Girl in a Country Song

September 7, 2014

Miranda Lambert

Miranda Lambert

I realize that this post will be of limited interest — or no interest — to most of my theological readership. But, hey, it’s time for y’all to expand your horizons.

This has been an interesting year in mainstream country music. There has been a civil war within the genre for the better part of a decade now, beginning roughly in the mid-00’s. It would be too simplistic to say that it’s “traditionalists” versus “modernists,” or something like that. In fact, country has shown a remarkable ability to adapt and appropriate genuine creativity through its storied history, from Hank to Merle to Dolly to Dwight to Garth. There has always been those who have picked one particular iteration of the genre and excluded all others as something less than the read deal. The miracle that was Hank Sr., whose consolidation of the genre pioneered by Jimmie Rodgers and Roy Acuff was indeed stunning, is a good example of someone who has defined country music for many people. But most country fans have a deep appreciation for the broader contours through which this genre has molded itself through the years, self-consciously as a representative form of American folk art, at least in the South. Yet the past is inevitably a point of reference. Collin Raye, well-known on 90’s country radio, ably expresses the frustration of many:

I’m passionate about it because I love our genre. I got into country music not to make a buck. I did it because I love it … I grew up at a time when Merle Haggard was writing stuff like “Mama’s Hungry Eyes” and “Sing Me Back Home”. Kristofferson was writing “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Me & Bobby McGee” and stuff like that. It was poetry. Country music has never been about the chord progression or the complexity of the music. It’s always been about lyrics and stories, and real life slices of life. And the one common thread has always been poetry.

You can click on the links to the Haggard tunes and understand what he’s talking about. Yet Collin Raye’s own style of country was itself quite different from the heroes he mentions. The intensity of the current civil war within country music is among those who accept and encourage the forward movement of the genre, not lazily repeating the past. This introduces a great deal of complexity when it comes to identifying the worrisome features of the music on country radio.

The most insightful critiques have focused on the obvious gender disparity on country radio. Rolling Stone, for example, has identified the problem but with some hopeful signs for the future. The problem has been and continues to be, as it is labeled, “bro country” or “party country.” Jody Rosen coined, “bro country,” last year, and it is now used widely. We can quote Collin Raye again, as he humorously describes the trend:

There appears to be not even the slightest attempt to “say” anything other than to repeat the tired, overused mantra of redneck party boy in his truck, partying in said truck, hoping to get lucky in the cab of said truck, and his greatest possible achievement in life is to continue to be physically and emotionally attached to the aforementioned truck as all things in life should and must take place in his, you guessed it…truck.

I didn’t mind the first two or three hundred versions of these gems but I think we can all agree by now that everything’s been said about a redneck and his truck, that can possibly be said. It is time to move on to the next subject. Any subject, anything at all.

Willie Nelson once wrote in his early song, “Shotgun Willie,” that “you can’t make a record if you ain’t got nothing to say.” Apparently, that’s not the case anymore.

Disposable, forgettable music has been the order of the day for quite a while now and it’s time for that to stop.

Looking at the past year, the dominance of bro country is still going strong, though a push-back is emerging. It is painful for me to offer examples of bro country, but here is one of the hit songs on country radio this year: “Ready Set Roll” by Chase Rice. Sorry, you may never recover. The latest single from Jason Aldean is arguably worse, which I didn’t think was possible. To be fair, these two songs are the most egregious examples that I could recall and are not representative of the whole. But it would have been impossible to imagine these songs on country radio even five years ago. Impossible. Hence, the civil war today. If you read the comments on the videos or follow country blogs or listen to callers on country radio, there is a significant amount of listeners who have had enough. And country radio is caught in a bind, losing longtime listeners in droves, while gaining unstable and fickle listeners in the short term — the sort that Nashville loves, for now.

