I wanna Check you for the Black Plague: Metaphysical Lingerings in a 21st Century Ohio River Blood Ballad



If you write a well-intentioned song that a post-high school educated class of Americans calls hideously tone-deaf at best and deeply, ignorantly racist at worst, you will have no shortage of defenders.

If you write a song in which you make an extended, tedious, man-cave-y joke about how “men” are filthy, opportunistic cretins whose feeble and impulsive brains cannot be expected to induce any responsible or empathetic behavior, yet whose habits and preferences are somehow still far superior to a falsely constructed perception of “femininity,” far be it from any one to even think to complain.  However, any slight eye-rolling reading of a critic will swiftly result in a boisterous rallying of persecuted white men.

But if you write a playful, catchy song that uses a dirty/innocent conceit like a goddamn metaphysical poet and flits around one double entendre – one that manages to be both subtle and blatant, both sophisticated and charmingly redneck as hell simultaneously !- for the entire song, where are your defenders?  They are no where.    A critic reports that, of any popular country song in the contemporary era, this is the first to ever “skeeze [him] out.”  Your song is called “either the catchiest or the dumbest song” another critic has ever heard.   It gets a “C-” rating from a man who gave a “B+” rating to Taylor Swift’s “Red,” a song that compares a pleasant love experience to the color “red” and a sad love experience to the color blue. 

What I am talking about right now is Brad Paisley, and the songs I’m talking about up there in order are called this:

1.  “Accidental Racist”

2.  “I’m Still a Guy”

and, finally, the sparkling, eminent bloodsucker of a hit:

3.  “Ticks.”

Oh, Brad!

Let’s dig in, because oh boy, this one is fantastic:

Paisley’s coy lyrics are a seduction in the form of conceit: applying an unexpected and jarring metaphor to a surprising or inappropriate situation.  In this case, he suggests a seemingly innocent alternative to what the girl featured in the song might expect from another wooing cowboy in the bar.   Using misdirection and a chummy tone, he flicks a shoe at the statue of discretion with tongue securely mounted in cheek and delivers a seriously hilarious song.

He begins:

Every time you take a sip
In this smoky atmosphere
You press that bottle to your lips
And I wish I was your beer

Immediately introducing a bit of a surprise tactic, Paisley doesn’t go to an obvious place of, “I wish that I was makin’ out with you on your mouth, hot woman o’ mine o’ mine o’mine” but rather takes it to a funny dream – he doesn’t wish that he was in the place of “[her] beer”, but rather that he indeed actually was “[her] beer.”  It’s more powerful both because it’s unexpected but also because it’s extreme, it’s a fantasy of   metamorphosis that we’d accept from the most obsessive sonneteer, but Brad! It immediately made me think of this old charmer:

Oh but were I a glove upon that hand,

That I might touch that cheek!

Yeah that’s right, know where that’s from?  That’s Shakespeare.  That’s mother-fucking-Romeo Montague talking about Juliet-mother-fucking Capulet.   It’s our most widely known Shakespeare and the arguably most recognizable scene, in which our young lover rapturously wishes away all humanity but for the briefest joy of living life as a glove and touching his fair-lady’s hand.   And Paisley’s lyric, set for context and kitsch-tone, echos precisely the same idea.  A complex and pretty weird idea, if you take it there, but one that phrases  the moment of sudden and captivating desire with subdued elegance.  Let’s go on:

In the small there of your back
Your jeans are playing peekaboo
I’d like to see the other half
Of your butterfly tattoo

We’ve definitely got an image here, and god, it’s a great image.   It works!  Just like she’s workin them jeans.   I like that he manages to talk about somebody’s body that he’s interested in with a generous amount of tact. He’s not being too direct about the honky-tonk-bedonk-a-donk, but he’s still being charmingly forward.   Also, as Andrew has deftly pointed out, Paisley neatly parallels the construction of a usual comparison sentence with the literal image.  A signifier is written as over the signified object, and we are left to gaze at this literary construct in the form of one half of a butterfly tramp stamp exposed, and the other, the one we’re really talking about, still concealed.

I’ve conducted a thrilling google image search to find a suitable set of photographs for reference and I got this:


The signifier is the thing that describes, and the signified is the thing that is BEING described (“the other half” – signifier, “your butter fly tattoo” – signified. The word “OF” Is a key, as it signals that one thing is describing the other one). “What part of the butterly tattoo would you like to see?” “The OTHER half” i.e. your butt.

And then I wanted a really nice parallel picture of the half-revealed, inked lepidoptera on some prime human skin, but after searching for that image for about 3 minutes I did not feel super great about what I was looking at.   So please, continue to imagine.

