Natterings: The Best Damn Country Song Ever

by Duke Egbert

[Natterings is a very occasional and occasionally funny look at weird bits of the music industry and recorded music itself,
written by Duke Egbert, who should know better.]

There have been many great country songs. “Jolene.” “He Stopped Lovin’ Her Today.” “Crazy.” “Friends In Low Places.” “Ring Of Fire.” “Get Your Tongue Out Of My Mouth (I’m Kissing You Goodbye).”

Okay, maybe not that last one.

Nevertheless, there have been many fine songs in the history of both types of music (country AND western). However, today I wish to contend that there is one country song that is a more perfect example of the genre, a Platonic solid of country twang, if you will.

Let’s first identify our criteria. Please bear in mind we are referring to classic country, not whatever this pop crap is that has, with a few rare exceptions (thank the gods for Jason Isbell and Sam Riggs, for example), taken over country radio stations.

1. The narrator must be miserable, or be happy someone else is miserable. If country music becomes happy, nay, joyous, it’s either bluegrass or gospel. In a real country song, someone is sobbing into their drink, a urinal, a buddy’s shoulder, or the mutilated front seat of their new pickup truck.

2. Speaking of trucks, there should be some sort of broken-down vehicle. It is rare, if not downright impossible, for real country narrators to walk, ride a bicycle, take public transportation, or own a skateboard. Horses are negotiable but by this time have become a subgenre.

3. There must be some trouble. Financial, marital, social, personal, doesn’t matter; something somewhere has to be a hook on which to hang your negative cliches.

4. If a location is mentioned, it should be appropriately rural or otherwise set in “flyover country.” Loretta Lynn didn’t get a number one record by singing “Here in San Jose.”

5. Ideally, there should be a seedy bar.

6. Someone mentioned in the song should be being stupid in some way.

With these criteria set, I hereby contend that the greatest classic country song in history was not sung by George Jones, George Strait, or any other George. It is not Johnny Cash singing live from a prison somewhere. And it is not Tammy Wynette giving spelling lessons.I offer for your consideration – “Indianapolis” by Americana darlings The Bottle Rockets.

Let’s examine this closer, shall we?

The Bottle Rockets (1992)

Got a tow from a guy named Joe
Cost sixty dollars hope I don't run out of dough
Told me bout a sex offense 'put him three days in jail
Stuck in Indianapolis, hope I live to tell the tale
(And right here, the band nails points one, two, three, four, and six. It’s a moment of pure greatness.)

Can't go west, can't go east
I'm stuck in Indianapolis with a fuel pump that's deceased
(Definite proof there’s a vehicle involved. Plus, come on – they rhymed “east” and “deceased”. That’s a Tom Lehrer-level bad rhyme.)

Ten days on the road now I'm four hours from my home town
Is this hell or Indianapolis with no way to get around
Called my girl to tell her of the trouble that I'd had
First time I called her in ten days, guess that made her mad
(One and six again. There is a matter of the heart gone bad here, and proof this guy’s a complete moron. Ten days? He’s lucky if he doesn’t get home and find his stuff on the lawn.)

Far as she's concerned I belong in this Hoosier state
Stuck in Indianapolis with no way to set things straight

Can't go west, can't go east
I'm stuck in Indianapolis with a fuel pump that's deceased
Ten days on the road now I'm four hours from my home town
Is this hell or Indianapolis with no way to get around
(A brief moment of political activism here, with a subtle criticism of the Circle City’s lack of effective public transportation. Or maybe ‘around’ just rhymed.)

Sitting in this bar is getting more than I can stand
If I could catch a ride I really think I'd ditch this van
Who knows what this repair will cost, scared to spend a dime
I'll puke if that jukebox plays John Cougar one more time
(And here we hit point five, a seedy bar. Speaking as someone who lives in Indianapolis, I can tell you about where this bar is, what it has on tap, and why you shouldn’t go there. I can also see the jukebox play list – John Cougar, Henry Lee Summer, and all the seventies arena rock you can eat. This is the kind of place where depressed guys drop a few bucks and put “Babe” by Styx on a 12-repeat.)

If I ever leave here I hope never to return
If I get that van back, Man, the road I'm gonna burn
Right now my future's in the hand of them boys down at Firestone
Stuck in Indianapolis feeling all alone
(And we have gratuitous product placement for Firestone. The only thing this song is missing is a dog that’s either dead or ran away.)

Classic country is, at its heart, the manipulation of certain very specific tropes in a way that makes you empathize with them, set to a good melody and whining steel guitars. In this regard, “Indianapolis” manages to nail it and stick the landing.

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