What In the Word? Bent Phrasing Is On the Rebound In Country Music

David McClister
Walker Hayes

Just when you thought it was dying, the pun is doing its best to have the last word in country music.

Chris Young hit No. 1 on the Country Airplay chart dated Feb. 10 with a slightly twisted hook: "We're winning when we're losing sleep." Darius Rucker continues to make headway in the top 20 with the pointed question "When was the last time you did something for the first time?" And Walker Hayes' "You Broke Up With Me" gets plenty of mileage from a cheeky accusation: "You made your bed and you didn't want me in it."

It's the kind of word play that country music was built on. Such titles as George Strait's "Nobody in His Right Mind Would've Left Her," Jerry Reed's "She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)" and Garth Brooks' "Friends in Low Places" used obvious turns of phrases or glaring puns to make their point. That kind of vocabulary has become less common in recent years, though the newer songs may indicate that the... ahem… pundulum is swinging back toward clever language.

"Lines that twist around themselves or are almost a pun, those are the cornerstones, the hallmarks of country music," says songwriter Josh Osborne ("Leave the Night On," "Merry Go 'Round"). "Country music was built on ‘You say it best when you say nothing at all.'"

But country has undergone radical changes in recent years. It has been most noticeable in evolving musical textures -- programmed drums and the EDM influence, for example. But as the format widens, both old-school proponents and hip-hop mind-sets are beginning to bring word play back into vogue. Jon Pardi's traditional sound was a perfect vehicle for the twist in "Head Over Boots," while Midland -- a trio that takes its name from a punny Dwight Yoakam title, "Fair to Midland" -- was a Grammy Award finalist in January with a far-from-subtle punchline: "People say I got a drinkin' problem/But I got no problem drinkin' at all."

Meanwhile, the rapid-fire verbiage of hip-hop encourages the quirky -alteration of familiar phrases, a tactic Hayes employs in large doses on his Monument debut, Boom.

"I love clever lyrics," says Hayes. "I actually had publishers that would encourage me at times to keep it simpler, not pack in so much information, but I'm a fan of songs and movies and books that the second time you read them, you find more stuff that you missed, so I like to pay attention to that detail. That's one of the reasons I got into country music, because of the craft of that lyric and how much you could put into three minutes."

The volume of that kind of writing has dropped in part because of cultural shifts. Puns were a big piece of the humor in the 1960s variety series The Jimmy Dean Show and the much-maligned '70s TV title Hee Haw, both of which now air as reruns on cable's RFD-TV. But the one-liners that produced laughter in that era would now likely elicit groans and be dismissed as a "dad joke."

"We're in the culture of cool right now," says Osborne. "If you're working that hard for a joke, it doesn't seem cool to people. Stand-up comedy reflects that now. I think there's less set up, set up, set up, punchline. It's more conversational, it's just different."

That conversational element seems key in what works today. Rucker's "When was the last time you said something for the first time" is the kind of sentence that could conceivably roll off of someone's tongue in a happy accident.

"I thought it was genius," says Rucker, who received that hook from co-writer Scooter Carusoe ("Wanna Be That Song," "Better As a Memory"). "But I thought it was something I would do or something I would say. You wouldn't even know [that phrase] was a cool, punny thing until it came out -- see what I did there?"

In fact, the biggest country song of 2017, Sam Hunt's "Body Like a Back Road," cruised a fine dotted line as it handled word play with speed-limit references and comparisons of the female anatomy to a street. Osborne and his fellow writers removed a series of other metaphors, believing they were too far over the top.

"We make cheese jokes all the time, like, ‘Man, I don't know, dude. That's white cheddar right there,'" says songwriter Michael Hardy ("Up Down"). "That's when you know it's too much."

"Up Down," the current Morgan Wallen/Florida Georgia Line title, may be the epitome of subtlety. Its hook line -- "We live it up, down here" -- is so obscure that one of the song's writers, C.J. Solar, received a phone call from his father nearly two years after the song was written: "I just got it!"

An appreciation still exists, of course, for those old-school titles. Don Schlitz, who crafted "When You Say Nothing at All" and the Randy Travis classic "On the Other Hand" ("there's a golden band"), entered the Country Music Hall of Fame in fall 2017. Alan Jackson, whose titles include "She's Got the Rhythm (I Got the Blues)," was recently announced as a 2018 Songwriters Hall of Fame inductee. Vern Gosdin entered the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame behind "Right in the Wrong Direction" and "If You're Gonna Do Me Wrong (Do It Right)." And Bob DiPiero was named a BMI Icon for a career that has featured Pam Tillis' "Cleopatra, Queen of Denial," Restless Heart's "That Rock Won't Roll" and the Brooks & Dunn hook "You can take the girl out of the honky-tonk, but you can't take the honky-tonk out of the girl."

"It's kind of an intuitive thing of how far is too far and how not enough is not enough," says DiPiero. "I'm always trying to find that tightrope and walk that line."

The line has clearly moved. The Bellamy Brothers' "If I Said You Have a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me," Ronnie McDowell's "You're Gonna Ruin My Bad Reputation," Faron Young's "I Miss You Already (And You're Not Even Gone)" or Gary Stewart's "She's Actin' Single (I'm Drinkin' Doubles)" would now be labeled "dad jokes" in some quarters (even though they once made a lot of... uh... cents). But not by everyone.

"A lot of the songwriting that we really admired from the '70s, '80s and '90s had a wit and a little bit of humor," notes Midland vocalist Mark Wystrach. "That's the kind of music that we really love. It's laden with soul, and it's also a way to make a beautiful song about a dark place or a dark thing."

Midland is not alone in its reverence for double entendres and crooked lines. Luke Combs' album cut "Nothing picks me up like a beer can" and Kacey Musgraves' "Mind your own biscuits and life will be gravy" show that country's current generation is doing its best to be clever, but not contrived.

"There's a very fine line," says DiPiero, "between stupid and a quarter of a million dollars."