The King of Tears with Malcolm Gladwell | E6/S2: Revisionist History Podcast (Transcript)
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The King of Tears with Malcolm Gladwell
Episode 6| Season 2| Revisionist History
Length: 42 min | Released: 7/19/2017
Malcolm Gladwell: In Nashville, Tennessee there's a songwriter named Bobby Braddock. He's in his 70's, maybe 5 foot 7, bald head, scruffy beard, wiry, like if you messed with him in a bar, you'd probably lose. The most striking thing about him is his eyes, which are the palest and most intense shade of blue. He wears sunglasses a lot and it's almost as if he needs to protect the world from that look. I met him on Music Row in Nashville. We had lunch and then we sat in one of the writer's rooms in the Sony building, piano in the corner, couches to one side, and he talked about his education in the music business.
Bobby Braddock: I think I always had the reputation as being a kind of a quirky writer, maybe a little left-field.
MG: The turning point in Braddock's career was a song you've probably heard of. It was performed by Tammy Wynette back when she was the reigning queen of country music, 1968. About a mom who had to spell out the word D. I. V. O. R. C. E so her kids wouldn't know their parents were splitting up.
BB: So, D.I.V.O.R.C.E.
BB: Wrote this ditty demo on it and no takers, nobody did it, nobody ever recorded it.
MG: D.I.V.O.R.C.E. Was a song with a gimmick. Braddock did a lot of gimmicky songs back then. No one wanted this one. So Braddock went to a friend and longtime collaborator, Curly Putman.
BB: So I said, "Well why is nobody recording it?" He said, "I think, Brian, the important part of this song, it's a sad song and your melodies, on that part, is too happy." And what I was doing wasÔøΩ
[Singing on the piano]
"Oh, I wish that we could stop this D.I.V.O.R.C.E" A little bit like a, like a soap commercial. And I said, "Well, what would you do?" and he grabs his guitar and he had this really mournful singing style. Tammy Wynette was a big fan of Curly's singing, she lobed his singing because he had, I mean, he just, his singing was just so sad. And he goes to the guitar, he sings
[Singing on the piano]
"Oh, I wish that weÔøΩ Could stop this D.I.V.O.R.C.E"
So, I said, "Get your guitar! Let's was, let's put it on tape like that."
MG: D.I.V.O.R.C.E. Went to number one. It was Bobby Braddock's first great exercise in how to make people cry. And from then on, things just got sadder.
My name is Malcolm Gladwell. You're listing to Revisionist History, my podcast about things overlooked and misunderstood. This episode is about something that has never made sense to me. Maybe it's because I'm a Canadian or maybe Americans puzzle about this too. I'm talking about the bright line that divides American society. Not the color line or the ideological line, I'm talking about the sad song line.
I don't know why people don't talk about this more because it's weird. For the sake of argument, let's use the rock magazine Rolling Stone's list of the best songs of all time, the top 50. These are the critic's choices. Hotel California by the Eagles comes in at 49, which, as far as I can tell, is a song about drugs. Tutti Frutti by Little Richard, at 43. Tutti Frutti, which I remind you, has as a signature lyric "Tutti Frutti oh Rooty Tutti Frutti oh Rooty Tutti Frutti oh Rooty Tutti Frutti oh Rooty wop bop a loo bop a lot bam boom." There's Dancing in the street at 40, Light my Fire, Be My Baby, Nirvana's Smells Like Teen Spirit, Derek and the Dominos' Layla. There are songs about wanting to have sex, songs about having sex, songs about getting high presumably after having sex. Number one song on the list? Like a Rolling Stone, by Bob Dylan.
Ah, you've gone to the finest schools all right, Miss Lonely
But you know you only used to get juiced in it
And nobody's ever taught you how to live out on the street
And now you're gonna have to get used to it
I think that's a song about someone who dropped out of Harvard. The number one rock song of all time is about dropping out of Harvard.
