It should be “Four Wooden Crosses”

Country music is one of my favo(u)rite genres because it consists almost exclusively of ridiculous stories set to some form of music. One of the main side effects of listening to Wixi 100.3 in the middle of Illinois is boughts of astonished laughter. But, like any artifact of popular culture, country music has its own set of gendered, ethnicized (or, if you prefer, “sexist and racist”) hang ups.

For example, “Three Wooden Crosses” by Randy Travis (released on an album in 2002) is pretty ridiculous. Critical reception was that it’s awesome. However, a scholarly critique would have to refine this notion of awesome.

In case you don’t feel like sitting through the melodic YouTube rendition, here are the lyrics:

A farmer and a teacher, a hooker and a preacher,
Ridin’ on a midnight bus bound for Mexico.
One’s headed for vacation, one for higher education,
An’ two of them were searchin’ for lost souls.
That driver never ever saw the stop sign.
An’ eighteen wheelers can’t stop on a dime.

There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway,
Why there’s not four of them, Heaven only knows.
I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you,
It’s what you leave behind you when you go.

That farmer left a harvest, a home and eighty acres,
The faith an’ love for growin’ things in his young son’s heart.
An’ that teacher left her wisdom in the minds of lots of children:
Did her best to give ’em all a better start.
An’ that preacher whispered: “Can’t you see the Promised Land?”
As he laid his blood-stained bible in that hooker’s hand.

There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway,
Why there’s not four of them, Heaven only knows.
I guess it’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you,
It’s what you leave behind you when you go.

That’s the story that our preacher told last Sunday.
As he held that blood-stained bible up,
For all of us to see.
He said: “Bless the farmer, and the teacher, an’ the preacher
Who gave this bible to my mamma,
Who read it to me.”

There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway,
Why there’s not four of them, now I guess we know.
It’s not what you take when you leave this world behind you,
It’s what you leave behind you when you go.

There are three wooden crosses on the right side of the highway.

Is this morality tale awesome because of the dissonance between the ending listeners anticipate and the conclusion of the ballad that flouts those expectations? Is it awesome because nobody bothered to put up a cross for or sing about the bus driver? Or is it most awesome of all because of the terminology used to value and evaluate the “hooker / mamma” figure who survived the crash to be mentioned in the song and in a sermon by her son?

On the one hand, it can be read and interpreted as sweet that the reformed prostitute raised a devoutly religious son who has risen to a leadership position in his faith community. On the other hand, who refers to their mom as a hooker? Sure, it’s for entertainment purposes, and I could be reading too much into it as an ivory tower climber and so on and so forth. But I hear this song multiple times a day, and the message seems to be (at least in part) that the woman in the story is valuable (and, therefore, deserved not to die in the crash after all) because of her childbearing and childrearing ability.

Don’t get me wrong – kids can be great, and rearing future citizens (and preachers) is a worthy profession. Inspiring positive goals in others and mentoring children are excellent. Instead, I take issue with the fact that the source of ‘redemption’ for the ‘hooker’ was to become ‘mamma.’ It cuts other forms of parenting (dadding, for example) out of the picture, sets up a problematic dichotomy between the ‘bad hooker’ and the ‘good mamma,’ and disregards other life paths. Arguably, some of my critiques are neatly resolved by the inspirational teacher (she contributed to the future through her role as an educator!) and father-farmer figure.

Even so, they should add a stanza about the bus driver. (There are plenty of points of critique available with any given object – in this case, I went with the treatment of one lady in this song.) We still don’t know why there aren’t four crosses.

Other than that, it’s so awesome.

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