“The Song Remembers When”
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.