Lyric Lens: “Leave Luanne” by Ryan Scott Oliver
A few nights ago, at a birthday party, I solicited suggestions from friends for what song I should feature in the next installment of Lyric Lens. “Why don’t you do a post that looks more at the big picture of lyrics?” suggested one friend. As much as I love thinking about the big picture, that’s not really what we’re about here at Lyric Lens, and so, in a strangely specific act of rebellion, I decided to go even smaller—to look at just one verse of a song.
This allows me to feature a song I’ve been shying away from because of its sheer length and the impossibility of examining it all in one go. In my posts so far I’ve generally tried to at least follow a song from beginning to end, even if I skip some things in the middle, and I knew I could never do the full expanse of this one justice. So now, at last, a close look at (the first verse and chorus of) “Leave Luanne” by Ryan Scott Oliver, an epic ballad that tells the chilling story of an abusive relationship.
Most people who know this song probably know it from the original cast recording of 35MM, where Jay Armstrong Johnson sings it. And I love that version. But I often grow extra attached to the first live performance I hear of a song, which in this case was a performance by Katie Thompson at 54 Below last fall. I’m hard-pressed to express my feelings about it in words, so take a look at the video:
If you just watched that before reading the rest of this post, then you understand why I was afraid to tackle this song before. Amazing lyrics, and lots of them. As usual, I’ll take it a little bit at a time.
Luanne’s fat lip is drying,
The bastard’s bacon frying,
The shiner on her eye’s gone bust and bleeding.
So few lines, so much information. I feel like someone picked me up and dropped me right in the middle of the world of this song. Just three words—“Luanne’s fat lip”—identify both a protagonist and an unnamed antagonist, and therefore also set up tension and conflict. The choice to refer to that antagonist as “the bastard” tells me more than any name ever could, and the mention of “bacon frying” and the slang phrase “gone bust” enrich my feel for the setting.
He shouts, “Girl, set the table!”
But he knows she ain’t able.
Her arm’s done broke,
Hung limp like yolk,
And softly she’s repeating…
The “table/able” rhyme is a perfect example of the power of a simple rhyme. That pair of words draws layers of contrast—between the man’s words and thoughts, between the control he exerts and Luanne’s powerlessness. The description of Luanne’s broken arm as “hung limp like yolk” is just genius. It’s so original and so vivid. When I first heard the song it took me a moment to take in what those words were, and when they hit me I was floored. The image sprang right into my mind’s eye. Whatever you think of when you hear the word “yolk,” whether you picture it cooked or raw, you know human flesh and bone aren’t supposed to look like that.
Then the chorus:
Why don’t you march out that door?
Southern woman, he ain’t no good to you.
Louisiana wants war,
But it’s you dying on her ruby plains.”
And yet, loyal Luanne remains.
This is our first encounter with the title/lyric hook, which is used in a lot of different senses throughout the song, but I can’t really talk about that in depth without spoiling the brilliance of where the story goes. Instead, I want to comment quickly on how I love that Luanne calls herself a “Southern woman” and not just a woman, and then take some time to be a grammar nerd about the last line of the chorus. That line has, by my count, up to three possible meanings that differ in subtle but significant ways.
The first possibility is that “Loyal Luanne” is a phrase that, all together, refers to Luanne like a sort of nickname. The only other example of this grammatical structure I can think of right now is of a wildly different tone: “Silly Rabbit, Trix are for kids!” You could use that phrase as a unit even in a sentence where the rabbit isn’t being directly addressed, and it would still work: “Silly Rabbit wants Trix.” “Loyal Luanne remains.”
The second possibility is that the line is a statement of two facts about Luanne, that she is loyal and that she stays in her current situation. It can even suggest a causal relationship between those two things—because she is loyal, she stays. If I wanted to definitively indicate this meaning, I would add an extra comma to the line: “And yet, loyal, Luanne remains.”
The third option is different from the other two because in it, the verb “remains” has nothing to do with Luanne’s physical location, and instead refers to a quality of hers. To use uber-grammar-nerd language, it’s a linking verb instead of an action verb, with “loyal” as its subject complement. In this meaning of the line, Luanne may or may not stay put physically, but in her behavior she remains loyal to “the bastard.”
TL;DR: the last line of the chorus is layered and wonderful and tells me a lot about Luanne’s character. I have no idea which one(s) of these meanings Ryan Scott Oliver was going for when he wrote this song. And I’ve said before that because I find that what people pick up on in my own writing is so often something I did unintentionally, I don’t like to assume intent on the part of another writer if I don’t know what their thought process was. But whether or not all of these layers were intentional, any group of three words that makes me think and feel that much about a character and a story is incredibly good writing.
So…that gets me to about the 1-minute mark of a video that is almost 8 minutes long. This song is a beast of lyrical mastery. I could listen to it a thousand times and still find new things to think about. I leave you here, but if you’re still reading, scroll on back to the top of the post, hit play on the video, and soak in all 7+ minutes of those lyrics—whether it’s your first or your thousandth time hearing them.