As I scanned the list, I saw expected gems like Tim McGraw’s “My Old Friend”, along with curious selections such as Shania Twain’s “Come On Over.” Even #2 on the list was questionable: Garth Brooks’ “Friends in Low Places” is as much about friendship as “The Dance” is about the Fox Trot.
Left off the list completely is the country song that I think best describes the nature of friendship. John Michael Montgomery’s “Friends” may not have the scope and death of Plato’s Lysis, but it captures the essence of friendships as well as anything else I’ve seen this side of ancient Greek philosophy.
The framework of the song is that a woman has told Montgomery that she just wants to be friends, which he describes as “a newly sharpened blade” and “a dagger to the heart of the promises we made.” Well-written stuff, to be sure, but not exactly ground that wasn’t already efficiently covered by Lobo.
It’s in the chorus, when he describes what he fears their relationship will dwindle down to, that friendship is perfectly defined:
Friends get scattered by the wind
Tossed upon the waves
Lost for years on end
Slowly drift apart
They give away their hearts
Maybe call you now and then
But you wanna be just friends
As much as the artificiality of today’s social networking may obscure it – You have 864 Friends! – all friendships have an ebb and flow that is directly impacted by time, distance, and common goals and interests. Even many marriages do not survive the life changes that occur as people grow older, so a relationship as tenuously constructed as “friends” is far less likely to survive such changes.
Montgomery’s best known for his wedding standards, but I’d argue that he made his most believable and long-lasting statement on an entirely different type of relationship.
ater-150×150.jpg” alt=”” width=”148″ height=”148″ />Yard Sale
Written by Larry Bastian and Dewayne Blackwell
Great country songs can find heartache in the most mundane places. For George Jones, it was “a lip print on a half-filled cup of coffee that you poured but didn’t drink.” For Sammy Kershaw, a nineties star heavily influenced by the Possum, it was a family picnic table of discounted items.
“They’re sorting through what’s left of you and me,” he sings, and like in the Jones classic “A Good Year For the Roses,” it’s the steady observation of sights and sounds that tell the story. As he notes that there must be half the town on the grass and on the sidewalk, he muses, “Ain’t it funny how a broken home can bring the prices down?”
It’s casually revealed that his departed love didn’t even bother to finish the laundry, as one customer picks up “two summer dresses in the backyard on the line.” And with one more quick sale revealed – “There goes the baby’s wind-up, and the mirror down the hall,” we learn that he’s been left behind by a full family, not just a wife.
It could be maudlin in lesser hands, but Kershaw’s understated delivery matches the restraint that he must be forcing upon himself. Can’t cry in front of your customers, but the pain is evident as he notes that his very reason for being is just a good bargain to everyone else around him “paying yard sale prices for each golden memory.”
This single wasn’t a huge radio hit, but it helped power his debut album to gold and eventually platinum. There was simply too much good stuff in 1992 competing for those radio slots. But it’s stood the test of time more than the other three hits from his debut album, all of which charted higher. It’s worth rediscovering, or discovering for the first time if you missed it.
1994 Written by Matraca Berg, Suzy Bogguss, and Gary Harrison
There’s a term that has gathered strength over the past decade: the quarter-life crisis. It describes that phase in life where the idealism of what you thought your life would be collides with what reality has in store for you. Reconciling the two is needed to get beyond this point of life, and adulthood completely sets in once such reconciliation has been accomplished.
A significant difference between the major female artists of the early nineties and those of today is that they’re on opposite sides of that quarter-life marker. Take at the ages in which today’s newer female stars enjoyed their first top twenty hit: Carrie Underwood, 22; Miranda Lambert, 22; Kellie Pickler, 20; Taylor Swift, 17.
Now compare that to the women who broke through from 1989-1992: Suzy Bogguss, 34; Pam Tillis, 33; Mary Chapin Carpenter, 31; Wynonna, 27; Trisha Yearwood, 26. Unlike today, there were also several additional female artists who were also on the radio – Reba McEntire, Kathy Mattea, Patty Loveless, and Tanya Tucker – all of whom were in their thirties.
“Age ain’t nothin’ but a number,” Aaliyah once sang, but the musical output of these two crops of artists suggest otherwise. “Hey Cinderella” was a top five hit for Bogguss in 1994, and perhaps best exemplifies the different perspectives of these two generations of women.