In all of those 50 songs, nobody dies after a long illness, no marriage disintegrates, nobody's killed on a battlefield, no mother grieves for her son. The closest that any song in Rolling Stone's list comes to being truly sad is Smokey Robinson's Tracks of My Tears, which, is first of all, number 50, so they put the sad song at the bottom of the list. And secondly, it's about a guy at a party. In their moments of greatest travail, the protagonists of rock & roll sad songs still get to go to parties. Now, just turn on a country music station, especially a traditional country music station, and listen. It's like a different universe. Marriages going to hell, people staring into their shot glass in a honky tonk, people dying young. Have you ever heard John Prine's Unwed Fathers? It's a devastating bit of songwriting about a teenage mom fleeing town. He sings it with his wife Rachel.
[Unwed Fathers playing]
On somewhere else bound, Smokey Mountain Greyhound
She bows her head down, hummin' lullabies
Your daddy never, meant to hurt you ever
He just don't live here, but you've got his eyes
MG: Those last two lines, "Your daddy never, meant to hurt you ever / He just don't live here, but you've got his eyes" that's brutal.
One-half of the country, the rock music part, wants their music to be hymns to extroversion. The other half wants to talk about real life dramas and have a good cry. I don't get it. By the way, you know who wrote that Unwed Fathers song with John Prine? Bobby Braddock.
Or maybe you've heard this, another classic recorded by Tammy Wynette.
[Golden ring playing]
Golden ring (golden ring) with one tiny little stone
Cast aside (cast aside) like the love that's dead and gone
By itself (by itself) it's just a cold metallic thing
MG: Golden ring, it follows a couple from first love to the breakup of their marriage by tracing the journey of their wedding ring from pawn shop to pawn shop. It's a weeper. Who wrote it? Bobby Braddock. And today, 40 years after he wrote it, Braddock is still mad about a one word change made by the song's producer, Billy Sherrill, because that made his song one crucial degree less sad.
BB: What we had was, uh, "He says you won't admit, but I know you're running around." And Billy changed it to, "He says you won't admit it, but I know you're leaving town." That's not, that's not as powerful as you're running around.
[Golden ring playing]
He says you won't admit it but I know you're leaving town"
She says, "One thing's for certain,
I don't love you anymore"
And throws down the ring
As she walks out the door
BB: And country music is supposed to be about real life, you know, and I try to reflect that in what I write.
[Golden ring playing]
MG: Which brings us to maybe the greatest country song of all time. Certainly, the saddest country song of all time, the song that made me get on a plane and go to Nashville. It was recorded by the great George Jones, one of the half dozen or so most iconic figures in the history of country music. You just heard him singing in Golden Ring. Jones was famously the husband of Tammy Wynette for a time, a hard living, dissolute megastar. Once, in the midst of an epic bender, Jones' family took his keys away so he got on his riding mower and drove 8 miles to the liquor store to get some whiskey. This was a man who could pour his fractured heart into his music like no one else. A half dozen times in his career, Jones found a song truly worthy of his talents, but it never got better than He Stopped Loving Her Today. I still remember when I first heard that song. And from the day I started thinking about this episode, I haven't been able to get it out of my head.
[He Stopped Loving Her Today playing]
He said I'll love you till I die
She told him you'll forget in time
As the years went slowly by
She still preyed upon his mind
He kept her picture on his wall
MG: Do I need to tell you who wrote that song? Bobby Braddock. Bobby Braddock is the king of tears.
He still loved her through it all
Hoping she'd come back again
MG: Oh man. One of the things that got me interested in sad songs was a story my sister-in-law, Bev, told me. She and my brother live in the same area I grew up in, Waterloo County in southern Ontario, and a while ago, she went to a performance by a local chamber choir, 30 singers. They sang a cantata called Annelies by the British composer James Whitbourn, a choral composition which puts the words of Anne Frank's diary to music. I know this seems like a little bit of a digression from country music, but it's a really useful case study in understanding why some songs make us cry.
