90s Country And The Art Of The 4-Minute Story

A frustrating thing about social media is that people take complex topics and communicate about them simplistically. Some ideas need articles, not tweets, posts, or memes.

Yet as someone very wise once informed me, it can be a skill to communicate richly while being succinct. And that makes me think of how some of the best stories I’ve ever heard are just a few minutes long.

Music, without the benefit of a hundred episodes, three hours, or 500 pages, can tell an impactful story. Country Music from the 1990s was exceptional at this. It gave us stories with actual plots, characters, and climaxes. And at times even a beginning, middle, and end. And it accomplished this in very few words. In an average of about four minutes.

This is art worth dissecting and appreciating.

Two disclaimers before I get to my list of favorites for this specific category.

One, I do not want anyone to think I am glorifying or endorsing the sinful content of some of the following songs. Rambling Ever On is a Christian website and we filter and write about everything through a Biblical worldview. And in our appreciation of good art, we often deal with the evil it portrays. Our Bible itself often tells us how things are, not how they are supposed to be.

And it is my conviction we can redeem art, even developed from a non-Christian worldview, by discussing it appropriately. It is interesting that nearly without exception, the songs below that prominently feature human depravity, by nature teach us how sin yields devastating repercussions.

These are not biblical songs by any means. But they, in their own way, speak truth.

Secondly, not every song below is from the 1990s. Those at the beginning are purposefully not. But I use that decade as a starting point because that, to me, is when this genre of music reached its apex.

The Honorable Mention

Cat’s In The Cradle (Harry Chapin)

I cast this one as an honorable mention because we cannot truly classify it as Country Music. It is typically considered Folk Rock. However, the story this song tells is as timeless as it is powerful, and I must give it its due. I know of a pastor who once sang this song in church on Father’s Day. Because the primary moral is clear: Fathers, spend time with your children. Instead of chasing money, clout and career. Relatedly, it also speaks to how kids learn from watching and how you reap what you sow. These are overtly biblical ideas.

The Classics (The Forerunners)

A Boy Named Sue (Johnny Cash)

The story is mostly about a brawl between father and son, a legendary story told by a legendary singer. This song fits every category below. It’s an epic, a comedy, a tragedy, and a plot twist neatly tied together in a perfect classic country bow.

The Devil Went Down to Georgia (Charlie Daniels)

This has to be one of the most popular songs of any genre where I grew up. And I shan’t bring it up without mentioning a very popular evaluation of it: Most people I know think The Devil beat Johnny in the fiddle duel. Regardless, the plot of this song is amazing for its creativity. The instrument of choice, the combatants, the trash talk by Johnny…it is all supremely entertaining.

The Gambler (Kenny Rogers)

I confess this song has a stronger bend to philosophy than narrative, but the story is so deeply embedded in my soul I cannot exclude it. If there was any doubt at all, the reference to it in Seinfeld sealed it forever. This song spawned five TV movies starring Kenny Rogers himself. I hasten to add that once, my brother Ashley’s best hunting dog, Wilbur, died. And in addition to a five-rifle salute, an impromptu a cappella version of this song was sung in his honor at his funeral.

Kenny Rogers passed on March 20, 2020, just as the Coronavirus pandemic was beginning in the U.S. Twitter user @NickOHlessA quipped, “Kenny Rogers dippin in the middle of the apocalypse is the most ‘know when to fold’ em’ thing ever”

The Epics

She’s In Love With The Boy (Trisha Yearwood)

There’s nothing complex about this #1 hit that put Trisha Yearwood on the map. The young girl who falls for the boy that her dad doesn’t approve of is as American as apple pie. But this telling is fantastic. Who doesn’t get chills when the mom steps in at the end to save the day?

That Summer (Garth Brooks)

There is something about this song I have never been able to shake. I hate the message it communicates about sex. Though it is not the typical story of lust that music often celebrates. Yet Garth was such a masterful storyteller and performer, the offense of it can easily give way to the show. This song is as mesmerizing and captivating as it is disturbing.

Postmarked Birmingham (Blackhawk)

This is on the shortlist to me for best in this category. The song it tells is poetic and gut-wrenching. The lyrics and music complement each other in a beautiful dance. Though the video explains why the girl left for Birmingham (to find the daughter she put up for adoption), the song does not. I actually like it better that way. The unknown of the song is a part of the draw. My brother Jeremy and I have bonded over this song for 25 years now.

Fancy (Reba McEntire, Originally Bobbie Gentry)

I cannot think of too many songs that caused more discussion or arguments in Tookeydoo, SC than this one. Though I didn’t know the term at the time, I engaged in numerous debates about situational ethics. I will not offer any opinions here but suffice it to say, the story in this song is hard to ignore.

Reba was the undisputed queen of the 4-Minute Story in Country Music.
Don’t Take The Girl (Tim McGraw)

I confess this song has never been a favorite of mine, but the three-scene story is heart-warming and superbly told.

