Country Grammar: House of Pain

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Bro Country, You Are the Generation Who Brought Us Gilded Fallacies and You’ll Get What You Deserve

by: Leslie Hale
Contributing Columnist

I’ve been thinking a lot about what’s been going on in country music lately. I’ve wanted to write about it for a while, but I felt that everything I wanted to say had been said before, that I didn’t really have anything new to add to the conversation. So I just read and listened to what other people had to say, and I pondered, and I grew increasingly sad about the current state of things.

If you’re not sure what I mean by “what’s been going on in country music lately,” I’ll give you a hint in the form of this week’s top five country songs according to Billboard:

5. Eric Church “Give Me Back My Hometown,” a song that prominently features lyrics about drinking in a truck bed, a high school letter jacket, and Pizza Hut (I’m serious).

4. Jerrod Neimann “Drink to That All Night,” which includes the phrases “DJ got those speakers thumping,” “gonna kick it old school,” and “take your cup, fill it up”, along with a reference to “the ATL.”

3.  Luke Bryan “Play It Again,” in which the blue-eyed darling of bro country seemingly date-rapes a girl by “pouring a little sugar in her Dixie cup” (on a tailgate, of course) and which laughably includes a line where Luke busts out his guitar and plays it. Like that would ever happen.

2.  Brantley Gilbert “Bottoms Up,” which I was shocked to learn is not a cover of the 2010 hit by Trey Songz featuring Nicki Minaj, though the subject matter is largely the same.

1. Florida Georgia Line featuring Luke Bryan “This Is How We Roll,” a song that includes the phrase “up on them 37 Nittos”. I don’t get the reference and don’t care to, although I suspect it has to do with truck tires.

Let’s take a moment to think about these songs and what they have in common. Drinking. Trucks. Pretty girls. Parties. More drinking. Georgia. Sure, these songs are connected by these and countless other superficial factors, but there is something else–something less tangible, but certainly no less real–that serves as a common thread among them all.

These songs all suck.

Of course, everyone is entitled to their own tastes and opinions, but if you think songs like this are an accurate and good representation of country music, then you are wrong. Unequivocally, indefensibly wrong. And you are doing real, lasting damage to a truly great American art form.

The other day, I read this excellent piece over at Saving Country Music, and it really got the wheels turning in my mind. After thinking on it a while, I sort of had an epiphany. This quote from Colin Raye is what did it:

“They’ve largely abandoned the reality-based moral message for the common man that made country music a strong cultural force for good.”

I got to thinking about what country music–real country music–is. What makes a country song a country song? What makes it authentic? What gives country music its grit and honesty? What makes it unique as a genre? The answer that came to me was so simple, I was surprised I hadn’t thought if it before.

Pain.

At its core, country music is about pain. The pain of poverty. The physical pain of hard work. The pain of losing a friend, a loved one, or yes, even a dog. The pain of a broken home. The pain of guilt for past wrongs. The pain of loneliness that comes from having the kind of restless, rambling soul that’s never quite satisfied.

Sure, plenty of classic country songs contain similar motifs to those of the likes of Luke Bryan and Brantley Gilbert: drinking, women, trucks, and the list goes on. Hank, Townes, Waylon, Johnny, Merle, all the greats have songs that allude to these things. After all, the elements of the perfect country and western song are Mama, trains, trucks, prison, and gettin’ drunk. Everybody knows that.

The difference isn’t the subject matter, it’s the underlying theme. Today’s “party country” is about boasting and flashiness. It’s about having the nicest truck with the tallest tires and the hottest woman in the passenger seat. Drinking is a celebration, a way to get the party started. No one ever fights, the cops are never called, and the “cowboy” always gets the girl.

Those old country songs–and the authentic, modern songs that pay homage to them–tell a different story. It’s a story of broken, lonely people, doing their best to get by, leaning on God and family when there’s nowhere else to turn. There’s heartache, regret, cheating, gambling, prison, prostitution, and murder. Ultimately, it’s a story of desperation and humility. We hear it over and over again in those old records. Even the happy songs, even the love songs, carry an element of that same old hurt. The idea is that you celebrate and love despite your hardships. It’s a theme as old as country music itself: we may not have much, but at least we’ve got each other.

