Happy to welcome longtime reader and commenter Peter Saros to the front page. Enjoy his first Country Universe post! – KJC
“Miss Emily’s Picture”
Written by Red Lane
John Conlee’s “Miss Emily’s Picture” spooked me in the backseat of a Pontiac Grand Lemans sedan while cruising the shoreline shadows of Massachusetts’ Gloucester Harbor.
The song has tormented me ever since.
For starters, I still maintain the rear window was down when Conlee’s baritone, rumbling like an out-of- tune outboard motor, cut across the water and anchored in my memory. Except, my parents drove a 1984 generation of family roadster that inexplicably had fixed rear windows; they couldn’t be opened.
Not even for a family of five mid-westerners on an east coast summer road trip. Not even so a ten-year-old boy from Minnesota could hear a country musician from Kentucky sing to New England fishermen about tossing yesterday’s love into the wind along with their lines.
I suspect a lot of what I just shared doesn’t make much sense. Unless, of course, you have heard John Conlee sing about his picture of Miss Emily.
Those of us who have stay awake at nights, still haunted by that photograph.
I have been trying to untangle music from memory from meaning ever since I heard Conlee basically cry out, “Man overboard!” from a Yankee fishing boat radio.
I have also considered the possibility that I may have simply been hallucinating, the victim of insanity and heat stroke brought on by both family road trips and sadistic GM engineers, but that would be the easy answer.
I know the real answer lies in the hard truths of the song.
Just like the song’s narrator saw nothing but pain when looking out his window, I heard nothing but fear through my unmovable glass screen, the awful thrashing sounds of a man’s grief pulling him under. Trapped in the stale heat of a backseat, I was barely able to draw enough breath to fight the suffocating sadness.
“Miss Emily’s Picture” is an uncomfortably hard country song. It certainly doesn’t lend itself to easy answers or much of anything peaceful or soft. It involves: chewed finger nails, scattered clothes, boozed-up coffee, walking the floor, insanity, and a grown man crying at work.
No surprise, it’s written by Red Lane. Lane wrote other similarly mature and disquieting songs like “You’ve Been Quite a Doll Raggedy Ann” for Jimmy Dickens, “Tell Me Something Bad About Tulsa” for Merle Haggard, “Till I Get it Right” for Tammy Wynette, and “There Won’t Be Another Now” which Haggard also recorded and Mark Chesnutt later cut as a tribute to The Hag. Country music doesn’t get much harder to listen to than this.
We know nothing about Miss Emily other than the narrator loved her with every last inch of his body. His head, eyes, heart, and hands seem to exist for no other reason than to hold her memory and to straighten her picture by his bed every morning.
In fact, he straightens it all the time, even before going to bed each night.
Somehow – between all this house-keeping – Conlee’s character manages to get himself to work every day; he is a mess there as well. He drinks bourbon-laced coffee at the office and emotionally collapses on colleague’s shoulders in the hallways, apparently a burden to anyone close to him. Miss Emily’s image hangs on his office wall and he straightens it there when he is not unproductively pacing or nibbling his finger nails.
He carries another – perhaps even the same – picture of her in his wallet. He spends his evenings at bars, purportedly having a ball. That is, until the hurting inevitably takes hold at which point the air goes out of the room when he once again shares that same picture of Miss Emily with everyone.
His daily nervous breakdown quickens when he returns home each night. He drinks still more, eating just a bite.
The only thing in his life he can straighten out is that bed-side frame holding the picture of his Miss Emily. In that simple act, the grinding hurt and relentless loneliness seem to stop, but then life goes on around him, and everything in his world goes sideways again, with nothing but that familiar pain staring him down.
The narrator claims he only does this picture-straightening every now and then, but it is clear that his “then” has become an endless “now.” His shattered life is a grotesque routine highlighted by this one tender act he is condemned to obsessively repeat until they hang a wreath upon his door.
At least the portrait of Dorian Grey changed to reveal Dorian’s conscience. This picture of Miss Emily is unchanging and impervious to her former lover’s decent into morbid masochism.
Sometimes I can convince myself this song is not as bleak as I make it out to be, that there is a quiet confidence and comfort to his compulsion, a warmth even. But even though Mrs. Emily’s love may have been heavenly sent, her partner’s life has still inescapably gone to hell.
This is a classic country horror story. It has ghosts. It hooks the heart and haunts the mind.
Feel free to jump in at any point and ask why a ten-year-old kid loved this song so much. If you hand me my crayons I will pass on your concerns to my therapist. He comes by each day at 2:00 pm…
I can share that I love the song as an adult because I love what John Conlee as a singer brings to a story.
When people ask why I like country music I hold up this brilliantly crafted song, sung by this amazingly resonant and emotive voice, and let them reconsider their question.
“Miss Emily’s Picture” deserves to keep company with George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” Gene Watson’s “Farewell Party,” and Vern Gosdin’s “Do You Believe Me Now” as candidate for the best country song of all time.
Conlee is a wildly underappreciated artist from the late 70’s and 80’s, and among the finest vocalists the genre has ever known, He has recorded other classics which include “I Don’t Remember Loving You,” “The Backside of Thirty, ” and his signature song “Rose Coloured Glasses.”
“Miss Emily’s Picture” was the second single from his fourth album, With Love, released in 1980 on MCA. As with the majority of his output, this album was produced by Bud Logan, a former bass player for Jim Reeves’ backing band The Blue Boys. The single climbed as high as number two on Billboard’s country charts in 1981.
The song is terrifying because all the details are so familiar, the character so relatable, and the picture of Miss Emily so impenetrable.
Mid-career, Conlee would drift into less intense common-man, working-class anthems and nostalgic romantic ballads, but he was always at his best with darker, complex material like “Miss Emily’s Picture.”