How many characters does it take to spell out a bluegrass song?

Chris JonesI have to say, as objectively as I can, that one of the things I like best about satellite radio is the display that tells us what artist we’re listening to, and what the song title is. This technology has managed to solve what was an ongoing problem in commercial terrestrial radio: the fact that radio stations were no longer telling us who they were playing.

Apparently, some radio consultant somewhere along about 1979 decided that it sounded more “professional” for DJs to blather about something completely unrelated to music while coming out of the last song, then to ramble on about something else over the 16 second intro of the next song until a singer we’d never heard of (unless it was someone we had heard of, we weren’t sure) started singing.

Before the music video came into being, record labels were having trouble breaking new artists for this very reason. Radio stations wouldn’t give in on this point, though, maintaining their belief that simply stating the name of the artist was somehow displeasing to the listener, whereas saying something about the mayor, the price of pork, or the bird feces on the DJs car would really keep us all riveted to Magic 104.

The radio display has changed all that, but as we all know from dealing with computers, no technology is perfect, and this same informative feed telling us what we’re listening to has its issues, some of which can lead to misunderstandings.

Not all radios will display the same number of characters, so what you may be seeing at times is a truncated version of the song title or band name. I first noticed this with a Gospel song missing just one letter in the title, and I wrote a column about how one small letter can make a big difference in Gospel song titles. The first one I saw was “Trade the Old Cross For a Crow” (it should have been “Crown,” of course). Others I mentioned were “Angel Ban” and the Louvin Brothers song I had recorded myself at one time: “Jesus is Whispering No” (instead of “Now”).

There are also the band names minus one character, which I had also mentioned at the time, one of my favorites being Larry Cordle’s band suddenly becoming a duo: “Larry Cordle and Lonesome Standard Tim.”

Since I wrote that, however, I’ve received regular updates about song titles missing multiple characters, which has made things even more interesting, such as Shannon and Heather Slaughter’s recent revival of “If I Were a Carp,” or Blue Highway’s “Born With a Ham.”

Some radios are more restrictive than others, and some may permit you to adjust the view or the number of characters you can see, but who among us can figure out how to do that, when most of us can’t change the time on the clock? If you resorted to reading the instructions (sure, I still have those!), you’d get something like this: “To change the number of characters displayed, press and hold the audio button for 3 seconds, while pressing the menu button 5 times quickly. This will bring up the audio preferences menu. Press and hold the display button on the touch screen while continuing to hold down the menu button. When “character limit” appears on the screen, press the function button twice, then while pressing the audio button again, use the volume knob to set the preferred number of characters.”

If you attempt this while driving, you will kill someone, most likely yourself. I recommend just sitting back and enjoying these severely shortened bluegrass song titles. Here are a few examples, some of which have actually been seen on a satellite radio display, others are imagined or appeared to me in slightly disturbing dreams:

  • The urbanization of “Blue Ridge Cabin Home”: “Blue Ridge Cab”
  • “Shake My Mother’s Hand For Me” takes on a troubling undertone of domestic violence: “Shake My Mother”
  • The “Man of Constant Sorrow” is less trustworthy than we thought. No wonder he bid farewell to old Kentucky: “I’m a Man of Cons”
  • The Alison Krauss song of some 20 or so years ago, written by John Pennell, perhaps with a baby in mind: “Every Time You Say Goo”
  • “My Little Georgia Rose” becomes an ode to a small used car: “My Little Geo”
  • Everything in moderation: “One Tea”
  • “No Mother or Dad” becomes the story of what happens to the insect population after all the lights are out: “No Moth”
  • Barbie’s heading home: “I’m Going Back to Old Ken”

And finally, getting back to what happens when you’re only short one character:

  • An independent mother: “Freeborn Ma”
  • A milder alternative to “He Will Set Your Fields on Fire”: “God’s Own Singe”