The performance Bev told me about was on a Sunday afternoon, a free performance at a public library, which is a very utilitarian, very 1960s building on Queen Street, in downtown Kitchener. I've been there many times. Wall to wall carpet, that old books' library smell, which I have to admit I love.
MG: How many people are there?
BEV: It's in the main reading room, uh, they've moved around all the tables andÔøΩ 100? 120? It's full, pretty much standing room only.
As they're singing, I think, "Why is that alto not singing?" And then I look over and I think, "There's somebody else, a soprano not singing, that's odd because everybody else in their parts is singing." And then I realize they're crying and they couldn't sing.
BEV: Bev says she cried pretty much through the entire performance. She was looking straight ahead because she didn't want people to see she was crying, but it didn't matter because everyone was crying. When the performance was over, Bev approached the stage to talk to the soloist, the woman singing Anne Frank's words.
BEV: I just went up to her afterwards and, and congratulated her on the beauty of the piece and then at her singing and I said, "How did you manage to sing without crying?" And she said, "Well, I couldn't look at Mark, the conductor, because he was wiping tears from his eyes. And I had my back to the choir, so that was good. And I didn't look at anybody in the audience because they were crying; so I just looked up in the middle distance and I sang. It was a good thing I had it memorized."
MG: I was at home in Canada when Bev told me that story, so I called up Mark, the conductor, and the soloist, whose name is Natasha. They're actually husband and wife. They only live a few minutes away from my brother, so they came over. Mark sat at the piano in the living room and Natasha stood behind him and they performed one of the pieces from Annelies that they did that day in the library.
Mark: This is the, the last movement; and called, it's called Anne's Meditation. "I see the world, I see the world being slowly turned, turned into a wilderness."
[Mark and Natasha performing live]
MG: Now, I realize this is a crazy question because we're hearing a piece based on the Diary of Anne Frank, which is one of the most heart breaking stories from one of the most horrific moments in recent history. But why was everyone crying that day at the Kitchener library?
The obvious reason is that the music is beautiful, so is Natasha singing. The performance is also authentic; there's nothing contrived about it. It wasn't at Carnegie Hall, people weren't wearing suits and evening gowns; they were at the Kitchener Library and there's families getting books and kids running around and everyone's on stacking chairs with the tables pushed off to the side. But here's the most important thing, Annelies is specific. It's a cantata about the actual experiences of a real person, in her own words.
Bev says that when she cried, she started thinking about her own family, Mennonites who escaped terrible persecution in Russia. Natasha says that, as she sang about 12-year-old Anne Frank, she was thinking about her own daughter who was 10 and who was sitting right next to Bev in the audience.
Beauty and authenticity can create a mood, they set the stage, but I think the thing that pushes us over the top into tears is details. We cry when melancholy collides with specificity. And specificity is not something every genre does well.
[Wild Horses playing]
Wild horses couldn't drag me away
MG: Wild Horses by the Rolling Stones, written by Keith Richards and Mick Jagger. It's a song about a conversation a man is having with a silent, suffering loved one. The story goes that Mick Jagger dreamt up the verses while sitting at the bedside of his then girlfriend, Marianne Faithfull, as she recovered from an overdose.
I watched you suffer a dull aching pain
MG: "I watched you suffer a dull aching pain /
Now you've decided to show me the same / No sweeping exit or offstage line / Could make me feel bitter or treat you unkind / Wild horses couldn't drag me away / Wild wild horses couldn't drag me away"
Wild Horses was recorded first by the legendary Graham Parsons. Not long afterwards, Parsons died of an overdose and his friend and prot‚àö¬©g‚àö¬©, the country music singer Emmylou Harris, made a song in his memory. She wrote it with Bill Danoff. It's called From Boulder to Birmingham.
[From Boulder to Birmingham playing]
I don't want to hear a love song
I got on this airplane just to fly
And I know there's life below
But all that you can show me
Is the prairie and the sky
And I don't want to hear a sad story
MG: Someone who has suffered a terrible loss has gotten on a plane and she's so numbed by grief that she could no longer see those around her.
