Most parents develop a time-for-bed-kids routine built around stories, jokes, games and the like. I take my laptop upstairs and play some music for my very musical four year old daughter, Amelie. Last night for instance, I learned that she doesn’t care for Jonathan Jeremiah’s Happiness but sings along to good ol’ Dolly Parton’s Jolene. She’s too young to understand the concept of wordplay, but one day I’ll try to tell her about it, fail miserably and suggest she reads this.
Pop singers like the Beatles and Elvis Costello may have visited wordplay from time to time, but country music lives there. A lot of it involves outright puns, like the Bellamy Brothers’ “If I Said You Had a Beautiful Body Would You Hold It Against Me?” or Lee Ann Womack’s “Am I the Only Thing That You’ve Done Wrong?” There’s Gary Nicholson’s “Behind Bars,” which is about saloons, and Randy Travis’s “On The Other Hand,” which is about wedding rings. And then there are all those titles that involve wordplay of one sort or another, like Dolly Parton’s “It’s All Wrong, but It’s All Right,” and Johnny Paycheck’s “I’m the Only Hell My Mama Ever Raised.”
When I think of songs like these, the singer who comes first to mind is George Jones. I don’t know of he’s done more of them than anybody else — the honors there probably go to Roger Miller or Johnny Paycheck. And a lot of the punning titles that Jones uses are just routine joke songs, like the recent “I Had More Silver Bullets Last Night Than the Lone Ranger” or “She Took My Keys Away, and Now She Won’t Drive me To Drink.” But Jones has also made a specialty of using puns and wordplay in the plaintive ballads that he sings like no one else — “A man can be a drunk sometimes but a drunk can’t be a man,” “At least I’ve learned to stand on my own two knees,” or “With these hundred proof memories, you can’t think and drive.”
For some people of course, this sort of punning just confirms a sense of country music as a linguistic trailer park. Since Tennyson’s time, punning has been deprecated as the basest form of humor, to the point where it’s often regarded as a kind of veiled aggressiveness (…) It’s a fitting device for these ballads, particularly when they’re tackling their favorite theme — the fragility of happiness, love, and family. There’s a joke that sums up the genre very nicely: “What do you get if you play a country song backwards?” — “You get your wife back, you get your dog back, you get your truck back…”
Taken from ‘The way we talk now’ by Geoffrey Nunberg (Houghton Mifflin, 2001)