I’ve mentioned this before, but I have a theory that a sizable chunk of modern bluegrass fans aren’t listening to the lyrics of any of the songs. I’ve even tested this theory out on more than one occasion: once, when I deliberately wrote a verse to a song that was complete nonsense, and another time when I performed Prince’s Purple Rain like it was an Oh Death-like Ralph Stanley song. I got some compliments on both songs, but no one commented or seemed at all surprised by the lyrics, “I only want to see you bathing in the purple rain.” I think the melody sounded good to them and they liked the mandolin break.
Now I have to expand the theory to suggest that many bluegrass singers are also not paying attention to the lyrics of the songs they’re performing. This is why you sometimes hear Hot Corn, Cold Corn and Mother’s Only Sleeping delivered with the same emotional weight.
I truly believe that some people are just hearing the nice duet singing in Knoxville Girl, and the lyrics, “She never spoke another word, I only beat her more, until the ground around me within her blood did flow” don’t really register at all. They think of it as a fairly pleasant song. There’s a girl, she’s from Knoxville, I think a river is mentioned in there somewhere. It’s nice.
Some of this may be due to the fact that a couple of generations of bluegrass listeners and singers now have grown up with the influence of pop music lyrics that were either not meant to be paid attention to, or were meant to be listened to under the influence of some form of hallucinogen.
It’s not a recent phenomenon, either. I submit The Beatles’ I Am the Walrus as an example, or perhaps this verse from Cream’s SWLABR, which, by the way, stands for “She Walks Like a Bearded Rainbow.” This may sound funny to us in 2015, but in 1967, a lot of people were walking like bearded rainbows. It was a national problem. From verse 3:
You’ve got that pure feel
Such good responses
You’ve got that rainbow feel
But the rainbow has a beard
Could I sing those lyrics at a bluegrass show to the tune of Poor Ellen Smith and get away with it? I believe I could.
This is the reason that, unfortunately, you sometimes hear singers performing songs at private engagements that are several degrees beyond inappropriate, like the same Knoxville Girl at an elementary school program (“Hey, it’s got ‘girl’ in the title. It must be good for kids!”).
I’ve heard murder ballads, in which the fiancé—or even the bride—is brutally murdered, sung at wedding receptions. Not long ago, I heard someone sing James King’s Bed By The Window at a man’s 90th birthday celebration (that’s the song about two elderly people withering away in a nursing home. One of them dies mid-way through the song).
In case you should be playing some events like these yourself, and you’re used to thinking of song lyrics as a series of vowel sounds with some consonants thrown in for variety, I’ve created a handy list of songs to avoid at all costs for certain occasions. Feel free to print this out as needed:
Wedding reception: I Know You’re Married But I Love You Still
Others to steer clear of:
- A Face in the Crowd (about the guy who was her old flame at the wedding, completely bummed out about the whole experience), and…
Veil of White Lace (the song about the guy who means to murder one bride and accidentally murders a complete stranger in a wedding dress)
- A 21 year-old birthday celebration: He Died a Rounder at 21 The fact that the word “died” is right in the title should deter most people, but still others might just see “21” and think it’s a good idea.
- A Mothers Against Drunk Driving fundraiser: Mountain Dew
- A law firm Christmas party: Philadelphia Lawyer (The lawyer is murdered in the end)
- An engagement party: You’re Not a Drop in the Bucket This is the Flatt and Scruggs song celebrating multiple partners:
“I must admit I like the gals, they’re always on my mind
But just remember babe I’m not the one woman kind”
- A prison concert: 99 Years (either one) Some prison songs are okay, but avoid the hopeless kind.
- Women Against Violence fundraiser: Down in the Willow Garden No, this is not a song about nature and gardening. There are plenty of other songs to avoid at this kind of gig, but this one manages to combine poisoning, stabbing, and throwing in the river: “I drew a sabre through her, it was a bloody knife . . .” Need I say more?
- National Cotton Council annual convention: Cotton Mill Man “Lord don’t let my son grow up to be a sweaty cotton mill man”
- Peabody Energy executives’ retreat: Paradise There are lots of others to steer clear of here, like Dark as a Dungeon and Black Lung, but Paradise is the John Prine song that actually mentions Peabody by name.
- A vegan convention: Feast Here Tonight, or Ground Hog
Of course, you can always throw one of these in just to see if your audience is really listening, but then you might catch the exact moment when the person who hired you is actually paying attention. That won’t end well.