It’s here that Paisley really gets us in the truck and takes us down his dirt road of a narrative structure:

Hey that gives me an idea
Let’s get out of this bar
Drive out into the country
And find a place to park

That’s nice – but what are we going to do out there Brad?  What kind of gal do you think I am!
Now get ready for some more bait and twist:
Cause I’d like to see you
out in the moonlight
See us in what Brad?  Nothing?  LOL NO!  Just in…. The moonlight!  Classic, we thought he was gonna say naked – but he’s just being sweet again.  Alright, carry on:
I’d like to kiss you
Way back in the sticks
Same tactic again – WHERE, Brad??? OH… you’re talking about environment, not like, body part!  Obviously I’m thinking right now of that famous Newlywed Game gaffe, where the question is “Where is your husband’s favorite place to bang?” and the husband has written something like “a balcony in Paris!” or “a hot tub!” or something, but the wife has guessed, “… in the butt.”
I’d like to walk you
Through a field of wildflowers
And I’d like to check you for ticks
Bam.  He drops it.  It’s innocent but not naive (“I’ll keep you safe you wait and see / The only thing allowed to crawl / All over you when we get there is me”) and he’s purposefully trying to broach a vaguely sexual situation by offering a platonic courtesy.  It’s also realistic because if you are wandering around the backwoods of West Virginia, that place if full of horrifying ticks that carry diseases with names like “Rocky Mountain Fever” and “Powassan Virus” :
And you really don’t want a tick infestation on your body.  It’s disgusting, it’s really revolting.  But the thought of someone making sure you don’t get a disgusting revolting tick infestation and disease — well, it’s slightly more appealing.
This is the major conceit of the song.  And it seems like an undeniable allusion to a little something you might remember from a High School English class that pauses but briefly to dip it’s toe into the foaming and glorious waters of the work of a man named John Donne.  The poem I speak of is The Flea.  John Donne is from 17th century plague-ridden England, which has a lot of surprising similarities to Appalachia in the 20th century even besides insect danger.  Rather remarkably, the majority of the poetic tradition of folk songs that birthed modern country music were brought to Appalachia during colonial times and are an incredible oral history record of English, Irish and Scottish Tudor ballads.
Here’s the first stanza of Donne’s poem:
Mark but this flea, and mark in this
How little that which thou deniest me is;
It sucked me first, and now sucks thee,
And in this flea our two bloods mingled be;
Thou know’st that this cannot be said
A sin, nor shame, nor loss of maidenhead,
    Yet this enjoys before it woo,
    And pampered swells with one blood made of two,
    And this, alas, is more than we would do.
What he’s saying is, hey look a flea bit both of us, (remember, the plague! that adds some funny stuff to the nihilism of the moment and willingness to scoff at conventional proprieties, a bit like the pretty wild and raunchy ballads that got altered a bit to fit dire realities of smoky-mountain hill folk), and thus the ever powerful and sacred bodily fluid of our blood has already been mingled!  Therefore, it would be no “loss of maidenhead” if I could just get a LITTLE semen in you, what would that even be, compared to the fucking trinity-union that this flea has now so gracefully composed in his body with our mingled blood!  The girl doesn’t by it and kills the flea.  Alas.  It’s ok though, Donne was pretty much a baller and was constantly up in the petticoats of Lucy “Hot-Wings” The Countess of Bedford:
john donne“Damn Girl”
Especially considering the strong sense of tradition between Donne’s era and contributions to literature and the place where Brad grew up and developed his music, how can we deny that “I wanna check you for ticks” is any less lyrically complex than this metaphysical classic taught nationwide in 10th grade classrooms as a simple and accessible, but nonetheless nice example of one of the greatest poets who ever wrote a saucy rhyme?
In the next verse, Paisley throws in a super-crafty new design on my favorite literary device, the zeugma:
I know the perfect little path
Out in these woods I used to hunt
Don’t worry babe I’ve got your back
And I’ve also got your front