The Comedies

I Don’t Even Know Your Name (Alan Jackson)

This number is as fun and funny as you’ll find. Of note: Jeff Foxworthy starred in the video at the height of his “Redneck Comedian” popularity (which was lofty). His acting in the video is gold.

Bubba Shot the Jukebox (Mark Chesnutt)

This delightful song puts me in a good mood if I’m feeling blah. The highlight is the very last line of the last verse where Bubba defends himself against the charge of “reckless discharge of a gun” because he claims, “I hit just where I was aiming”. LOL.

Third Rock From The Sun (Joe Diffie)

This is a wild lyrical ride that is unique even in this unique category. The way the end causes the chain reaction from the beginning is reminiscent of Doctor Who’s Weeping Angels (without the wibbly, wobbly stuff). And on a more obscure level reminds me of the children’s book A Fly Went By. But in between the circle of events we are treated to some amusing and blockbuster movie-type storytelling.

Good-bye, Earl (The Dixie Chicks)

Despite the controversy around this song using black comedy to bring awareness to domestic violence (and using vigilante justice in the form of murder) this song is hard not to appreciate. There is something dark but satisfying about it.

The Tragedies

She Thinks His Name Was John (Reba McEntire)

I just recently wrote about listening to melancholy music because it makes me feel alive. This song is an excellent example of that. This song is utterly depressing. It has no inherent redeeming aspect to it. It’s about a woman who dies young from an STD, presumably AIDS, from a one-night stand. It’s as dour and mournful as a song as you will ever hear. Yet it pulls me in like a tractor beam. I am enamored with it.

Walkway Joe (Trisha Yearwood)

This song is like the yang to “She’s In Love With The Boy”s yin. No happy ending. By contrast, it’s raw and real. I’ve used this song’s lyrics to juxtapose them with Proverbs 1:8 and 6:20 about listening to the wisdom of your parents. I especially adore the last line of each verse, which serves as a quasi-bridge to each chorus (which is slightly different each time), and advances the plot poignantly:

Cause fate’s got cards that it don’t want to show...

So she’ll ride this ride as far as it will go…

The cold, hard truth revealed what it had known…

I love Trisha Yearwood for this song, as well as the background/duet vocals from Don Henley. It’s also on the shortlist for my favorite in this article.

Whiskey Lullaby (Alison Kraus and Brad Paisley)

Simply, a song of unspeakable grief. It exudes hopelessness. It has some Romeo and Juliet in it. The video, starring Rick (not Ricky) Schroeder, is another that adds depth to the story and, in this case, I actually enjoy it. But just the song itself is potent in its emotion. It’s soul-shattering.

Little Rock (Colin Raye)

I nearly opted for That’s Why I’m Here by Kenny Chesney, a story also about how alcohol abuse can cost a person relationally. But I think this one has a bit more substance to it. I appreciate both songs for not going for the cheap, happy ending but the focus being on a more realistic goal of overcoming addiction.

The Plot Twists

The Night The Lights Went Out In Georgia (Reba McEntire, Originally Vicki Lawrence)

This song feels like a fantastic murder-mystery movie (and was made into one, albeit with some changes to the story). The last verse pulls the rug out from under you.

The Ride (David Allen Coe)

Another case where I almost opted for a similar song. This time, Midnight In Montgomery by Alan Jackson. Jackson is a better singer than DAC and his tune is much more haunting and emotive. It sets a scene unlike any other. It’s one of the best songs of 90s Country Music. But Coe’s song, from 1983, has two big advantages. First, the double meaning of the title. And secondly, the reveal of Hank Williams is much more stunning. Jackson’s version uses foreshadowing, which is brilliant in its own right. But the ending to “The Ride” is sublime. The whole world did, indeed, call him “Hank”.

The Thunder Rolls (Garth Brooks)

The infamous third verse to this song, which contains the actual plot twist, wasn’t played on the radio. For good reason. It’s heavy. As such, I’ll never forget the first time I heard it while watching the video on cable at a friend’s house.

Garth had two mega-hits with a “secret” third verse that each turned the story of the song on its head, and both typically were known through live versions. “Friends In Low Places” was the other.
Somebody (Reba McEntire)

Much lighter than just about every other song on this list, the simple story of a man looking for something right in front of his eyes is a welcome break from the angst of most of the other songs on this list.

The Best of the Rest

Upstairs, Downtown (Toby Keith)

Not about love, heartbreak, or revenge, it gifts us with a simple story of a young woman trying to set out on her own. And failing. It sounds discouraging but the honesty of it is refreshing.

Lucky Moon (Oak Ridge Boys)

I admit this one is a bit weak on plot elements but the song is such an emotional rollercoaster that ends with a win for reconciliation that I am always taken along for the ride.