Country music has always been aware of mortality in ways few other genres are. A common trope in country songs is a three-verse structure, with each verse illustrating the passage of time and a different period in the narrator or subject’s life (think of “Pancho and Lefty”, or for a more obvious example, “The Best Day of My Life” by George Strait. And there are plenty of others.) That underlying theme is always present. Nothing is permanent, and life is painful–even when it’s good, it still kind of hurts. Even when the lyrics and melody seem upbeat, the wail of the fiddle or steel guitar almost always gives it away.

Consider this: how many teenagers do you know who listen to country music? Not many, right? You might know a few, but teenage country fans are certainly a minority. I didn’t like country music as a teen. I can’t think of anyone I knew that did. It just doesn’t appeal to young people. Why is that?

Or why is it that old rock stars like Robert Plant and Jon Bon Jovi eventually put out country records? Why do old rock singers or rappers seem silly and are hard to take seriously, but no one questions the idea of an old country singer?

I’ll tell you why. It’s because good country music comes from pain, and pain comes from experience. It’s the only genre I can think of where the songs get better and more genuine as the artist ages. Country music doesn’t appeal to younger people because it doesn’t tell their story. It isn’t for them.

Of course, I’m not saying that young folks can’t make good country music. A lot of the best songwriters in the game right now are in their 30s or younger. But they’re old souls whose lyrics are wise beyond their years. I guarantee you that, ten or twenty years from now, songwriters like William Clark Green and Evan Felker will be writing circles around their younger selves. Just look at Cody Canada, Jason Boland, and Mike McClure; their early stuff was great, but it doesn’t hold a candle to what they’re doing now.

Party country–or bro country, which seems to be the more common moniker–is a flash in the pan. It will die out. There’s no way it can’t. Garth Brooks had his share of rowdy party anthems–“Friends in Low Places”, anyone?–but even he knew his roots and stuck to them (I’m pretending the whole Chris Gaines thing never happened, and encourage you to do the same). The Luke Bryans of the world’s downfall will come in due time because they are in no way paying homage to those who paved the road before them. This was never more apparent than it was a few weeks ago, when George Strait won Entertainer of the Year at the ACM’s and Luke Bryan fans went ballistic on Twitter, complaining that George Strait is “an old man” and “not an entertainer”.

There’s no better testament to an artist’s character and legacy than their fans, and bro country fans are as shallow as it gets. Pretty soon, another “next big thing” will come along, and they’ll leave one bandwagon to jump on another. One of the most unique things about country music is how tight-knit the community is. There’s relatively little trash-talking among country artists compared to other genres, and successes are celebrated by the entire community. The greats are honored and revered, and the young ones know their place (at least, they used to). The fact that Luke Bryan fans were so quick to attack a living legend like George Strait tells you all you need to know. These people aren’t country music fans. They’re fans of an artist with a carefully cultivated stud-muffin-party-boy image that’s as fake as the whiteness of his teeth. That sort of thing has no staying power without substance to back it up.

The fact is, you can only write so many songs about getting drunk in the backwoods in your pickup truck. (As an aside, who’s driving these pickup trucks? Is it the same guys who are getting drunk on moonshine and whatnot? Or the girls they’re slipping roofies to? I have a huge problem with this, but I digress.) When the clock runs up on these guys – and it will – they’ll be forgotten. The fad will end, and real country music will carry on. Maybe not on mainstream radio, but it will still be there where it always was – in the seedy run-down bars, on the independent local radio stations, and in the heart of the American everyman. A country boy can survive, and so can country music.

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4 responses to “Country Grammar: House of Pain

  1. Amen! Preach it girl. I would suggest that all these young country songwriters spend an entire week visiting The Nashville Songwriter’s Hall Of Fame- memorize every name on the wall and at least one of every one of those great writer’s songs. That goes for the record producers, record company executives , promotion people and radio station executives- as well.

  2. Great story Leslie. You are right about bad music. It dies and fades away. No one listens to disco or pays homage to that terrible sound. It died because it was awful. You certainly don’t remember disco musicians. The same fate is waiting for these silly country musicians.

    Country music is the brother of Blues. Musicians who want to be great Country artists should know the Blues first. Blues comes from Gospel music. Gospel and Blues together make great Country music. Great Rock and Roll mixes those as well.

    Your article is well written and to the point. Good job!

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