Friday, August 7, 2009

Country Dignity

Where are the real people in country songs? Where have they gone? There's dignity in country people. Yes, they have trucks and muddy jeans out there, although most Music Row songwriters apparently never leave their condos long enough to see for themselves. If they did, they'd meet someone rather surprising.

Country folks have hearts and souls. They rescue the lives of colts and calves birthed in breach. They fix the roof and dig the well. They save and sacrifice to marry off daughters or pay their college tuition. They send sons to war or give them a parcel of the family land to farm. They stop and talk with strangers while they mend fences. They raise a neighbor's barn and lend tools to each other. They tell very funny stories. They grow strawberries and give hayrides at Halloween. They aren't always drunk at the bar down the road or drunk at the lake. Where are the real people in country songs?

I believe a songwriter should be a poet. He should speak the timeless truth and find the wisdom in simple actions. A song lyric doesn't need to lead the listener down the path like a dumb cow on a tether. It can be an invisible sword that wounds the heart without drawing blood.

By contrast, here is the kind of cheap limerick-verse we get from Nashville these days:
There were two karaoke girls drunk on a dare
Singing "I Got You Babe" by Sonny and Cher

Yeah, life was good everywhere

My reaction to these lines is that life is pretty pathetic in some places. This is, in fact, what urban people do when they have no life. What about the stuff that really makes life good everywhere? Why does the working stiff need to aspire to this obnoxious spectacle on a Friday night? Can't he, for once, go to a town meeting and debate healthcare reform? Or do you think he's too stupid to do that? Go on, urban cynic, poke fun. Let's see you dismantle a tractor engine and have it running by sun-up. Let's see you run a family business on fumes and a prayer.

The rule of thumb in Nashville is: make her crude, make him dirty, put them in a truck (with a six pack sometimes), and it's a country song. Keep listening to country radio and you'll hear plenty more where that came from:

She wants her nails painted black
She wants the toy in the crackerjack

She wants to ride the bull at the rodeo

She wants to wear my shirt to bed

She wants to make every stray a pet

N' Drive around in my truck with no place to go
Real or bogus? "Wanted desperately: one goth redneck woman. She must have no idea what fun is, and prefer being thrown from a 2000 pound bull at the end of the date. I will shower her with little plastic Crackerjack toys (hopefully one will be a ring!) and affection. In return for winning my heart, she can waste my hard earned pay on $3 per gallon gas driving around aimlessly in my truck (which I never need), and keep every animal she finds along the way. Waiting anxiously for the woman of my dreams!"

It's time to call this what it really is: bogus parody- and cynical parody at that. Let's bury it. Let's pronounce it dead. It's anti-poetry, anti-heart, anti-reality, and anti-country.

copyright 2009 craig bickhardt


Anonymous said...

So let's all make a list of the commercially successful dignified country hits for the last 5 years? Or maybe we can write one......

Tim McMullen said...

I know that this one is heart felt, as are all of your posts, but this one is also hilarious. Your want ad at the end is wickedly and brilliantly inspired. Where is the heart in the heartland? Where is the man who earned his red neck, not by his ideology but by his real work? You have offered a wonderful paean to the rural life, and I salute you for your poetic art in accomplishing it.

Speaking of the heartland, I just spent much of my day (literally) writing about the political attempt in Texas to write Thurgood Marshall and Cesar Chavez out of American history. I posted it on my blog at

Your acknowledgement of real folk having real world interests and concerns brought that to mind.

The work on my essay was interrupted by my wife convincing me to go to the 10:00 AM showing of the new movie Julie and Julia, about the intertwining life stories of Julia Child and a now-famous blogger. It was a surprisingly hilarious, but gentle movie about real people and real lives.

As a would-be blogger and, as you know, a follower of a several blogs, I found it particularly fun and interesting. I can't pretend to guess the type of movie to which you are drawn (probably many different types), but as a person who advocates integrity, dedication, creativity, and real characters in art, I think that this movie might be right up your alley.

I try not to be too overtly political on other people's blogs, but if anyone wants to read about the UFW's campaign against writing important Americans out of history, you can get the link on the afore-mentioned blog post.

Again, thanks for both the heart and the hilarity in this one,

pat said...

I read this and it reminded me of a David Allan Coe song - You Never Even Called Me By My Name (The Perfect Country And Western Song) the last verse especially. :)

Anonymous said...

Thank you, thank you, thank you. You have just written a stake through the heart of modern "country" music. Or you would have, if it had one.

richfarmers said...

A perfect synopsis of why I don't listen to country music anymore.

Barry Alfonso said...

Obviously, mainstream (meaning commercial radio-oriented) country music has been stuck in a cartoonish phase for some time. I think it’s somewhat connected to identity politics. In an indirect but very real way, the 2000 Bush vs. Gore election and the events of 9/11 heightened the cultural divide between the country-music audience and other segments of the population. These distinctions cut across all sorts of other lines, of course. But people do like to identify themselves with a particular tribe, and the country music tribe has gotten increasingly insular over the past 10 or so years. That’s why so many country tunes are simply lists of rednecky or hillbillyish things: spittin’ chewing tobacco into a Slurpee cup, having Christmas lights up all year, that sort of thing. It is almost exactly the same as the list of gangsta-type attributes recited in rap songs.

