“Life to Go”: The Relationship of Country Music to Psychopathology
James M. Stedman, Ph.D.
University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio
Victor S. Alpher, Ph.D.
University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston
“I’m gonna live fast, love hard, die young, and leave a beautiful memory.” . . . “Jack Daniels, if you please, knock me to my knees.” . . . “My wife ran off with my best friend and I miss him.”
What do these Country Music lyrics have to tell us about the human psyche and the everyday stuff of human order and disorder? Certainly, early efforts to capitalize on the interface between Country and Western (C & W) and social science were made by Pennebaker et al. (1970) in their penetrating study of social perceptions. These researchers, no doubt sons and daughters of the pioneers, electrified the social psychology field by demonstrating a hypothesis generated within country music by Mickey Gilley, namely that “All the girls get prettier at closing time.” Not only did these investigators demonstrate this significant truth empirically, but they also challenged all social scientists and mental health practitioners to explore the depths of country music, a veritable gold mine of testable hypotheses regarding human, and sometimes animal, social relationships.
Though well within the spirit of Pennebaker et al.’s challenge, this article is not an empirical study. Rather, it attempts the first step of any scientific inquiry – classification. In a word, we set out to sort out the psychopathological and therapeutic insights of country music. Our database was “The List,” a compilation of country lyrics first collected in an unsystematic fashion by Walt Garrison and other members of the Dallas Cowboys organization. There is little doubt that these pithy but penetrating phrases and sentences go straight to the heart of much of psychopathology, particularly as conceptualized from traditional viewpoints.
Much of the descriptive psychopathology of human relationships is covered within C & W and this has been true since Country emerged from the backwoods of the Southeastern states in 1927. From the time of that first recording session on a hot, muggy July day in Bristol, Virginia, troubled souls from Jimmy “The Singing Brakeman” Rogers and the late and great Hank Williams, Sr., to Dolly “9 to 5” Parton, have moaned the blues of marital strife, alcoholism, identity crises, guilt, major depression, and such. Few recall exactly what those first hillbillies twanged out but, no doubt, it had to do with major pathology. Among the earliest recordings listed in the 1925-28 Columbia catalogues were such titles as “Little Rosewood Casket” and “Boston Burglar,” no doubt early references to modern-day concepts of complicated bereavement and antisocial personality.
The reader will find that the following lyrics depict various diagnostic categories and, in general, cover most that is real in human misery. Though short in the areas of schizophrenia, bipolar disturbance, and drug abuse (cuz true kickers may drink but they don’t put harmful chemicals in their bodies, a few notable “Outlaws” excepted), C & W does cover a full range of alcohol abuse, depression, neurosis, personality disorders, and adjustment problems.
Several categories of depression and coping with environmental stress seem represented, so we have broken them into categories.
“I don’t know whether to shoot myself or go bowling”
“Liars 1, Believers 0”
“Drop kick me, Jesus, thru the goal posts of life.”
“If today was a fish, I’d throw it back.”
“I’m sick and tired of wakin’ up so sick and tired.”
“I’m too low to get high.”
“Them that ain’t got can’t lose.”
“A sad song don’t care whose heart it breaks.”
- Relationship Related
“Don’t cry down my back, baby, you might rust my spurs.”
“I only miss you on days that end in Y.”
“If you’re ever in Houston, look me down.”
“Pick me up on your way down.”
“Please put her out of my misery.”
- Alcohol Related
“I’m going to put a bar in my car and drive myself to drink.”
“When the hangover’s over, you memory’s still hangin’ on.”
- Relationship/Marital/Family Pathology
Much of C & W leaves the exact nature of the relationship pathology ambiguous. However, some is specific to marriage.
- General Relationship Issues
“I wouldn’t take you to a dog fight even if I thought you could win.”
“She stepped on my heart and stomped that sucker flat.”
“She went to the bathroom and never came back.”
“Flushed from the bathroom of your heart.”
“When the phone don’t ring, you’ll know it’s me.”
“You must think my bed’s a bus stop the way you come and go.”
“He ‘little thing’ed her out of my arms.”
“Just because you got to first base don’t mean that you’re home free.”
“It was always easy to find an unhappy woman until I started looking for mine.”
“Third rate romance, low rent rendezvous.”
- Specific to Marriage/Divorce
“Our marriage was a failure but our divorce ain’t working either.”
“My wife ran off with my best friend and I miss him.”
“She got the gold mine and I got the shaft.”
“If you want to keep the beer real cold, put it next to my ex-wife’s heart.”
“I gave her a ring and she gave me the finger.”
“I gave up Good Morning Darling and We Love You Daddy for this.”
“A woman a day keeps my man away.”
“It ain’t love but it ain’t bad.”
“For better or for worse but not for long.”
“Does my ring hurt your finger when you go out at night.”
“I’m afraid to come home without warning.”
“If I get stoned and sing all night long, it’s just a family tradition.”
- Alcoholism (a well-represented category)
“The alcohol of fame.”
“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.”
“How can whiskey six years old whip a man that’s 32?”
“It’s commode-huggin’ time in the valley.”
“Jack Daniels, if you please, knock me to my knees.”
“I’m whiskey bent and hell bound.”
“I’m going to hire a wino to decorate our home . . . so you won’t have to roam.”
“Four on the floor and a fifth under the seat.”
- Alcohol and Relationships
“She ain’t much to see, but she looks good to me thru the bottom of a glass.”
- Personality Disorders
This diagnosis is well represented but skewed toward antisocial and borderline states.
“It’s bad when you’re caught with the goods.”
