Sometimes, when I get stuck for ideas, I imagine some of my favorite songs as real-life narratives. What if you could find a real story as good as the song playing in your head?
I’ve been thinking about that a lot since the death of the great George Jones. Jones belongs on the Mount Rushmore of country singers (next to Hank Williams, Patsy Cline and Johnny Cash). One reason is that Jones picked songs that told stories. “Golden Ring” (a duet with onetime wife Tammy Wynette) follows a pawnshop wedding ring into, and out of, a stormy marriage. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” — his biggest hit — reveals how a love-struck man finally got over the woman who left him. It wasn’t easy.
But the best of these, to me, is “The Grand Tour.” The songwriters — Norro Wilson, George Richey and Carmol Taylor — take you through the home of a destroyed relationship, guided by the man who now lives there alone.
The lyrics are below, with my comments in parentheses. But first, listen to the song. Have a good cry. Then we’ll move on.
“The Grand Tour”
(The title of a song is like the headline of a story. A great headline cuts so deep you appreciate it even more once you’ve read the piece. The familiar phrase of this title foreshadows what’s coming — but not the way the grand tour actually plays out.)
Step right up, come on in
(“Step right up” is one of those irresistible hooks, like “Once upon a time” or “The legend lives on” from our last Liner Note. That’s why the carnival barker implores you to step right up. He knows that makes you want to see.)
If you’d like to take the grand tour
Of a lonely house that once was home sweet home.
I have nothing here to sell you,
Just some things that I will tell you
Some things I know will chill you to the bone.
(It’s plain English. There’s no fluffery. This sounds like a real person talking.)
Over there, sits the chair
Where she’d bring the paper to me
(This begins a series of telling details — little pieces of what’s left behind that mean something to him.)
And sit down on my knee
And whisper Oh, I love you
(Each detail comes with a brief flashback to happier times.)
But now she’s gone forever
And this old house will never
Be the same without the love
That we once knew.
Straight ahead, that’s the bed
Where we’d lay in love together
(I’m terrible on lie vs. lay, but I’m pretty sure “lay” is technically wrong here. But it’s emotionally correct, for two reasons. One, that’s the way this character would talk. Two, the double meaning of “lay” gives an erotic charge to the line. Sometimes the wrong word is the right one.)
And Lord knows we had a good thing going here.
See her picture on the table
Don’t it look like she’d be able
Just to touch me and say “Good morning, dear.”
(Sensory detail — in three lines you get sight, touch and sound.)
There’s her rings, all her things
And her clothes are in the closet
Like she left them
When she tore my world apart.
(This song has action — you keep moving around, lighting on different objects. It’s not just inside the narrator’s head.)
As you leave you’ll see the nursery,
Oh, she left me without mercy
(It’s not a perfect rhyme, and it walks right up to the edge of mawkish … but damn if that isn’t the most devastating couplet I know of in music. Like all the best stories, the real emotional hammer is saved for the end.)
Taking nothing but
Our baby and my heart.
Step right up, come on in…
(Another circular story — you feel the catharsis of living through it, and the relief of breaking away, because you know the narrator can’t.)
Bonus track: Here’s an interview with Norro Wilson, one of the songwriters. They wrote “The Grand Tour” in a day. I hate those guys.
Tommy Tomlinson is a staff writer for Sports on Earth, a new web venture dedicated to great sportswriting. He’s a former local columnist for the Charlotte Observer, and he has written for magazines including Sports Illustrated, Reader’s Digest, Southern Living and Garden & Gun. He writes the Liner Notes column for Storyboard, breaking down narrative through songwriting. If you’d like to see him explore certain songs, email email@example.com or drop him a line on Twitter @tommytomlinson.