How can a “bad” song be so “good”?

Recently I committed to developing a side project with my brother Brendan, creating a set of bluegrass & traditional country duet performances that we could play out with. Think Bill & Charlie Monroe, Delmore Brothers, Louvin Brothers, Don and Phil Everley… We are calling ourselves The Actual Brothers*.

Of us two, Brendan is the real bluegrasser of many years devotion, with a huge repertoire, and he plays right on top of, or sometimes ahead of, the beat. I have more of a swing feel, so our first task is always to get in sync time-wise. Beyond that, we have both the blessing of a common family vocal timbre and the disadvantage of a similar vocal range, basically a high baritone. But, I have been doing a lot of work lately to open up my top end to sing tenor parts. In fact, over the years a couple of vocal teachers have emphasized that my natural sweet spot is higher than I hear, so it seems like a reasonable pursuit.

Anyway, this brings me to the real topic. I’ve picked two songs to contribute to our set, “Kentucky Waltz” by Bill Monroe, and “Lost River” written by Michael Martin Murphy and widely performed by various artists. This blog I’ll look at “Kentucky Waltz”, “Lost River” in a subsequent one—how these terrific songs overcome their supposed shortcomings.

“Kentucky Waltz” has become a vehicle for bravura high lead male vocal performance in the bluegrass idiom, from Mr. Monroe’s original recordings down to the current chicken-skin renderings of Paul Brewster (in E major) and Doug Rigby (in F, up in the nosebleed section, with Tim O’Brian accompanying him appreciatively)…Dell McCoury’s bass player, Alan Bartram, does a credible job, and in their heyday, so did the Osborne Brothers. All these versions can be found on YouTube and worth a listen. Paul Brewster, who put in long and distinguished apprenticeships with J. D. Crowe and in Ricky Scagg’s Kentucky Thunder as a solid rhythm guitarist and top-notch harmony singer, has made the “Waltz” a signature performance. The YouTube version at the Station Inn in Nashville, with an amazing fiddle solo by Larry Franklin, is especially commended to your attention (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pwjxm-d8UUg ). What makes his version so satisfying is the combination of full authority in the upper register (no falsetto cheating), incredible phrasing, and extremely tasteful and restrained vocal ornaments.

So I have deliberately set a stretch goal for myself in developing my own version…great fun.

Meanwhile, there is the song itself to consider. Why is this little song so touching and powerful? At first glance, it seems there’s not much to the narrative and exposition. As a lyricist myself, I ponder its skimpiness and bare-bones structure. No bridge…hell, no chorus, no refrain. It’s just…there, a couple of phrases and a variation.

Here are the words:
We were waltzing that night in Kentucky/Beneath the beautiful harvest moon
And I was the boy that was lucky/But it all ended too soon.
As I sit here alone in the moonlight/I see your smiling face
And I long once more/for your embrace
And that beautiful Kentucky Waltz.

So in performance, there is typically an instrumental intro of the whole, vocal on the whole, then a fiddle solo on the first half, followed by a vocal finish. This signals not only that the song is short but that the musical value of the composition is considerable.

What a tune it is: a range of an octave and a sixth, giving the contours some drama; an abundance of simple but effective syncopations; leaps of an octave, a sixth, and a fourth juxtaposed with smooth melodic motion in thirds and seconds, and, for a supposedly folk-like melody, four chromatic notes that are more typical of the pop songs of the twenties and thirties than pure “mountain music” (if you want to check this out, the original copyrighted song can be purchased for a few bucks and downloaded from www.musicnotes.com).

It’s just a beautiful little piece, such a strong piece of melody that fiddlers of the Texas school have set it to graceful swing chord changes, with a lot of inversions and bass movement (the great Jim Wood has created an accompaniment part he expects from his guitarists). Even the “three chords+ and The Truth” bluegrass accompaniment that has become standard deviates from Mr. Monroe’s original by extending the IV chord at which the music arrives as the first two phrases resolve (the 23rd measure) to a IV-omit 3rd/IVm6 sequence. Point is, this melody is beautiful, sturdy, and “arrangeable”.

For someone like myself, attuned to lyrics first, it is a chastening example of the power of melody, of ear candy of a high order. But a close look at the words of the song shows quite a bit of artistry.

The parallelism of the time elements is strong. “…that night…” in line with “…ended too soon…” in line with “…as I sit here alone” … . There is perfect rhyme at the line-ends (Kentucky/lucky, moon/soon, face/embrace), and very effective internal rhyme toward the wrap-up: “once more/for your”. The prosody and use of elongated vowel sounds is a secret sauce, in my view, so that the lightly stressed words/syllables “waltz-/night,” “beau-/har-,” “I/boy”, “all/end-,” already set to longer note values (half-note and dotted quarter) can be exploited with, pardon my French, agogic accenting, or tenuto…what we might say down home as pulling some buttermilk out of the note…giving those stresses the absolutely full note value and maybe just a tad more. It’s just short of calling attention to itself but, in truth, creates a felt-but-not heard subordinate internal rhythm of longing, of a call from the heart–which is just what the song’s about. Does Paul Brewster think about it in these methodical terms? Maybe not, but he knows exactly what he’s doing as a vocal artist. And when, on another YouTube clip of him working this song, you see Bryan Sutton, playing guitar behind him, smiling and shaking his head in appreciation, you know that the singer and the “bad” song have both done one beautiful job.

Watch this space for next time when I examine how the terrible “Lost River” is so terrific…

*A tongue-in-cheek reference to Country Cooking with The Fiction Brothers, an Ithaca, NY based proto-all-star gang from the ‘70’s-early ‘80’s that included Peter Wernick, Kenny Kosek, and other bluegrass luminaries of the Northeast.