“On the muscle of my arm there’s a red and blue tattoo saying, ‘Fort Worth, I love you.’”
“Up against the wall, Redneck Mother.”
“I’m gonna live fast, love hard, die young, and leave a beautiful memory.”
“I turned 21 in prison, doing life without parole.”
“Lyin’ here, lyin’ in bed.”
“I turned out to be the only hell my mama ever raised.”
“You can’t make a heel toe the mark.”
“Tell ol’ ‘I ain’t here’ he better get on home.”
“Ol’ Glen lived himself to death.”
- Relationship Related
“I’m going to the dogs with a bunch of swinging cats.”
“Walk out backwards so I’ll think you’re coming home.”
“From the gutter to you is not up.”
“She caught me lying and then she caught a train.”
- Borderline States
“I’ve always been crazy but it’s kept me from going insane.”
“I don’t know what it is but I sure miss it when it’s gone.”
“When I’m alone, I’m in bad company.”
“It’s not love but it’s not bad.”
“It’s morning and I still love you.”
“She’ll love you to pieces but she won’t put you together again.”
“She feels like a new man tonight.”
There is a scattering of other pathologies represented.
“It seems the best in you brings out the worst in me.”
“You went out of your way to walk on me.”
- Identity Disorder
“I’m going to some place I hope I find.”
“There’s no use running if you’re on the wrong road.”
“You pretend I’m him and I’ll pretend you’re her.”
- Narcissistic Personality Disorder
“Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble when you’re as perfect as me.”
“What’s mine is mine and what’s yours is mine and that’s the way it’s always been.”
- Defense Mechanisms – Denial/Repression/Selective Attention/Projection
“I’ve closed my eyes to the cold hard truth I’m seeing.”
“She took everything but the blame.”
- Superego Conflict – Guilt
“Somewhere between lust and sitting home watching TV.”
“I’m ashamed to be here but not ashamed enough to leave.”
- Paranoid States
“If you keep checking up on me, I’m checking out on you.”
- Sexual Potency
“If you can fake it, I might make it.”
“It takes me all night long to do what I used to do all night long.”
Well, those are our classifications and, heck, we know they ain’t perfect. There are overlap problems, e.g., alcohol sloshing over into depression and star-crossed relationships, but, hey, that’s real life. And, as noted, C & W is very light on commentary about the obsessive-compulsive and other “nice,” higher functioning neurotics, the sort all therapists crave as patients but are so hard to find these days. Also, there’s not much about schizophrenia, organic stuff, or mania in there either.
So, what about therapy applications? No classification article would be worth it’s salt or lime without some comment on treatment applications, and we offer a few examples of how the sophisticated therapist might put Country to use.
- Applied to divorced parents continuing to undercut each other for the kid’s love – “You know, Brad and Jan, ‘Your Marriage Wasn’t Great But This Divorce Ain’t Working Either.’” Of course, the therapist must paraphrase a bit, but you get the picture.
- For counseling with an alcoholic – “Joe, it sounds like you’re headed for ‘The Alcohol of Fame’” or as an interpretation to a deteriorating alcoholic – “Clyde, you seem to be saying, ‘I’d Rather Have a Bottle in Front of Me Than a Frontal Lobotomy.’”
- In family therapy with a teenage conduct disorder, whose sibs have also hit the skids at age 16 – “Nick, it sounds like ‘When You Get Stoned and Sing All Night Long, It’s Just a Family Tradition.’”
- For use with the borderline patient who is just moving into another relationship – “Linda, it sounds like ‘You Don’t Know What It Is But You Sure Miss It When It’s Gone.’”
- As a confrontation to the hysteric – “Look, Bambi, ‘You’ve Closed Your Eyes to the Cold Hard Truth You’re Seeing.’”
- To the antisocial good ol’ boy (this confrontive clarification will be used mostly in the South and Southwest) – “Bubba, You’re ‘Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother.’”
- And, finally, for the existential therapist who might have treated Sartre – “Gee, Jean Paul, it seems that ‘You Don’t Know Whether to Kill Yourself or Go Bowling.’”
To sum it all up, when David Allen Coe admonished his songwriting friend, Steve Goodman, that the perfect country song had to include elements of “mama, trains, getting drunk, pickup trucks, and prison,” he should have added the need to delve into schizophrenia, drug abuse, bipolar disorder, and the “nice” neuroses. On second thought, perhaps Coe realized that these subjects were already within the exclusive domain of rock music.
Carr, P. (1980). The illustrated history of country music. Nashville: Country Music Press/Doubleday.
Coe, D. (1974). You never even call me by my name. In Once upon a rhyme, Columbia: BMI.
Gilley, M. (1975). Don’t the girls all get prettier at closing time. In The best of Mickey Gilley, Vol. 2, Columbia. Singleton Music Co.: BMI.
Malone, B.C. (1968). Country Music U.S.A. Austin: University of Texas Press.
Pennebaker, J.W., Dyer, M.A., Caulkins, R.S., Litowitz, D.L., Ackerman, P.L., Anderson, D.B., & McGraw, K.M. (1970). Don’t the girls get prettier at closing time: A county and western application to psychology. Personality and Social Psychology, 5, 122-125.
Sons, L. (1977). I don’t know whether to kill myself or go bowling. D (Dallas) Magazine, pp. 122-132.
Jackson, Stonewall (ca 1957) Life to Go. Written by George Jones, Columbia: BMI.
The authors wish to apologize in advance for sexist language found in this article. Regrettably, country songwriters have not yet adopted a non-sexist language policy.
© Copyright 1991 Wry-Bred Press, Inc./Glenn Ellenbogen. All rights reserved.
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