Why Country Is Funnier Than Rock
Country music kicks ass on humor – way harder than rock does. And here’s why: rock takes a young person’s point of view – it’s supposed to be hopeful even when it’s hurtin’ (“Help me, Rhonda, yeah, get her out of my heart”). But country has an old soul. It’s inclined to look backwards and with a philosophical kind of resignation. So sometimes humor is just what the doctor ordered.
Compare Brian Wilson’s take on heartbreak above to Robbie Fulks’, from “Busy Not Cryin’”:
Well I’m busy not crying and I’m too tied-up to care,
Not thinking ’bout her is a 24-hour affair.
I can’t weep, I can’t worry,
My whole life’s just a hustle and hurry.
Busy not crying over somebody that ain’t there.
It’s classic Robbie Fulks: Airtight absurdist logic, fantastic versifying with nary a wasted syllable, and a kicker at the end. Plus – take a listen – a hurry-up arrangement that never stops goosing the story and the humor within it.
You gotta be a certain age to write a song like that. (And you gotta be a guitarist of a certain age to offer up Grant Tye’s bawling, self-mocking volcano of a solo from the version on Fulks’ ironically titled live album “Revenge.”)
Youthful rock, on the other hand, takes its optimism so seriously that it doesn’t leave much room for humor. When the wry and wrinkly Keith Richards takes the mic in the 2008 Scorsese documentary “Shine A Light,” he tells the crowd, “It’s nice to be here. It’s nice to be anywhere, frankly.” Keef’s funny! When he’s talking. But when the Stones resume playing, there’s no more taking the piss out of themselves. They’re dead serious about being bandy roosters again, as ever. Check out the cuttin’ contest look on Buddy Guy’s 70-something face when he joins them. Testosterone doesn’t tend to irony.
In fact, as we know, lyrics often take a back seat in rock (or get stuffed in the trunk). Intellectualism can kill a buzz, and if you’re going to attempt the braininess of Lennon and McCartney or Freddy Mercury or Ian Anderson, you better have the verbal and musical chops to back it up, as few bands do.
Anderson famously put his foot in his mouth suggesting that if he were writing songs for Led Zeppelin, “we could be quite a good little rock-n-roll band” – which explains why he wasn’t writing songs for Zep: that groundbreaking band was younger in spirit than it was old, right down to Robert Plant’s undisciplined, impressionistic lyrics. The band that played “Custard Pie” and “The Lemon Song” wasn’t going to get behind “Aqualung,” brilliant as it is.
So, few rock tunes aspire to the wit that many country tunes build into the very first verse. I’m having trouble thinking of a rock tune that starts as wryly as James McMurtry’s “Fast As I Can”: “He was a drinking man with a guitar problem.” Maybe that line’s a bit much, or maybe not, but it gets your attention anyway. Then this heartbreaking early verse pays it off:
And if it came too late or it came to nothing,
He’d swear beneath his breath,
There’s gotta be something to it,
There’s gotta be something to it.
What else? Well, offhand, there’s this first serve in “Four-Letter Word” by the frightfully talented (and surprisingly young) Lukas Nelson:
Well, it’s only been two years and she already hates my dog.
She’s been up and down the street like she don’t understand the law.
Every word ironic: the narrator doesn’t understand that it only takes a minute to learn to dislike a dislikeable dog, and he doesn’t realize that his grammar obscures who “she” is: the woman or the dog? But in his world, logic’s upside down, so it might as well be either.
And speaking of joyous upside-down logic, there’s this genius couplet – ostensibly a non-sequitur but actually a cogent worldview – from the philosopher-drunk in Kris Kristofferson’s “Best of All Possible Worlds”:
I knew there was somethin’ I liked about this town.
But it’ll take more than that to bring me down.
I think I’ve hit on some salient features of humor in country music and its joy in poking fun at itself and its narrators. There are a million more, from parodic titles like “Drop Kick Me Jesus Through the Goalpost of Life” to flatulent codas like “and PFFFT you was gone” from the ageless “Hee-Haw” ditty.
But what about when rock decides to be funny? Unlike country, it often has to step way outside itself or poke fun at someone else. Tesco Vee’s “Wine, Wenches and Wheels” might be the single best send-up of 70s metal ever, but it’s all bile, none of the affection a country parody would convey. “Piss Up A Rope” by Ween (that schizophrenic band with as many personalities as there are genres) roundly mocks country and a sort of person who likes it. And when Guns N’ Roses channeled country via the Rolling Stones with “I Used To Love Her (But I Had To Kill Her”), you get none of the righteous anger of “Dead Flowers” – you get late-1980s Sunset Strip rock misogyny.
And what about the masters of rock parody, Spinal Tap and Tenacious D? They seem to appreciate rock as much as Fulks and Nelson appreciate country, but the humor is much broader and the emotional distance between band and genre a lot greater. They don’t take ownership of the song and its values the way a country act would – they step safely away from it even as they cannily imitate it.
But it’s all good. And speaking of good, let’s look at one more comparison so we can find a way out of this little essay. I mentioned that you need to be a mature player like Fulks sideman Grant Tye in a genre with an old soul like country to infuse a solo with the vocal-like self-mockery of Tye’s in “Busy Not Cryin’.”
Well, you could also just be a genius. Eddie Van Halen was 22 when he recorded the solo to “Jamie’s Cryin’,” and mockery drips from every fantastic note. But this song mocks a sentimental, naïve young woman, not its own narrator, and the difference – as in so many of my examples – is crucial. Country may be funnier because it’s “older,” but it’s also funnier because it’s more honest and a helluva lot more courageous. And that comes with age.