It’s funny – working in Nashville, I came to believe that the lyrics were by far the most important part of country music. The music was mostly a template for a certain restricted number of lyric themes, written cleverly or otherwise. This leaves room for poetry as an embellishment, an ornament, but generally not much else. The essence of country music lyrics these days is to bolster the sense of identity and community among country fans, not to express stray poetic thoughts. I also believe that, in many cases, the reason why two or three people work on a song lyric is to refine the individual fingerprints out of the words. The sense of authorship is diminished in favor of a seamless community statement.

I think it's also true that the realities facing rural America are too unpleasant to make hit records out of. Here in Pennsylvania (as you well know, Craig), so many small towns built their fortunes around one or two small factories. You drive through these places and see the decaying hulk of the factory at the edge of town and the abandoned shops along Main Street. The deep South is doing just as badly, if not worse.

Speaking of reality -- did you hear John Rich’s “Shutting Detroit Down”? John Anderson also recorded a version of it. It’s a sort of confused populist anthem about “big shots whinin’ on my evening news” while auto workers are losing their jobs. It doesn’t go into why the auto companies are shutting down, just complains about fat cats taking bailouts. There’s a vaguely menacing macho strut to the song, but no real focus beyond the sort of complaint you’d hear over beers at the corner bar. This isn’t exactly dignity, but at least it’s acknowledging reality, sort of.

Maybe we just have to sort things out after the music business completely disintegrates and then rename to components. Happy cartoon country could be “Wood-panel music.” Angry small town music could be “Splinter music,” and so on.

Anonymous said...

Today's country music is a lost cause...once in a blue moon someone good (Jamey Johnson) will come along, but more and more I have to rely on word-of-mouth or country blogs to find out who, since I abandoned country radio long ago.
P.S I am a 34-year old male

Anonymous said...

I live in a small town in the sticks and find no fault with the line about driving a truck around with no place to go.

It's one of the things I miss about my former (younger) self. I used to go out and just wander around in the truck, and before that in my father's cars. I found a lot of interesting places that way. (Some I haven't been back to in years.)

Now I end up planning almost every trip and side trips are rare. It's not gas prices so much either, as time that has made the difference.

Remember that old rock song with the line,
"Cruisin' along with the radio.
No particular place to go." ?

Anonymous said...

Just like the boss, the country audience/record buyers are not always "right", but they're always the audience/record buyers.


Anonymous said...


thanks for this blog. I was thinking it was me that was going bonkers and not the music: it's been years since I have purchased a significant amount of "country" because any previous satisfaction it gave me went missing, as if overnight -gone was meaning, gone was real emotion, gone was any significant melody.

I now get more bang-for-my-buck from the classic American Songbook than I get from country. The Songbook may be schmaltzy, cute, harmless and fall of hope, but I'm a sucker for a love song and nice lilt.

I get contemporary music, love, politics, humour and comment from Loudon Wainwright, Nils Lofgren, John Gorka and the like, mainly Folk artists.

These are the artists/writers who get air time from me.

I can't fathom who killed Nashville, I can only hope all its good writers don't remain buried.


Tim Wheeler said...

Craig, you should take it as a high compliment that this blog entry would remind someone of a David Allan Coe song...

The current parade of country drivel is perceived to be what the customer wants, and in some respects, it IS what the customer wants, or at least what they are willing to settle-for. They play it, and people listen. (or at least advertisers think so)

Artists and writers can't stand most of it, of course, but the market exists, and it comes with formulaic risk that is easily exploited by the accountants and execs.

Pop culture will always exist, and it will rarely be pretty, and will almost always be laughable and/or forgotten in hindsight, but as long as people will put up with them, 30 second hits are not going away.

I agree with Barry that reality, today, may not sell in all cases, but there are glimmers of hope that indicate the market could bear a dose of hopeful reality meets well-crafted prose.

That said, there will always be someone willing to whip up what the customer will consume.

I'm reminded of a quote from Henry Ford. When asked about giving the customers what they want, he replied, "If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said 'Faster Horses'.

People and labels may think they want more drivel (uptempo horses), but what they really want is a way to extract themselves from reality and for that, the current drivel and vacuum-packed productions deliver! Even we, as artists, have to admit we’re distracted from reality as we contemplate how such a mindless song ever made it to the airwaves.

Unless presented with a different destination and a compelling vehicle to get them there, the consumer will continue to shovel all the hay and manure the *hit-farms have to offer.

Tim Wheeler

Becca Bessinger said...

You make me laugh (and want to spit at someone :)

Unknown said...

Craig - I don't recognize me anywhere in the country songs on the radio (okay, we use a pickup, and there's plenty of mud and dirt around here), but I surely did in your description of the life of a country person. I never fully appreciated the depth and width of the gulf between the nobility of daily life and the utter crassness that pervades the radio. Thanks for the lift.