I like New Country music from about the middle of 1994 to the end of 1996, so long as it’s sung by women. I feel you may have questions.
The women part is easy. It’s because I got to like this watching CMT, Country Music Television, which means as much through videos as the music itself. And is far as I could see from when I got the channel to when it went off air in the UK, every man on it wore a silly hat.
I’m not saying a 10-gallon hat is daft if you area cowboy out on the range, but you’re not and neither is a single one of these.
Sometimes one gets by me. Junior Brown is a male singer/songwriter, extraordinary guitarist and hat-wearer who’s entirely responsible for my pronouncing the name of law enforcement offers as the po-lice.
Plus he has to win a pass for having one of the greatest titles in music history. I haven’t heard it in twenty years now, but as soon as you and are done yapping, I’m off to Apple Music to find if they’ve got his “My Wife Thinks You’re Dead“. (The lyric is “Because you’re wanted by the po-lice / and my wife thinks you’re dead.”)
Mind you, nothing in this world can top the title “Did I Shave My Legs for This?“. Written by Deana Carter, who performed it, and Rhonda Hart. But two seconds into music and we’re already back to women without hats. And the writing: I think Gretchen Carter is among the finest lyric writers in any genre and her “Independence Day“, sung by Martina McBride, is more a short story than a song. I’d be a fan of Matraca Berg even if she’d solely written the description “a fallen angel on a weekend pass“.
Apple Music is one reason all of this is on my mind at the moment. The latest Favourites Mix that Apple Music picks for me each week has Independence Day on it. Somehow it’s full of new country music from exactly this 1994-1996 period. And this is doubly on my mind because only the night before this playlist updated, I caught a reference to the film Twister on TV. That 1996 movie had one of those not-really-on-the-soundtrack songs, a piece of music wedged in the end credits so that it can get a single off the back of it.
In this case, that single was “No One Needs To Know“, sung by Shania Twain and co-written by her and Robert John “Mutt” Lange. I just like it. But I don’t just like it, I’ve been thinking about it all week.
It runs for three minutes and 16 seconds. At average talking speed – I mostly write scripts so this is how I think about it – that works out to 588 words. I don’t know how many words there are in the song, but you know it’s less.
However many it is, this is what the song is about. A character has met a man she likes and he doesn’t know that yet.
That’s it. Nothing else. Except for a joyous yearning, a delighted fizz of a secret and a giddy dream of possibilities. It is lovely and charming and make-you-smile and incredibly endearing. We know so little about this character and yet we like her enormously, we feel for her.
I think that core idea is exceptional. So obvious in retrospect and definitely so very simple. But I hadn’t heard or thought of it before and a new idea is gold.
If I had thought of it, though, I think I would’ve over-written it.
I’d have had to fight myself not putting in a plot twist, for one thing, even in three minutes or 588 words.
I think there is an enormous discipline to writing exactly the right amount. To milk the drama but not let that milk boil over. To get the real worth out of an idea and use it to precisely the right degree.
It’s two decades since CMT closed down on UK television and I’m still trying to learn from it.