Today we’re going to talk about country music. Shame on me for assuming, but I’ll wager my fellow post calvin authors’ opinions of this genre fall mostly within the range of ‘polite indifference’ to ‘outright disgust.’ I get it; many people simply don’t care for the twangy instrumentals, the niche subject material, or the superficial lyrics. All of those reasons are very fair.
I often fall into the habit of keeping my least popular opinions to myself, and I’m aware that in certain social circles, this is one of them. And yet, almost every month, I consider writing a post on country music before abandoning it a few paragraphs in. It isn’t for lack of relevance; country is a constantly morphing genre with a deeply stereotyped fan base. For better or worse, country music grabs politics by the horns, vocalizes social issues, and attempts to capture the sentiments of the rural proletariat.
Ever since a number of these fans hitched their wagons to a certain president, the cowboy hat is not a label I feature as prominently as I used to, at the risk of being lumped in. But when asked, I’ll be straight with you: I love country music dearly.
To be fair, it’s kind of an acquired taste that requires some affiliation. Growing up on a farm, it was the logical station to listen to: “I’d be on the tractor, she’d be on my mind / With that sun beatin’ down on this back of mine…” “Hey, that sounds just like me!” thought seventeen-year-old Nick. “Maybe after work I’ll cool off in the creek, or have a bonfire out in the orchard, and there’ll be a song about that, too!” And there would be.
But it’s a different fan base than it used to be. The record labels know the market; they’re aware that the ups and downs of farm life aren’t as relatable or romantic as they used to be. Less than two percent of the American population is employed in the agricultural sector, and it’s a different game for those of us who remain. A song about GPS-driven combines doesn’t have the same folksy appeal as “The Boy Who Wouldn’t Hoe Corn,” for example. The genre is evolving to cater to a more mainstream audience, and now “Bro Country,” “Hick-Hop,” auto-tuned yeehaws, and dance-floor bass-drops permeate the airwaves.
Don’t get me wrong. Bonfire parties are my guilty pleasure, and these songs are killer choices there. I can’t help but curl a smile when I hear “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” or “Get Your Shine On.” I crave those summer days, driving with the windows down, cranking “Barefoot Blue Jean Night.” And man, does that script sell!
Modern country music is built on the “work hard, play hard” motif, but it wasn’t always that way. Country folk didn’t really have the luxury of playing hard until the late ‘90s, at least that’d be your assumption if you based it strictly off radio airplay. Country is still shaking off the stereotype of the wallowing cowboy, singing the blues to forget his ex-wife, dead dog, and broken truck. Nobody wants to hear a sobering dirge about suicide, addiction, broken hearts, or foreclosure on their way to work, the beach, or the bar anymore.
Well, I take that back. Eric Church, bless his badass soul, still longs for sad songs. “One thing I miss is turning on the radio and just having a song punch me in the gut, and, as a songwriter, knock me on my ass,” says Church. “And I think we could use more of that.”
I do too, Eric. I do too.
Maybe there used to be more melancholy personalities than there are today, but there’s something to be said for songs that, well…punch you in the gut. Contrary to what Luke Bryan would have you believe, Georgia ain’t always peachy. A lot of the romanticism in country music is well grounded, but behind that façade, there is also some truly tragic depravity. I’m talking about the impoverished, white trash, meth-infested, backwards backwoods of America, where few country stars dare to venture. These songs no longer top the charts, but there are still a few OGs out there championing the Sad Song. The music videos are often unfortunately tacky, but the lyrics can really evoke pain.
Take Jamey Johnson’s “High Cost of Living.” While most country songs boast a strong affirmation of Christianity, Johnson’s lyrics admit that “staring at that giant cross / Just reminded me that I was lost / And it just never seemed to point the way.” There is no happy ending, just some regretful musings about drugs and infidelity from a prison cell.
Or if you want a song to really ruin your week, click this link. John Michael Montgomery’s “The Little Girl” tells the story of an abusive, alcoholic father and a drug-addled mother who kill each other while their little girl hides behind a couch. There is redemption at the end in the form of foster parents, but most listeners never knew that because they’d already changed the station and pulled over to dry their eyes.
From Reba McEntire’s “Fancy” to Brad Paisley’s cover of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive” to the devastatingly beautiful “Whiskey Lullaby,” there are plenty of songs that capture destitution and desperation in heart-wrenchingly vivid sonnets. If today’s country music is about feeling good, yesterday’s country was simply about feeling.
Few artists have said it more poignantly than Kacey Musgraves. Mainstream country claims there’s no better place to grow up than Small Town, USA, yet Musgraves’ “Merry-Go-Round” calls that bluff. If you only click one link from this whole article, it should be this one. It’s all about the consequences of staying in our comfort zones, mindlessly sticking to what we know in order to eke out a ho-hum life. “Same hurt in every heart / Same trailer, different park… Same checks we’re always cashin’ / To buy a little more distraction… We get bored, so we get married / And just like dust, we settle in this town / On this broken merry-go-round.”
I get that the market dictates what goes on the air, but I still feel like modern country music lacks the substance it used to carry. It’s been sidetracked by pop, rock, R&B, and just about every other known influence in the music industry. This trend is good, but lyrical prowess is often the ingredient left out.
Musical genres in general are more fluid than they used to be. I find it fascinating how various artists take inspiration from all these separate categories from the past and use them to create new forms of art. I refuse to stoop to the level of those crusty traditionalists who bemoan the loss of true “outlaw country” and try to connect that to some sort of wussification of America. Waylon Jennings was influenced by both Hank Williams and Elvis Presley, and I’m sure in his heyday people complained about him tainting the two styles. Music changes, and change is good.
And to address the other side, I also bristle against those who write off country as a self-serving mantra for right-wing hicks who need reassurance. Yeah, there are plenty of artists who perpetuate that image—looking at you, JJ Lawhorn—but as a lifelong listener who’s seen the trends and the larger picture, it’s a community worth keeping tabs on and taking perspective from.
In closing, here are eight country artists I think are talented, tasteful, have aged well, or are just simply worth checking out:
Nick Meekhof (’15) graduated with a major in writing and a minor in geography. A farmer for the first twenty-three years of his life, Nick currently works for the Michigan Department of Agriculture. When he’s not traversing the state conducting orchard inspections, he can be found exploring the rivers, forests, and small towns all throughout the Great Lakes State. His current goals include kayaking one hundred Michigan rivers, swimming in Lake Michigan during every month of the year, and visiting as many Michigan breweries as possible.