3 Timeless storytelling lessons from country music legends

Friday, June 12, 2015

Country is the most popular style of music on American radio. More popular even than pop. What's behind the genre's enduring popularity? The answer lies in story. Here are the songwriters' secrets to legendary storytelling.

Listen to a great country artist and you listen to a master storyteller. This is music built on tales of human feeling – jilted lovers, regretful hellraisers, heartbroken widows.

Why is country music so popular?

My mum played a lot of country music when I was growing up. Patsy Cline, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton. Here's what my mum's cassette player taught me about storytelling.

1) The best stories are easily retold

When stories are told through rhyming lyrics and catchy melodies, they're effortless to remember. In some cases, they're impossible to forget.

But structure is crucial too. After just a few listens of Lucille by Kenny Rogers, you could easily relay the story of a man who meets a woman in a bar.

When the drinks finally hit her
She said I'm no quitter
But I finally quit livin' on dreams
I'm hungry for laughter
And here ever after
I'm after whatever the other life brings

According to an interview Kenny once gave, the song's story began:

...in the summer of 1958 when Kenny was near Tulsa, Oklahoma to help his uncle cut hay. During that time, a local TV channel had been broadcasting the voice of a heartbroken man whose wife had left him... The man's words haunted Kenny for years.

Tip - Work on your story's arc – where tension is introduced, builds to a climax and is finally resolved.

See also: 8 Classic storytelling techniques for engaging presentations

2) Powerful stories are crammed with feeling

Our powers of empathy are remarkably strong. Country music is full of intense declarations of sadness that tug at the heartstrings – just like Patsy Cline's I Fall to Pieces.

You tell me to find someone else to love
Someone who'll love me too
The way you used to do

Sad stories are an emotional double-whammy for the audience - we feel the pain of the hero's heartbreak but also gratitude at not being in their shoes.

Here's what composer Harlan Howard said about recording the song:

We knew we had magic in the can when, on the fourth take, every grown man in that studio was bawling like a baby

Tip – Describe feelings vividly. Our emotions respond to dramatic ups and downs, not gentle curves.

3) Some things are best left unsaid

With just 3 or 4 minutes to get their story across, brilliant country musicians know that much has to be left unsaid. Or, almost unsaid.

Your beauty is beyond compare
With flaming locks of auburn hair
With ivory skin and eyes of emerald green
Your smile is like a breath of spring
Your voice is soft like summer rain
And I cannot compete with you, Jolene

Why is the narrator's confidence so low? Why would Jolene take him 'just because she can?' Has she done it before?

According to Dolly, the song was inspired by a real-life flirtatious bank teller:

She got this terrible crush on my husband. And he just loved going to the bank because she paid him so much attention. It was kinda like a running joke between us – when I was saying, 'Hell, you're spending a lot of time at the bank. I don't believe we've got that kind of money.'

Hinted-at subtexts give depth to stories. They also allow the audience to fill in the gaps, giving them a stake in the character's fortunes.

Tip – Introduce subtle sub-plot hints. Tie up loose ends at the end, or don't - it's effective either way.

What do you think? Who or what has taught you the power of a great story?


The Seven Pillars of Storytelling

Audiences are tired of facts and figures. But stories? We’re hardwired to see stories as a gift.

Download your free ebook and become a master storyteller.

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