A zeugma is usually when you take a verb, then apply it to both a literal and figurative meaning:  “she oft took tea, and company” (Alexander Pope), or like, “she broke my dinner plate, and my heart” (me, right now, not my best work).  But here, Paisley uses an idiom instead of a verb – “I’ve got your back!” – I got you, don’t worry about wild cats, ticks, or swamps in this murky and wretched ghost forest, and then makes it literal – and “your front!” And if any line “skeezes” me out, as the critic mentioned above, it would be this, maybe just because referring to someone’s “front” seems like.. infantalizing, or too dehumaizing, or maybe because it’s something that a nine-year-old would say, but I still appreciate the joke.
Paisley is, in tactics as well as lyrics, creative.  He doesn’t want to be obvious and take her home, he wants to take her on a goofy midnight adventure, and maybe I don’t like this about myself, but I’m totally buying it.
And why, I ask?
There is, of course, more to Brad than meets the eye.  He’s from the Ohio Valley and felt his career was often shaped by providence – legend says that his first day in Nashville, Paisley asked for directions and realized he as speaking to Porter Wagoner (Porter Wagoner, among other things like 1970s country-variety show fame and duets with Dolly, is the man for whom  “I Will Always Love You” was written).    In my experience dabbling around the comment sections of articles like “Country Music’s TOP TEN FEUDS”  I’ve noticed that Brad gets a lot of shit for being a poseur of some kind – not being from “The real” south, or country, or not having cleaned out a horse stall in ten years.   The vitriolic response I’ve seen accredited to his home reflects a really bizarre schism of myth and reality and an old myth morphing into a new one, because the Ohio River Valley is  literally where country music started, I don’t think there’s any sensible debate to this at all.
Perhaps some of the spittle-fire comes from Paisley’s politics – he’s a well-documented supporter of President Obama who talks about progressivism in Nashville and country’s changing role*.    But I don’t know if you guys remember The Dixie Chicks and how, when they discouraged making violent, reactionary, xenophobic remarks after Sept 11th, were rewarded by having their music banned from hundreds of radio stations and their photographs, blown up and photo-shopped to show them cavorting with Saddam Hussein, used as backdrops for Toby Keith shows.  Speaking politically in Nashville with any bent other than “We Americans Will Put A Boot In your Non-White Heathen Asses” is still dangerous.  Also he’s apparently really good friends with William Shatner, who lives on a horse ranch in Kentucky!  Toby Keith is from fucking Oklahoma and fucking blows.

Brad started learning guitar at the age of 8 and wrote his first composition, some smaltzy child-like bullshit about Jesus, the following year.  Here his is playing “Cannonball Rag” like a maniac with Tommy Emmanuel (starts around 0:52):

I don’t know why I’m surprised by this, because playing the guitar like an appalachian cowboy is this man’s one and only job, but I guess I operate under the assumption that all popular and commercially successful musicians are actually just docile cows who have been hexed and glamoured with sparkly money and spells into looking like dancing and smiling humans with holes in their sides to put cash in.  So, good on you Brad.

Finally, my top favorite, all time best ever #1 Brad Paisley fact is this charming story:

In 1991, he took some girl on a first date to see Father of the Bride, which is a film about the transfer of a property from one man’s holding to another, the first becoming rather sentimental as he remembers the 19 or so years he spent with his property, but eventually realizing that she now will be unable to garner him any profit and will simply drain his food stores, and therefore happily passing her on to a new and younger sucker so she may hopefully incubate his masculine children in her womb.

I wasn’t old enough to really appreciate any films in 1991 besides The Muppets Christmas Carol or Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, so I can’t really say how popular young culture viewed the film at the time.  I do remember that its star was Kimberly Williams, who played some basketball with Steve Martin at midnight and was overall pretty fine.  Brad Paisley apparently thought so too, and said to himself “fuck this girl I’m on a date with – THAT is the ho for me!”  He then carried a wee torch for Williams in his cowboy heart for  years, going to see Father of the Bride Part II alone, to watch a really disturbing double-mother-daughter birth scene and pine away.  In 2001, he named his album Part II, which is an allusion to this sequel.  He then somehow got Williams to come hang out with him – presumably by hiring her to be in a music video – and they then married in 2003.  They have a son named Huckleberry “Huck” and some other kid.   Now they live in Nashville and watch football with William Shatner on the weekends.

I’ve told you all this information basically because I’m trying to point out that Brad Paisley might just be kind of fascinating, and he might be thinking a little about the ridiculous words he writes in his songs more than I give him credit for, and all of this poetic-meat might not be a total accident.

Whichever it is, I really hope that the amount of time I’ve spent thinking about this incredible gem will never, ever impede it’s comic beauty and unstoppable, redneck charm:

*That might sound fucking crazy to you if you remember the fateful LL Cool J collaboration of 2013, but that’s not only a topic for another article/essay, but maybe one that should probably never be written.   Just like the world maybe didn’t need to have Paisley’s thoughts on wearing a confederate flag t-shirt into a Starbucks to meet a black barista and feeling shitty about it, the world maybe doesn’t need the addition of my thoughts on the matter.

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