Outskirts of Town (Sawyer Brown)

The song is probably more unknown than any other here, but it rings true for me because the man in the song gave up the big dream of leaving his small town to farm. And falls in love with a local girl. It reminds me of my dad. This verse especially:

They say there’s so much out there for you
And maybe he never will know
The buses, they load up the dreamers
But leaving was too far to go
Washed in the blood and surrounded
By the land and the love he had known
Now He’ll plant his dreams in the ground
On the outskirts of town

The Car (Jeff Carson)

Not about romance, but about a father, a son, and a Mustang. And the loss of time. To come full circle, it has many of the same lessons as Cat’s in The Cradle.

This was not meant to be an exhaustive list by any means. So we open up the comment section for all feedback, but especially songs with stories that you love.

Gowdy Cannon

I am currently the pastor of Bear Point FWB Church in Sesser, IL. I previously served for 17 years as the associate bilingual pastor at Northwest Community Church in Chicago. My wife, Kayla, and I have been married nearly seven years and have a 3-year old son, Liam Erasmus. I have been a student at Welch College in Nashville and at Moody Theological Seminary in Chicago. I love The USC (the real one in SC, not the other one in CA), Seinfeld, John 3:30, Chic-Fil-A, Dumb and Dumber, the book of Job, preaching and teaching, and arguing about sports.

10 thoughts on “90s Country And The Art Of The 4-Minute Story

  • May 24, 2022 at 11:22 am
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    I started to not read this because I am not a fan of 90s country. Why anyone would go see or listen to Garth Brooks is beyond me. Seriously, I don’t understand how he is popular. Anyway…..I am a Gowdy Cannon fan, so I read this.

    Most of these songs I don’t know, but…..Goodbye Earl is so much fun. I hate that politics has ruined my thoughts on the Dixie Chicks because they are so talented. Then there is the country music perfection which is Whiskey Lullaby. What an amazing song! Angels wish they could sing as beautifully as Alison Kraus.

    Reply
  • May 24, 2022 at 11:46 am
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    For the record, Johnny absolutely beats the devil in their contest. The devil’s band carries him. Without that awesome backup band, the devil is just sound and fury, signifying nothing.

    Reply
    • May 24, 2022 at 12:11 pm
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      That’s interesting! I am such a poor judge of actual music (notes and stuff) I never had a strong opinion. I truly think is lot of it was people’s desire to have edgy opinions and then it became a snowball, crowd affect thing.

      Reply
  • May 24, 2022 at 12:12 pm
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    Telling a story in a song (country or otherwise) of just a few minutes is challenging, indeed. Just a few items:
    1. Reba’s song “Fancy” is a cover of a tune by Bobbie Gentry of Tallahatchee Bridge fame;
    2. Malcolm Gladwell has an excellent treatment of country music (contrasted with rock) here: https://www.pushkin.fm/episode/the-king-of-tears/

    Reply
    • May 24, 2022 at 12:22 pm
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      Interesting! I will read that. I tried to give Bobbie Gentry credit above in the parenthesis, same as Vicki Lawrence for the Georgia song.

      Reply
  • May 24, 2022 at 9:43 pm
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    Great post, Gowdy! One f the first country & western story songs I really liked was “El Paso” by Marty Robbins. It sort of stayed with me as a cautionary tale. Lots of great picks!

    Reply
    • May 24, 2022 at 10:00 pm
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      Marty Robbins! That’s very cool.

      Reply
  • May 25, 2022 at 6:36 pm
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    Excellent article! I’m not the biggest country fan, but I’m a big fan of 90s country.

    I saw Trisha Yearwood sing Walkaway Joe last month at the Nashville Garth concert, which was a blast! He sang a few songs, too, but I LOVE Walkaway Joe.

    Others I thought of:
    Love, Me by Collin Raye
    One Boy, One Girl by Collin Raye
    What Might Have Been by Little Texas
    Roll On (Eighteen Wheeler) by Alabama
    Travelin’ Soldier by the Dixie Chicks

    Reply
    • May 26, 2022 at 10:47 am
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      Thank you, Stephanie! Your opinion matters to me. That’s so cool that you got hear that old married couple singing together. Both are legends in my mind and it’s crazy they ended up together (and married in a FWB church! – Rejoice in Owasso, OK if you were unaware, and you may not have been).

      The old mysoginist joke about men telling women to get in the kitchen is backwards with me and Trisha Yearwood. I see her home/cooking show when I go over to my in-laws sometimes and I think, “Trisha get out of the kitchen and go make more great country music”. Ha! But seriously, I’m glad she’s still performing. She had such an illustrious career.

      I considered both “Love, Me” and “Roll On Eighteen Wheeler” for the article. The latter had a write up and everything before I deleted it. I enjoy the other Colin Raye song and the Little Texas one greatly as well. I don’t know the last one but that’s what’s great about this – I can go find it and listen to it today!

      Thank you!

      Reply
      • May 27, 2022 at 6:28 pm
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        Yes, I was aware about them attending Rejoice. Very cool! And glad I could suggest the Dixie Chicks song for you. Bring your tissues!

        Reply

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