With a Bryan Adams love song having made it into the second round of voting in the IBMA Awards, the subject of people paying no attention to the lyrics of bluegrass songs has come up again as a topic. I’ll discuss this further next week and include a lyrics quiz, but for now, to better prepare for that quiz, here’s a look back at a column I wrote on the subject just after the passing of Pete Goble:
The death of Pete Goble represents a huge loss in modern bluegrass songwriting. Pete wrote countless great songs, mostly with various co-writers, often the late Leroy Drumm, but also Bobby Osborne, Doyle Lawson, and others.
One of the issues Pete must have dealt with, as have many bluegrass songwriters in the present era, is the number of bluegrass music listeners today who are barely paying attention to the lyrics of songs.
In fact, as I’ve referred to here before, it was one of Pete’s songs that helped make me aware of how widespread the problem is: Julie Ann is about a guy whose woman is about to leave him, so he pleads with her to keep on honky-tonking and dancing with various guys, but to take pity on him and come home afterwards as an alternative to ditching him completely. A Bluegrass Junction listener called in to request the song because “it’s such a happy song.” I guess some consider the breakdown of a relationship and the loss of all self-respect a cheery thing. Others enjoy gnawing on a crescent wrench to pass the time. There’s no accounting for taste, but I think in this case, the listener had just never noticed the lyrics of the song.
Some bluegrass musicians aren’t even aware of the lyrics to the songs their own bands are playing, except maybe for the ones they might be singing some harmony lines on. It’s all like scat-singing to them, something that’s filling up space while waiting for the banjo break.
One of my favorite Twitter accounts to follow (aside from ones maintained by dogs) is @horse_bluegrass, which is a bot (of the non-Russian variety) that randomly generates bluegrass lyrics from a database of a large number of bluegrass songs, which gives us lines like, “Red hot coal got in the trees and turns at night from white to blue” (this could possibly be a description of the Opryland Hotel Christmas light display) or “Have you forgotten me my darling was dead with Sally Jo.” Yet for some, these lyrics might sound just as poetic as any of Carter Stanley’s best lines.
Are you like this yourself? Are bluegrass lyrics just white noise? This is not meant to be a quiz, and there will be no scoring or ranking, but the following is an exercise designed for you to test your knowledge and awareness of bluegrass lyrics. Below I’ve written out some verses or choruses of well-known bluegrass songs, but with a line from a current pop song substituted in at some point. Can you identify which line was not in the original version of the song?
Good luck, and if you can identify the replacement line, but end up liking it better than the original, I won’t stop you from singing it that way, and it’s quite possible that no one else will even notice, the writer of the song being a notable exception.
Note: below each song I’ll cite the source of the pop line that I used.
Blue Moon of Kentucky
It was on a moonlight night
The stars were shining bright
They whispered from on high
Your love has said goodbye
Blue moon of Kentucky keep on shining
Put your pinkie fingers to the moon
(24K Magic – Bruno Mars)
New River Train
Darling you can’t love one
Darling you can’t love one
You can’t love one
At least we’ll still be numb
Oh darling you can’t love one
(I Can’t Feel My Face – The Weeknd)
The Mule Skinner Blues
Good morning captain
Good morning shine
Do you need another mule skinner
Is it cool that I said all that?
(Delicate – Taylor Swift)
I Wouldn’t Change You If I Could
I wouldn’t change a single thing about you if I could
Oh hold up girl, don’t you know you’re beautiful?
A princess in a storybook, a king upon his throne
That’s what we are and you belong to me
(Meant to Be – Florida Georgia Line / Bebe Rexha)
Little Cabin Home on the Hill
Tonight I’m alone without you my dear
Something must have gone wrong in my brain
All I have to do now is sit alone and cry
In our little cabin home on the hill
(Never Be the Same – Camila Cabello)
Foggy Mountain Top
Now when you go a-courting
I’ll tell you how to do
I know that dress is karma
Put on your navy blue
(Attention – Charlie Puth)