his that is turning tricks at the hotel he’s staying at, and agrees to hang with her for the night “so long as that big guy out in the car don’t mind.” When he reveals he’s been carrying a flame for her by keeping her picture in his wallet, he breaks the tension by saying “Don’t get all worked up over this, you haven’t even told me what your new name is.”
Prostitution is one excellent example of country music’s historic willingness to delve in to the darker elements of human nature, sometimes going as far as to humanize the most commonly degraded members of society. Look for more discussions of country music taboos in the future at Country Universe.