I can't make up my mind: Has country music finally gone too far? Has the brilliant and powerful mastery of emotional manipulation that is its signature, its relentless effort to make you weep at all costs, at last taken it into territory—the bitter end of its manipulative side—that it might be better off avoiding?
Or does the advent of a subgenre you might call "cancer country"—that is, songs that make use of cancer as their chosen means of ratcheting up emotion—represent a perversely healthy evolution of country music, raising it to a new level of emotional truth—a realism beyond honky-tonk heartbreak and cheatin'-spouses sorrow. A deeper acknowledgment of the grim power of death and disease.
I write as a lonely defender of mainstream country in New York, a city that tends to turn up its nose at some of the more undeniably risible aspects of the genre's achy-breaky heart. (If you doubt my country credibility, let me cite the two weeks I spent traveling in Willie Nelson's tour bus as he played honky-tonks across the South. The highlight? Willie playing the "lost" verse of "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground.")
I've always felt that at its best, mainstream country music (not just hipster-friendly bluegrass and alt-country) is unappreciated as writing. That the best C&W songwriters have created an idiom, a genre, whose excellence in elliptical emotional compression rivals the best contemporary American short-story writing. Some of these C&W geniuses, people like George Jones and Rodney Crowell, are the unheralded Raymond Carvers and John Cheevers of their genre—masters of self-lacerating self-pity. Consider the spare, aching, profoundly needy lyrics of Crowell's "Till I Gain Control Again":
I've never gone so wrong as for telling lies to you
What you see is what I've been
There is nothing I could hide from you
You can see me better than I can.
On the road that lies before me now
There are some turns where I will spin
I only hope that you can hold me now
'Til I can gain control again …
It always makes me lose control.
Sure, I get a kick out of good-time whiskey/sexy country (like the contemporary "Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off"). But it's the ones that know how to push your saddest buttons, the buttons marked "Regret," "Sorrow," "Remorse," "Self-Pity," in particular that I love.
But with no country radio station in New York City, intermittent bouts of watching the country-music cable channels have been my main fix. And one aspect I love about getting out of Manhattan is that there's almost always at least one country station on the car radio, which is, of course, the best place to hear country.
Even in wonkish Washington, D.C., which is where I was when I heard the latest in the cancer-country genre, the new hit from Craig Morgan, "(I Thought That I Was) Tough."
It's one of those songs that hit you in a way that makes you remember the mundane particularity of the first time you heard it. We were driving to a Safeway supermarket one sunlit Sunday morning. My friend, who—fortunately—likes weepy C&W songs, too, had the local country station on the car radio when "Tough" came on.
It cleverly sneaks up on you, because it starts out like one of those country songs that's a tribute to a multitalented, multitasking wife and mother. The lyrics of the first verse (written by Monte Criswell and Joe Leathers) begin:
She's in the kitchen at the crack of dawn
Bacon's on, coffee's strong
Kids running wild, taking off their clothes
If she's a nervous wreck, well it never shows
Takes one to football and one to dance
Hits the Y for aerobics class
Drops by the bank, stops at the store
Has on a smile when I walk through the door
The last to go to bed, she'll be the first one up
And I thought I was tough.
But then, in the second verse, you learn that the song is more than a tribute to a supermom housewife. This is no ordinary housewife:
We sat there five years ago
The doctors let us know, the test showed
She'd have to fight to live, I broke down and cried,
She held me and said it's gonna be all right.
She wore that wig to church
Pink ribbon pinned there on her shirt
No room for fear, full of faith
Hands held high singing Amazing Grace
Never once complained, refusing to give up
And I thought I was tough.
Suddenly, that last line, "I thought I was tough," takes on a far deeper meaning, and the thing that's really "tough" is trying not to cry when you hear it. It was like a dark shadow blotted out the sun in the Safeway (metaphor?) parking lot that sunny Sunday. You know, of course, that famous painting by Poussin, the one with the idyllic country folk puzzling over a grave they've stumbled on? A scene which the painter labels, adopting the voice of the Grim Reaper, "Et in Arcadia Ego"—I, Death, am here even in bucolic country arcadia.
"Whoa," I said, as the song ended. "Did I just hear that right?"
"Amazing, isn't it?" she said. "It's cancer country."