The last time I felt like this
I was in the wilderness and the canyon was on fire
MG: From Boulder to Birmingham and Wild Horses are both beautiful, melancholy. They're about the same thing, the ties the living and the healthy have to those in pain. But which is the sadder song? I don't think there's any question. Wild Horses is generic. Listen to how it starts:
"Childhood living is easy to do
The things you wanted, I bought them for you
Graceless lady you know who I am
You know I can't let you slide through my hands"
MG: What's going on, any idea? What is Mick yammering on about? Now, compare that to the specificity of looking down from the airplane and seeing nothing but prairie, then standing on a mountain and watching a canyon burn.
[From Boulder to Birmingham playing]
I watched it burn.
I would rock my soul in the bosom of Abraham
I would hold my life in his saving grace.
I would walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham
If I thought I could see; I could see your face
MG: First, she references the great black spiritual, Rock My Soul in the Bosom of Abraham. The bosom of Abraham is where the righteous dead go while awaiting judgment. Then she sings, "And I would also walk all the way from Boulder to Birmingham." Now she's locating her grief. "I would make a pilgrimage from progressive hippy liberal," remember this is 1973, "dope-smoking Colorado back to the repressive heart of the old south just to see your face."
Two completely different specific images, each with its own set of emotional triggers and she's piled one on top of another. Mark Vornin, the music director of the choir in my hometown says that there's a part in Annelies that does the same thing.
MV: Anne is, they're in hiding already and, and she starts singing and the composer has set these words in kind of a style of a, of an American Sousa march. And so she's talking about being in the bathtub and being scrubbed in the bathtub, and it's a Sousa, uh, "We'll scrub, scrub, scrub ourselves in the tin tub Yam Taram Taah," right? Very happy and optimistic music.
MG: Anne Frank in the bathtub, to the tune of a Sousa march, with the horrors of the Holocaust outside her door, three absolutely concrete images in merciless combination.
MV: It just floored me every, every time I heard it because it was so close to, you know, our own daughter, you know, to think that, that she would have to create this kind of fiction in order to just get through the day.
MG: That's how you get tears. You make the story so real and the details so sharp and you add in so many emotional triggers that the listener cannot escape. But it's a risky thing to do, right? If you aren't a talented composer and you don't do a sensitive rendition of those lyrics, they could fall flat. It can seem forced, even offensive. Far easier just to fall back on the bland clich‚àö¬© that Wild Horses couldn't drag you away.
Country music makes people cry because it's not afraid to be specific.
You know, she came to see him one last time
Oh, and we all wondered if she would
And it kept running through my mind
This time, he's over her for good
MG: Bobby Braddock was born in Auburndale, Florida, a little town between Tampa and Orlando. His father grew citrus; they were Church of Christ, just about the most fundamentalists of fundamentalist Christians.
Braddock moved to Nashville in 1964, just after getting married, to seek his fortune in the music business. He wrote his memoirs a few years ago, it's called A Life on Nashville's Music Row. I read it before I went to see him and the best way to describe the book is that it's exhausting. I don't mean that in a bad way because I couldn't put it down, but so much happens.
MG: You've lived this incredibly tumultuous, emotionally tumultuous life.
BB: Ayuh, yeah.
MG: And in the book, it sounds like the first precipitating event is the death of your son.
MG: Braddock was touring with the country music legend Marty Robbins at the time. He and his wife Sue had a baby. The child was just a few months old when he died.
BB: Whenever I was in town, not on the road Marty Robbins, every single day we'd buy fresh flowers and go put it on his grave. We were just pathetic.
MG: He and Sue fight, she cheats on him, he cheats on her, they break up, they get back together, they have a daughter, they divorce, his ex-wife mysteriously vanishes, he drinks a lot, gets into fights, owes enormous sums to the IRS, has a major bout with depression, smokes a lot of pot, lurches from one volcanic event to the next and through it all, Braddock writes songs, hundreds of them.
