The history of the story-song probably reaches back to the caveman days, when some weak-shouldered runt of the litter realized that if he could entertain the clan with stories of his brave warrior brethren set to music, then maybe they’d let him eat some of that wooly mammoth they’d dragged back for dinner. From minstrels traipsing through the countryside singing the news of the day through Bobbie Gentry‘s “Ode to Billy Joe” and Vicki Lawrence‘s detailing of what went down “The Night the Lights Went Out in Georgia,” we’ve always loved a good yarn you can dance to.
But it’s a tricky genre. For every “Acadian Driftwood,” The Band‘s 1975 song about the expulsion of the Acadians from Canada during the French and Indian War, there seem to be about seven pieces of crap like “Billy, Don’t Be a Hero,” the story of a guy whose girl implores him to “keep his head low” when he marches off to war–a song perpetrated by Bo Donaldson and the Heywoods in 1974 that, lamentably, is stuck in my head for the rest of my life. Dylan was a master storyteller. Harry Chapin, bless his long-departed soul, was a schlockmeister. Most story-songs come with extra cheese, no extra charge.
But the best story-songs have a literary quality–a subtleness and a vividness that make them feel like life. “Wichita Lineman,” written by Jimmy Webb in 1968 and made famous by Glen Campbell, is one of the great ones. Like a good New Yorker story, there’s not much plot: a lonely “lineman for the county” drives around looking for power outages and thinking about his woman. The sense of isolation amid the technology that’s supposed to connect us but somehow still leaves us stranded and alone makes the song dreamy and poignant. It’s truly one of the most beautiful songs of my lifetime, and few can match the power of its imagery.
One that can: Freedy Johnston‘s “Western Sky.”
Freedy Johnston had the world on a string for about eleven minutes back in the early ’90s. He had a hit record: “Bad Reputation” from 1994’s This Perfect World, which is not a perfect album (that would be 1992’s Can You Fly, dubbed thusly–and correctly–by the great Robert Christgau), but a damn fine one. Rolling Stone named him “Songwriter of the Year.” Johnston’s emergence at the height of grunge was unfortunate; the kids weren’t much in the mood for story-songs about middle-aged loners and would-be rockers who “sold the dirt to feed the band.” The follow-up to This Perfect World, 1997’s Never Home, spent a week at #184 on Billboard 200 and fell off the table.
Which is a damn shame, because Never Home is a tennis bracelet of an album, a glittering strand of story-song diamonds. “On The Way Out” is a stinging little rocker about shoplifting. “Something’s Out There” is the best UFO abduction song ever written; more down to earth, “Gone To See The Fire” witnesses a girl who finds out something sinister about her boyfriend:
When the roof fell in,
He lit up again.
She though she knew him so, till they had gone to see the fire.
But the real gem, the center stone, is “Western Sky.” It’s “Wichita Lineman” for a new generation.
At first blush, “Western Sky” is the story about a man whose father, a pilot, has died in a plane crash. Now the man won’t fly, which presents a problem when he has to move his family west:
A pilot’s son won’t fly,
So it’s a two-day drive–
Kissed his brave new wife goodbye.
The road ends in a fence;
She flies off overhead.
He starts his lonely trip out west.
She flies, he drives. And that’s it. Nothing else happens.
But, just like “Wichita Lineman,” “Western Sky” isn’t about what happens; we don’t find out if ever snows and whether that stretch down south can actually stand the strain, and Johnston’s narrator gets only halfway home by the end of the song. We don’t need closure: it’s the feelings of love and longing that make these story-songs so powerful.
“Western Sky” is about a man separated from his love, and he confronts his longing in ways that are recognizable to anyone who’s ever driven a long way to be reunited with a spouse. He watches the horizon and plays road games to pass the time: “I’m spelling out your name in neon passing by.” He stops to call home, tired of the road and exhausted by the emotional strain of separation.
An exit in the rain,
She answered before it rang.
But he can only say her name.
What he really needs, the only thing he needs to get him through the monotonous darkness, is the only thing we all need: “those words you say before you say goodbye.” Those three words are never spoken in “Western Sky.” But we know what they are, and they mean everything.
This sort subtlety is a hallmark of Johnston’s work; there’s always more implied than overt. And the implication is usually that the world may be sad, but it’s beautiful, too: fleeting and gorgeous, devastated and devastating, lonelier because we know deep connection is possible, if only temporarily.
“Western Sky” may not be Freedy Johnston’s best song; it may not be one of his ten best songs. It may not, in fact, be his best song that contains the idea of “spelling out her name” in the letters of signs shining in the night. (That might be “Tearing Down This Place.”) But “Western Sky,” like “Wichita Lineman,” is an unforgettable story-song about being on the road and missing the one you love, and it deserves a bigger audience. If Freedy Johnston has four minutes of fame left, he could do worse than be remembered as the man who wrote “Western Sky.”
It should also not surprise you, given all this, that Johnston recorded a magnificent version of “Wichita Lineman” on the 1993 EP Unlucky. Never let it be said that this roots-rocker doesn’t understand his roots.
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