I confess that, over the years, I've acquired a taste for overly sentimental songs—ranging towards maudlin—mostly from the Applacnian traditions. I'm aware, however, that this was an acquired taste. As a city kid, the first time I was exposed to such songs, I think I just laughed. I thought they must be intentionally humorus; I just couldn't believe that anyone could write such songs with a straight face.
But keep in mind that, growing up, there was no country music of any kind in our house or those of our friends and relatives. Acceptable music generally included white protestant church music (not old time gospel), classical, opera, broadway show tunes, big band jazz and urban pop of the forties and early fifties. Even though the Grand Ole Opry road show came to town at least twice a year, we not only didn't attend, I didn't even recognize the names of any of the performers.
My gravitation toward's country forms really began with the Kingston Trio's recording of Tom Dooley. I became curious to know where this music came from and just kept following it down all the roots I could find. The process took a long time. As long as sentimental songs were rooted in old Elizabethan forms, I could accept them as being odly historical but when I started finding maudlin material that wasn't all that old, I figured they must be some kind of joke. Songs like “Little Joe,&rdquo “Wreck on the Highway, ” and “Mother's Not Dead” were only precursors, as it turned out.
The American Heritage Dictionary defines sophisticated as “Having acquired worldly knowledge or refinement; lacking natural simplicity or naiveté.” and I finally realized I was going to have to find something of that unsophisticated natural simplicity or naiveté if I was going to be able to present the sentimental Applichian material in anything approaching a believable fashion. I couldn't simply ignore all that rich tradition just to delude myself that I was being hip.
Now I can sing “Little Bessie” with a straight face and have even evoked a tear or two with “Old Shep.” I'm aware that “Bringing Mary Home” is a shamefully cheap trick but that knowledge doesn't insulate me from feeling the emotion of the last line whenever I sing it. Jerry Garcia was by all accounts a pretty hip guy but I still love the recording he did of “The Fields Have Turned Brown” with Red Allen, et al.
Maybe the singers who can't yet deal with the overly sentimental material are some of the same ones who can't sing a song in the opposite sexual voice. They can't rise out of themselves to celebrate the song itself but must hold back using the song as a vehicle for celebrating themselves. Just a thought.