MG: Your kind of tolerance for emotional volatility seems extraordinary.
BB: [Laughing] I guess. Tolerance is a, is probably a pretty good word for it.
MG: Braddock walks over to the keyboard on the other side of the room. He begins to talk about an old girlfriend named Angela who committed suicide by driving her car into the river.
BB: When Angela died, her mother took her baby to raise it and she sent me a picture of the little girl, Angela's child, when she was about 4, 5 years old, looked just like her mom; a picture of her standing up in the yard. And, boy, it did a number on me.
Despite all the distance and time
MG: He wrote a song about that in 20 minutes. He played it for me. Then, he played his favorite bit of a sad Randy Newman song. He played me a heartbreaking song he wrote once after getting up in the middle of the night and passing his lover in the hallway. And as he played one weeper after another, I realized that that thing I'd said about Braddock's tolerance for emotional volatility, tolerance was the wrong word. That was just me projecting my uptight Canadian self onto Braddock.
But Braddock is from the musical side of the United States, where emotion is not something to be endured; it's something to be embraced. At one point, when cell phones were still analog, you could buy a scanner and listen in to other people's conversations and that's what Braddock does; he can't help himself. A woman complains to her husband for an hour about his lack of affection from the parking lot at the grocery store then asks him what he wants and he says, "Maybe Apple Newtons." And then, this is my favorite part, I'm quoting now from Braddock's memoir, "The conversation that truly touched me was between a man, perhaps 40, and his mother, maybe late 60's, in which the son opened up about sexual problems he was having with his wife. And I envied the sprinkling of profanities and the mother's invitation to, ‚Äö√Ñ√≤Come over to the house, Son, and let's open a bottle of whiskey and talk about it,' wishing I had that kind of easy and open communication with my mom then learning that the guy's mother was terminally ill with cancer." If you're keeping track, that's marital difficulty, sex, profanity, whiskey, mom, and terminal cancer in one conversation and it truly touched him.
Do you know what Braddock's favorite song is? Vince Gill's Go Rest High on That Mountain, which Gil wrote in memory both of his brother, who died young of a heart attack, and fellow country star Keith Whitley, who drank himself to death.
[Go Rest High on That Mountain playing]
BB: Oh my God, when Vince Gill and Ricky Skaggs and Patty Loveless are singing harmony on that thing, I go nuts, it still tears me up. You know what that it's about death and Vince wrote it about Keith Whitley and then about his own brother and just the emotion that's in that song, it's just, it's just powerful.
Oh, how we cried the day you left us
We gathered round your grave to grieve
I wish I could see the angel's faces
MG: It's heartbreaking. Listening to that song makes me wonder if some portion of what we call ideological division in America actually isn't ideological at all. How big are the political differences between red and blue states anyway? In the grand scheme of things, not that big. Maybe what we're seeing instead is a difference of emotional opinion because if your principal form of cultural expression has drinking, sex, suicide, heart attacks, mom, and terminal cancer all on the table for public discussion, then the other half of the country is gonna seem really chilly and uncaring. And if you're from the rock & roll half, clinging semi-ironically to Tutti Frutti oh Rooty, when you listen to a song written about a guy's brother who died young of a heart attack and another guy who drank himself to death, you're gonna think, "Who are these people?"
Here's another way to think about the sad song line. Let me read you the list of the birthplaces of the performers of the top 20 country songs of all time. Again, I'm gonna use the Rolling Stone magazine list. Ready? Arkansas, Virginia, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi, Mississippi, Georgia, California, Central Valley by the way, not Los Angeles, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, Texas, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, Texas, Kentucky, Texas. I could do the top 50 or the top 100 or the top 200 and you'd get the same pattern. Basically, you cannot be a successful country singer or songwriter if you're not from the south. It's impossible. There's one exception, which is the great songwriter Harlan Howard, who was born in Detroit but almost immediately thereafter, his family moves to a farm in rural Kentucky. It's like the 5-second rule when you drop a piece of food on the floor. If it's not on the ground long enough, it doesn't count. As far as I can tell, there are no Jews on the country list, almost no Catholics, only two Black people; it's White, Southern Protestants all the way down.
