The late, great Harlan Howard, the songwriter behind “Heartaches by the Number,” “I Fall to Pieces,” “Streets of Baltimore” and “Why Not Me” (among countless others), once famously said country music is “three chords and the truth.” And the truth is that many relationships – most relationships, even – just don’t work out. Down Nashville (and Texas) way, some of love’s more spectacular flameouts, real or imagined, have gone on to become among the greatest songs in country-music history. A sampling:
Johnny Cash, “Flushed from the Bathroom of Your Heart”: The Man in Black figured the locked-down audience of 1968’s At Folsom Prison could use a laugh, so he put this tongue-in-cheek treatment of the end of an affair on the record. (“Up the elevator of your future I've been shafted, on the calendar of your events I'm last week.”) If it sounds familiar, that’s because “Flushed” – written by onetime Sun Studios engineer and Rockabilly Hall of Famer “Cowboy” Jack Clement – shares a melody with several other famous country songs: Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” Kitty Wells’ answer “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky-Tonk Angels” and Roy Acuff’s “The Great Speckled Bird.”
Video (of sorts): over here
George Strait, “All My Ex’s Live in Texas”: Did you honestly think this wouldn’t make the list? King George has been happily married to his high-school sweetheart Norma for, like, ever, but as written by Sanger D. and Lynda Schaefer, Strait’s No. 1 1988 litany of the reasons he’s no longer welcome in Texarkana, Abilene, Galveston and Temple remains one of his best-loved songs. For some reason, his hair looks a little long in this video, though.
Tammy Wynette, “D-I-V-O-R-C-E”: Although the breakup in question presumably happened sometime in the recent past, Bobby Braddock and Curly Putnam’s weeper from Wynette’s 1968 album of the same name is one of the classics. The song’s most heartbreaking line is the first: “Our little boy is four years old and quite a little man, so we spell out the words we don't want him to understand.”
Moe Bandy, “It Was Always So Easy (To Find an Unhappy Woman)”: Bandy, the San Antonio-raised former rodeo cowboy who once climbed “Barstool Mountain,” had one of his earliest hits with this befuddled 1975 song about a man who comes home to find a note on his door reading “I warned you before, what I'd do if you cheated one more time”; now “Some beer-drinking devil is holding my angel, and I know what he’ll do if he’s my kind.” Bandy went on to have several other hits about cheating – “I Cheated Me Right Out of You,” “She’s Not Really Cheatin’ (She’s Just Gettin’ Even),” “It’s a Cheatin’ Situation” – so obviously he didn’t learn a damn thing.
Jerry Reed, “She Got the Goldmine (I Got the Shaft)”: “Guitar Man” and Smokey and the Bandit actor Reed topped the country charts with this less-than-subtle 1982 divorce song. Ever the optimist, Reed eventually manages to find the silver lining in being taken to the cleaners: “I don’t have to carry a billfold anymore – I let my wife carry it. I’m gonna be carrying food stamps.”
Video: over here
Carrie Underwood, “Before He Cheats”: To say the 2005 American Idol winner’s recent hit about vandalizing her ex-boyfriend’s brand-new pick-‘em-up truck, the third single from her debut Some Hearts, struck a chord with scorned women everywhere is an understatement, to say the least. Possible legal repercussions notwithstanding, it spent five weeks atop Billboard’s country chart and eventually rose to No. 8 on the Hot 100, mercifully shattering both her sweet-Oklahoma-gal image and Creed’s record for slowest-climbing song to make the Top 10. (If I were Tony Romo, I’d watch my back.) Underwood’s performance among junked cars and Stomp-like dancers on last Sunday’s Grammy Awards was even more surreal than the Alicia Keys/Frank Sinatra duet.
Willie Nelson, “Bloody Mary Morning”: Married five times, Willie Nelson knows from breakups. One of the most uproarious stories from a life full of them has first wife Martha sewing Nelson up in the couple’s bedsheets and laying into him with a broom handle. That’s not quite what really happened, though. “You know how long that would take to sit there and take stitch after stich?” she told writer Bud Shrake for 1988’s Willie: An Autobiography. (An updated bio is due later this year.) “The truth is, I tied him up with the kids’ jump ropes before I beat the hell out of him.” “Bloody Mary Morning,” from 1973’s Phases and Stages, finds a hung-over Nelson on a Houston-bound plane after second wife Shirley left him “without warning, sometime in the night.”
Keith Urban, “You’ll Think of Me”: The most awkward part of any breakup is getting back all the stuff you’ve left over at your ex’s place. This song, which hit No. 1 on Billboard’s country chart in 2004, also reached No. 24 on the Hot 100 and remained on one chart or another – Adult Contemporary, Digital Songs, even Mainstream Top 40 – for more than two years, cementing Urban’s standing in the front rank of male contemporary country artists. Pre-Nicole Kidman, it also had thousands of Urban’s female fans offering up their firstborn if they could be there to console him.
Dixie Chicks, “Tonight the Heartache’s On Me”: This standout from the Chicks’ 1999 album Fly is a longtime personal favorite and, not coincidentally, one of the most straight-up fiddle-and-steel country songs the trio has ever recorded. “Bartender, pour the wine,” orders Natalie Maines, “because the hurtin’s all mine.” This video was recorded at the 2002 Houston Livestock Show & Rodeo, its last year in the Astrodome and – for some unfathomable reason – the Chicks’ only appearance to date.
Dolly Parton, “I Will Always Love You”: The gold standard of benevolent breakup songs and still far and away the biggest hit of Parton’s long career. Written about her parting from onetime mentor and duet partner Porter Wagoner and later revived in Parton’s 1982 movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, it was a No. 1 country hit in 1974 and remains Parton’s signature song, rivaled only by “Jolene,” “Coat of Many Colors” and maybe “9 to 5.” Elvis Presley wanted to record it, but Parton had to turn the King down when his manager Col. Tom Parker demanded she sign over half the publishing rights. Smart move, especially in the wake of a little 1992 film called The Bodyguard.
And a few more for that long, lonely road you’ll be traveling alone…
Joe Nichols, “Brokenheartsville”
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Gene Watson, “Should I Come Home (Or Should I Go Crazy)”
George Jones, “She Thinks I Still Care”
Conway Twitty, “This Time I’ve Hurt Her More (Than She Loves Me)”
Dwight Yoakam, “Please Please Baby” – Chris Gray