The hallmark of any great country song is tragedy. In other words, when a calamity (or series of calamities) leads to the downfall of one or more of the song’s protagonists. Usually, the tragedy is presented as a series of events out of the singer’s control. In large part, the lack of control is related to an unwritten but well-understood code that lays out rules of honor, love and death. It is ultimately the struggle between that code and the protagonist’s attempts to adhere to it that send him or her to drink, jail, or death. Steve Goodman made note of this in his song made famous by David Allan Coe, “You Don’t Have to Call Me Darlin,’ Darlin” when he wrote the final lyric that brought the entire song together with his grandma dying in a pickup truck at a railroad crossing on the way home from prison.
Quite often, the tragedy depicted in a particular song is drawn from remorse so deep it renders the storyteller immobile, even blubbering like a child who saw its pet die. One such song that comes to mind is George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today.” This tale of a lover who ran away and a man who never got over her departure is enough to make a dead man cry, as Mick Jagger might say. The assumptions of fidelity and eternal vows this song depends on are as ancient as the American patriarchy. George Jones, whose vocal delivery could make a joyful song of Christmas into a Good Friday requiem, takes lyrics describing failed love and leaps with them into a bottomless pit of despair. The final verse of this song, which takes place at the unrequited lover’s funeral, describes the dead man’s ex-lover coming to the funeral and the singer noting, “He’s finally over her for good.”
Willie Nelson’s catalog is full of songs of loneliness, joy, and failed love. However, it is his Red Headed Stranger suite that takes the stuff of tragedy to a previously unreached level. Although Nelson did not compose the entire work, he created his tale of a preacher whose wife left him by mixing songs he composed with classics like the title song by Arthur Boogie Smith and the Fred Rose classic “Blue Eyes Crying in the Rain.” The result is the tragic story of a man who hunts down his wife and her lover, ultimately killing them in a fit of despair and revenge. Along the way, he murders a woman who attempted to ride the Stranger’s wife’s horse and gets away with it since it is written in the code that “you can’t kill a man for killing a woman who’s trying to steal your horse.” Although such a tale seems not just ridiculous but absurd to those who do not understand, much less live by, the Stranger’s code, it is no less so than the predicament of Prince Hamlet in what many consider Shakespeare’s greatest tragedy.
Much of today’s country music is different. Although I don’t listen too closely to much of it, I hear it enough to recognize its essential content. Its manifestation in what is called “bro country” comes off as unwitting satire, with repetitive songs concerning two-dimensional women, pickup trucks and alcohol. Fortunately, there are exceptions to sub-genre. Steve Earle’s work comes first to mind, especially his album Copperhead Road, which details moonshiners, pot growers, killers and such. Overtly leftwing in his political views, Earle is not played much if at all on most pop country stations. That in itself might point to his faithfulness to the tradition by artists like George Jones, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, and Johnny Cash. Sturgill Simpson is another artist who masters the musical genre while singing lyrics that transcend the common content.
Women country artists have always had a tougher time, it seems. Those who did make it big and composed much of their own work—Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Tammi Wynette—have written about their hardscrabble upbringings and their struggle against a culture that has historically been defined by patriarchal zealotry. Although the trio noted here are certainly not all of the artists one could list, it seems fair to state that their biographies in the music business are representative of most other women country artists of their generation. From Parton and Lynn’s descriptions of their rural upbringing in songs like Parton’s “My Tennessee Mountain Home” and Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” one is reminded of the tragedy of everyday lives in the USA. Wynette’s songs nominally about her relationship with George Jones describe the lives of many women then and now. Perhaps a common element found amongst the defiance implicit in their struggle to become recognized artists is that they still existed in a world not just dominated by but ruled by men.
This is arguably no longer the case. Although it is clear that patriarchal paradigms continue to exist, their domination is less complete and constantly under challenge in US popular culture. Even the trappings of patriarchy are questioned in most corners of US society, although the resistance to change remains strong in several of those corners. Country music is arguably one of those corners. That is why Sarah Shook and the Disarmers are so welcome. This North Carolina band (which began as Sarah Shook and the Devil) features a sound rooted in the woods of the Smokies and developed in the southern grit of North Carolina’s Piedmont cities. Although Shook, who write most of the songs, plays rhythm guitar and sings lead, was born in upstate New York, she has lived in North Carolina since she was nine years old. Homeschooled and raised as a fundamentalist Christian, Shook understands the patriarchy. Her band includes a drummer, lap steel player, lead guitarist and bassist. Somewhere between country and rock, the tunes are mostly hard driving tunes with short leads shared by lead guitarist Eric Peterson and the steel player Adam Kurtz. Driving the unit are the drums of Kevin McClain and Aaron Oliva’s upright bass.
The songs they play undermine the patriarchy. Shook’s protagonists spit in the face of tradition as defined by the code mentioned at the beginning of this piece. Sometimes they do so by satirizing the preferred scenario of woman as victim. Other times, Shook’s characters just don’t give a fuck. They drink hard and do what they want, consequences be damned. In other songs, Shook and her Disarmers relate a common country song of the loser, yet even then that lament is tinged with an attitude of disdain for that which is expected. In a song from her latest work, Years, Shook and her band turn Merle Haggard’s “Tonight the Bottle Let Me Down” sideways, with Shook singing the part of the man in Haggard’s song happy that he’s got the bottle for a friend. In a tune titled “Fuck Up” from the album Sidelong, Shook sings “God don’t make mistakes. He just makes fuck-ups/Well I guess I’m too much of a fuck up.” It doesn’t sound like an apology, just a statement. It’s a tragedy but it’s badass.