Is Country Music Really Getting Dumber?
There’s been an awful lot of debate over the past few years about how dumbed-down contemporary country music is.
It’s perhaps an easy angle to argue — we are, after all, in the middle of a commercial cycle that’s been dominated by a lot of so-called “bro country,” and those songs do tend to feature some similar lyrical themes that have to do with trucks, and moonlight, and short shorts, and going down by the lake with your baby and so on.
That’s a trend, just as ‘Urban Cowboy’ was a trend at one time — and contrary to what purists predicted at the time, it didn’t destroy country music.
In 2013 an enormous debate broke out even among some of the top stars in country music after Zac Brown famously claimed that Luke Bryan‘s ‘That’s My Kind of Night’ was “the worst song I’ve ever heard.”
“There’s not a lot of the country format that I really enjoy listening to,” Brown said. “If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up. There’s songs out there on the radio right now that make me ashamed to be even in the same format as some other artists.”
That led to an enormous controversy, with country artists weighing in from all directions.
"The truth is, there is as much country music of substance in the world today as there has ever been"
“We write about what we know about,” songwriter Dallas Davidson said in defense of his song. “What I know about is sitting on a tailgate drinking a beer. Hell, I live on the river. When Luke called me to tell me about what happened, I was literally smoking Boston butts on my homemade cooker at my 800-square-foot river house with about four of my buddies with their trucks backed up, sitting on a tailgate. And they want to know why we talk about tailgates in songs … well, that’s because we’re sitting on them.”
Still, there’s been an undeniable groundswell of fans posting their very vocal criticisms of certain artists and their latest works online, often lamenting the commercial nature of the music, its tenuous connection to the roots of the country genre, and a perceived lack of lyrical substance.
But maybe that’s just too pat an argument. After all, it’s very easy to look back on the past with a certain degree of rose-colored fondness — whether it’s in pop culture, politics or social trends — and long for the good old days, when everything was better. But it also tends to be selective.
The truth is, there is as much country music of substance in the world today as there has ever been — it just might not be the current focus of commercial radio. In the last year alone we’ve seen world-class releases from a variety of “classic” artists, including Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash, Alan Jackson, Trace Adkins, Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris that rank among the best work those artists have ever created.
There’s also been a flood of great releases from younger and new artists that rivals anything that Nashville has ever seen, including Kacey Musgraves, Brandy Clark, Shovels & Rope, Ashley Monroe and many more. So the notion that there’s no good, well-written country music coming out of Nashville is simply false.
"It’s very easy to look back on the past with a certain degree of rose-colored fondness and long for the good old days, when everything was better. But it also tends to be selective."
When people look back at the past, they tend to recall only what they want to from that past, while either forgetting or conveniently discarding the parts that don’t support their position. So when people long for the glory days of country music, they’re arguing that nothing today can top ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today,’ ‘I Saw the Light’ and other such landmark songs. Which is fair enough — those songs are undeniable classics.
But in the interest of historical accuracy, a dispassionate and balanced look at country music history also reveals a few, shall we say, less lyrically substantive tracks that might offset the argument that the genre was more intelligent in the past — including some songs from some of country’s most legendary and respected performers.
Let’s start with this lyrical gem from David Frizzell, which reached No. 1 in 1982.
In ‘I’m Gonna Hire a Wino to Decorate Our Home,’ a fed-up wife proposes a unique solution to her husband’s penchant for spending his entire paycheck bar hopping: ‘We’ll take out the dining room table and put a bar along that wall / And a neon sign that points the way to our bathroom down the hall.”
Carl Smith scored a big hit in 1953 with ‘Hey Joe,’ which tells the age-old story of a girl who comes between two friends, with lyrics like, “Hey Joe – come on let’s be buddy duddies / Show me you’re my palsie walsie / Introduce that pretty little chick to me.”
Conway Twitty and Loretta Lynn are two of the greatest country singers of all time, and they teamed up for a series of hit duets that included ‘After the Fire Is Gone,’ ‘Louisiana Woman, Mississippi Man’ and more. They also released a song titled ‘You’re the Reason Our Kids Are Ugly’ in 1978, as the B-side to ‘From Seven Till Ten.’
Tom T. Hall is one of the greatest singer-songwriters in the history of country music. His gift for story songs has earned him the nickname “The Storyteller.” In 1973 he scored his biggest hit with ‘I Love,’ which contains the following lyrics, among others: “I love leaves in the wind / Pictures of my friends / Birds of the world / And squirrels.”
John Denver was one of the biggest country and pop crossover artists of the ’70s into the ’80s, with a string of hits that included ‘Annie’s Song,’ ‘Back Home Again’ and ‘Rocky Mountain High.’ He topped both the country and pop charts in 1974 with ‘Thank God I’m a Country Boy,’ which included the following: “Well I wouldn’t trade my life for diamonds or jewels / I never was one of them money-hungry fools / I’d rather have my fiddle and my farming tools.”
Even the best of the best aren’t immune to an occasional corny song. Johnny Cash liked to balance out the dark themes of some of his work with lighter fare, but he may have taken it a little too far with ‘Flushed From the Bathroom of Your Heart.’
Finally, nobody could ever possibly dispute George Strait‘s place in country music history. He’s scored 60 No. 1 hits, and the quality he’s been able to maintain over the course of his career is virtually unrivaled. But even King George is not immune to the occasional lyrical cliche, as his 2008 hit ‘River of Love’ demonstrates: “Hey baby won’t you take a little ride with me / Have a look around, see what we can see / I’ve got the paddle, I’ve got the boat / Come on baby I know she’ll float / We’ll go rollin’ on the river of love.”
Soooooo — do you still think country music is getting dumber? Or have we just been forgetting country music’s past and focusing on a few small elements of today’s music?
Sound off in the comments section below!