Country music has long featured illicit themes, sometimes violent ones, to sell its songs. Those that are familiar only with Johnny Cash’s brag about shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die in “Folsom Prison Blues” might be surprised at the lengths some artists went to sell a redemption story. Today, of course, country music is about tailgating, drinking and flag-waving, with little of the darkness from the genre’s ancestors.
I mention redemption because it was a constant in the old country songs…when the protagonist went bad, there were dire consequences. A last verse most always spoke of imprisonment, or a need to “get right” with God. Cash’s character in “Folsom…” suffers every day when he sees a train go by, knowing he will never be free from his cell.
Yet there were those songs that spoke of unseemly (or unthinkable) deeds that simply skipped that last verse and settled for plain ol’ sinful or, in some cases, creepy. I nominate two songs for the highest honors in that category…
1) “You’ve Never Been This Far Before” Written and performed by Conway Twitty
A #1 hit in 1973, when Twitty was already forty years old, sporting a middle-aged paunch along with a jet-black pompadour and snow-white sideburns, the song details the taking of a girl’s virginity. His internal narrative includes lovely sentiments like…
I don’t know and I don’t care, what made you tell him you don’t love him anymore
But even as he pledges his love to a girl, he won’t tell her.
You have no way of knowing, but tonight will only make me love you more
Yeah, who hasn’t heard that one before?
Sure, in today’s music, you’ve heard worse. But for sheer creepiness, have you ever heard a line like…
As my trembling fingers touch forbidden places…
You threw up in your mouth a little bit, didn’t you?
Not surprisingly, when Twitty’s frequent duet partner, Loretta Lynn, released a single about the joys of an oral contraceptive in 1975, Lynn, a mother of six, was banned by hundreds of radio stations because of the controversial content of the record. She did not mention fingers, or anything else, touching forbidden places in her song, “The Pill”. Nevertheless, the blackout kept the single out of the number one spot, docking at #5 before becoming a footnote in the battle of the sexes.
2) “Fancy” Written by Bobby Gentry, performed by Reba McIntyre
Written in the sixties and previously recorded by Lynn “Top of the World” Anderson, Reba took the song to #8 on the country charts. Gentry saw the song as “her strongest statement on women’s lib”, but it’s hard to glimpse that through the murk of poverty and prostitution and…yes, redemption, in the McIntyre version.
“Fancy” opens up on a “rickety shack” where a teen-aged girl is being dressed by her mother in a dancing dress. The girl is in awe of her new attire, though she shivers as a roach crawls across the toe of her new shoes. The child is saddled with the knowledge that her father is gone, never to return, her mother is gravely ill and Fancy’s younger sibling, sex undetermined, is destined to starve to death. Realizing that her mother has pinned all of her hopes on her hopelessly naïve child, Fancy asks, “Mama, what do I do?”
Mama answers with the age-old reply of, “Just be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy, they’ll be nice to you.”
Before Fancy tells us about her first assignation, she shares that she never went home, her sibling was taken by the welfare people and that her mother died. Now, THAT’s country. But she doesn’t stop there, responding to her mother’s admonition about being nice to gentlemen, “It wasn’t very long ‘til I knew exactly what Mama was talkin’ about.”
So Pimp Mama has turned her child out and that’s time for the last verse, right? What did Fancy do? Did she catch a bus and head for another town, a fresh start? Did Fancy kill her mother, in a surprise twist ending? Unfortunately, no. The last verse, excised from the version played on the radio, Fancy remains a prostitute until hired by a “benevolent man”…a wealthy man, apparently…who ensconces her in a penthouse as some sort of servant/mistress, serving him and other giants in industry and politics. A tea set is not mentioned, she merely says that she “charmed” the occasional aristocrat. The song cautions us not to judge Fancy for her choices (as if she had any), while seemingly telling the listener, “Hey, if your life is shit, prostitution just might get you out of it.”
For many years, “Fancy” was among the most popular karaoke songs in the world, close to, but never eclipsing Patsy Cline’s “Crazy”. I don’t know what was going through the minds of those young ladies as they chose that song, other than, perhaps, the chance to match the vocal histrionics offered by Reba McIntyre. If that was the case, I guess I say more power to you.
But if you are a virgin, I would caution, don’t go anywhere near a man with a black pompadour and white side-burns.