Ghosts stories aren’t just about the dearly departed, at least not in the pushing daisies sense; memories can rattle as many chains as any specter. We all have this kind of haunting, the kind where something’s ended before we’re ready. The sort that makes us rummage through the back of drawers late at night and pull out keepsakes of lost loves; digging up bones.
Nat Stuckey, Al Gore (no, a different one) and Paul Overstreet wrote Diggin’ Up Bones in the mid 1980s. Randy Travis recorded it for his 1986 album Storms of Life and the single went all the way to number one on the country charts. In a career filled with great vocals it stands as one of his finest recordings.
Country music gets to the quick of things. A song like this was written by adults for adults something that’s seemingly more and more in jeopardy these days. Here’s a song though that is as disquieting in its voyeuristic intimacy. It is just as pleasing to share the emotional self-reflection of another as if it were are own. Travis’s voice has a rough hewn fragility to it perfect for the melodrama. The bitterness is slight in the vocal, but still manages to spill out between the lines as he fingers the abandoned wedding rings and hints at something like a Dear John letter. Why does he have her ring? Such a small action to slide it off the finger and leave it behind, but it tells a lot about the end. A lesser singer would have clinched his teeth, Travis clinched his jaw.
The song also fits nicely into the country music canon with allusions to Hank Cochran’s classic talking-to-a-photograph song She’s Got You by Patsy Cline and the Bobby Braddock penned hit for George and Tammy Golden Ring. It could almost be a missing bridge to Golden Ring as it possibly depicts the night before he sells the band back to the pawn shop. There’s even a nod in the lyrics:
Cast aside like the love that’s dead and gone
~ Golden Ring
I’m resurrecting memories of a love that’s dead and gone
~ Diggin’ Up Bones
There’s a touch of the modern in there too, I can’t think of any country song before this one that mentions negligee. That simple image though of a man holding his ex-wife’s lace and wishing he could see her in it again is as pitiful as it is powerful. It’s a ghostly image and certainly intentional as the writers play with the idea of a man haunted by the translucent fabric.
The song leaves us with a question about who’s really behind our good old fashioned haunting. Is it the spirit’s unfinished business or is it ours?
Diggin’ Up Bones, Randy Travis
She’s Got You, Patsy Cline
Golden Ring, George Jones & Tammy Wynette