Dolly Parton once said that country music is just “stories told by ordinary people in extraordinary ways.” That’s what makes the genre so special. Country songs are written about folks you meet in your everyday life. But the music also tells stories about those you may have never had the chance to meet: the unsung heroes, the lost and the heartbroken. Here are five country songs written about real people.
5. The Kentucky Headhunters, “Dumas Walker”
Country rock outfit The Kentucky Headhunters released this song about a septuagenarian Kentucky marbles player in 1989. Their label was initially skeptical about the single, fearing that the song was “too regional” to be successful. But fans proved to love this song about the “marble king” Dumas Walker.
The Kentucky Headhunters knew Walker from frequenting his roadside tavern near Edmonton, Ky. Walker even makes an appearance in the video for the song, demonstrating his marble prowess. According to the book Kentucky Stories by Byron Crawford, the song was partially inspired by another Bluegrass State hangout, Ennis Restaurant in Greensburg, Ky. The diner inspired the line about the “slaw, burger, fries and a bottle of Ski.”
A small town diner and a marble playing folk hero — it doesn’t get much more country than that.
4. Guy Clark, “Arizona Star”
Guy Clark didn’t have to look far to find inspiration for songs in 1970s Nashville. A slew of genius songwriters (and true characters), such as Townes Van Zandt and Steve Earle, could often be found sitting around his kitchen table. On his 2002 album The Dark, Clark delved into 1970s underground Nashville with “Arizona Star.” The song tells the story of an eccentric, campy Nashville performer who went by the name of Arizona Star. She made waves among the Music City art community performing with fellow vaudevillian act Girl George.
They two befriended Clark, Kris Kristofferson and every other icon of 1970s Music City. Arizona and George even toured with Dr. Hook and the Medicine Show and Stevie Wonder.
“She had a girlfriend named George and George carried a sword and wore purple tights and they hung out every night,” Clark sings, describing the duo’s friendship and unique sense of style.
Nashville veterans Gillian Welch and David Rawlings provide backing vocals on the track.
3. Johnny Cash, “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”
“The Ballad of Ira Hayes” was written by folk singer Peter La Farge but was made famous by Johnny Cash in 1964. The song is about Ira Hayes, a Native American marine who raised the flag on Mount Suribachi during the World War II Battle of Iwo Jima.
As the song tells it, Ira Hayes was born into the Pima tribe of southern Arizona. The tribe suffered when white settlers stole the Pima peoples’ water rights and deprived them of a vital resource. As Cash sings, “When war came, Ira volunteered and forgot the white man’s greed.” Hayes was a war hero and was celebrated upon return. However, the celebration was short-lived. Hayes never received the support he needed after serving the United States. The veteran died alone and in poverty. “The Ballad of Ira Hayes” is considered one of the classic American songs about veterans.
2. Dolly Parton, “Jolene”
The story behind “Jolene” is a little ambiguous. As Dolly has said numerous times over the years, the song was inspired by a banker who had an eye for Parton’s husband, Carl Dean. But Parton has also said the song’s title was inspired by a young fan named Jolene she met at one of her shows. Little Jolene’s striking green eyes and beautiful red hair stuck with Parton and inspired the song’s first verse.
So while there may not have been a real “Jolene,” the song’s universal tale of jealousy has captivated singers for decades, inspiring covers from everyone from Olivia Newton John to the White Stripes.
1. Jerry Jeff Walker, “Mr. Bojangles”
Jerry Jeff Walker wasn’t having a great night when he met the inspiration for “Mr. Bojangles.” In 1965, Walker was in a New Orleans jail for public intoxication. It was there that he met a homeless man who introduced himself as “Mr. Bojangles.” The man enthralled Walker and his cellmates with his life story, which included traveling all over the south, dancing at county fairs for tips. The song’s most sobering moment is when Mr. Bojangles talks of when his dog and only companion “up and died.”
Walker recorded “Mr. Bojangles” in 1968. The song has been covered by numerous artists. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band took “Mr. Bojangles” to the Top 10 of the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart in 1970.