What’s a pretty lady like you doing in a place like this?” It was a roughneck Nashville honky-tonk bar-a real dive. He wore jeans, a watch chain, and a knife in his belt. But he tipped his hat and was dead sincere. Then he asked if she’d like to meet his friends.

They told me there had been a big bar fight the night before,” Jocelyn Neal says. “A guy was dragged out and beat up because he had attacked his girlfriend. This bar has an Old West code of ethics.”

Neal knows her country bars. A given weekend may find her steppin’ out anywhere between Raleigh and Knoxville. But there’s no tear in her beer-Neal hits the honky-tonks to do research, and she truly loves it.

Now an instructor in the music department, Neal grew up in northern New Mexico, where her father taught her to dance. Two-step, waltz, country swing, and polka-the Neal family danced ‘em all, and still does, usually at outdoor community concerts. “Parking lot dances,” Neal says. The dance floor is portable; hay bales are optional.

Neal two-stepped all the way to college, then started teaching classes in country dance. One of her dance students, a music professor, asked why the steps he was learning didn’t necessarily match the patterns he heard in the music. Neal began researching the interactions of country music and dance.

Neal points out that country’s roots are intertwined with dance. Much of the music, in fact, was created specifically for square and folk dances, which rely on regular and predictable musical structures. Notions of country as art played second fiddle to the music’s role as dance accompaniment.

Humble origins, to be sure. Unfortunately, many people still think that country is three chords played in simple, repetitive structures, verse-chorus-verse till the cows come home. “There’s a small selection of tunes that the American public thinks of when they think of country,” Neal says. “Think Roger Miller’s ‘King of the Road’-it comes out of a style of country that was based on very simple chord progressions.” Neal says these prototypical country songs are built on four-bar phrases; that is, verses and choruses last 16 bars each, while the introduction, ending, and interlude last either four or eight bars each. She refers to songs that stick to this pattern as “square.”

But when Neal analyzed today’s country hits, she heard some surprising things. She found their structures far from regular and predictable-over two-thirds of the songs Neal surveyed were not square, meaning they deviated from the prototype in one of three ways.

First, many of the songs employed composed-out fermatas, where the performer prolongs a note, chord, or rest beyond its given time value, in effect adding a half-bar to a chorus or verse. Second, a high percentage of songs had phrase overlaps, which might occur when a vocalist finishes a verse at the same time the band begins an interlude. As a result, the listener interprets the same bar as both conclusion and beginning. Finally, some songs featured phrase extensions-for example, the band might add one or two measures after a verse and before the chorus, in order to create breathing room in the music.

Neal found that 69 percent of nationally marketed country tunes were irregular, or not square. Interestingly, regional country bands that had yet to break the national market remained more conservative, employing irregularity in less than half of their songs. Least likely to be square were the big-league songs on Billboard’s Hit Country Singles chart, three-fourths of which were irregular.

Regardless of irregularity, not one song Neal studied added or omitted a single beat. To understand why, just dance.

For country to be “danceable,” Neal says, it must meet specific metric requirements. Most importantly, the meter must be duple, that is, it must have two or a multiple of two beats per measure. Why two? Look down. Two feet, Neal says, require two beats-dance steps are inherently linked to the human body’s left-right symmetry, such that two beats equal the amount of time it takes to move from the right foot to the left.

All dances are built on patterns of strong and weak beats. Neal says that if you violate this beat pattern, you’re dancing “out of time” (and on your partner’s toes, to boot). But here’s the catch: you might dance to the strong and weak beat patterns all night without matching the music’s measures or phrases.

Let’s say one unit of strong-weak beats equals a half-bar of music. The half-bar then becomes the only level at which the dance pattern must correspond to the music. Above that hierarchical level, Neal says, country music and dance patterns don’t have to align. In fact, she found that most don’t.

Swing by a country dance hall next Saturday night and you’ll see two basic dance styles: freestyle partner dances, such as two-step, polka, swing, and waltz, and choreographed line dances, including a tried-and-true crowd pleaser called the “Tush Push.”

Consider the two-step, a freestyle partner dance. The basic two-step dance pattern lasts six beats, but two-step music has only four beats per measure. So the dance pattern occupies one and a half measures of music. The dance pattern and musical measure “align,” or begin at the same time, every three measures.

But three measures don’t make a metric unit of music, Neal says. Instead, the dance pattern overlaps the musical meter, ending at different places each time the pattern repeats. “A well-executed two-step,” Neal says, “seems to glide over the music above the framework of the meter.”

What about line dancing? Dancers line up across the floor and move to a choreographed pattern that repeats throughout the course of the song. A given song will often have its own line dance. The steps vary widely from dance to dance, as does the dance pattern’s length.

All the line-dance patterns Neal studied were an even number of beats in length. Here again, two feet require two beats. And like freestyle partner dances, line dances don’t tend to align with the prototypical square country structure.

Instead, nearly 80 percent of line dances have irregular pattern lengths, meaning they’re not equal to the duple lengths of 16, 32, or 64 beats. Their patterns may be as short as 14 beats or as long as 116.

Imagine that a line dance pattern ends with a left-footed stomp. That stomp’s position will shift, relative to the meter, as the song continues. The result, Neal says, is two audible meters: one in the music and one in the dance.

To further complicate things, metric structure sometimes varies as the song develops. Dancing an irregular-length line dance to such a song creates a multitude of rhythmic and metrical interpretations. Neal says that in some cases, musical and dance meters never align during the course of a song.

Good dancers learn to enjoy these polyrhythms. “We’re capable of locking into whatever repeating pattern is present and accepting that as the pulse of the event,” Neal says. “Consider a jazz tune where the drummer sets up two rhythmic patterns that weave together and play off each other. Dancing can be like being that drummer.”

What does this mean to the artists? Since a country dance doesn’t require a square tune, Neal says that songwriters and performers can employ a broad range of techniques to shape a song as they see fit. Meanwhile, line-dance choreographers are free to create interesting dances without being locked to the music’s meter. Because the music and dance have evolved together, neither restricts the other.

Seems country is more sophisticated than a lot of folks thought. As Neal puts it, “the same techniques present in Bach’s and Brahms’s music appear in country music.”

Mind you, country has never been the darlin’ of music theorists. “Country scholars tend to study culture, not music,” Neal says. “And there’s a social stigma that country music is simple, white-trash, and not worthy of investigation in any area.”

Academic indifference and the occasional knock-down dragout-a tough research atmosphere? Maybe. But Jocelyn Neal isn’t about to be daunted. She came to dance.