American music—country music, especially—is littered with body parts. There’s no word in the English language for the object-animation of Faron Young singing “hello, walls” or George Jones coaxing each piece of his house furniture to life in “The Grand Tour.” “Personification” is too simple when the walls literally, naturally, talk back. These songs sit, to me, in a confusing pre- and late-capitalist space: wisdom resides in places and objects are animated by their use, on the one hand, and things have value irrespective of their production on the other. Singing “well look here, is that a teardrop in the corner of your pane?” is sweet and lowdown, but it also (knowingly) treats Young like an object amongst objects. It’s probably worth lingering on why that metaphor is so available, so funny, and so sad.
When emancipated from the body, “cold shoulders” and knee bones work similarly to singing windows and memory-filled chairs. In “The Jukebox of History,” Aaron Fox writes beautifully on this kind of object confusion: because country music—always stereotypical and personal, objective and subjective—sets the categories of “true” and “false” in motion, “solid ‘objects’ become speaking ‘subjects,’ and heartbroken ‘subjects’ consume themselves as commodified objects.” Driven by what Fox calls “the metanarrative of Desire,” feelings and people are thing-ified; in the metanarrative of Loss, things turn into “speaking, feelingful presences.”
Jerry Jeff Walker’s wistful “About Her Eyes” is an aubade to “her eyes, her face and her hair,” buoyed by the kind of desire that’s languid and comfortable and tangled in the wailing wa-wa that hearkens to George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. It’s a strange song, if only for the incongruity of all the floating parts of “her” face and the sheer airiness of the piece altogether. In a tune that sings of hiding and sailing on a breeze, sent off with the blues falsetto that hurls out and up, Walker’s crooning about his lover’s body parts disturbs the concrete referent of the piece and questions the capacity of music to really point and hold to anything.
The most famously freaky of the batch, Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” is an ambling, peripatetic, hopeless tune, where the “crazy arms that reach to hold somebody new” seem, at first, to be hers—the betrayer—second his, the scorned, but their severance from the body is the real point of it. Breaking up, in “Crazy Arms,” is nonsensical. It doesn’t compute. It happened, though, and the undeniable reality of this impossible act actually morphs lived reality into a place where arms can act on their own, a kind of mystical object-oriented magic. Even if “this ain’t no crazy dream,” “these treasured dreams I have for you and me” are lodged in Price’s “troubled mind,” and the entire plane of country-song existence collapses, also, within it.
Wynn Stewart’s “Unfaithful Arms” performs a similar apocalypse of light and darkness collapsing together, but the thingness of the cheater—her arms, not her body—manages to sort of abscond her from guilt. And the great Dolly Parton, easily one of the most creatively out-there country singers ever to’ve graced us with “Little Andy,” removes Bobby from “Bobby’s Arms” completely. It’s a safe-space utopia, insistent, I think, that the only way to achieve such a perfect comfort is to have the body, ditch the man.
Bobby’s arms they are warm when he holds me
Bobby’s arms always comfort and console me
When I’m in his arms hold tight, I know everything’s alright—
Just as long as I’m inside Bobby’s arms.
Not every song on here is a country song. “Big Leg Blues” is a classic blues tune, Ruth Brown’s “Lucky Lips” is a goofy proto-rock ‘n’ roll love song, “Snap Your Fingers” and “Knee Bone” are early folk/blues from Mississippi, and “Skip” Spence, the Beach Boys, and Linda Perhacs are steeped in rural psychadelia. Still, for floating body parts, country really carries the crown. My iTunes alone has 18 songs about blue eyes! If desire morphs people into objects for consumption, the body, like a machine, loses its products through its fragmented methods of production. Arms are for holding, but it sits wrong when they are also for love. Country is brilliant in that way. When the Man in Black laments, “I’ll always get a cold shoulder from you,” he knows the problem is that a shoulder can’t love you. Hello walls, definitively. These songs are a handful of milagros, little talismans that praise just as they denigrate. Listen with your ears.