Classic Country Singles: Trisha Yearwood, “The Song Remembers When”

“The Song Remembers When”

Trisha Yearwood

Written by Hugh Prestwood

I’ve discussed before how country music, with its distinctive sound and lyrics, and distinct social identification with working-class America, has always had a strong visual identity. Of course, that identity has always been presented in various ways, both in a fashionable sense, and musical – and, by extension, psychological – one.

As such, it’s worth examining how women working within country music’s borders in the ‘90s expressed a new identity built off the strengths of those before them. These artists released songs with strong and enduring messages that went where few others would even dare to go during this time period, from Martina McBride’s expression of and feelings about domestic violence on 1994’s “Independence Day”; their feelings about being women working within country music on Wynonna Judd’s “Girls with Guitars”; or their anger with men on Patty Loveless’ 1993 hit, “Blame It on Your Heart.”

As far as how they convey those identities, then, the devil is in the details. Mary Chapin Carpenter, for example, drew on the strengths of folk performers like Joan Baez and Joni Mitchell to establish herself as a distinguished songwriter first and foremost. On the other hand, performers like Kathy Mattea and Suzy Bogguss, while not primarily establishing themselves as songwriters, knew of the importance a lyric could carry, and emphasized the values of those songs. Their voices had a quality and conviction that distinguished them as artistic interpreters, rather than mere singers.

Trisha Yearwood, of course, is another such example. When “She’s In Love With The Boy” went to No. 1 on the charts in 1991, it was the first time a female artist’s debut single had topped the charts since 1964. When the eventual album sold a million copies, it was the first platinum debut from a female artist in over 20 years. “I don’t like wimpy lyrics. I like to find things women don’t normally say or are afraid to say,” Yearwood said of her own “That’s What I Like About You.”

In other words, unlike past eras, where men would tell women how to dress and act to “make it” in the industry, women were now following their own impulses, and the genre was all the better for it.

After a successful debut, Yearwood created two ballad-heavy albums, Hearts in Armor and The Song Remembers When, which, for what it’s worth, contain some of her best work. The title track for the latter album, written by Hugh Prestwood, is one such example of an artist completely owning an interpretation of a masterclass work. Prestwood drew inspiration for the song from reading Anne Sexton’s “Music Swims Back to Me,” which contains a line that reads, “The song remembers more than I.”

Certain lines, like the first one, “I was standing at the counter, I was waiting for the change,” were inspired by real by real moments in Prestwood’s life. That one in particular came after Prestwood, sitting in a restaurant, just happened to hear his first song on the radio, Randy Travis’ “Hard Rock Bottom of Your Heart.” The eventual song about a painful breakup apparently wasn’t good enough for producers, though. They wanted him to re-write it to make it more radio-friendly and, in Prestwood’s words, “chorus-y.” He wouldn’t change it, and the fact that no one wanted to record it sent him into a downward spiral.

Kathy Mattea eventually recorded it for an album … only her record label didn’t include it, feeling that it didn’t match the flavor of the overall work. Even before Yearwood recorded the eventual hit-single version, she was pitched the song for a previous album, which didn’t happen either. Today, it’s arguably her signature song.

It’s also worth noting, however, what Prestwood has to say about Yearwood’s version. He felt she really nailed her version, and that he wasn’t sure of any other artist who could even come close to exceeding her take. The song truly is a perfect combination of sorts – from Prestwood’s lyrics, to Garth Fundis’ production that – as Kevin once noted – repeats the introductory guitar hook after Yearwood sings, “When I heard that old familiar music start,” to Yearwood herself. She not only had the emotive presence needed to sell the devastating sentiment, but the pure power as well. A song about a song that deserves rightful mention as a classic recording.

9 Comments

  1. Hate to be nitpicky, but the first line is “I was standing at the counter…”, not “on the corner”.

    Great write-up as usual. I’m really enjoying all the Trisha Yearwood coverage.

  2. J.R.,

    You’re right. I usually write either very late at night or very early in the morning, and it obviously doesn’t always work out for me. Ha! Thanks for the correction.

  3. As I’ve stated on this site many times, I absolutely love this song, and I can never say enough good things about it. It’s simply one of my all time favorite songs, and it’s one of Trisha’s finest, if not her finest moment on record. The last paragraph pretty much sums it up, and I thought Kevin’s mentioning of the guitar hook in the intro was pretty cool, as it’s something I didn’t pick up on before.

    Also loved reading about the real life events that inspired some of the lyrics Hugh Prestwood came up with and how the song eventually found it’s way to Trisha. I do remember hearing about Kathy Mattea recording it, but I had no idea it had been pitched to Trisha for an earlier album. All I can say is thank goodness Hugh didn’t listen to the producers and change the song any. Btw, “Hard Rock Bottom Of Your Heart,” is another one of my favorite Hugh Prestwood songs.

    Great job again, as always!

  4. I have to confess that, until this particular song and album of hers, I really didn’t take Trisha very seriously. I suppose it was the, for lack of a better word, “hype” over “She’s In Love With The Boy”. I wasn’t wild about that song, or her, at least not when both were brand new in 1991. “The Song Remembers When” was proof that there was more to her. Given that she was one of a huge class of female singers to have come out of this unprecedented period of growth of women in country music, the 1990’s, she was able to distinguish herself in a lot of ways.

    In essence, she came around at the right time; she probably wouldn’t have been able to make it with this kind of material if she were a new artist today (IMHO).

  5. Brandy Clark covered this on a livestream a while ago and I was unfamiliar with the song. I loved it and immediately looked up Trisha’s version. I’ve played it frequently ever since. I agree the lyrics and her vocals are a per match here. Thanks for the background on the song.

  6. Erik – I shudder to think how Trisha and many of the other 90’s women would fare in today’s climate in mainstream country. One of the biggest differences between the 90’s and now, is that much of the music in the 90’s was still actually meant for mature adults. Even most of the women in that decade were already in their late 20’s or well into their 30’s when they broke through (that is until LeAnn Rimes came along). Today, it’s bad enough that’s so little women are getting airplay on country radio, but it’s even worse for mature women with mature songs and something to say.

    BTW, I’m also glad Trisha started moving on to more material not too long after having success with “She’s In Love With The Boy.” She was probably being pressured by some folks at the label to record more SILWTB’s, but thankfully she followed her heart instead.

  7. I tend to evaluate singers by the quality of their voices as the first consideration, with everything else secondary. Even with an inconsequential song like “She’s In Love With The Boy”, Trisha stood out from most of the other female vocalist of the 1990. She is indeed within the top ranks of female vocalists

  8. @ Jamie: Yes, it’s now both a combination of a certain amount of misogyny (“Tomatogate”, anybody?) and ageism, which has kind of affected country music for three decades now. Trisha’s most recent album Every Girl was a great representation of who she is now, and who she likely always was at heart. It’s unfortunate that country radio, for reasons that seem so terribly presumptive, stops playing women when they get past 45 or 50.

    And as for the record company folks trying to get her to find another “She’s In Love With The Boy”–well, they ought to know better than that, that you only find one such song with that out-of-the-box chart impact from any one artist ever. Trisha was indeed right to land songs that reflected her own maturity and her own heart, like “The Song Remembers When” (IMHO).

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