On Unsuitable Songs

I’m at “that age”, especially when it comes to music. I listen to almost zero new music. I don’t know who’s cool now, unless they’re also famous for something else. I know Kanye West, for example, but I have no idea if I’ve ever heard any of his music. I am, in musical terms, an old listener. This means that most of the music I buy is at least partially bought for nostalgia value.

And, as the saying goes, nostalgia is not what it used to be.

Just like in watching movies from your childhood, where sometimes you get more (or less) than you expected, much the same thing can happen when you go back and listen to music from your formative years. Sometimes, it turns out you got things really spectacularly wrong way-back-when.

There’s a proud history of people not understanding the songs they choose for themselves. Politicians flying jingoistic flags as Springsteen belts out “Born in the USA”, for instance, have clearly never listened to the words, which are a poignant look at how the working class was badly treated during and after the Vietnam War. And people who play The Police’s “Every Breath You Take” at their weddings…are hopefully not really celebrating stalkers and obsessives.

But you never know, right?

My personal recent nostalgia purchases came from a very particular source: a cassette tape country music compilation that my dad used to play in the car. It’s the soundtrack to road trips that we took when I was a child. And – maybe because my wife and I take a few road trips ourselves now – I’ve been wanting to re-hear those tunes.

But, it turns out, they’re not exactly as I remember them.

Waylon Jenning and Willie Nelson’s “Mama, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys” is almost the exact same experience, although the following juxtaposition makes me do a double-take every time:

Cowboys like smokey old pool rooms and clear mountain mornings,

Little warm puppies and children and girls of the night.

I always want him to add “But not at the same time” at the end…but it’s Waylon. We know what he means.

Hoyt Axton’s “Della and the Dealer” is a little darker than I remember as a kid. Hoyt Axton is not only a real name of a real person, but he’s also the dad from Gremlins, useful-fact fans. And his song about a couple on the run, where the guy gets into a fight in a bar and doesn’t ever leave, is not as light-hearted as I remember as a kid. I didn’t even pick up on lines like “He snorted his coke/Through a century note/And swore that Boone would die.” But it is still a great song. Especially for people who believe cats are indeed too cool to ever bother with actual talking, even though they obviously could if they wanted to.

But it’s the third song on my road trip playlist that really caught me by surprise. It’s probably not familiar to a broad audience – it’s “Blanket on the Ground” by Billie Jo Spears. Remember that these are road trip songs: they’re sung-along-to in very close and confined spaces among family members. They’re songs that join the pantheon of “The Devil Went Down to Georgia” and “A Boy Named Sue”. And “Blanket on the Ground” was right up there – a cheerful song about a woman missing the picnics she used to have with her husband.


That was the song I was singing, my 6- or 8-year-old self in the back of the car. I don’t know what my parents were thinking. I can only imagine they found me hilarious.

It is most certainly not a song about picnics.

Now you know you still excite me,

I know you love me like I am.

Just once more I wish you’d love me

On the blanket on the ground

This was the song I was singing along to. These were not the words I believe that I was singing. Certainly no one ever told me to either not sing along or to sing the right words. Instead of a song about sandwiches, lemonade, and fighting off wasps, it’s a song about what I am here choosing to call “pre-marriage al-fresco intimate moments.”

Which came as something of a surprise. But, you know what, it’s still a great song. And I still sing along with it (with some gusto) on our road trips. But this time, I’m definitely singing the right words.

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