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DAVID BIANCULLI, host:

Our linguist, Geoff Nunberg, is a country music fan. Besides the music, he loves the wordplay and especially the puns. Some people say the punning in country is the characteristic that makes it hard for them to take the music seriously. But Geoff says Shakespeare would've had no problem with it.

We first aired this piece in 1999.

GEOFF NUNBERG: The best movie about country music I know of is a gritty little 1972 film called "Payday." Rip Torn plays a fading, second-tier country star touring the South from roadhouse to roadhouse on an out-of-control, drunken binge. The movie is much more genuine than Robert Altman's overblown "Nashville," which came out a few years later, and one reason is that it took pains to get the music right, both the best and the worst of it.

There's one scene in particular that sticks with me, when Torn's character is obliged to stand in a parking lot listening to a young dishwasher who wants to work as a country singer sing a composition called "I'm Loving You More but Enjoying It Less." It's the perfect example of an awful country song from that period, down to its punning title.

Pop singers like The Beatles and Elvis Costello may have visited wordplay from time to time, but country music lives there. A lot of it involves outright puns, like The Bellamy Brothers' "If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me?" or Lee Ann Womack's "Am I the Only Thing That You've Done Wrong?" There's Gary Nicholson's "Behind Bars," which is about saloons, and Randy Travis' "On the Other Hand," which is about wedding rings. And then there are all those other titles that involve wordplay of one sort or another, like Dolly Parton's "It's All Wrong, But It's All Right," or Johnny Paycheck's "I'm the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised."

When I think of songs like these, though, the singer that comes first to mind is George Jones. I don't know if he's done more of them than anybody else the honors there probably go to Roger Miller or Johnny Paycheck. And a lot of the punning titles that Jones does are just routine joke songs, like "She Took My Keys Away, and Now She Won't Drive Me to Drink."

(Soundbite of song, "She Took My Keys Away, and Now She Won't Drive Me to Drink.")

Mr. GEORGE JONES (Country music singer): (Singing) I saw those blue lights flashing over my left shoulder. He walked right up and said get off that riding mower. I said sir; let me explain before you put me in the tank. She took my keys away and now she won't drive me to drink.

NUNBERG: But Jones has also made a specialty of using puns and wordplay in the plaintive ballads that he sings like no one else. There are songs like, a man can be a drunk sometimes but "A Drunk Can't Be A Man," or at least I've learned to "Stand On My Own Two Knees," or the recent "Hundred Proof Memories."

(Soundbite of song, "Hundred Proof Memories")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) Love on the rocks that's all he said, as he sat there beside me shaking his head. I said, Mister, you look like you're taking it rough. The next round's on me. He said, I don't touch the stuff.

'Cause these hundred proof memories are stronger than wine. It don't take but one taste to send you out of your mind. No, I don't want the whiskey but I could sure use a ride. 'Cause with hundred proof memories, Lord, you don't think and drive.

NUNBERG: For some people, of course, this sort of punning just confirms a sense of country music as a linguistic trailer park. Since Tennyson's time, punning has been deprecated as the basest form of humor, to the point where it is usually a kind of veiled aggressiveness nowadays. Habitual punsters live for groans the way violinists live for applause. Sophisticated people may make exceptions for the literary puns of Joyce or Nabokov or the urbane wordplay of '30s show tunes. But they have trouble finding a place for somebody who makes puns in earnest, particularly in a sentimental ballad.

But maybe that's simply because most people have forgotten how to take puns seriously. The wordplay in Cole Porter or Nabokov is dazzling but usually superficial; the wordplay in country songs is pedestrian but sometimes profound. It has a rueful irony, as the innocent reading of an ordinary expression reveals a new meaning that makes it more sad and knowing. You think of Charley Pride's "She's Too Good to Be True," or George Jones' recent "Tied To a Stone."

(Soundbite of song, "Tied To a Stone")

Mr. JONES: (Singing) I woke up this morning, and prayed to God, oh let this be a dream. Her side of the bed was cold and laying there beside was her ring. With a note that she had left for me, laying where she used to lay her head. And I felt the world fall in on me, for this is what she said.

Tied to a stone, ain't no way to live. I can't go on living like this. I'd rather...

NUNBERG: It's a fitting device for these ballads, particularly when they're tackling their favorite themes the fragility of happiness, the loss that's always immanent in love and family. There's a joke that sums up the genre very nicely: What do you get if you play a country song backwards? You get your wife back, you get your dog back, you get your truck back. And the sense of loss and estrangement is implicit in the language of the lyrics, too, as the ordinary expressions we use to talk about our lives break down to reveal darker meanings.

It's a kind of wordplay with antique roots. It owes a lot to the language of sermons, particularly in the Baptist and Evangelical traditions, with their attentiveness to the multiple meanings of scriptural passages. But it has earlier antecedents in the sermons and poetry of the metaphysical poets like John Donne and George Herbert. And even earlier than that, you can find its secular echoes in Shakespeare. Take Hamlet's bitter pun about his uncle, a little more than kin, and less than kind. When you think about it, that would make a great George Jones title. Like Jones, Shakespeare knew that there was more to wordplay than just fooling around.

BIANCULLI: Geoff Nunberg is a linguist who teaches at the School of Information at the University of California at Berkley.

(Soundbite of music)

For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

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