I touched on this issue in the introduction to last week’s column rerun: people aren’t listening to the lyrics of bluegrass songs. By “people” I mean human beings, obviously, but specifically the people who are fans of bluegrass music, and in many cases the musicians themselves. I’ve written about this phenomenon before, but the recent IBMA awards voting error has moved the topic into the spotlight again and has possibly elevated it to crisis level.
If you haven’t heard about it, or you you just need your memory refreshed, a song that was a bluegrass cover of the Bryan Adams love song Heaven made it all the way to the second round of IBMA voting in the Gospel category, based on its title alone. I’m speculating that the thought process of the voters responsible went something like this: “It’s called ‘Heaven,’ which is nice—obviously a Gospel song. I also like the lyrics: ‘something something blah blah blah something something in Heaven.’ I love the sentiment and also the singing and the dobro are great. That gets my vote.” Some less conscientious voters who had never actually listened to the song at all may have thought, “Oh that’s the song with the word ‘supernal’ in it. I’ve always liked that. That gets my vote.”
Here’s what the lyrics actually are:
Baby, you’re all that I want
When you’re lyin’ here in my arms
I’m findin’ it hard to believe
We’re in heaven
Not that gospely, really. Please understand, there’s no criticism here, implied or otherwise, of the recording or the song. I thought it was a very nicely done cover by Chad Darou, with Cia Cherryholmes on vocals. It did very well on Bluegrass Today’s airplay chart, and deservedly so. The results of the voting, though, just confirmed my bluegrass-lyrics-are-white-noise theory.
If we’re ever going to get back in the habit of listening to the lyrics of bluegrass songs, we need to begin a campaign of ear training, and I’d like to start with this simple multiple choice quiz. Your task is to choose the answer which best reflects what each bluegrass standard is about. If you get three or more of these wrong, this is a sign that you need to go back and listen to these songs with fresh ears, or just with ears:
What are the following songs about?
1 – Little Cabin Home on the Hill (Bill Monroe/Lester Flatt)
A. A guy is feeling nostalgic for his cabin home on the hill. It’s little.
B. A guy is sitting alone in his cabin, crying for his sweetheart who isn’t there.
C. A guy has been murdered and is buried in the backyard behind his cabin.
D. This is a Gospel song about a cabin in heaven.
2 – Ruby Are You Mad? (Cousin Emmy)
A. A guy is digging in a mine with a spade.
B. A guy is inviting a girl to his shanty, where there’s no heat.
C. A guy is worried that his sweetheart is mad at him.
D. All of the above.
3 – I’m Head Over Heels in Love (Lester Flatt)
A. A guy is overjoyed because he’s in love.
B. A guy is sad and restless because he’s worried about losing the woman he’s in love with.
C. A guy is in love with a girl who has rejected him. He has thrown her into a river.
D. It’s a Gospel song about a guy who is filled with the Holy Spirit.
4 – Rank Stranger (Carter Stanley)
A. A guy goes back to his home and is happy to meet the friends of his youth, except for one guy he didn’t like very much.
B. A guy goes back to his home and meets a stranger who doesn’t smell very good.
C. A guy goes back to his home to find that everyone has been murdered.
D. It’s a Gospel song about someone who returns home to find that his friends have all gone to heaven, and he looks forward to reuniting with them there.
5 – When You Say Nothing At All (Paul Overstreet/Don Schlitz)
A. It’s an expression of frustration that his/her sweetheart is such a poor communicator.
B. It’s an expression of gratitude for those times when his/her sweetheart finally stops talking.
C. It’s an observation that his/her sweetheart is saying nothing at all because he/she is dead.
D. It’s an expression of appreciation that his/her sweetheart is so good at silent communication.
6 – Hills of Roane County (P.D.)
A. A guy takes revenge on his sweetheart’s brother after he stabs him “for some unknown reason,” and after traveling around the world, comes back and gets thrown into prison where he writes this song.
B. A guy has a girlfriend named Amanda Something-or-other, some things happen, and he goes to prison, unless he was already there.
C. A guy from Roane County kills a girl from Knoxville, a town we all know well. He gets arrested.
D. It’s a Gospel song. “Roane County” is a metaphor for heaven.
7 – Hot Corn, Cold Corn (P.D.)
A. I couldn’t say.
B. Aunt sally kicks everybody out of the house because she objects to being called “old.” People say goodbye to Uncle Bill as they’re leaving but he’s too drunk to notice.
C. Aunt Sally and Uncle Bill make moonshine and they have a party at their house. The party is BYOD (Bring Your Own Demijohn).
D. It’s a Gospel song. Hot and cold corn is a metaphor for fervent vs. passive or “cold” Christians.
7:C (A is also acceptable)