Saturday, February 5, 2011

of country songs and romance novels

I love all kinds of music, from opera to Celtic to rock. But in my humble opinion the best storytellers to be found anywhere on the airwaves are consistently on American Country music radio.

From Brad Paisley's "Anything Like Me," in which the singer sees a first sonogram of his son and imagines who he'll grow up to be, to Kenny Chesney's "Somewhere With You," about a man pining for a lost love in a heart-wrenching minor key, the folks who write and sing modern country music are even better than Conway and Loretta were at telling stories that speak to the masses and tug at the heartstrings. What impresses me most is that they do it so effectively in three minutes or less.

One crop of songs that has been resonating lately with the romance writer in me deals with the theme of intimacy, with getting to know another person on a very private level. They focus on the gift of being permitted to see the person that most of us never show to the outside world, and with the trust required to let down your guard and expose the silly, messy, vulnerable and sexy sides of yourself to a lover.

The newest one to hit the airwaves is Blake Shelton's haunting "Who Are You When I'm Not Looking?" It's a song about a man intrigued by a woman he doesn't yet know well, but wants to. He muses:

Do you pour a little something on the rocks?
Slide down the hallway in your socks?
When you undress, do you leave a path?
Then sink to your nose in a bubble bath?
I wanna know.
I wanna know.
I wanna know.
Every time I hear this song I feel hopeful for the woman it's about. The man who sings it cares what lies beneath her facade. He wants to get to know her well enough, to have her trust him enough, that she'll let him see that hidden side. This is that very heady, exhilarating, and frightening stage in a relationship when every moment is a roller coaster ride fraught with excitement and danger. Can I trust him? Will he hurt me? Will he like the real me? Will he abuse that knowledge if I dare to share it?

On the opposite end of the relationship spectrum is Joe Nichols' bouncy "Gimmie that Girl," about a man who knows and loves the private woman his wife shows only to him. My favorite section of the lyrics is:

Gimmie the girl that's beautiful
without a trace of makeup of on,
barefoot in the kitchen,
singing her favorite song.
Dancing around like a fool,
starring in her own little show,
gimmie the girl the rest of the world
ain't lucky enough to know. 

I love this song because it reminds me of what makes my marriage so special, even after thirty years. Yes, I'm still formal and businesslike with the rest of the world, but with my husband I can be as goofy as I want and he loves me all the more for it. He may tease me rather than write a love song about it, but the trust and love are the same.

Moments like these are the ones I most like to explore in my books. The moments just before the masks come off, when the hero and heroine are trying to find the courage to trust, excited by the potential and terrified by the risks. Those and the moments after the masks come off and the hero and heroine reveal their deepest truths.

Who are they, really? What do they value, hate, fear? Will their partner reject them when they discover these secrets? Or will they love them even more for having the courage and the trust to share their greatest vulnerabilities?

At our core, this longing for love and acceptance of our deepest selves -- and our fear that we won't get what we need if we reveal those selves -- is what drives us all. That's what fiction (and Country music) is all about. Reassuring us that, deep inside, we're all the same. We all need the glue of unconditional acceptance to mend the cracks in our souls. Even though it scares the crud out of us, we'll risk almost anything to get just a dab of that glue. 

That's what I try to capture on the pages of my novels. It may be fiction, but it's also our deepest truth as human beings. We all need to believe not only that we deserve the acceptance and love that leads to intimacy but also that -- if we're brave enough -- we can claim it for our own.

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  1. Good article. I like the glue metaphor.

  2. McKenna, you are so clever to pick up on that basic need. I suspect some people don't realize what that yearning represents. IMO romance novels not only offer hope to the reader, they teach making good, lasting relationships. Can you tell I'm prejudiced toward romance? LOL

  3. I love country music lyrics. You're dead on with everything you pointed out here. Great post!

  4. Hi McKenna, I'm big bigtime fan of classic country. Loreta Lynn, Johnny Cash, Tanya Tucker, love them all. And I could't agree with you more, counytry music singers and songwriters are wonderfully gifted story tellers. I enjoyed reading the post, keep up the great work.
    Sincerely, Debby Lee

  5. Hi, Debby. Welcome! Glad you found the post. And let's not forget the great Patsy Cline. Ah, the songs she would have sung! Makes my heart ache to think of it.

    And I never knew you were a country music fan, Dena. One more reason to love you! Thanks for stopping by and sharing that.

  6. Caroline, I agree with you totally. This is what sets the great romances apart from the also-ran ones. What would GWTW have been without Scarlett's dream of running through the mist, lost and frightened? If only she'd really trusted Rhett enough to let him ease that fear, as he longed to do, what a different ending we would have had!