Country music loves to give advice. From Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Simple Man,” to Drive-By Truckers’ “Outfit,” to this year’s “Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw and Sturgill Simpson’s A Sailor’s Guide to Earth, the latter of which plays as an album-long letter of advice addressed to Simpson’s young son, there’s a rich tradition of second-person “advice songs” in which elders pass on their hard-earned wisdoms to the next generation. For a genre that emphasizes storytelling as much as country, the advice song serves as a clever form, one that packs a set of moral values into an emotionally resonant narrative.
Enter “Z,” the pop tour-de-force on Carrie Rodriguez’s Lola, her gorgeous album of traditional ranchera tunes and original bilingual compositions. “I play for DJ’s, presidents, single moms, immigrants,” Rodriguez sings in the 2nd verse, unintentionally ticking off, in increasing order, a list of some of Donald Trump’s least favorite demographics.
After recounting her musical upbringing in the swamp-blues verse, the real crux of “Z” comes when Rodriguez switches to the second person during the chorus while her band, the Sacred Hearts, explodes into a honky-tonk power pop groove:
Not everybody’s gonna spell your name right, honey
Might get it wrong on the grand marquee
But you can just sing ‘em a song, hija mia
Tell country music where to put the ‘Z’
In “Z,” Rodriguez claims the “advice song” as her own, as if to say that white fathers and sons need not be the only ones who get to give and receive life-lessons. The Austin singer says she wrote “Z,” whose chorus is based on her real-life experience of having venues across the country continuously spell her (quite common) surname incorrectly, “as a song for young women,” a way to encourage new female Latina artists to join a genre of music that has historically had little place for them.
“In the small Americana genre that I’m in–I think there are a few Hispanic artists, not too many,” Rodriguez told Texas Monthly earlier this year. “I don’t really understand why there hasn’t been a Latina country star yet.” With a song as potent as “Z,” it’s easy to imagine Rodriguez’s advice soon being put to good use.—Jon Bernstein
“Absent Year” — Radiator Hospital
“Absent Year” is in many ways another classic Radiator Hospital song about young-adult heartbreak. On songs like “Fireworks,” “Cut Your Bangs,” and “Our Song,” lead singer Sam Cook-Parrott offers devastating depictions of fledgling relationships mired in deceit and distrust. More often than often, his characters know better: having already been through a bad breakup or two, they’re often painfully self-aware of their own shortcomings, but they still can’t find a way out of their endless cycle of romances that fall short and result, again and again, in pain and disappointment.
So yes, on “Absent Year,” Cook-Parrott is sad. He is pining. He is delivering gut-wrenching lines, sung in his perfectly off-kilter nasal whine, like: “you’ve been living in the songs I hear.”
But “Absent Year” is also something much more.
I’ll forget about your absent year
If you forget about the morning, dear
Though the rest of the lyrics may suggest otherwise, these opening lines of the song leaves with me an image of a relatively stable couple, a relationship that’s made it far past the type of commitment issues and insecure suspicions that Radiator Hospital is so good at portraying. Instead, this time around the problems feel more grown-up, more world-wary and accepting.
At its core, “Absent Year” feels like a manual for coming to terms with the shortcomings and faults of the ones you love the most, about letting yourself love another deeply enough to let them disappoint you when they need to, to let them fuck up and flail when they have to. It’s a song that says to me: Even those you love the most, and who love you the most, will still, from time to time, hurt you.
That’s a horrifying thing to hear, much scarier than any kind of unrequited heartbreak. But it’s taught me a whole lot.—Jon Bernstein