The joke, which is probably older than the washing machine on grandma's front porch, goes like this: What do you get if you play a country music record backward?
You get your wife back, you get your job back, you get your dog back. . . .
But add another one to the list: You get your life back.
An Auburn University sociologist who found a correlation between suicide rates and country music also has found something else: Them's fighting words.
The professor and a colleague have written a real tears-in-your-beer abstract: "The results of a multiple-regression analysis of 49 metropolitan areas show that the greater the air time devoted to country music, the greater the white suicide rate."
"I think a lot of college professors should get out of college and get a real job," said John Katzbeck, known as the Kat Man on WUSN-FM, Chicago's top country radio station. "I certainly hope this wasn't government-funded."
"The funding came out of our own hides," said co-author John Gundlach in a not-so-tweedy accent that still sounds of Oklahoma.
Taking on one of the nation's fastest-selling forms of music has put the professor on the defense. "I'd never been called a conehead intellectual before," he said, referring to one published description of him.
So he points out he owns a chain saw. Not an electric one like they use in the suburbs, but a gas one. And he used it to make his log cabin.
"I love country music," Mr. Gundlach said, "but there is something to think about here. I think the findings are solid enough that this is something that needs to be delved into."
Predictably, the response of country music fans was to remain faithful to music that foams with infidelity.
Renee Poreda, a 23-year-old country music listener from Chicago, would seem an easy mark for the genre's heart-wrenching messages. She cries over commercials for long-distance phone companies and greeting cards.
"Country music doesn't bother me at all," she said.
Nor do the tears flow from Valerie Burd, a 45-year-old Yorkville, Ill., resident. In fact, she finds the music uplifting.
"You could listen to Mozart and Beethoven and that could bring you down," she said. "Some of that stuff is pretty dark."
Mr. Gundlach was not influenced by the lyrics to "Warning Labels," a country song that says "they ought to put warning labels on those sad country songs."
Instead, he began the study after noticing that two cities, Nashville and Oklahoma City, had higher suicide rates than would be expected using the usual predictors. When it dawned on him that those cities are hubs of country music, he started crunching numbers and found a correlation with suicides among whites.
Not surprisingly, suicide rates in the black population are not affected by country music, the study said.
The study, published in the September issue of the journal Social Forces, concludes that country music "nurtures a suicidal mood" by dwelling on marital problems and alienation from work.
"These recurrent patterns, which stress problems such as alcohol abuse, are assumed to promote audience identification and thereby promote suicide through the reinforcement of pre-existing suicidal moods," the study said.
"That's a bunch of hog," said John Northrup, a Nashville-based ++ songwriter who co-wrote "It's Gonna Take a Month of Sundays to Get Me Over Saturday Night."
Mr. Northrup said country music is sometimes sad, but that today it has to have an upbeat ending to be marketable. More than anything, a country song must rope in the listeners' emotions.
"If you can't get into their heart, you can't get into their wallet," Mr. Northrup said, then mulled over making that into a song title.
If songs like "(I'd Be Better Off) In a Pine Box" or "I'll Never Get Out of This World Alive" are killing off country music's listeners, it hasn't yet shown up in the sales receipts or radio station demographics.
Country music is selling fast -- Garth Brooks' latest record is outselling Madonna's -- as its stars are becoming "more facial."
Country bars like Bub City in Chicago have been drawing good crowds that have come rolling in on the country bandwagon. "People are not crying here," said Bob Vick, a partner at the Lettuce Entertain You establishment.
News of the study was not enough to change Dr. Daniel Yohanna's procedures as director of outpatient psychiatry at Northwestern Memorial Hospital.
"I don't think I would stop anybody from listening to country music," he said, "nor would I ask in a screening questionnaire if they listen to country music."