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Storytelling songs

Posted: September 7, 2017 2:48 p.m.
Updated: September 8, 2017 1:00 a.m.

When I was almost 17 and started my career in media by hosting a weekend radio show on a country music station, I was no stranger to country music and the great stories told in its songs.

It was at my 6th birthday party that my friends and I did the Twist -- a dance born from rock and roll – to the twang of a Loretta Lynn album. She became my musical hero so my childhood was spent singing songs like, “You Ain’t Woman Enough” and “Don’t Come Home A-Drinkin’”. For some reason, this did not cause my teetotaling, Jesus-loving, arrow straight parents to lift an eyebrow or worry about what road I was headed down. Mama always bought me the latest Loretta record.

Being a country music disc jockey -- as we were called in those days -- came as naturally to me as drinking sweet tea. I loved the music. I loved the singers, common and down-to-earth who had mostly sprung up from dirt poor, and the musicians, particularly steel guitar players. I especially loved the story songs like those written by Tom T. Hall who told of a waitress named Ruby or a guitar player named Clayton Delaney. To tell a strong story in three minutes is, to me, the most admirable ability of any kind of writing.

In the days when my radio career began, Dolly Parton had just released an album produced in Los Angeles (Nashville was horrified, but she had just struck the first powerful chord on her way to becoming iconic) and the Oak Ridge Boys, a once popular Southern gospel quartet, were broke and struggling financially because their long hair, beards and hip huggers weren’t selling to the church crowd.

“We had to do something,” lead singer Duane Allen told me frankly in an interview. That “something” was a country album called “The Y’all Come Back Saloon” which would give the Oak Ridge Boys the last laugh and launch them into a huge country career. 

It was country music’s original male quartet, though, that would be the ones who planted the seed that taught me to write a column like this. Their songs, primarily written by brothers Don and Harold Reid, often took a nostalgic look on life and always there was a clever twist or take on words. They are probably the only act in country music who did not have a No. 1 or even a Top 10 song about drinking, cheating, or lying.

While working around the house recently, I listened to Statler Brothers music. For hours. Over and over. Then, hours turned to days. I couldn’t stop listening to the clever lyrics and perfect harmonies. It became so repetitive that Tink, who was working on a Hallmark movie, could not write unless “Flowers on the Wall” was playing on the Bose.

“Put that song on again,” he’d call from upstairs.

One of the first songs I played in my radio career was “The Official Historian of Shirley Jean Berrell.” It is a quick tempo, clever song that always had me happily singing along in the studio. It tells the story of a man who knows everything about a woman he loves such as her daddy’s middle name and why she’s scared of the dark. After making a convincing case for all he knows, the song ends with, “The only thing that I don’t know is where she is right now.”

After two weeks of listening to that album over and over, I realized that my own storytelling, particularly as it relates to this column, was seeded by the songs of the Statlers. Their snapshots of a simple time in a small town with friends and neighbors have always hugged my heart so tightly. It’s wasn’t Faulkner or Harper Lee who influenced me, but a country music group.

To quote one of their other hits, “It carries me back.” And that’s what we all love.

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