No Men For Old Country


     The question I get asked most often is, “Why would a medical malpractice lawyer from the Boston area write a novel about two country songwriters from Texas?”  The answer is simple.  Although these two activities are vastly diverse, they have one major thing in common. Words are what matter most for each.
     I’ve been writing country songs for decades.  I’m sorry I cannot show you unbound volumes of Tim Cagle hits, as many of them exist only in my mind.  That’s why I did the next best thing. I wrote a book about the time I closed down my law practice in my early 30’s and left for Nashville.  My big break never broke and I discovered I would always be a songwriter trapped in a lawyer’s body.
     The other question I am most asked is, why country?  The first reason is because the melodies are as stimulating as an ice-cold longneck, while the lyrics can be as soothing as comfort food.  Songwriting legend Harlan Howard once said the secret to a great country song is, “Three chords and the truth.” Finding those chords can be easy.  Truth, on the other hand, is a bit more elusive.  What’s true is often subject to interpretation.   
     I grew up in the 50’s when rock and roll started.  Clergy denounced it and parents banned it, making it the perfect recipe for juvenile rebellion.  When Elvis appeared, I wanted a guitar like most kids wanted a puppy. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough money for food, let alone a luxury like a musical instrument.  I found a poker game during my sophomore year in high school, won five straight pots and made enough cash to get a cheap acoustic.  I also learned money won was twice as sweet as money earned. 
     In college, rock music was spreading like a prairie fire until Lyndon Johnson escalated the troop levels in Viet Nam.  That’s when the music grew dirty and ugly, as people vowed to put a stop to that unholy war. Country music was almost universally hated at the time.  Most lyrics were still mourning crop failures and binge drinking, while many artists sounded like they had sinus infections.  Then, rock and roll died, but people refused to let go.  Today, we old rockers are sitting in one, listening to country songs that could be a clone for rock’s reincarnation.  I challenge you to listen to the mega-hit “Ain’t Goin’ Down Till The Sun Comes Up”, and try not to imagine the sounds of Chuck Berry, John Fogerty of Creedence Clearwater Revival or Don Felder and Joe Walsh of the Eagles.  They lit the pathway for rock and roll; Garth Brooks is now just a surrogate. 
     The second reason I love is country is personal.  My father died a few weeks before I was born and I grew up as a poor kid.  When I was 15, the only summer job I could find was in a town an hour away. I stayed in a dumpy old hotel with a group of elderly residents, in a run-down room with a pull-chain light and a bare, unshaded light bulb.  All I had for entertainment was a cheap transistor radio my girlfriend gave me.  I had no car, no friends and no outlets.  After twelve-hour workdays, I spent nights alone in my room listening to the only station I could find, one that played country songs.  It was the first time sad lyrics triggered my emotions, and my throat grew tight and parched as I listened.  When the music finished, my sorrow felt purged.
     That October, my grandmother died.  It was my first struggle with death, but I refused to cry. As I sat in church, an image appeared of that stark hotel room and a string of poignant songs began playing in my mind. After the funeral, I broke down in the car and bit my bottom lip to stay strong, but hot, bitter tears kept flowing like raindrops trickling down a windowpane. When the car stopped, I jumped out and vowed no one would ever see me cry again. Then, I went on the attack, shouting that country songs were harsh and cruel, before music whispered in my ear for the first time.  It told me to me to write my own lyrics so I could cry inside. 
     That hotel room created my epiphany into how song lyrics can paint a portrait.  That’s why my favorite lyric is from Gretchen Peters, in her song about domestic abuse, ‘Independence Day’. A wife pretends her abuser has quit drinking, yet her eight year old daughter points out proof could be found on her cheek.  It’s hard to imagine anyone who would not be moved by that image.
     My years as a musician have helped me give something back, now that I teach guitar and songwriting to my neighbor’s teenage daughters.  Taylor Swift is their favorite singer, while they refer to my repertoire as “Civil War campfire songs”.  My theory about the power of words blossomed when I taught them a three-part harmony version, which blended the lyrics from Taylor’s “Stay, Stay, Stay”, with those of Maurice Williams, whose biggest 50’s hit was called “Stay”, and inspired covers by the Four Seasons and Jackson Browne. 

     Teaching them has also convinced me this is what songwriter Lori McKenna meant when she wrote about helping who’s next in line, in the Grammy-winning hit she wrote for Tim McGraw, called ‘Humble and Kind’.”  That’s why I have found whether I’m acting as a songwriter, a lawyer or just a guy, words are what matter most.  As Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb of the BeeGees once told us in their mega-hit “Words”, lyrics are the only thing we have that can take our hearts away.


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