I was listening to my iPod the other day when--and this is one of those artists about whom I often lie about having in rotation—I heard the first few notes of Tim McGraw’s Red Ragtop. I smiled. I couldn’t help but smile. I love that song.
Let me be clear: I don’t love that song in a way that simply makes me want to shake my head along to a beat; I don’t love that song the way one loves a guilty pleasure (although I suppose there are elements of that emotion in my experience); I don’t love it the way I love hearing an artist for a minute or two in the throes of nostalgia; no, I love that song in the way one loves one of the top fifty greatest songs they’ve ever heard.
If you had ever told me that one of my favorite all-time songs would come not only from country (and not from “alt country,” country’s high cultural capital cousin), but from pop country, I may well have slapped you around for being delirious. While I take a somewhat perverse delight in pop country’s existence, I certainly wouldn’t expect to find one of my all time favorites in that genre (Note: to be fair, I’m having to exclude some great stuff to make this claim. Indeed, I have to exclude all the music that rock fans and others have now embraced as part of their tradition, from Hank to Haggard to Cash, and so forth).
For quite awhile now, I’ve been trying to figure out why Red Ragtop strikes me so profoundly. I mean, the music is simple; McGraw has a nice, but one note, voice; indeed, there is very little about the song that would stand out on initial listening as anything other than "one of those slow country songs." And still, it's so much more than that.
For those who don’t know the song, it’s a recounting of the singer’s relationship with an old girlfriend. It deals with their love, a pregnancy, an abortion, and the way one reflects on such events as one ages. The song isn’t pro-choice, but I wouldn’t say it’s pro-life, either. The emotions and the memory are sad and complicated. When McGraw sings that ‘might have beens’ can drive you out of your mind, you understand what he means; furthermore—and I don’t say this lightly—it encourages a profound sense of empathy in the listener (especially the middle aged listener). We’ve all had sorrowful moments; we’ve all made difficult decisions; we’ve all lost track of meaningful relationships. And, sometimes, we all feel the pain of choices we didn’t make.
A couple of months back, Peter Cooper--a very good local music critic and musician--wrote a review of George Strait ’s new album, Troubadour (I can’t make a link because the Tennessean evidently charges for archive links). While I can’t recall, and don’t really care, about the specifics of the review, one of Cooper’s claims was that Strait’s albums are also so great because, while the songs and rhythms may be predictable, Strait owns “wistful.”
That line, which makes a great deal of sense to anyone who has listened to George Strait at any length at all, is true of popular country music in general. If you don’t understand ‘wistful,” listen to country long enough and you will. The genre is made for it, and McGraw takes advantage of it. Finding a topic as difficult as abortion in a genre prone to conservative values makes the sorrow and long of the song all the more powerful.
While I suppose this entry acts in part as an internal defense or explanation of what I love about Red Ragtop--and it is a wonderful song--I also want to stumble toward a conclusion with two challenges: first, give it a listen. Is it just me. or is this an amazingly manipulative song in a more general sense? Second, I’m interested in other moments when you’ve found pleasure—and, again, transcendent pleasure rather than guilty pleasure—from an unexpected source. What made it work, and in what ways?