Well, it finally happened: country music (C&W — Country & Western) has gone respectable. In the US, PBS is running 8 episodes about the history of country music. Originally it was called hillbilly music and it’s changed over the years.
Most people don’t know that I am a big fan of country music – classical country, the real thing, with Hank Williams, George Jones (my fave!), Johnny Cash … the whole line-up. However, now that it’s a big PBS hit, I can come out of the closet and admit it’s one of my two favorite genres.
I discovered C&W while driving around the US a long time ago in a classic VW bug with just a radio. Country music filled the airwaves and frankly those truck driver songs were just what I wanted to hear on those long, lonely highways. It’s my background music when I’m writing copy.
While PBS claims country music is “America’s own,” the genre has found fans all over the world. I remember standing on a curb in Amsterdam, when a familiar Johnny Cash tune came from a BMW stopped at the light. When I visited Ukraine as an exchange professor back in the nineties, a nice young man drove me to the Kiev airport in a large van usually reserved for the medical exchange program. The van had a tape deck and I had some C&W cassettes. The young man’s face lit up when he saw them and I gave him a handful to keep.
Here are three copywriting lessons from C&W music.
(1) Go big on emotions.
If you’ve ever listened to real country songs, you probably know they’re heavy on storytelling, emotion and everyday life. The lyrics tend to lean on the side of melodrama, sadness and heartache. The first PBS episode explains: the music appealed to a certain audience precisely because they could relate to the stories.
Copywriting might start with these strong emotions. We could even go for melodrama. I’ve caught myself writing things like, “Are you overwhelmed and frustrated because…” or the classic, “Are you struggling …”
A country artist might write about “crying into your unpaid bills …”
For a copywriter, misery and pain form the backstory.
(2) Tell the story in as few words as possible.
Country music compels attention by evoking images. For instance, take the ballad, “You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma.” The story alternates male and female voices as if the characters were writing or emailing each other. Through just a few lines, we get the story.
She’s moved to Los Angeles, probably to try show business, although it’s never stated. She’s living in West Los Angeles in a small apartment with a calico cat. And she misses the big sky country, the open plains where you can see the stars and the real cowboys: she’s amused by the guys who hang out “on the Sunset Strip” hoping to be like her boyfriend, who’s a real cowboy.
He’s still in Oklahoma, working all day in the fields, attuned to the changing seasons. He drives into town to have a couple of drinks, but he’s clearly missing her.
In just a few lines the writer has evoked the story. Many of us can relate to a people who love each other but whose identity is also bound up in a career that can’t be transplanted easily. Los Angeles doesn’t have a place for real cowboys and she doesn’t seem to have a place in Tulsa; she may be a rancher’s daughter but she wants something different.
Another example, which I recently discovered, is The Cowboy in the Continental Suit. Back in the day when freelance riders could win money by hanging on to a dangerous horse, a stranger comes to town, prepared to ride “The Brute” to claim $1000. That would have been serious money back in the day!
The stranger wore a “continental suit,” which drew a great deal of amusement and skepticism. Apparently a “continental suit” is a style worn by Cary Grant and others in the 1950s.
Yet the stranger knows how to roll a certain kind of cigarette, something only true cowboys know how to do. And sure enough, he manages to stay on the horse long enough to win the money before taking off to unknown places. The narrator points out that nobody knew where he came from or where he went after winning the money. He’s just “the stranger.”
Many other songs tell stories, often with sad endings. George Jones often sang about a man who had always wanted a place in the countryside, where he could be surrounded by greenery and hear the birds sing. But, the song goes on, his wife kept demanding more material possessions (a bit sexist there, but written a long time ago) and his children needed bailing out of their various scrapes. Finally, we learn, the man does get a place in the countryside…in a grave of the cemetery.
(3) Evoke images with details.
C&W songs are big on detail. We see this in the Oklahoma song. Without saying, “Fall is coming,” the male voice sings about nights getting colder and makes reference to a “blue northern.” She’s in a “two-room flat” with a calico cat in West LA, a location that has meaning for people from SoCal.
The male hero doesn’t just spend a day on the ranch; he works ten hours on a John Deere tractor. He may be a cowboy but that’s not a horse! The hero also lets us know the female character is a green-eyed rancher’s daughter.
Copywriters and persuasive storytellers need to do this too.
Instead of, “Do you lie awake …” how about: “Do you dread introducing yourself at your next networking event (and want to promote yourself, without sounding the least bit sales-y)?”
For someone who trains people to build better relationships with their horses: “Have you always been a fearless lover of horses (and now you can’t bring yourself to jump into the saddle for a 5-minute ride)?”
When you get into specifics, in the language of your market, you send a stronger message. Some copywriters think you attract weaker people who are struggling and losing – not the world’s greatest clients! – when you send a message of misery. In any event, you risk leaving your readers emotionally exhausted, drained and eager to move on when you focus too strongly on generic pain.
Unless, of course, you can sing your message with the voices of the old-time pros.
The good news is that once you’ve identified some pain in the client’s backstory, you can easily revise the copy to build a strong copywriting message.
But for the first draft? Bring on the facial tissue! It’s much easier than starting with bland phrases or (worse) nothing at all.
You can learn more in my new Udemy course on copywriting bullets. Click here to claim a discounted rate.
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