Discussion: A Song With A Story

twilight-hotelOne of country music’s strengths has always been its songwriting. Its ability to connect to its audience with the truth.  That’s what initially drew me to country music. The music was more than just instruments and cool beats, it had life and character and everything that goes along with those qualities – humor, humility, love, anger, compassion and history.

Therefore, I’ve found it unfortunate in recent years that mainstream country has focused more on combining a catchy hook with an awesome guitar solo and some cool beats, than in relaying the truth.  I realize that may be where the trend (and therefore the money) is heading these days, but, in my opinion, it’s not where the heart of country music lies.

However, I can’t say that great songs – particularly story songs  – are not out there … they’re just harder to find.  One of my recent finds was a song by Canadian roots duo Twilight Hotel, called “The Ballad of Salvador & Isabelle,” from their album Highway Prayer.  In true country fashion, it makes my heart ache every time I listen to it. The song relates in narrative fashion the tale of two siblings from Mexico trying to find a better life in America.

For me, the song was enhanced by how Dave Quanbury (one half of Twilight Hotel and the song’s writer) explained it to the 9513 last January:

“I think a lot of people probably wouldn’t agree with that song … [but] I think it’s a story that needs to be told. And I think that’s what songwriters do, really–even if you don’t have any direct connection to it…what we do is observe situations and express those observations and issues, and then the listener can interpret them how they want.”

I challenge you to listen to “The Ballad of Salvador & Isabelle” and not make it to the end.  It is one of those rare songs where you simply have to finish listening because you want (and have) to know what happens.

Discussion: What is your favorite classic story song? Any recent discoveries? Please share.

(Also check out: “Adrienna Valentine” by Trent Wagler and Jay Lapp, Adrienna Valentine; “Yuma” by Justin Townes Earle, Yuma.)


  1. Geez, Lynn, everytime I read one of your posts, I end up buying something! This duo sounds pretty cool.

    You’re right that country music has some awesome story songs. I’d love to hear more of them right now.

    I can think of a lot of great ones, but Vince Gill’s “Molly Brown” is one that I heard today, so it’s in my head.

  2. Yes, there are too many to list. But the one I heard most recently and couldn’t stop listening to (even though I already knew the ending) was ‘Carroll County Accident’, as sung by Dolly Parton.

  3. I do miss the story songs, but two recent ones I really liked were Two Pink Lines from Eric Church, and Highway 20 Ride from the Zac Brown Band.

  4. “Tecumseh Valley” – Townes Van Zandt

    He had a ton of great story songs, but this one is my favorite.
    Here’s a link if you wanna listen.

  5. I think that Fancy, by Reba, is one of the best story songs ever written. It’s one of the few songs that just never gets old to me.

  6. Some of my favorites have already been mentioned…”Where’ve you Been” and “Carroll County Accident”, but I’d include some others…”Travelin Soldier” (The best story song in a generation if not more), “Tennesee Flat Top Box”, “The Year that Clayton Delaney Died” just to name a few.

  7. Old-school favorites:

    Jeannie C. Riley, “Harper Valley P.T.A.” (I love the delayed applause until she sings the title for the first time, as if the audience didn’t know it was that song until then.)


    The Browns, “The Three Bells”


    Couldn’t find clips for these two, but they’re also among my favorites:

    Willie Nelson, “The Troublemaker”

    Merle Haggard, “In My Next Life”

    New-school favorite:

    Alison Krauss, “Jacob’s Dream”


  8. “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” (By Patty Loveless or Kathy Mattea, both are great) is one of my favorites. I love the sound of Patty’s version, but I like the faster tempo of Kathy’s version. Either way, it’s a great story and a great song.

  9. Lots of good suggestions above…

    I think Reba is one of the all time great with story songs…just listen to the For My Broken Heart cd.

    One of the most heartbreaking of hers though is “Moving Oleta” from Room to Breathe.

    Not only is it a powerful song, but hearing Reba sing “hard, hard road” with a crack in her voice gets me everytime. Here’s one of my favorite stanzas

    They tell me this is all that’s left
    Say this hell on earth is best
    I list all those reasons and I still don’t understand it
    He cursed his body old and weak
    Tears of failure burned his cheek
    And he said
    Oh, don’t you know I prayed to die before this day
    Love is a hard, hard road

  10. Its more so a love song, but Marty Robbins song “My Woman, My Woman, My Wife” is a great story song. I love the journey played out in the song. And of course the Yearwood classics especially “Walkaway Joe”

  11. This is what the late, great jazz master Miles Davis said attracted him to country music, “the stories, Man, the stories.”

    So, that said, how about a story with a great, and arguably, chilling mystery to it–“Ode To Billie Joe”, that classic from Bobbie Gentry that was a #1 pop smash in the late summer of 1967. What REALLY happened up there on the Tallahachie Bridge?

  12. Man, so many. Hard to choose. Just some stuff I’ve been listening to lately:

    GUITAR MAN – Jerry Reed

    LORD MR. FORD – Jerry Reed

    BILOXI – Jimmy Buffet

    HE WENT TO PARIS – Jimmy Buffet

    I really need to get out more! :-o

  13. It’s a shame that more of these songs can’t fight their way onto radio. Everything has to have a catchy hook and sound like 4 other songs on the charts. You can never go wrong w/ a Jerry Reed song!

  14. I have to agree with the River by Chely Wright — and while I have never been a great fan of Toby Keith, I do like his early stuff and I just added his early albums to my ipod – and the song “New Orleans” is a great story song….

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