From The Side of the Road… can you find the pop lyric in a bluegrass song?

If you’ve been reading these columns for any length of time, you know that I have periodically lamented the fact that a significant chunk of bluegrass music listeners aren’t paying attention to lyrics, and may only be vaguely aware that these songs even have lyrics. It hasn’t been a full-on tirade, and maybe it hasn’t even been ranting, but there has certainly been some harping.

This indifference to lyrics is not a new phenomenon. I first became aware of this in the 1980s when I worked up a version of Prince’s Purple Rain and sang it to a lonesome Stanley Brothers sort of melody. The words Purple Rain appear three times in the chorus, yet no one noticed or cared. As far as they were concerned, I was singing a song that sounded a lot like a slower Our Last Goodbye.

If I’ve made too much of this issue, I’m sorry. It’s just that I’m a songwriter myself, and I’ve taken the time to learn a lot of other people’s songs, and I know that a lot of care and often quite a bit of revision have gone into these lyrics. Carter Stanley may have spent a lot of time deciding between “the plans we made have gone astray” and “the plans we made are gone astray.” These words matter.

Rather than continue harping, I thought it would be more constructive to start a movement to correct this disregard for the work of our bluegrass lyricists. I decided to do this in the form of a kind of pop quiz in which I substituted recent pop music lyrics within the verse or chorus of a bluegrass song to see if anyone could tell it apart from the real lyrics. If you’re merely thinking of these lyrics as a series of random vowels and consonants meaning nothing and occupying the space where a banjo break could be, then it’s hard to tell if these lines don’t belong in the original song. However, if you’ve made it a point to start listening to and understanding bluegrass lyrics, even to the point of almost knowing what Wildwood Flower means, then it will be obvious which line is the imposter.

To test your progress then, here is installment 3 of the series (the pop song and artist that was used is noted below each song):

Uncle Pen  (chorus)

Late in the evening about sundown
Freaked out, dropped my phone in the pool again
Uncle Pen played the fiddle lordy how it rang
You could hear it talk, you could hear it sing

(Good Time by Owl City and Carly Rae Jepsen)

Fox on the Run (chorus)

She walks through the corn leading down to the river
Her hair shone like gold in the hot morning sun
Homerun, slam dunk, touchdown pass
And left me to die like a fox on the run

(My House by Flo Rida)

I’m Blue I’m Lonesome (first verse)

The lonesome sigh of a train goin’ by
Makes me want to stop and cry
I recall the day they took you away
Drunk to an ’80s groove

(Only Human by the Jonas Brothers)

Rank Stranger (chorus)

Everybody I met seemed to be a rank stranger
No mother or dad not a friend could I see
But we kick ’em to the curb unless they look like Mick Jagger
I found they were all rank strangers to me

(TiK ToK by Kesha)

Little Maggie (first verse)

Oh yonder stands little Maggie
With a dram glass in her hand
Smoother than a fresh jar of Skippy
She’s a-courting another man

(Uptown Funk by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars)

For the more advanced:

Toy Heart (chorus)

Darling you toyed with a toy heart
I think you played the game right from the start
I gave you all I had and you tossed it in the trash
Darling you toyed with a toy heart

(Grenade by Bruno Mars)

You Don’t Know My Mind (third verse)

I’ve been a hobo and a tramp
My soul has done been stamped
I’ll be the actress starring in your bad dreams
When I find I can’t win
I’ll be checking out again
Baby you don’t know my mind today

(Look What You Made Me Do by Taylor Swift)

And for extra credit:

Salty Dog Blues (fourth verse)

Look here Sal I know you
I still see your face in the white cars
Honey let me be your salty dog

(Driver’s License by Olivia Rodrigo)