In a way, country music has always been about its own identity – about who the singers are and where they’re from. Witness Jimmie Rodgers back in the Great Depression, turning homesickness into a career.
But over the last few years, country music has become downright insecure on the subject — so insecure, that it keeps putting the name of its very genre name into the title of hit songs: “Play Something Country,” “Country Boy,” “She’s Country,” “Ladies Love Country Boys,” “That’s How Country Boys Roll” – and if that’s not enough, Easton Corbin is even “A Little More Country Than That.”
It’s like this music is worried we might mistake it for something else.
Country used to be for everyone. It whined about love and heartbreak and alcoholism and death and all the other good times we all share whether you live by a frog hollow or an elevated subway.
But now comes this divisive sub-genre calling the countryside more honest and patriotic than the cities, and saying no one better talk smack about it. Admittedly, some songs seem to say that if you hold country values – if you love family, and simple good times – you’re country, no matter where you live. But overall, they seem to be defending the rural heartland from other parts of America – parts that don’t even think they’re attacking the heartland.
The trend started slowly. Only six country songs with the word “country” in the title surfaced in Music VF’s Top 40 between 1943 and 1991 – nearly half a century of relative armistice. Then suddenly come four songs between 1992 to 1998, and six from 2005 to 2009. A classic in the genre, in 2011, is Blake Shelton’s fun and raucous “Kiss My Country Ass.” If you haven’t heard this song, the title pretty much covers it.
Rural mistrust of city slickers isn’t new, but the thing with the titles – well, what’s up with that?
‘The Opposite of Country is Lonely’
The number of “country” titles now easily outpaces current rock hits with “Rock” in the name, and also rap hits called “Rap” (it’s actually surprising how few of those there ever were). Moreover, you don’t see that kind of geographical taunting in the other direction. I can’t think of any major modern hit song (movies or sitcoms maybe, but not songs) lauding the city and pointing out how, among other things, the exurbs are actually kind of boring if you’re not from there.
But when you read the lyrics to all the Top 40 country hits with the word “country” in the title, they share at least one theme: The opposite of “country” is “lonely.” Away in the city, you share no real bond with anything. People look down on simple folks, and you can’t believe a word out of anyone’s filthy mouth. Back on the farm, you touch the land, the face of God, your family, your forebears, your girl, your buddies and good old Jack Daniels.
And behind that lies another theme (which predates September 11): The “country” is under attack. Note the slightly defensive shades in Tracy Byrd’s “I’m From the Country,” which hit the charts in 1998:
“Everybody knows everybody, everybody calls you friend
You don’t need an invitation, kick off your shoes come on in
Yeah, we know how to work and we know how to play
We’re from the country and we like it that way.”
All right. You like it that way. Who told you not to? Does Byrd think hippies and lawyers are secretly replacing their churches and hardware stores with Williams Sonomas and Korean barbecues?
Come to think of it, are they?
Small farms have been evaporating (the number of farms have dropped from 5.4 million in 1950 to 1.9 million in 1997, according to the USDA) and jobs in agriculture have drooped pretty steadily since World War II, with a notable share of what’s left going to people who prefer mariachi music to Toby Keith.
And the ones steering our culture – making our movies, recording so much of our music, presenting the TV shows that creep into our homes every night – they all live in Hollywood and New York City, and boy, they sure act like it, don’t they? A friend’s cousin in Kansas once described all screenwriters as “queers on dope.” Replace the words “queers” and “dope” with less pejorative synonyms, and he’s not altogether inaccurate. For good and/or ill, Hollywood does have a different outlook than many, many laymen.
The Moral Higlands
This perception has kept rolling since “I’m From the Country,” except, where “country” hits in the early 1990s seem sentimental or nostalgic, the current tone has turned smug – as if country people are just more authentic than the rest of us. Note the condescension in Brad Paisley’s “This is Country Music“:
“You’re not supposed to say the word ‘cancer’ in a song.
And tellin’ folks Jesus is the answer can rub ‘em wrong.
It ain’t hip to sing about tractors, trucks, little towns, and mama,
yeah that might be true.
But this is country music, and we do.”
Let’s be clear: The song does not bear up under strict cross-examination. It’s just as rare to hear cancer in a country song as a rock tune. Plus, hipster godfather Lou Reed put out a whole concept album for it with 1992’s “Magic and Loss,” and a track that mentioned the disease by name (“What’s Good”) held the number 1 spot on the modern rock charts for three weeks running.
Is it OK to sing about tractors, trucks, little towns and your Mom? Admittedly, country music works those tropes better than rock, pop, reggae or opera. But as to whether we’re allowed to talk about blood relations or agricultural equipment, I just … I don’t see the problem.
But ignore the details and listen to Paisley’s call for emotional honesty, and you have to admit the world really has gotten hysterically disingenuous.
