Fans of traditional country music have a lot to complain about in the modern era of country music, but one of its biggest faults is the pervasive materialism seeping into the lyrics. Do the things that symbolize country living define the meaning of the music?
Ask an outsider what country music is about and they will respond with something like this: “My girl left me, my truck broke down, and my dog ran away.” Add some whiskey to that, and you’ve got a formula for a good country song.
Historically, this is crucial to understanding country music. If a man is suffering from a broken heart or hard times, or simply telling a story, the simple material things he owns either add to his sorrow or offer him a small bit of comfort.
Orthodox. Faithful. Free.
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When a country music singer is celebrating the good times, these simple things add to the general feeling that life is good.
A classic example of this is the 1951 song “Hey Good Lookin” by Hank Williams.
Hey, hey, good lookin,’
Whatcha got cookin’?
How’s about cookin’ somethin’ up with me?
. . .
I got a hot-rod Ford and a two-dollar bill
And I know a spot right over the hill.
There’s soda pop and the dancin’s free,
So if you wanna have fun come along with me.
The singer in this song owns a few things, but what would make him really happy is to celebrate life by sharing them with a good looking girl.
Compare that sentiment with the song “Country Girl (Shake it for Me)” released in 2011 by Luke Bryan.
Hey girl. Go on now. You know you’ve got everybody looking.
Got a little boom in my big truck gonna open up the doors and turn it up
Gonna stomp my boots in the Georgia mud
Gonna watch you make me fall in love
Get up on the hood of my daddy’s tractor
Up on the tool box, it don’t matter
Down on the tailgate, girl I can’t wait
To watch you do your thing.
(In case you had any doubt about what this guy wants, he then makes it clear in the chorus.)
Country girl, shake it for me girl,
Shake it for me girl, shake it for me
Country girl, shake it for me girl,
Shake it for me girl, shake it for me.
I can’t imagine this guy ever singing about a broken heart, or even what would happen if she doesn’t “shake it” for him. In fact, the girl just seems to be part of a list of material things that he needs to prove he is a “country boy.” He’s no longer a man celebrating a relationship with his girl, but an idiot bragging about his stuff, so that everyone watching him knows that he’s a well-endowed “country boy.”
The girl, it appears, is one more thing that he adds to the list.
Here’s another example from the lyrics of the 2011 song “Somethin’ ’bout a truck” by Kip Moore.
In this song he notes that there’s “Somethin’ ’bout a truck in field,” and “somethin’ bout a beer on ice,” and “somethin’ bout a girl in red sundress,” and “somethin’ bout a kiss,” and “somethin’ bout a creek.”
But what is the point of this guy listing things that he likes?
“Ain’t nothin’ ’bout it luck, there’s somethin’ ’bout a truck,” he concludes, implying that without his truck, he wouldn’t have any of these things.
What is modern Country music about? It is increasingly becoming a list of stuff you need to possess in order to be a “country boy.” If you don’t have a truck, a beer, a girl, a grill, a boat, a porch swing, a hat, jeans with a Skoal ring, a tractor, sweet tea, and some fried chicken, count yourself out.
That’s not to say that all modern country songs that list “stuff” suffer from the same pitfalls. For example, the song “Chicken Fried” by the Zac Brown Band. The song (admittedly not my favorite) threatens to fall into a similar rut as the singer starts reciting a list of stuff: Fried chicken, cold beer, a pair of jeans, homemade wine, pecan pie, sweet tea, and his radio.
The difference, however, is that the singer explains where his list belongs as part of his entire quality of life. He reminds the listener that “the little things in life that mean the most” are not “where you live, the car you drive or the price tag on your clothes.”
In fact, he reminds the audience, the important “little things” are the “love in my woman’s eyes,” the “touch of a precious child,” and “a mother’s love.” He concludes his song thanking “God for my life” and then salutes the soldiers who have died protecting his quality of life in America, which of course includes his love of fried chicken.
The song is admittedly cheesy, but its a song about an ordinary man who not only enjoys the simple things, but celebrates them in the proper order, making life worth living.
Furthermore, country music frequently acknowledges that material goods can actually inhibit the quality of life, which is why Waylon Jennings sang about going back to Luckenbach, Texas and the “basics of love” in 1977.
So baby, let’s sell your diamond ring
Buy some boots and faded jeans and go away
This coat and tie is choking me
In your high society you cry all day
We’ve been so busy keepin’ up with the Jones
Four car garage and we’re still building on
Maybe it’s time we got back to the basics of love.
That understanding is essential to a worthy country song of any era.