The Perfect Country and Western Song
Well, it was all
That I could do to keep from crying
Sometimes it seemed so useless to remain
But you don’t have to call me darlin’, darlin’
You never even called me by my name
“That’s it,” my father said, twisting the volume up. “The perfect country and western song!” I was doubtful. The rhyme in the very first verse (“remain” with “name”) is technically an “imperfect” rhyme, putting a hard stop on perfection right there.
Still, the key line in the verse, set to a perfect honky-tonk swing beat, struck me as quite smart. Its first words (“You don’t have to call me…”) seem to telegraph one of those phone calls that does not come. The next word (“darling”) immediately shifts the meaning from phoning to naming: “don’t call me darling.” This is how good lyrics work, unfolding changing meanings at the level of the micro-second. And then, even better, the second “darling,” spins the line inside out. Singer tells listener they are under no obligation to call him darling—even as he uses that very term of endearment. That “darling, darling” is a fine little piece of irony that presents a question: should one read the verse as sarcastic or as crying sad? The last line offers an answer: pissed off.
The song was “You Never Even Called Me By My Name” and the singer was David Allan Coe, a Nashville songwriter with an attitude. He’d done time in prison, would later record country metal music, and in the 1970s found his sweet spot in the meeting of the humorous and the offensive. His biggest song—”Take This Job and Shove It,” recorded by Johnny Paycheck—was the essence of pissed-off country. But while Coe sang “You Never Even Called Me . . . ,” he did not write this particular attempt at the perfect country and western song. That honor went to folkie Steve Goodman, one of the outstanding songwriters of his generation, and (though he purposefully went uncredited) to the equally gifted John Prine.
The second verse, however, bears little trace of such talent at work, settling for mere cleverness. It’s a novelty turn, with Coe doing impressions of Waylon Jennings, Charlie Pride, and Merle Haggard. The chorus that follows announces itself with a raucous transition and a big beat, and it plays to strength, returning again to those concluding lines of the first verse, the best in the song. And then, after another meandering verse, Coe starts talking. Goodman, he says, sent him the song, claiming he had written the perfect country and western song. Coe rejects the claim, defining the genre around critical themes (trains, drinking, trucks, prison, mama, etc.) notably absent from the song. Goodman sends another verse, and Coe now admits that his friend has written the perfect country and western song:
Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison
And I went to pick her up in the rain
But before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got run over by a damned old train
Another chorus or two, and then out. My father—a knowledgeable fan of country music—laughed and laughed and said that, yes, this was indeed the perfect song.
But, I wondered, perfect in what way? Was it trying to be a perfect example of the genre, distilling its forms, styles, and themes to a representative essence, flawlessly performed? Or did it self-consciously assert country’s rules in order to subvert and transcend them on its way to being something else—more like parody or critique?
The folklore surrounding the song suggests that we should hear it as a diss of the Nashville music industry, which saw Goodman, who had followed a different set of rules in producing songs like “City of New Orleans” and “The Dying Cub Fan’s Last Request,” as too folky to be part of its scene. Listen to “You Never Even Called Me . . .” as a pissed-off hate letter to Nashville—and thus to the formal rules of the genre—and the song takes on a wholly new character: “Well, I’ve heard my name a few times in your phone book” (Nashville! Why don’t you call?); “I’ll hang around as long as you will let me” (ouch); and, of course, there’s the title line, in which Nashville blithely forgets Goodman’s name. In that sense, the last verse that makes the song “perfect” was not a goofy novelty riff at all but a well-crafted dig at the ways in which tradition, rules, and the institutional flow of money had combined to turn Nashville into a soulless stereotype of itself.
As a distillation of the genre, “You Never Even Called Me…” was not the perfect country-and-western song. It easily mastered forms, styles, and tropes, but did so in order to reject the very premises and rules that made the country tradition possible. And it was not only Goodman who felt outside to Nashville. Wanting in and never quite getting there, Coe instead sought to build a career on wanting out. He was part of “Outlaw Country,” a loosely-identified cohort of supposed Nashville rebels led by Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings who fled to Austin, Texas to set up an alternative shop. The very premise of the outlaw, literally, was to be outside the law—stepping beyond the rules of a particular context—into a place where they could ignore tradition and make it new.
That newness, though, was not translated (much) into harmony, melody, or rhythm. It most often took thematic form in the lyrics of songs about literal outlaws (Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, for example), metacommentary tributes to the Nashville escape (the Jennings-Nelson duet Luckenbach, Texas), bodacious boasting (Hank Williams Jr.’s Oedipal anthem Family Tradition), band names (The Outlaws, natch), or shake-it-up professional moves (Nelson’s Stardust album of Tin Pan Alley standards). David Allan Coe was a minor star in this firmament, but he had the attitude right.
It was a blast growing up with country rock and outlaw country music in the 1970s. Banjos and electric guitars competed for space. Deep-voiced, gravelly-throated men proclaimed themselves outsiders to it all, and they did so through the standard medium of I-IV-V-I harmonies and ABAB rhyme structures. Like most popular commercial forms, outsider country was always splitting the difference between well-crafted formula and a genuine effort to do something new. Isn’t that the essence of the popular song itself? It must hew closely to the familiar, establishing repetitions that grab the listener by the cultural ear, while also offering little surprises that defy—usually at the smallest scale—the listener’s expectation. Both are good impulses. The familiar captures a listener in one way—when we effortlessly slip into singing along—while the surprise captures us in another—the slightly odd little hook that we want to hear again. Introduce too many new things and the song collapses out of its pattern and falls into incoherence and chaos. Repeat too many old things and the song yawns with repetitious boredom.
For Goodman (and Prine) and Coe, the “perfect” verse was the new thing. Indeed, the song may not have been the perfect country song, but it might have been the perfect country novelty song—a genre all its own, with uncomfortably intimate ties to serious mainstream country. Novelty, I remind myself when I hear the song, is goofy—and also another name for newness. Outlaw country was a novelty act in both senses: an institutional revolt straight out of the marketing tradition of Nashville itself. Outlaws like Coe (and perhaps Goodman and Prine) expressed their rebellion through an unwavering commitment to the rules of craft, down to every tic of lyrical cleverness and honky-tonk shuffle. In that sense, maybe Coe and Goodman had actually built the perfect country and western song—a perfect representation of the tradition in its form, style, and affect, and a perfect transcendence in its rejection of Nashville, made through an equally traditional claim to the newness of “outlaw” innovation. Like the riff on “darling, darling” in the first verse, the song folded back on itself, and then folded again and again. Perfect.
Philip Deloria, a recovering middle school band instructor, teaches history and American studies at Harvard University.