She proceeded to tell me about the song she thought was the absolute apex of the genre—the song that made her think of the term cancer country in the first place, a song from 2005, now a classic, that I somehow (fortunately?) missed, a song called "Skin" (although it's more familiarly known as "Sarabeth").
But before we get to "Sarabeth," the icon of the cancer-country subgenre, let's take a look at the song that seems to have started it all. It may not have been the first country cancer anthem (readers, please let me know of any I have missed), but it is the first one to become a mega-hit—a breakthrough for cancer in country. Made "Sarabeth" possible. Tim McGraw's "Live Like You Were Dying."
He said, "I was in my early 40s,
With a lot of life before me,
When a moment came that stopped me on a dime.
I spent most of the next days,
Looking at the X-rays.
Talking 'bout the options
And talking 'bout sweet time."
I asked him when it sank in,
That this might really be the real end,
How's it hit ya' when you get that kind of news?
Man whad 'ya do? And he said:
"I went skydiving
I went rocky mountain climbing
I went two point seven seconds on a bull name Fu Manchu
And I loved deeper
And I spoke sweeter
And I gave forgiveness I'd been denyin'."
And he said, "Some day I hope you get the chance
To live like you were dyin'."
What is the source of this song's power? Its ostensible message is uplift, but underlying that, I believe, is dread. The dread that is there in a certain kind of reticence or obliquity that betokens the long-standing, fearful, not-to-be-named power of cancer. It exists, literally, in a negative space: He's staring into X-ray negatives which, presumably, display the evidence of disease as a menacing, ghostly shadow.
Then there's troubling contrast with the purported uplift of the chorus, with all that gettin'-busy-enjoying-life, the triumphantly redemptive notion that the prospect of death can give the life that's left a joyous intensity. But is it me, or there an ambiguity in that last line, "I hope you get the chance ..."?
"I hope you the chance," taken literally, means, "I hope you get cancer." Because then you'll feel all uplifted like me. So, it's just a great excuse to party, getting cancer? I'm not sure all cancer patients would feel it's an unalloyed blessing. Still, the song's bridge ends with one of those annoyingly profound-however-trite-type questions great country songs are always asking:
Like tomorrow was a gift
And ya got eternity to think
About what you'd do with it,
What did you do with it,
What did I do with it,
What would I do with it?
Now, I'm not saying that country—or rock, for that matter—has shied away from death. But in the past, the death has more often come from hedonistic excess, too much drinking, driving too fast (as in the "teen angel" car crash songs in rock); the Hank Williams live fast/die young ethos in country. Yes, there have been sad, peaceful, emotional songs about dying in country music—Johnny Cash's duet with his daughter Rosanne on the unbearably beautiful "September When It Comes," for instance.
And recently there have been a number of country songs about the war. At first, they were all gung-ho, but they've turned darker: like Darryl Worley's painfully melancholy "I Just Came Back (From a War)"—about a vet trying and failing to feel normal again in his old hometown after coming back from Iraq. * Another "Et in Arcadia Ego" moment.
Still, there's something different about cancer-related country songs. The dread that forbids naming the disease in the Tim McGraw song can be found in "Skin," aka "Sarabeth," as well.
You've gotta give this song credit: In the history of contemporary death, dying, and disease songs, few rival this Rascal Flatts weeper. It's probably the most well-known cancer-country song, the one some have called the saddest country song ever.
"Skin" doesn't waste any time getting to the heart of the matter:
Sarabeth is scared to death
To hear what the doctor will say.
She hasn't been well
Since the day that she fell
And the bruises just won't go away.
So she sits and she waits with her mother and dad
And flips through an old magazine
Till the nurse with the smile
Stands at the door
And says will you please come with me
Sarabeth is scared to death
'Cause the doctor just told her the news
"Between the red cells and white
Something's not right
But we're gonna take care of you"
"Between the red cells and white/ Something's not right." Again, a kind of artful evasion of naming: Is it fearfulness or a way of heightening the dread?
Anyway, to make a rather long next verse short, the doctor says they've caught it in time, and they're going to use a newly approved method of chemo that should give her a six-in-10 chance of surviving.
