originally posted December 30, 2012
May 2021: reformatted; links updated; text revised as noted
I suspect that few radio listeners make a habit of equating song lyrics to the stories in magazines, books, or memoirs. (And, granted, the limited numbers of words and phrases in most songs would not help make that association!) However, occasionally, a well-written lyrical composition does manage to hit the airwaves and make a connection between musical words and their written cousins.
Two popular songs have caught my attention over the past couple of months as perfect examples of musical compositions that tell stories: “Ol’ Red,” written by James “Bo” Bohan, Don Goodman, and Mark Sherrill, and “Blown Away,” written by Chris Tompkins and Josh Kear. If you are not familiar with the songs or lyrics, allow me to provide a few links so you can see and hear for yourselves.
First, the story of “Ol’ Red,” which was transcribed by Lyrics Meaning (you can even listen to George Jones perform the song while reading the lyrics). “Ol’ Red” has been recorded by Jones and by Kenny Rogers, though Blake Shelton has the version that is currently on the charts. Look up those performances or watch another cover of the song by rising star Carl Holsher. The song’s narrator is a prisoner who begins caring for Ol’ Red, the prison dog, a bloodhound who is well-known among the inmates for his skill at tracking escaped prisoners. As the song develops, said prisoner starts hatching a plan to escape from jail.
Second, Lyrical Eden has transcribed the lyrics to “Blown Away” and posted them to a recorded performance by Carrie Underwood; if you prefer, though, listen to the 2005 American Idol winner return to that stage for a live performance. The lyrics for “Blown Away” have been praised far and wide and have even been nominated (at this point) for the Grammy’s 2013 Best Country Song, an award that recognizes its songwriters.
According to songfacts.com, when Nashville songwriters Kear and Tompkins sat down in the writing session that produced this song, they were playing with some sound effects and music and wanting to create “a highly dramatic story song”; they had no idea that the story would evolve into a story from Tompkins’ past. “I grew up with and around a lot of alcoholism,” he said. “I went to AA meetings with my family and heard all kinds of things I shouldn’t [have] hear[d] at that age. I picked up a lot of real life stuff.” The lyrics had meaning for Underwood, too: “The girl in the story has been struggling . . . for a very long time; she is at her wit’s end and just wants a fresh start.”
She adds, “It’s a very, you know, just deep, dark story and so visual, this song is. You know when you hear the words and you hear the music—you can just see it all happening in your head. The daughter . . . can feel a storm coming, and she just wishes it would wash her past away and, in doing so, you know, take her father along. She gets what she wants.”
Enjoy the lyrics and the performances, and think about the stories in (and behind) other lyrics the next time you hear your favorite songs. You might even think about the authors of the compositions—some of the forgotten artists of the music industry.
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UPDATE: Among other awards, for solo performance and best video, “Blown Away” did win Best Country Song at the 2013 Grammy Awards. While fact-checking and updating this post, I discovered Lyric Interpretations, a website on which visitors to the site can share their interpretations of music and lyrics; see what they think of the song by Kear and Tompkins. As for “Ol’ Red,” Shelton had had an affinity for the song and its story “for many, many years” before he was actually allowed to record a version; and, while it wasn’t a hit at the time, his rendition grew to become a fan favorite—one of his most requested tunes—and he considers it to be his signature song.
image information: Featured image, via SongsForTeaching.net, a website powered by people who believe that music and lyrics can be used as a tool for educational use in any classroom; this image accompanied a post dated January 23, 2019, “Top 10 Tips for Using Lyrics in the Classroom.”