Obviously, every song ostensibly tells a story. We are gleaming information from the lyrics which creates a mental image in our brains as to what the artist is trying to get across. But every so often, an artist will use their three minutes to narrate a turn of events in their own lives or a character’s with a marked chronology.
Charlie Daniels loved to do it. Jim Croce too. Johnny Cash told us one of the most enduring yarns ever to be put to music. Emmylou Harris has broken our hearts with a tale or two. When it works, something truly special is born. From “A Boy Named Sue” to “Uneasy Rider,” we’re going through 7 songs that tell us a story, below.
1. “A Boy Named Sue” (Johnny Cash)
Written by renowned author Shel Silverstein, Johnny Cash brought “A Boy Named Sue” to the masses via his San Quentin recordings. Now, I don’t blame him ’cause he run and hid / But the meanest thing that he ever did / Was before he left, he went and named me “Sue,” Cash draws out at the beginning of the track, setting up a story of hard knocks and revenge. Upon its release, it was one of Cash’s biggest hits. Who would have thought a diddy from a children’s author, sung at a prison, would have become so enduring?
2. “Don’t Mess Around With Jim” (Jim Croce)
Along the same vein, Jim Croce also tells a story of revenge, this time between a mob boss and a seemingly innocuous Alabama boy. Big Jim finds himself at the other end of Willie McCoy’s knife after he steals his money. Soon after, “Slim” becomes the head honcho in the town as Croce sings the chorus, You don’t tug on Superman’s cape / You don’t spit into the wind / You don’t pull the mask off that old Lone Ranger / And you don’t mess around with Slim.
3. “Red Dirt Girl” (Emmylou Harris)
Emmylou Harris brings on the waterworks with “Red Dirt Girl.” Calling on memories of growing up in Alabama, she tells the story of a friend, Lillian, who never made it out of their “red dirt town.” Could-a been the whiskey, could-a been the pills / Could-a been the dream she was tryin’ to kill, she sings towards the end of the song, hinting at what will eventually become a tragedy. In the end, Lillian never made it much farther than Meridian, laying her hammer down six feet into the red dirt ground. It’s an unfortunate, yet deeply moving vignette of small-town life.
4. “Travelin’ Soldier” (The Chicks)
Penned by Bruce Robinson in the ’90s, The Chicks brought “Travelin’ Soldier” to No. 1 in 2003 while the U.S. was on the verge of war with Iraq. The poignant song reckons with dying young due to war. While a young man suits up in his Army Greens, he crosses paths with a shy girl working at a diner. While overseas, the two send letters back and forth, falling in love with every tear-soaked word. The “little girl with a bow in her hair” is eventually left heartbroken as her soldier’s name is included among the local Vietnam dead. Few songs carry the emotional weight this one does.
5. “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” Rupert Holmes
Now, for some lighter fare, we’re looking at “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” by Rupert Holmes. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone who doesn’t at least know the melody to this one – it’s a classic in the storytelling mythos. Our narrator’s relationship is on the rocks, so he opts to take out an ad in the paper for someone new. Unbeknownst to him, his wife has done the same, and the two fall in love with each other once again, through the most unlikely of sources.
6. “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” (Gordon Lightfoot)
Gordon Lightfoot wrote “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” as an homage to the 29 lives lost in the sinking of the Edmund Fitzgerald in Lake Superior. He sets the tragic scene, singing, Then the Edmund Fitzgerald weighed empty / That good ship and true was a bone to be chewed / When the gales of November came early. Later on, the crew submits to their fate with the lines Fellas, it’s been good to know ya / The captain wired in he had water comin’ in / And the good ship and crew was in peril.
7. “Uneasy Rider” (The Charlie Daniels Band)
In “Uneasy Rider” Charlie Daniels embarks on a cross-country road trip and narrowly escapes without a fight. The narrator, self-described as a hippie, has a run-in with some unfriendlies at a bar in Jackson, Mississippi. Once the locals catch wind of his free flowin’ hair and his car with a peace sign bumper sticker, he has to think fast to cover up his counter-culture affiliations. He quickly turns the tables on his accusers, expertly laying the blame elsewhere. Daniels knew how to tell a story with his music and did so with a prowess few possess.
Courtesy of The John R Cash Trust / Shorefire Media