A Modest Defense Of Country Music

I’ve been defending country music from its detractors for several years now. While there are somewhat fewer critics than there were before (some of these hipsters can get their appropriating fingers into anything), and people have come to expect this position from me more since I adopted my cowboy garb, I think it’s safe to say that most young people growing up in a metropolitan setting like to turn their noses up at it. (One exception is for people who listen to mostly pop of a variety of genres including pop country, with their Carrie Underwood nestled right there between Beyonce and John Mayer.) Let me go on record as to why I appreciate this music:

1. Its clear critical place in American musical history, namely as an important antecedent to rock and roll.
2. The way them country guitar cats can cut! Whoo-whee!
3. A lovely balance of sounds that strike me as very organic.
4. The SONGWRITING.

Of course, this last bit is what I’m going to hone in on. This I’ll say even in defense of pop country: they have a clear standard for what a song is supposed to consist of and accomplish, and the bar is set high. As someone who grew up in and then out of late ’90s/early 2000s ‘alternative rock’, I remember my disillusionment peaked when I heard, in 2002, this awful offering by Trapt called “Headstrong“, which must be quoted in its entirety to make my point:

Circling your, circling your, circling your head
Contemplating everything you ever said
Now I see the truth I got a doubt
A different motive in your eyes
And now I’m out, see you later

I see your fantasy
You want to make it a reality paved in gold
See inside, inside of our heads, yeah
Well, now that’s over

I see your motives inside
Decisions to hide

Back off, I’ll take you on
Headstrong to take on anyone
I know that you are wrong
Headstrong, we’re headstrong

Back off, I’ll take you on
Headstrong to take on anyone
I know that you are wrong
And this is not where you belong

I can’t give everything away
I won’t give everything away

Conclusions manifest, your first impression’s
Got to be your very best
I see you’re full of shit and that’s alright
That’s how you play, I guess you get through
Every night, well, now that’s over

I see your fantasy
You want to make it a reality paved in gold
See inside, inside of our heads, yeah
Well, now that’s over

I see your motives inside
Decisions to hide

Back off, I’ll take you on
Headstrong to take on anyone
I know that you are wrong
Headstrong, we’re headstrong

Back off, I’ll take you on
Headstrong to take on anyone
I know that you are wrong
And this is not where you belong

Where you belong?
(I can’t give everything away)
This is not where you belong
(I won’t give everything away)

I know, I know all about, I know, I know all about
I know, I know all about, I know, I know all about
Your motives inside and your decision to hide

Back off, I’ll take you on
Headstrong to take on anyone
I know that you are wrong
Headstrong, we’re headstrong

Back off, I’ll take you on
Headstrong to take on anyone
I know that you are wrong
And this is not where you belong

Where you belong?
This is not were you belong
(I can’t give everything away)
This is not were you belong
(I won’t give everything away)
This is not were you belong

(UPDATE: I’ve been told by a discerning reader that quoting this song in full is quite a dull read. That’s kind of the point though.)

Thinking back, I think I was listening to an acoustic version of the song on the radio, the purpose of which is ostensibly to call greater attention to the dismal (both in tone and execution) lyrics. This new focus, combined with the tireless repetition of the title lyric, led me to exclaim aloud (to myself, in the car), “Jesus Christ, what the fuck are you even talking about? Do you even know?”

It’s really a dreadful state of affairs. There have been atrocious songwriters for ages, of course, serving up insipid cliche after insipid cliche, but emo-nu-metal is unique in that the songwriters really truly cannot say what their songs are about, save a general feeling of alienation and despair. (Note: Certain drug-inspired ballads of the ’60s and ’70s may seem to be on the same level here, but a) they are clearly about drugs and nothing more b) they either make sense high or are designed to fuck your mind; either way, they succeed as compositions.) I’m also reminded of Papa Roach’s breakout smash “Last Resort”, wherein the speaker relates, “Don’t give a fuck if I cut my arm bleeding” and “If I took my life tonight, chances are that I might”; he then elaborates, “Mutilation out of sight. And I’m contemplating suicide.” Even in the spectrum of angst, this is a severely limited palette of sentiments.

It’s unnecessary to continue ripping these types of songs, but I offer it simply as a counterpoint to a modern country song: “Tequila Makes Her Clothes Fall Off” by Joe Nichols.

Before I even continue to the lyrics, notice: see how you already know what this song’s about?

She said, “I’m going out with my girlfriends”
Margaritas at the Holiday Inn
Lord have mercy, my only thought
Was Tequila makes her clothes fall off

I told her put an extra layer on
I know what happens when she drinks Patron
Her closet’s missing half the things she’s bought
Tequila makes her clothes fall off

Chorus:

She’ll start with kickin’ out of her shoes
Lose an earring in her drink
Leave her jacket in the bathroom stall
Drop a contact down the sink
Them pantyhose ain’t gonna last too long
If the DJ puts Bon Jovi on
She might come home in a table cloth
Tequila makes her clothes fall off

She can handle any champagne brunch
A bridal shower with Bacardi punch
Jello shooters full of Smirnoff
But Tequila makes her clothes fall off

Chorus

She don’t mean nothing – she’s just havin’ fun
Tomorrow she’ll say, “Oh, what have I done?”
Her friends will joke about the stuff she lost
Tequila makes her clothes fall off

Like a third-grader who already gets exactly why the hamburger outline makes sense and has a well-developed main idea, supporting details and conclusion (who can guess what this songwriter’s day job is?), there’s just a huge sense of relief I feel when I hear a song and I can comfortably state, “Whoever wrote that song knew what they wanted to say.”

Let’s look at one more: “Cleaning This Gun (Come On In Boy)” by Rodney Atkins.

The Declaration of Independence
Think I could tell you that first sentence
But then I’m lost

I can’t begin to count the theories
I’ve had pounded in my head
That I forgot

I don’t remember all that Spanish
Or the Gettysburg address
But there is one speech from high school
I’ll never forget

Chorus:

Come on in boy sit on down
And tell me about yourself
So you like my daughter do you now?
Yeah we think she’s something else
She’s her daddy’s girl
Her momma’s world
She deserves respect
That’s what she’ll get
Ain’t it son?
Hey y’all run along and have some fun
I’ll see you when you get back
Bet I’ll be up all night
Still cleanin’ this gun

Well now that I’m a father
I’m scared to death one day my daughter
Is gonna find
That teenage boy I used to be
That seems to have just one thing on his mind

She’s growin’ up so fast
It won’t be long before
I’ll have to put the fear of god into
Some kid at the door

Chorus

Now it’s all for show
Ain’t nobody gonna get hurt
It’s just a daddy thing
And hey, believe me, man it works

Chorus

Son, now y’all buckle up and have her back by te- let’s say about nine…thirty.
Drive safe.

That’s the best I can do before the stroke of midnight. Curse the restrictions of this blogging challenge! But seriously, come on. You know you love country.

3 thoughts on “A Modest Defense Of Country Music

  1. I Love country

    Hank Williams

    “There stands the glaas,
    that will ease all my paoin.
    that will settle my pain
    its my first one today!”

    Odetta

    Dylan/Cash SKIP to the FIVE MINUTE POINT FOR THE DUO (prepare to cry)

  2. Pingback: Okay, for the (first and) last time: here’s what the cowboy thing is about. « Shareef Ali's Songwriting Blog

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