Professor: What makes a country song classic?

© 2018-The Record Delta

BUCKHANNON — Write some lyrics that mention heartbreak, your mama or daddy and getting out of prison. Don’t forget the pickup truck. Use the standard verse, chorus, verse, chorus, bridge and verse format and play it all on a stringed instrument with a specific chord grouping.
The tune may not be a very good country song written in a few minutes time, but it would be recognized as part of the stereotypical country music genre.
On that note, Eric Waggoner, associate professor of English at West Virginia Wesleyan College, shared what he thinks separates a stereotypical country music song from a classic song.
“If you listen to country music, or you listen to hip hop or you listen to rock, you notice there are certain kinds of elements that are sort of the standard ingredients for that type of genre, “he said. “All musical genres — like all genres of art — overtime develop a vocabulary.
“This could have to do with topic, context, subject matter, instrumentation, chord progression — certain things that are recognizable immediately.”
“That classic song in any genre … is one that speaks the language of that genre,” he said. “A song has a shot at becoming a classic when it not only hits all those marks successfully but it also puts a twist on one or more of those elements and gives us something unexpected and rewarding.”
Waggoner’s informal talk on “The Heartbreak Game: What Makes a Classic Song Classic?” included three classic songs.
Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” from 1968 has the classic elements of mama, daddy and prison with a nod to faith.
Except for the line “I turned 21 in prison doing life without parole,” the tune is not so much about being an outlaw but about good old traditional family values, according to Waggoner.
“It sneaks it in, in an interesting way,” he said.  “What seems to be a very straight-forward song about transgression, actually turns out to be kind of a love song to Mama.”
Released in 1975, Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” was controversial at the time even though birth control pills came on the market in the previous decade.
“It is really hard to understand and appreciate just what a bombshell this song was when it came out,” Waggoner said.  “For the first time in history, women could decide with the help of a pill whether or not to get pregnant when they had sex. Loretta Lynn is where it is at. If you want to know what life was like for women in the 1970s, all you need is the ‘Greatest Hits of Loretta Lynn.’”
Glen Campbell’s “Wichita Lineman,” a ballad tune written by Jimmy Webb has a chord progression that is extremely odd, according to Wagoner.
“This is the strangest of all the songs we are listening to,” he said.  “It starts in F, it ends in D. It’s just a really odd chord progression.”
The song stayed in the country charts for 15 weeks despite its string orchestra sound.
Campbell was already an established country music artist when he released the song.
 “Country music develops in American history in about the same historical moment as blues,” he said. “There’s a lot of similarities. If you listen to early 20th century blues music and you listen to early 20th century country music, you hear a lot of the same chord progressions. You hear a lot of the same topics being sung about and you hear a lot of the same inflections.”
There are still differences but they are a lot closer together than a lot of people realize, according to Waggoner.
For example, listen to Hank Williams’ “Mind Your Own Business” and then Charley Patton’s “Going to Alabama Blues.”
“It’s the same chord progression, it’s the same structure — line, line, chorus, line-line, chorus, it’s …. near the same melody.
“Blues, country and jazz are all very home-grown types of American music,” he said. “They developed under  certain kinds of social and economic conditions and are split apart in some ways by the racial divide.”
However, Waggoner said the line is not so firm.
“If you think of blues as being only an African-American phenomenon and country as being only a white phenomenon, we are missing a lot,” he said.
Both blues and country songs cover the same subject matter such as an emphasis on money, work and love — or the lack of those things.  With all the similarity and repetition there is also a need for difference in variation to set songs apart from one another to make it a singular experience, Waggoner added.
“We need both elements — the familiar and the strange — in order for individual iterations of the music to operate,” he said. “If a song doesn’t give us anything but the familiar, we are probably going to be bored. If it gives us only difference and absolutely nothing is familiar we don’t have any framework to understand what it is all about.
“Creative variations on familiar elements often make up the core element in some of the most interesting elements of popular music,” he said. “It’s the stuff that makes it really unique that makes a song enjoyable.”
Outside of Wesleyan, Waggoner also is a music journalist contributing articles to a variety of magazines.
Waggoner also invited questions from the audience to continue the conversation after his talk, which kicked off a series of faculty lectures on the second Monday of the month this fall semester.
Dr. Boyd Creasman, vice president of academics, said, “We are trying to build on the success of the Lincoln lecture we had last February. We had 300 people turn out for a lecture on Lincoln on a very cold night and the room was full of people who really enjoyed a cultural event.
“We are trying to do the same here and try to engage the local community in conversations with people from the college.”
For a schedule of future programs, visit and read The Record Delta.   

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