I know. You don’t like Taylor Swift. Keith Urban offends you on at least seven, different, personal levels. Rascal Flatts makes you want to get all stabby with the butter knife when their wailing interrupts your morning bagel-and-cream-cheese ritual at the local coffee shop.
I honestly don’t blame you. Country music is a guilty pleasure of mine, but I’ll be the first to admit that there is a lot of drivel dribbling out of Nashville. A veritable ice cream sundae of uninspired banging on the same three chords with some cheap-beer lyrics messily ladled on top. It’s pretty hard to get your brain around all that twang, especially when there is so much great music out there that could be filling our earholes with audio joy instead.
But cast your prejudices about country music aside for a moment. While it may not be the height of melodic art, those guys down on Music Row understand the business. They get what makes a hit song, and why; all the minutiae that turns a regular guy with a hat and a guitar into a legend of Southern rock, or a baby-faced blonde bell into a stage-trotting goddess.
They’ve figured out what people want to hear, and the song writing reflects it. If there is any art in the industry, it is in the hearts and minds of the writers who, beyond all human belief, can still work the words “Georgia,” “redneck,” and “truck” into new songs in new ways. They use grammar to infuse the verses with freshness, even when the backing music is the same one-four-five progression we’ve been listening to since the Grand Ole Opry went on the air in 1925.
Let’s look at Tim McGraw’s 2009 hit, Southern Voice.
This song is the quintessential three-major-chord-progression that all new guitar/mandolin/banjo players learn: G, C, D. It’s plain vanilla ice cream, white bread, about as complicated as toast. But the writers (Bob DiPiero and Tom Douglas) manage to toy with the grammar of the verses, breaking/playing with some literary rules to great effect:
Hank Aaron smacked it / Michael Jordan dunked it / Pocahantas tracked it / Jack Daniels drunk it / Tom Petty rocked it / Dr. King paved it / Bear Bryant won it / Billy Graham saved it
The sentence structure is as simple as the chords: subject, past tense verb, direct object. But these sentences are perfect examples of the power and importance of the right verb; not only does each move the song forward with action, it’s also perfectly applicable to its subject. The historical subjects are allusions that build on the theme of the song (a single, unified “voice” of the Southern states) and give the reader (or listener) a concrete idea-cleat to attach their brain-ropes to.
The major rule violation here is the use of the abstract pronoun, “it.” In most other settings, this would be a no-no, as it’s an unqualified, unattributed object, which normally leaves a reader confused. But when the chorus comes in…
Smooth as the hickory wind / That blows from Memphis / Down to Appalachicola / It’s “hi ya’ll, did ya eat?” well / Come on in child / I’m sure glad to know ya / Don’t let this old gold cross / An’ this Charlie Daniels t-shirt throw ya / We’re just boys making noise / With the southern voice
…we see that the “it” actually refers to the eponymous “southern voice;” as if each sentence is a square on the quilt that makes up the culture of the American South.
Ever wonder why a song is so catchy? How it so easily grafts itself to your short term memory even when you actively try to force it out? Because it’s grammatically kickass, that’s why.
Not convinced that you should subject yourself to country music from one example? Then here’s another; this one form Jason Aldean’s Texas Was You.
This one’s chord progression is, you guessed it: G, C, D. It throws in a nice little E minor for spice, but it’s still as standard as it comes. But check out this gorgeous grammar writers Neil Thrasher, Wendell Mobley, and Tony Martin slipped into the verses:
Ohio was a riverbank / 10 speed layin’ in the weeds / Cannonball off an old rope swing / Long long summer days.
Tennessee was a guitar / First big dream of mine / If I made it, yeah, that’d be just fine / I just wanted to play. I just wanted to play, but…
Carolina was a black car / A big white number three / California was a yellow jeep / Cruisin’ down Big Sur.
Georgia was a summer job / ‘Bama was a spring break / I got memories all over the place / But only one still hurts.
The opening lines of all four verses are Subject, verb, subject compliment, a sentence structure that typically doesn’t move anything forward, as it’s only equating the subject to the compliment. The fragments that follow all support the initial comparison, building on the same image or metaphor established by the full sentence. It has an awesome effect in this song because it drops a declaration at the begging of each verse, confidently telling us what comparison Aldean is making.
It’s especially powerful when the chorus comes sliding in…
Texas was green eyes crying goodbye / Was a long drive / A heartache I’m still trying to get through / Texas was you
…and we get three more “to be” verbs, three more comparisons, showing us why he’s making all these metaphorical connections. The setup for the chorus is great, and proves that even generally inactive sentences/verbs can be used bring the hammer of theme down onto the nails of details in your writing.
I can provide other examples if people are curious, but popular country is full of songs that are captivating listeners with clever lyrics with even cleverer grammar. If you’re struggling with edits, or need examples of structure and verb usage, or just how to arrange written elements to get people interested, fire up some Eric Church or Dierks Bently and getcher country on!