You don’t hear many tempo changes in country music. Because country has historically been music for dancing, it tends to stick to one speed. Sure, occasionally a bass that’s hitting on the “one” and “three” in the verse will start walking on all 4 beats for the chorus, but you rarely hear the dramatic speed changes of, say “Magical Mystery Tour”.
The first song I can recall hearing that played with tempo in a significant way was Dwight Yoakam’s “Watch Out,” from his album Blame the Vain, which I am surprised to learn is now 8 years old.
When the song stops and picks up again at 1:18, now in 3/4, it has made a transformation from country-rocker to tear-jerker – two styles Yoakam has mastered. After hearing it a hundred or so times in the last 8 years, it sounds like a very natural transition to me since I know it is coming, but I recall the first few times I heard it not thinking it was the same song. It’s a bit jarring, but there is some precedent in classic country music for this move.
The earliest example I can find is Marvin Rainwater’s 1955 song, “I Gotta Go Get My Baby”.
Both songs start off upbeat, and then move to a slower section before returning to the faster part. Rainwater’s and Yoakam’s songs share another element in their arrangements: electric guitar dominates the fast section, and steel guitar is the focus in the slower section. Incidentally, a young Roy Clark plays electric guitar on Rainwater’s tune.
In 1965, Buck Owens and the Buckaroos released Before You Go, a classic example of the Bakersfield Sound – trebly telecaster, trebly pedal steel guitar, trebly hi-hats, and tenor vocal harmonies on every chorus.
The title track follows the same model as Rainwater’s and Yoakam’s songs, starting on an uptempo section driven by Don Rich’s telecaster before moving into a tear-jerking waltz where Tom Brumley’s pedal steel is the focus. I doubt Yoakam would disagree that “Watch Out” owes a lot to “Before You Go” – Yoakam has cited Buck Owens as an influence for decades, and helped revive Buck’s career by including duets with Buck on several of his albums.
I have tried to write similar songs, but they never seem to sound as natural as the three above. I think you have to spend a lot of time listening to a song like this before it sounds “right”. Let me know if you can think of any other examples of country songs with wild tempo shifts.