This doesn't allay Sarabeth's concerns. She's got a prom date coming up and worries about the effects of chemo, because, as the chorus puts it:
Sarabeth closes her eyes
She dreams she's dancing
Around and around without any cares
And her very first love is holding her close
And the soft wind is blowing her hair
But that hair is about to suffer a fall:
Sarabeth is scared to death
As she sits holding her mom
Says it would be a mistake
For someone to take
A girl with no hair to the prom
For just this morning right there on her pillow
Was the cruelest of any surprise
And she cried when she gathered it all in her hands
The proof that she couldn't deny.
But after another chorus, now doubly heartbreaking, about that "soft, blowing hair," the song swiftly shifts to prom night:
It's a quarter to 7
That boy's at the door
Her daddy ushers him in
And when he takes off his cap
They all start to cry
'Cause this morning where his hair had been
Softly she touches just skin
It's a killer song, its "message" is uplift and solidarity, but is it the uplift that gives it its tear-jerking power? I think it depends on who you are.
If you're a cancer patient or survivor, the song is a gesture of solidarity, like the prom date shaving his head. It's become a widespread gesture. Indeed, John Edwards, in a recent interview in Marie Claire, said that when his wife got her cancer diagnosis, he offered to shave his head, but she turned him down because—he said—she liked his locks so much.
So, some with cancer might welcome it, and even if you don't have the disease, the song can be an invitation to join in solidarity with victims and survivors, a way of extending empathy.
But is there a less noble aspect to it? Does the song in some way that is a little disturbing use cancer as a hook? A way to do the thing that country music considers its job: to make you cry? To jerk tears the way other fluids are jerked in porn?
It raises all sorts of questions about our conflicted attitude toward tear-jerking, toward extreme sentimentality, perhaps even toward sentiment itself. Is tear-jerking necessarily bad? Is the jerking of tears a sign of bad art or a sure sign of a lack of artistic seriousness? Do we all subscribe to Oscar Wilde's dictum that "It would take a heart of stone not to laugh at the death of Little Nell" (in Dickens' The Old Curiosity Shop)?
It is possible to jerk tears uncynically. Great literature is not averse to it: death of Prince Andrei, anyone? And don't tell me Shakespeare wasn't going for tears with the death of Desdemona. And yet if the death of Little Nell didn't get to me in The Old Curiosity Shop, the death of little Paul Dombey in Dombey and Son did, and the illness and recovery of Esther Summerson in Bleak House did. Still it raises the question: Is the lingering reluctance among some intellectuals to credit Dickens' genius related to his occasional tear-jerking opportunism?
I'm conflicted, because I find myself loving some beautiful tear-jerking country songs—but sometimes I distrust or resent them, or distrust or resent myself for giving in too easily to them. I think it comes down the the question of opportunism and cynicism: Do you feel the song comes out of genuine sentiment or manipulative sentimentality? It's sense versus sensibility again.
It's also not without interest that none of the three characters in these songs actually dies. (Although the Tim McGraw "friend" seems to have the worst prognosis.) Country is ready to deal with cancer, but is country ready to deal with cancer death?
Finally, how would I evaluate the three cancer songs? The Tim McGraw anthem comes off a little too insistently upbeat, might have the effect of making cancer patients feel guilty if they don't display a new-found love of life all the time, deprive them of the right to feel bad or scared once in a while. Cause us to expect them to be all upbeat about it. Indeed, it can seem to partake in the New Age ideology that disease is caused by negative thoughts and cured by positive ones.
As to the "Sarabeth" song, I can't criticize it, but I do feel a little bit overmanipulated by the soft-hair-blowing-in-the-wind motif, which seems to buy into the notion that loss of hair is the key signifier of the cancer experience.
But I kind of like "Tough." It's got a kind of humility and awe at the courage of what the woman has gone through, and still goes through, that feels right, not contrived. There's something genuinely loving about it. Loving tear-jerking rather than emotional porn. It's a tough song to listen to; it must have been tough to write. But it suggests an awareness of what real toughness is about.
Correction, May 18, 2007: This piece originally misspelled Darryl Worley's name and misstated the title of his song. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)
Correction, May 21, 2007: This piece originally stated that Tim McGraw wrote "Live Like You Were Dying". In fact, it was written by Tim Nichols and Craig Wiseman. (Return to the corrected sentence.)