Let’s suppose you don’t even live in the city, just out where life is supposed to be safe and quiet. You turn on a TV show in which all the people are beautiful and amusing, their questions and remarks come out effortlessly, and no one says anything racist or depressing. You read a newspaper story in which a politician says something that’s already been proven false, but he says it again anyway. At work, an IM from an old friend says he’s stuck in London and needs money for airfare – but it doesn’t look like he actually wrote it, and his account probably got hacked again. And that false political thing you heard earlier? You receive an email that repeats it.
Centuries ago, you never heard this many lies before noon unless you lived in a major city. Heck, just one false notion about witches managed to fuel several parts of rural New England for a good chunk of the 17th century. But as information has spread electronically, so have fictions and skepticism.
When the Pew Research Center in 2010 asked people how much they trusted the news, just 29 percent believed all or most of what they heard on CNN (a deadly plunge from 42 percent in 1998). Only a humiliating 17 percent said they completely believed USA Today anymore.
And the sincerity of country values comes under fire from one more quarter: country music itself. It’s still a branch of show business, after all, so it trades in contrived images.
Even the original musicians from the Grand Ole Opry had to play a role right from the start, Richard A. Peterson pointed out in his 1997 book Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity – going out of their way to dress like cowboys or hillbillies in the 1930s when most of them actually were cowboys or hillbillies and shouldn’t have had to prove it.
Consider, for example, that it makes no functional sense to wear a cowboy hat on stage. It hides part of your face, you don’t have to protect yourself from rain or sunburn at an indoor venue, and cowboys were always supposed to take their hats off indoors anyway, weren’t they? Sure, there’s nothing useful about KISS make-up either. But grease paint was never supposed to be an off-stage work tool. Cowboy hats are.
Such tropes of supposed authenticity have become so well-worn that, in 2013, a college student from Virginia posted a mash-up video of mainstream country artists fishing up the same images over and over – trucks, girls in blue jeans, getting girls into their trucks, dirt roads, going with girls to the riverbank, romantic sunsets and moonlight, and alcohol – all of it leading to a video super cut of major country artists saying “Girl.”
Mainstream country – the stuff that really makes money – seems to be playing in a loop. That might help explain why the phrase “country music” has gradually slumped over the years as an Internet search term – just spiking every April in time for the Academy of Country Music awards. Even the most sentimental among us will inevitably sense the difference between the simple life and the overly simplified.
Given that all these issues have been building up for decades, one may reasonably ask why “country” titles didn’t explode sooner. To speculate would be irresponsible – but let’s do it anyway.
For instance, this latest string of meta-titles started in 2005, when the public’s opinion of the Iraq War really started turning, so maybe that put the conservative wing of folk music on the defensive. Then again, a lot of other things happened that year, too. Hurricane Katrina crippled much of the South, where country music finds much of its base. America had just had a really bitter presidential election, during which national divisions became notably stark. Or maybe all the Internet lies just reached a tipping point.
But one thing is not mere speculation: Country singers have to take special pains to tell their audiences, “I’m real, I’m one of you, and we’re all not going out of fashion.”
Where the early country-western pioneers simply could sing about what they knew – heartbreak, honky-tonks, picking peaches – current stars have to crane their heads above nearly a century of music business history and expectations: contracts, concert riders, movie deals and product tie-ins, a big-money game in which Paisley’s “This Is Country Music” came in second in Billboard’s Top 200 albums in June 2011, topped only by Lady Gaga.
It’s a jarringly modern problem for supposedly old-fashioned music. Meanwhile, country’s agricultural zeitgeist gets persecuted from the actual landscape.
Call to the Faithful
That could also be why audiences need that reassurance, just as much as performers want to give it. Even if the staging is artificial, the songs are usually personal, and Peterson says the connection between audience and performer is still a big part of the sale:
“Very unlike the stage performance style of stars in most other genres, country music artists approach fans on the edge of the stage, touching hands, exchanging comments, receiving messages, and posing for photos,” he said. “All these little gestures signal that the artist has not lost the common touch.”
(A typical lead paragraph from Country Weekly.com, about Blake Shelton’s fishing trip: “Country stars do the same things the rest of us do on Memorial Day, and most sent out kind words to the troops via Twitter accounts.” Imagine that! Blake Shelton is an actual person!)
So, now in its ninth decade of electronic broadcast, country needs to hold the occasional prayer breakfast, as it were, where performers recommit themselves to the faith, where they embrace nostalgic values amid futuristic media – where they stand up and declare, “Hey. Let’s not forget who we are. We’re still a small town, with an old hound, layin’ out front of the courthouse, while the ol’ men chew the fat. And just so everyone takes me seriously, I’m even a little more country than that.
“Now, which of you is my agent? I only know you by email.”