The Counterpart to Cookery
In a world where competency is increasingly underapreciated, James McMurtry toils. There’s no risk of him changing the way we look at song or influencing generations to come, but he’s flat good at his craft. And, yes, there’s straight craft in songwriting, just like there is in carpentry or surgery.
McMurtry’s “Rachel’s Song” and “Copper Canteen” are expertly constructed, quietly shocking songs that unfold in a layered way usually reserved for prose writing. As a songwriter, the opening stanzas of both are object lessons in how to set a scene and then blow it to bits with detailed pathos.
“Rachel’s Song” opens with a classic “let me tell you; then let me show you” stanza that let’s the listener in on the open secret that dark times are ahead:
Must be a cold front coming
Cause I saw the eastbound C&O
And the coal cars were dusted with a half inch of snow
These lines, as with most McMurtry lines, are cleanly phrased and perfectly rhymed. And the image painted in that final line is ominous, in part, because of the choice to make it just a 1/2 inch of snow. McMurtry knows 2 inches is too much (it’s already cold), but a dusting’s just right (it ain’t nearly as cold now as it’s gonna be).
Then comes the pain:
And that boy’ll drive me crazy
Don’t know what I’ll do with him
School will be out tomorrow if that cold front moves in
The cold front isn’t moving in, it’s already arrived. The protagonist has come to a point where the worst possible outcome for tomorrow is a full day spent with her own son. Is the kid a bad kid? No. There’s no sense of that. He’s just a kid. And that’s what makes this so heartbreaking.
Rachel struggles to just exist, so much so, that adding something like the energy and responsibility that comes with a young boy threatens to make that struggle unbearable. When we learn later that she’s a drunk, it comes as no surprise.
“Copper Canteen” is built around an ever-descending walk, musically and lyrically, and it begins with a somewhat innocuous complaint:
Honey don’t you be yelling at me when I’m cleanin’ my gun
I’ll wash the blood off the tailgate when deer season’s done
We’ve got one more weekend to go
And I’d like to kill one more doe
This sort of intracouple bickering and the details of a rural man’s hobby is actually rather trite for a McMurtry song. But with McMurtry the maestro, such charges are usually premature. And this is no exception.
What comes next, for instance, transforms the innocuous into somewhat frightening hostility:
So I’ll shovel the sidewalk again ’cause you’re still in a stew
And I’ll bet the bridge tender’s widow won’t mind
That I can’t please you
She’s sure got the run of the men
Out here where the pickings are thin
And there’s not much to do
Why McMurtry is such a deft craftsman is that, standing alone, the two stanzas don’t amount to much. But together, they are potent. The second verse is a window into the depth of the bickering and reenforces the death theme in the first verse.
What does this do? It has you reevaluating the first verse and seriously wondering whether the first line is an actual direct threat and whether it’s really a deer the narrator is referring to with the term “doe.” That trite first verse is now fully loaded.
And that’s what competent songwriters do. They plane and sand until it’s perfectly square and only that which is required remains. And they keep building on the foundations they lay to make the experience full upon multiple listens.