The AM radio station here in these parts is CJBQ 800 out of Belleville, and to get caught up on the local news I tune it in during my drive from Queensborough down to Belleville each day. Unfortunately the music featured on the morning program, in and around the news, weather, sports and chat, is contemporary country, and the only word I can use to describe it is – godawful. The songs all sound the same, the performers are interchangeable, the tunes unmemorable and the lyrics – well, don’t even get me started. Except I guess I’ve already got myself started.There is a stunningly large number of references in the songs to driving around in trucks, which strikes me as a singularly unimaginative theme. And when these songs try to tackle the venerable country-music themes of “heartbreak and desire” (as the great Emmylou Harris put it in Boulder to Birmingham, her achingly beautiful song about the death of “cosmic American music” legend Gram Parsons) – well, we end up with lines like this one, which I was particularly appalled to hear more than once this past week: “Whiskey burn her memory down.” What does that even mean? How can whiskey burn anything down?
We are a far, far cry from lyrics like Hank Williams‘s “The moon just went behind the clouds/I’m so lonesome I could cry.” Or Johnny Cash‘s “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.” Or Loretta Lynn‘s “You ain’t woman enough to take my man.”
And then there’s Dolly Parton, who is one of my all-time heroes because she is smart and talented and tenacious and funny – and a fantastic songwriter. Think of My Tennessee Mountain Home, or Coat of Many Colors, or I Will Always Love You (which, for those of you who might not know, did not originate with the bombastic Whitney Houston). Or the song that is one of the great classics of country music, and one of the great examples of powerful songwriting by women. Of course I am talking about Jolene.
Dolly Parton released that single in 1974, when I was a young teenager living in Queensborough (where I now find myself again, all these years later). It was a huge hit, and was played regularly on none other than CJBQ 800, which our school-bus driver generally had tuned in on the drive to and from school. I have fond memories of hearing it over and over during that joyous afternoon time when the bus was bringing you home to freedom at the end of the school day, along the back roads in the area of Madoc (where school was). It’s a song that has lots of the great country-music themes: jealousy, heartache, two women in love with the same man. But it’s framed in an original and striking way; and the tune is haunting. A masterpiece.
Driving into Madoc the other afternoon, just a little later in the day than when the school bus used be delivering us home from school, I was tuned in to CBC Radio 2 (having heard one too many dopey songs from the 1950s on CJBQ’s hugely popular afternoon show with Freddy Vette) and host Rich Terfry made mention of the fact that Dolly Parton had suffered very minor injuries in a car accident this past week. He used it as a lead-in to a Dolly Parton song. Which, I am thrilled to report, was Jolene. It was so cool to hear that long-ago classic at that particular time and place.
“I had to have this talk with you/My happiness depends on you/And whatever you decide to do/Jolene.” People, we were a long, long way from “Whiskey burn her memory down.”