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Can't win for losing

The bassackwards country logic of BR5-49

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Country music (old country, now—not this crap they play on the Nashville Network) is all about losing. To that end, it can wring mileage out of a gamey metaphor or bad play on words like no other kind of music. The worse you lose, some would say, the more you win when it comes to writing songs about it.

Here’s a short list of winningly losing country titles. Try and find some MP3s of them if you get minute—they’re supposedly all real, though you never can tell: “My John Deere Was Breaking Your Field While Your Dear John Was Breaking My Heart.” “She Got the Gold Mine and I Got the Shaft.” “I’m Just a Bug on the Windshield of Life.” “Velcro Arms, Teflon Heart.” “When You Leave Walk Out Backwards So I’ll Think You’re Walking In.” “I’ve Been Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart.”

You can kind of pick out tongue-in-cheek titles from the earnestly maudlin ones, but it just goes to show you that for every horrible pun out there, there’s a country tearjerker waiting to be built around it.

That’s just one of the things I love about country music. Another thing I’m really fond of is the philosophy of small truths you find in songs about grasping life’s little lessons, particularly the hard ones, on the way to the store to buy cigarettes and bread. Like in the BR5-49 song “Lifetime to Prove.” In the song (from the Nashville group’s eponymous debut on Arista Records), our hero (who doesn’t have any money anyway) makes it only a couple of blocks before he gets sidetracked by the smell of beer wafting out of the Square (either a bar or a town commons with a lot of bars arranged around it—either way, it’s as far as he gets on his shopping trip). “The thing about beer,” sings Chuck Mead, “It can make a man hear voices from his days long since past. And with every third drink it’ll make you think that your youth will always last.”

The song is about resignation and regret, looking back on your life and realizing that your hopes and dreams either dried up or you just kept putting them off until it was too late. “I was handsome and strong,” Mead croons, “And when I walked along I stood erect and looked straight ahead. [But] somewhere along the line I lost my will. And now I’m sitting here, my life full of beer, and I try to pretend it’s not real.”

It’s all about losing graciously. It doesn’t hurt that traditional country instrumentation includes some of the saddest-sounding instruments there are—in the right hands, pedal steel, lap steel or Dobro can slice your heart out at the stroke of just one mournful slide and air it out like the offering in an Aztec sacrifice. (Which reminds me: here’s a country title I’ve always been fond of even if I’ve never heard the song: “You Done Tore Out My Heart and Stomped That Sucker Flat.”) Any slidey kind of instrument is certain to be sadder than an instrument with holes, and country just happens to have a lot of them. Eerie ones, too, like the musical saw (although BR5-49 doesn’t have one of those). If there were ever a contest to see which genre of music had the saddest instrumental voices, I bet country would win hands down—or lose on purpose just so someone could write a song about it.

But Country Man is never truly defeated, and the thing that makes a song like “Lifetime to Prove” a genre diamond is that Drinky Drinksalot sort of realizes that things will eventually work themselves out to be at least no crappier than they are right now. If Country Man feels bound by family and a sense of duty more than Pop Music Man, he also very often feels strangely powerless to do anything about getting himself out of a rut. Maybe it’s because he realizes that when you’ve been losing for song, just like when you’ve been smoking or drinking for too long, winning—like quitting—is a process, not an act. One day at a time, sweet Jesus.

Speaking of acting (and Jesus), when are you going to try to track down a copy of “Drop Kick Me, Jesus, Through the Goalposts of Life?”

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