Riding shotgun, feet up on the dash. Pretty sundress. Short shorts. Amazing kisser. These are the qualities assigned to women in most country songs by male singers today. The phrases that evoke these images have become so pat, it’s hard to imagine there aren’t appropriation lawsuits flying around like autumn leaves.
I was interviewing country artist Phil Vassar a few months ago ahead of his acoustic show in my little town of Calhoun. He mentioned that it had been 20 years since he released his debut single, “Carlene,” which is my favorite of his songs and one of his most recognizable hits. It peaked at No. 5 and spent 22 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, according to billboard.com.
Phil delicately drew a line between himself and the fare available on country radio these days.
“Things change,” was his summation.
I have to agree. Back in Phil’s heyday, although I wouldn’t say women were heralded as subjects and singers in this genre, bro country, where each set of lyrics pushes the envelope by trying to be raunchier than the next, hadn’t taken hold. Not by a longshot.
This conversation led to some introspection. I’ve always loved “Carelene” for its tightly constructed melody and well-placed wordings. It’s just a really well-written and well-sung country song. I decided to roll it under my analysis microscope knowing that I might not love the result now that I’m considering the lyrics in my 30s. Nevertheless, I fell back on my English major roots and deconstructed “Carlene” through somewhat of a feminist lense, and was pleased that what I found was largely positive.
The song finds its male narrator back in his hometown after leaving to launch a country music career that’s finally getting off the ground (some obvious autobiographical notes there — this is one Phil c0wrote). He’s surprised to realize the beautiful redhead who pulls up to him in a sportscar is actually the brainy valedictorian of his high school class. The two spend time catching up, and they set up a date to see each other again at the end of the song.
Here are my main takeaways about the female character and the contrasts to those we hear about today:
- Carlene has a backstory. We learn right off the bat that she worked hard in school, earned a PhD and then established her own career in modeling.
- Carlene has a brain. See the previous mentions of her academic performance and educational background.
- Carlene has a voice. Phil’s lyrics actually quote the character interviewing the narrator about his doings and describing her own rise to fortune.
- Carlene drives. She pulls up to the narrator in a blue sports car, tells him to hop in and then spirits him around town. No footprints on the passenger side dashboard for her.
- Carlene asks men out. She tells the narrator to swing by her mama’s house that night for another date. She in control of her own love life.
The lyrics tell the story of someone else’s success — a woman’s at that. (The narrator’s country music career gets only one “awe shucks” mention.) It’s a refreshing perspective. And the woman gets to be an independent, sportscar-driving self starter. It’s a character I wouldn’t mind my daughter knowing about someday when she can comprehend such things.
Phil told me the industry considered him to be “a little left of center” when he began his career as a vocalist, and he seems to own that description fondly now. In this era of envelope-pushing male chauvinism in country music, his lyrics seem pretty tame, but that kind of edginess isn’t what I think he meant by “left of center.” When he debuted his mainstream country vocal career, I was 16. I still remember DJs focusing on his skill as a musician and writer, and those things were obvious in his sound. There was no twang. His voice is mellow, but he’s very powerful, and it quickly became apparent that he could more than sustain a ballad. The public soon got to know him as the country artist who had a habit of pounding on a grand piano. For me, even at that age, these things were significant. Phil wasn’t and still isn’t the only serious musician in country music, but it was obvious when he debuted that he was among that group. That meant something. It still does.
Phil is right when he says things have changed. It sometimes takes a close look to see just how far we’ve drifted. The saddening thing to me is that apparently, it doesn’t matter how good the vocalist is or how catchy the lyrics are. When the era is over, it’s over.
That knowledge won’t stop me from cranking up “Carlene” when it comes on the radio, though, and now that I’ve seen her with new and more mature eyes, the accomplishments of the namesake will be that much more fun to sing along to.
So, if you’ve never heard “Carlene,” or if it’s been a long time, head over to Youtube, and check out the video.
Elizabeth Crumbly is a newspaper veteran and freelance writer. She lives in rural Northwest Georgia where she teaches riding lessons, writes and raises her family. You can correspond with her at www.collective-ink.com.