In answer to an Okie Gardener's challenge:

First of all, I must confess that I cannot play an instrument, read music, carry a tune or keep a beat. I have always suspected that my musical ignorance makes me the perfect country music fan, an art form that is much more literary than it is musical. Even though I cannot appreciate “great” music, I have always understood the country sound and appreciated the profundity of the the folk "poetry."

One of my favorite American writers splendidly described country music as “the lonesome, helpless cries from those tired men and rapidly aging women, who had rebelled against their fate to toil rocky hillsides and raise bands of illiterate, naked children. Their song was heard and understood, and hillbilly music moved beyond the hills. The Texas cowboy heard, and instantly knew the plight of the hillbilly was the same as his own, as did the Nebraska farmer and the lonesome Okie picking oranges from California groves belonging to other men. It was the wailing of depression and deprivation, simply expressed melodies of yesterday’s happiness and sorrow, of mothers, fathers and sweethearts lost forever in memories….”

The perfect country song must embody those sentiments.

Runner-Up: I am tempted to give the ultimate honor to Hank Williams and "Your Cheating Heart." This classic is nearly the quintessential song about pain and betrayal, composed and performed by the archetypal country artist in the midst of personal agony and miserably adrift in his celebrity and success. He recorded the track merely weeks before his death by overdose in the back of his Cadillac on the way to a booking in Ohio; he was not yet thirty years old. Your Cheating Heart was a huge posthumous hit for Hank in 1953. Later that year, his widow (his second wife, to whom he had been married for only a few months) married another country singer, Johnny Horton, who would die in a car wreck in 1960.

“When tears come down like falling rain, You'll toss around and call my name…”

But the perfect country and western song, with all due respect to Hank Williams (and Steve Goodman), is ...

the haunting George Jones ballad: "He Stopped Loving Her Today.”

Only eight years younger than Hank Williams, George Jones recorded his first song the year Hank died, 1953. Texas-born in the depths of the Depression, Jones understood the oppression of poverty and the pain of loss. Breaking onto the country scene as a performer in the mold of Hank Williams, with his hard-driving, up-tempo music and his hard-drinking and disorderly lifestyle, Jones consistently charted hits in the 1950s and 1960s. When his third troubled marriage (with fellow superstar and duet partner, Tammy Wynette) ended in divorce in 1974, Jones fell even further into the cycle of drinking, drug use and other self-destructive behavior. Admitting that he was drunk for most of the 1970s, he earned his nickname, “No-Show Jones,” during this period.

“Ah but then one night in some empty room where no curtains ever hung, Like a miracle some golden words roll off of someone's tongue….”

After six years without a number one single, a loyal producer found a song that he thought was perfect for the troubled but still incredibly talented singer: “a song…about a man who loved a woman so much, it killed him.” They cut the record in Nashville’s legendary Studio B at CBS Records. Although Jones sometimes confused the melody of the song, admitted to having trouble with the narration (reportedly rarely sober enough to deliver the lines unslurred), and, when finished, predicted that, “Nobody will buy that morbid son of a bitch,” the track proved golden.

As Barbara Schultz observed, “He Stopped Loving Her Today” stands as the “saddest song, and the most mournful voice, and the most histrionic production and the cruelest punch line in the history of country music.” And Jones was back on top. The song won a Grammy for him in 1980 and numerous country music awards including the CMA song of the year back to back in 1980 and 1981. Jones has often credited the “three-minute song for reviving his four-decade career.”

In a Bill McClay essay that I highlighted the other day, he asserted that no American politician could be successful unless he understood the parable of the Prodigal Son. Country Music, like America, worships the tale of redemption; the comeback. “He Stopped Loving Her Today” is breath-taking and bone-crushing in its desolation and wretchedness, which makes it such a powerful example of how country music conveys so expertly the darkest side of life, but the story of the singer is the story of the Prodigal, which offers hope in the heart of the blackness.

He said I'll love you 'til 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
Went half crazy now and then
He still loved her through it all
Hoping she'd come back again

Kept some letters by his bed
Dated 1962
He had underlined in red
Every single I love you

I went to see him just today
Oh but I didn't see no tears
All dressed up to go away
First time I'd seen him smile in years

He stopped loving her today
They placed a wreath upon his door
And soon they'll carry him away
He stopped loving her today

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

He stopped loving her today
They placed a wreath upon his door
And soon they'll carry him away
He stopped loving her today

George Jones sings "He Stopped Loving Her Today" via YouTube here.

For further reading:

Bosque Boys essays concerning American culture and cinema here.

Bosque Boys home page here.