Hank Williams

The Ethos of Country Songs

Confession: I am an avid fan of country music.

No, not the country music you may have heard in a truck commercial (though this is actually a great one). I’m talking about Western swing, alt-country, string band music, bluegrass, progressive bluegrass (*raises pinky finger*), Bakersfield, honky-tonk, Americana – the rich sonic brews that have resulted from the mixing of Scotch-Irish folk music and the blues of African-American culture. This stuff has serious history.

Say what you will. There’s some truly terrible, facepalm-inducing country music from every era of the genre. Still, when I do manage to find my way into the places that still play them, you can probably find me sitting in the corner tapping my foot to Merle Haggard songs (or the occasional Taylor Swift tune – I’ll own up to that).

Oh, I enjoy other kinds of music. Rock is great for the times I want to muse angrily (I suggest the Drive by Truckers) or party like it’s 1956. Rhythm and blues from the 60s hits the spot. Pop music, I’ve found to my great surprise, can occasionally be alright – Sara Bareilles is a damn good singer with great taste in covers. There’s something different about the twangier stuff for me, though.

Kacey Musgraves’s newest record Pageant Material is unapologetically country, and it hits on many of the things that make this kind of music so thoughtful, fun, timeless, and evolutionary at the same time.

I’ve enjoyed Kacey’s music since her release of Same Trailer, Different Park in 2013, widely claimed to be a renaissance year for female singer-songwriters in a country music industry dominated by men in backward baseball caps (yawn). Music critic evaluations aside, consciously or inadvertently, she’s come to be associated with a small group of dark horse singer-songwriters (check out folks like Brandy Clark, Chris StapletonSturgill Simpson, Holly Williams, and John Moreland) bringing together sonically traditional arrangement with progressive lyrics. The steel guitar and banjo laced throughout her own albums pair with clever wordplay and modern social commentary like a fine red wine and … whatever red wine pairs with (full disclosure: I am not a sommelier).

I thought it would be interesting to look at Kacey’s lyrics as a way of trying to understand how I’m so attached to this country music thing. I work at a computer all day and regard myself as a modernist and cosmopolitan in most things, so my love of this music appears to not really “fit.” I want to break down the multifaceted but still archetypical country song into its component parts to (hopefully) understand and explain why it’s compelling.

Kacey’s song “Dime Store Cowgirl” works smashingly for this. Why? 1) This song is catchy as hell (further field research confirms that it’s fun to pick as well), 2) I just happened to be listening to it when the idea for this blog came to me, and 3) it embodies many of the common motifs we’re looking for. Here’s the song. Listen to it on repeat while you read this.

Loyalty to Place and Identity

“You can take me out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of me.”

“But it don’t matter where I’m goin’/I’ll still call my hometown home”

Clicheed phrase, motif, whatever it is – I get it, and it gets me. I’m sure that I’m not alone. Over the past century, so younger generations have steadily streamed away from family farms for opportunity elsewhere, and these songs have served as a reminder of identity for many.

What this phrase and what so many songs reflect is a desire for roots in a place, a group, a culture, a tradition, or even an idea. In its shallower instances, this is just a form of closeminded nativism (you know those Toby Keith songs your neighbors – “bless their hearts” – play on repeat on a drunken fourth of July?)

In the best cases, though, I think these songs appeal to an idea of staying and being true to an identity and not getting “too big for one’s britches”. Kacey isn’t blindly nostalgic for her home town. There’s something about her experience there that have given her character traits, skills, or experiences that have made her the person she is. Citizen of the world though I may fancy myself, I have to admit that growing up working and living in a rural area has fundamentally shaped me in many good ways.

Whether the sense of identity and loyalty hymned in country songs is a positive one or not is left to listeners, and I think that thoughtful country fans can get a lot more from this music by asking this question of each song and each songwriter.

See Also:

Loretta Lynn – “Coal Miner’s Daughter” 

Miranda Lambert – “The House That Built Me” 

Wanderlust

“Went to San Antonio to the riverwalk and rodeo/Seen the white cliffs of Dover from the shore”

Kacey is talking about her travels here. She’s been everywhere, man (hat tip to Hank Snow). Though she’s a fairly young person, she’s clearly not deterred by going from the city limits of Golden to the cliffs of Dover. For all of the cowboy paraphernalia and Western dress that’s permeated the country scene since the 30s, it’s the wandering that is the most “cowboy troubadour” thing about performers like Kacey even today.