Now, compare that to the rock & roll list. You've got Jews from Minnesota, Black people from Detroit, Catholics from New Jersey, middle-class British art school dropouts, Canadians, Jamaicans. Rock & roll is the rainbow coalition. That diversity is a good thing; it's why there's so much innovation in rock & roll, but you pay a price for that.
There was a very clever bit of research published recently by Colin Morris in the magazine The Pudding. He analyzed 15,000 popular songs using an algorithm that compresses digital files. So if you take out the repetitive bits in a song, how much of it is left? Morris' big finding is that rock & roll, as a genre, is really, really repetitive. Britney Spears, Lady Gaga, The Beatles, if you take out the duplicative parts, their music shrinks by 60%. That's what happens when everyone is from somewhere different. Nobody speaks the same language so you have to use clich‚àö¬©, the same phrases over and over again, because if you go deeper or try to get more specific, you start to lose people. Country music, on the other hand, is not nearly as repetitive. When Morris ran the lyrics of popular country singers through his algorithm, they only shrank by about 40%, a third less than the rock & rollers. Nor is Hip Hop repetitive, which makes sense. The birthplaces of everyone on Rolling Stone's list of greatest rap songs reads like an urban version of the country list. Queens, South Central LA, Brooklyn, Long Island, South Central, Long Beach, Houston, Queens, the Bronx, Inglewood, New Jersey, the Bronx. Hip Hop and Country are both tightly knit musical communities and when you're speaking to people who understand your world and your culture and your language, you can tell much more complicated stories, you can use much more precise imagery, you can lay yourself bare because you're among your own.
MG: In the book, it sounds like your relationship with Sparky was the one that seemed the most creatively fruitful.
BB: It was, it was.
MG: Sparky was a beautiful blonde from Northern Alabama, the great love of Bobby Braddock's life.
MG: Why was that?
BB: I think because I, uh, my, my feelings about her were so strong, I mean, it was sort of a visceral thing.
MG: I think that's why I found Bobby Braddock‚Äö√Ñ√≤s book so exhausting. It's because everything is felt, everything is a mountain peak and Sparky, Sparky was Everest, high altitude infatuation.
BB: That's a control thing that make people go absolutely crazy, you know. And that was the case with her, you know, that's what gets the animal instinct of people, maybe, who haven't evolved as much as they should and cause them to go out and get a gun to blow somebody's brain out over, some guy not being ableÔøΩ They can't stand the thought or some, someone, you know, having sex with the person that he loves.
MG: Braddock and Sparky were on and off lovers for years. It was intense, painful, euphoric. When it ended, Braddock was in pieces.
[He Stopped Loving Her Today playing]
He kept her picture on the wall
Went half-crazy now and then
MG: That's Braddock in the original demo he made of He Stopped Loving Her Today.
[He Stopped Loving Her Today playing]
But he still loved her through it all
Hoping she'd come back again
BB: I said I'm not sure of where it came from, it may have come from Sparky, you know. I honestly don't know. It'd be interestingÔøΩ
MG: How could it not?
BB: Yeah, well, I, I think it probably, I think it it probably did, but I just, I can't say it, I can't say that for certainty.
MG: I felt like Braddock shrank at that moment, listening to his tangled dreams, and then wanting to shake him at the end of the session. It's Sparky, Sparky!
MG: I mean, you wrote a song in the middle of the great defining love affair of your life. It, the relationship ends and you write a song about the heartbreak ofÔøΩ That a man carries to his grave. I mean it'sÔøΩ
BB: Yeah, that's true.
MG: Could it be, could it be more clear?
MG: Bobby Braddock wrote He Stopped Loving Her Today with his friend Curly in 1977. They took it to the singer Ge