Gender

The problem is that women are eating this stuff up. [But see the next paragraph.] Everyone knows it. Not a secret. Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan have built massive followings on vapid songs, with a fan base almost entirely of women. That’s an exaggeration, but the dedicated base is clear. They buy most of the concert tickets, the albums, the t-shirts, and the smart guys looking for girls will follow accordingly. That sounds sexist, I know. I have little doubt that men are capable, or more capable, of consuming fantasies and catering their libido with the greatest resolve. But we’re talking about this specific market place. The fantasy world of bro country is heavily fueled by female consumers. Yes, these are men’s fantasies — the “girl in a country song” satirized by Maddie & Tae, which has been getting airplay finally — for which men are responsible. But the consumer is very much the woman who wants to be the girl in a country song. Nashville knows it. They’re not stupid.

Yet, women may save country music. Everyone knows this too. That’s the paradox. When you look at the artists today, women dominate by every credible criteria of genuine artistry. Miranda Lambert is the most famous, and God bless her for being a standout artist in this dark malaise. We could add Brandy Clark, Ashley Monroe, Kacey Musgraves, Holly Williams, and Maggie Rose, among others. But with the notable exception of Miranda, country radio is currently dominated by male voices, unlike anything we’ve ever seen in the history of country music. Miranda has expressed dismay at the situation, rightly asking where is today’s Patsy Cline, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton, or Pam Tillis? For every ten songs, you are lucky if one is female. Yet, the artistry and intelligence is clearly on the female side, as multiple music critics and average fans have recognized for some time now.

The latest nominations for the 2014 CMA’s is a significant nod in the direction of the female performers, as Kevin John Coyne noticed. Miranda leads the nominations. Jason Aldean is snubbed. And George Strait is nominated for entertainer of the year. There is harmony in the universe once again! As a result, the nominations reveal some curious incongruities with country radio. Martina McBride is nominated for female vocalist of the year. Country radio ignored her most recent album, yet the album debuted at number one. Brandy Clark was nominated for new artist of the year. Country radio ignored her album, yet music critics and country fans alike have lauded it as one of the most refreshing albums in years. It is nice when nominations actually buck the radio trend to some extent. There are disappointing nominations to be sure, like Thomas Rhett among the new artists. Rhett is a poster boy for bro country. Look at the comments for his hit song, “Get Me Some of That,” and you can test my thesis about women eating this up.

My hope is that the women can indeed save country music — not the female fans who swoon at every insipid “hey pretty girl,” but the female artists who are keeping the genre alive. There are plenty of women among the fans who agree, but they are currently outnumbered by (apparently) former fans of Backstreet Boys. That is sad.

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6 Responses to “Girl in a Country Song”

  1. Rod said

    I get my American country music updates right here K-man. The theology is just a big bonus brother 🙂 Nice post.

    • Kevin Davis said

      I should subtitle the blog: Where Karl Barth and Johnny Cash meet.

      • Rod said

        I like that idea; and If it means helping make Barth & others more accessible? – then rock on. I’m a fan of the ‘theology in conversation with art’ theme that runs right through Cash’s career. From what I’ve read and heard, I reckon Barth would approve.

      • Kevin Davis said

        Yeah, I think the man in black and ole Karl have quite a lot in common, namely a profound understanding of grace.

  2. Moldmaker said

    And has anyone here heard of Hank III, there is another genre of country nobody talks about. What about Dale Watson, or Wayne Hancock more of the purists still puttin out new music

    • Kevin Davis said

      Yes, I’m familiar with Hank III, Watson, and Hancock. They have some good material, but I would rather just listen to the original than to the purists. My impression of Hancock, in particular, is that he tries a bit too hard to emulate his hero, Hank Sr. But I’m glad he’s doing what he’s doing. We need purists too.

      Hank III is the most complicated to evaluate. He showed enormous promise with his debut album in 1999, but he clearly was not committed to what he wanted to do with his music. And so he has experimented with every alt-country, punk-country, metal-country variation imaginable. When he’s doing real country, he can be amazing. His voice is an uncanny resemblance to his grandfather’s.

      I appreciate that Hank III is thoroughly pissed at Nashville and unafraid to talk about it every chance he gets! But I much prefer to listen to his sister’s music. Holly Williams is the near perfection of a singer-songwriter, and The Highway (2013) is an album that every artist dreams of making. I am afraid that Hank III has yet to find his moment of great artistry, but I’m rooting for him.

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