Geoff Nunberg says that pop singers such as The Beatles and Elvis Costello may have visited wordplay from time to time -- but country music lives there.
This commentary was originally broadcast on Sept. 9, 1999.
The best movie about country music I know of is a gritty little 1972 film called Payday. Rip Torn giving an intense performance as 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 be a country singer sing a composition called "I'm Loving You More and 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 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 "I Had More Silver Bullets Last Night Than the Lone Ranger" or "She Took My Keys Away, and Now She Won't Drive Me to Drink."
But Jones has also made a specialty of using puns and wordplay in the plaintive ballads that he sings like no one else -- "A man can be a drunk sometimes but a drunk can't be a man," "At least I've learned to stand on my own two knees" or "With these hundred proof memories, / You can't think and drive."
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. 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 someone 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 Jones' recent "Tied To a Stone."
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.
The wordplay has 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.