21 March 2006

Patsy Cline before and after Idol

One of the American Idol contestants, Kellie Pickler, did a Patsy Cline song last night, "Walking after midnight". Pickler is from North Carolina, and her performance included some expected and unexpected vowels. The theme for the night was "songs of the 50s", and Pickler usually chooses songs that let her infuse the country flavour she favours - hence, she went for a 50s country song. Of course, modern country music is very different from that of Cline's era, and one of the less obvious aspects is the vowel space of the vocalists.

The song begins with this:

I go out walkin
after midnight
out in the moonlight
just like we used to do
I'm always walkin
after midnight
searchin for you

Pickler's accent typifies the Southern Vowel Shift, which includes an exchange of the nuclei of the vowels /i/ and /i/, so that /i/ comes out as [ɪy], and /ɪ/ comes out as [iə] or [iyɪ]. A similar exchange occurs with /e/ and /ɛ/, which become [ɛy] and [eyɛ] respectively. Meanwhile, /ay/ becomes a monopthong except before voiceless consonants, and /u/ and /o/ are both made diphthongs with fronted nuclei. These features appear strongly even in song, to an extreme with Pickler; unfortunately I don't have a recording to exemplify it, as it's hidden behind a pay-for membership on the show's website.

Cline was born in Virginia and spent much of her adult life in Nashville, and her accent just sounds milder than Pickler's when she sings - I believe because few of the features of the Southern Vowel Shift appear in her songs. She does show the contextual monophthong for /ay/, i.e. everywhere except before voiceless consonants, like in the next few lines:

I [a:] walk for miles [ma:lz]
along the highway [ha:wei]
well that's just my [ma:] way
of sayin I [a:] love you
I'm always walkin
after midnight [nayt]
searchin for you

All these monophthongal [a]s are pretty front - almost [æ] (well, they line up with my own vowel in bad, which is retracted). Nothing else really jumps out as very Southern, except perhaps a slightly fronted vowel in love and just. There is also a bit of a front onglide in the [u] of words like do and moon, but the nuclei for these words (and in you) are really back - not the centralized [ɨw] you would hear from Pickler.

Then in the third segment, some of the rhymes involve /i:/, prime Southern Vowel shift territory:

I stop to see a weepin willow
Cryin on his pillow
Maybe he's cryin for me
And as the skies turn gloomy
Night winds whisper to me
I'm lonesome as I can be

In Cline's recording, the /i/ of maybe and be may have a very slightly laxed nucleus, just enough to notice. But in see and both examples of me, the vowel is more steadily [i:]. In Pickler's version, the /i:/ of all these rhymes was a huge diphthong, the nucleus of which was retracted beyond [ɪ], perhaps to [ə] or even [ʊ]. Again, I can't get the recording to illustrate.

That Pickler would sing a Patsy Cline with an accent unlike Cline's is no suprise, given their distance in time and space. But there's one oddity in the way Pickler produced the nucleus in the first syllable of the word searchin. The word is repeated throughout the song, and each time she produced something like [ɛʁ]: a lax front vowel followed by uvular /r/, rather than just a nucleic [ɹ] that any rhotic North American accent would use.

Where did this [ɛʁ] come from? It's not at all typical of Pickler's or any American's accent. It also doesn't sound like Cline's production of the same word. The only thing I can think of is that maybe Cline's searchin has some central vowel nucleus (say, [ɜ], the open-mid-central-unrounded vowel) followed by a rhotic offglide, rather than a steady [ɹ] nucleus. And then Pickler, trying to include some sort of emulation of Cline in her performance, tried to replicate this Cline's [ɜɹ] and ended up with [ɛʁ]. Meanwhile the uvularity of the /r/ (if that's what it was) is either a byproduct of its context (between a central vowel and a palatal consonant) or a perceptual illusion on my part.


At Wed Mar 22, 04:06:00 PM 2006, Blogger Bridget said...

Interesting observation. I don't remember anything particularly strange about searchin', but I'll fire up the TiVo and see if I can figure out what's going on.

At Wed Mar 22, 04:34:00 PM 2006, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

Sounds good. If it turns out I was hearing things, I guess I was hearing things. It would be great if you could check on the vowels of me, be, and so on, too.

At Thu Mar 23, 07:47:00 AM 2006, Blogger Bridget said...

The clip is now available at YouTube, for anyone who wants to check it out-- just search for Kellie Pickler and it's the second or third hit. I haven't had a chance to re-watch it yet.

At Thu Mar 30, 10:39:00 PM 2006, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

Thanks, Bridget, for finding that. Anyone else who wants to see it can use this link.

Meanwhile a clip of Cline's original recording can be had through Amazon in Windows Media and Real Media formats. Anyone who wants to hear the whole song can send the secret knock-knock to the piloklok.

I listened to Pickler again and noted that (a) the accompaniment sometimes drowns her out (b) the extent of her retracted nucleus in the /i/ vowels is not necessarily so obvious and (c) her messed up vowel in searchin is actually present in a bunch of different rhotic words, including after and the for of "searchin for you".

At Thu Mar 30, 10:43:00 PM 2006, Blogger Bob Kennedy said...

The link for the Windows media in my previous comment doesn't work - hopefully this does.

At Sun Jul 22, 12:01:00 AM 2007, Blogger Meade Skelton said...

Interesting. Southern accents are not the same as country accents in that they are more drawls. Country twangs are through the nose more. Patsy Cline is from the Northern Shenandoah Valley and she had a form of Southern accent that is generally called Shenandoah Valley. It is different from Tidewater Virginia, but it is quite Southern. But its very soft. Northern Virginia was Southern at the time Patsy Cline lived there, and her accent was pure Virginia. It was not Nashville.

At Sun Jul 22, 12:03:00 AM 2007, Blogger Meade Skelton said...

By the way, Patsy spent most of her adult life in Virginia. She only lived in Nashville the last few years of her life.


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