“We believed in fairy tales that day,” Bogguss sings as she reminisces with her friend about the day her friend got married. “I watched your father give you away. Your aim was true when the pink bouquet fell right into my hands.” It sounds like the beginning of the latest Taylor Swift song, perhaps a duet with Kellie Pickler.
But as life goes on, “through the years, and the kids, and the jobs, and the dreams that lost their way,” these grown women are wondering about those fairy tales. “I’ve got a funny feeling we missed a page or two somehow”, and find themselves wanting to question the legendary princess: “Cinderella, maybe you can help us out?” they ask. “Does the shoe fit you now?”
While the perspective of youth is honestly preserved, these are clear-eyed adults with a wealth of life experiences informing their feelings today. It doesn’t get more honest than the line “We’re good now ’cause we have to be.” It’s not so much we grow up because we want to, but rather because we have to.
I’ve written many times that I don’t find Taylor Swift’s music offensive so much as irrelevant. When I was a teenager, I could listen to country music and not fully understand the intricacies of what the songs were about, but I knew I’d eventually grow into an understanding. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve done just that. What I can’t do is regress back into the state of development needed to find Taylor Swift’s music relevant to me.
Honestly, I don’t think that the world looked like what’s described in “You Belong With Me” and “Love Story” at any period of my life. I’ve just never known girls who saw the world that way. The ones I knew have grown up to be women quite a bit like those that Bogguss and her contemporaries sang about. Here’s hoping that this generation is able to do the same. In the meantime, if you like country music by and for adults, this forgotten hit is a great starting point.
Peak: #9 Written by George Ducas and Tia Sillers
One hit wonders were once an anomaly in country music. The nineties changed that, as the massive commercial success of the genre inspired more labels to get into the game. The result was more artists than country radio could ever play regularly, so even a breakthrough top ten hit was no longer enough to get radio to automatically give the next single a shot.
George Ducas was one of the earliest casualties of this new era. With a voice like Dwight Yoakam with a touch of Raul Malo, Ducas showed tremendous promise as a singer-songwriter. There’s a beautiful melancholy to his performance of “Lipstick Promises.” It’s the tale of a man who has been blinded by beauty and ends up being burned by his unfaithful lover.
It still sounds great today, and it’s a shame that radio didn’t give a fair shot to the singles that followed. “Hello Cruel World” and “Every Time She Passes By” were both on par with the better single releases of their day. Ducas exited his label after two projects, but has gone on to have some success as a songwriter, penning hits for Garth Brooks (“Beer Run)” and Sara Evans (“A Real Fine Place to Start.”) He’s also had songs recorded by Trisha Yearwood, Dixie Chicks, and Gary Allan.
Tia Sillers, co-writer of “Lipstick Promises”, went on to win major awards for “I Hope You Dance”, the peak of a songwriting career that has also included hits by Pam Tillis (“Land of the Living”), Trisha Yearwood (“Heaven, Heartache, and the Power of Love”), Dixie Chicks (“There’s Your Trouble”), and Alan Jackson (“That’d Be Alright.”)
Burn One Down
Peak: #4 Written by Clint Black, Frankie Miller, and Hayden Nicholas
One of Clint Black’s greatest singles didn’t quite make it into golden oldie rotation, sandwiched as it was between two bigger hits from his third album The Hard Way, the #2 kick-off “We Tell Ourselves” and the #1 hit “When My Ship Comes In.” Both of those singles fit the climate of 1992 radio perfectly, as the format was beginning to be a bit more aggressive in its incorporation of pop and rock flavor into the new traditionalist sound.
There’s nothing new traditionalist about “Burn One Down.” This baby is old traditionalist, something that could have been released as is during the heyday of Haggard and not sounded out of place, the digital clarity being the only clear indication that this came out in the CD era. It’s very rare to hear anything like this today that isn’t either a self-conscious or ironic throwback.
“Burn One Down” captures Clint Black at the end of his lonely man phase – his last great bitter moment, if you will. The clever wordplay is there, but it remains in service of the song, something his later hits got backwards (“A Good Run of Bad Luck”, “Like the Rain.”) He’s known for a long time that his departing lover wasn’t pure of heart, and the inevitable has finally come to pass.
He knows that he’ll be the only one hurting over them coming to the end of the road, which he captures in one of my favorite song lines ever, playing off the double meaning of kind: “Anyone can see you won’t be crying over me, and you never were that kind.” After all, as he notes in the chorus, “That’s just the way you are. I’ve known all along.”