What makes this wanderlust so interesting is its contrast to Kacey’s consistent loyalty to her hometown. I don’t think the two are mutually exclusive.

That solid identity and sense of self developed through the more laissez-faire country childhood and reflected in country music’s loyalty theme? It can be a strong foundation for an unusually independent and adventurous life, if the stories of historical giants like Rockefeller, Edison, and yes, Johnny Cash, have anything to tell us.

See Also:

Son Volt – “Windfall” 

Steve Earle – “Someday” 

Humility and Simplicity

“I’m just a dime store cowgirl. That’s all I’m ever going to be.”

Even with all of the cool stuff Kacey is seeing and doing with her life, she still repeats this self-deprecating line. It’s refreshing to see this humility and grounding so frequently in country musicians even today, certainly when compared with the bluster and transparent stunts of more popular performers.

For me, though, there’s something disappointing about it. As a listener, I kind of want to say, “Come on! You’re living your dream and producing music that’s valuable to millions – celebrate that!”

There seems to be a conflation of simplicity and humility with meekness and self-denial in this culture of country music. With country’s deep religious roots, it’s not a surprise that a strong concept of self-esteem hasn’t yet worked its way into the genre.

In the meantime, there’s always an understated pride revealed in lines like these. Kacey’s simplicity of character allows her to be more empathetic, more steadfast, more authentic, and – let’s admit it – better than your stereotypical “big city” star. She’s grounded, and it’s going to sustain her ability to make good music and live a fulfilling life. If that’s the kind of pride country music lends to its performers and listeners, its the kind which any philosopher of virtue could applaud.

See Also:

Guy Clark – “Stuff That Works” 

Jason Isbell – “Outfit“*

* I cheated here. It’s sort of a southern rock song in its original incarnation, but this rendition has a beautiful acoustic/fiddle pairing.

Fierce Independence

“. . . Had to get away so I could grow.”

Even though the protagonists of many of our favorite country songs just sang about how much they loved the home place on side A (we’re listening on vinyl, of course), they’re singing about taking the road or the big city by storm on side B. They won’t be tied down by your “so-called social security“, your corporate jobs, your nosy PTAs, or even your draft boards.

If America ever had a kind of culturally-instinctive libertarian past, it still shines through in corners of country music like these, whether in the explicit political radicalism of Steve Earle (see: his whole catalog, but mostly “Copperhead Road”) or the free-and-easy rambler attitude of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be cowboys or libertarians  (unless you’re cool).

See Also:

Charlie Daniels Band – “Longhaired Country Boy” 

Glen Campbell – “Gentle on my Mind” 


 

I’m pretty sure I’ve only scratched the surface of a complex bundle of beliefs tied up in this cultural medium that also happens to inspire such activities as “pickin and a-grinnin.” This music has far more truth to speak about human nature than meets the eye.

Is it possible to be loyal to home but also drawn to wander? To be humble but also have the pride of the fiercely independent? Country is the Walt Whitman of the music world – it contains multitudes for us to explore.

I’ll be the first to say that country music still has a long to go in speaking to the whole of what makes us human. Indeed, even though I’ll listen to it all day, I’m not a fan of the sometimes cloyingly nationalistic, creepily religious, or militantly authoritarian baggage that comes with otherwise good music. There’s a lot of self-denial going on in some of the most popular country songs and, perhaps not incidentally, a lot of self-destructive behaviors (drinking and cheating songs, anyone?)

Of course, country music is not alone in this in culture or creativity. If either ever take a more humanistic turn, though, I have a feeling that change will come first from the especially lyrical and generally quite aware songwriters of the folk and country genres. An artist like Kacey Musgraves definitely errs on this more philosophical side, and for that, I tip my standard-issue blogger cowboy hat.


 

P.S. Enjoy another fun and very libertarian Kacey Musgraves song and celebrate the fact that politicians can’t prevent our gay friends from getting married anymore, as of this last Friday.

 

James Walpole

James Walpole is a writer, startup marketer, and perpetual apprentice. You're reading his blog right now, and he really appreciates it. Don't let it go to his head, though.

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