About two years ago blogger Will Wilkinson confessed that when he runs out to the market to pick up bok choy, he tends to listen to country music in the car. He seems mildly perturbed by his own choice of radio stations, because he considers country music to be “a bulwark against cultural change, a reminder that ‘what you see is what you get,’ a means of keeping the charge of enchantment in ‘the little things’ that make up the texture of the every day, and a way of literally broadcasting the emotional and cultural centrality of the conventional big-ticket experiences that make a life a life.” Country music, he argues, “is culture war, but it's more bomb shelter than bomb.”
It turns out that I have been mildly irritated by that blog post for two years. So I thought I’d tell you why I listen to country music in the car, and why I am not perturbed at all by that choice.
The country music that attracts me is the music that contains exactly the same push for cultural change and the same aspirational goals that Wilkinson doesn’t hear in the genre. Explicitly religious country songs often request that the listener give up the desire to “get adjusted to this world” and focus on the moment when “Hallelujah, bye and bye, I’ll fly away” to heaven. The more secular side of country music can take that same call to “plant my feet on higher ground” and turn it into a call to shake the small town dust off your shoes and head for the possibility of the big city. That’s why I listen to it.
I listen because in songs like “Suds in the Bucket” by Sara Evans and “Bye Bye” by Jo Dee Messina, romance (either a new one, or a broken one) is a spur for moving on. Evans contrasts the static “biddies in the beauty shop [who] gossip goin' nonstop/Sippin' on pink lemonade” with the young woman who heads out of town with a handsome man and a convertible, leaving “the suds in the bucket and the clothes hangin’ out on the line” as she heads for a more enticing future. Messina, inspired by a broken heart, simply puts a “lead foot down on my accelerator and the rearview mirror torn off/I ain't never lookin' back.” These women don’t seem as afraid to “buck conventional norms” as Wilkinson suggests, or all that committed to the tired Tammy Wynette stereotype of standing by your man.
I listen to country music for songs like Toby Keith’s “How Do You Like Me Now,” where the former small-town loser turned big country star comes back from the big city to get revenge.
When I took off to TennesseeI heard that you made fun of meNever imagined I'd make it this far. . . How do you like me now?. . . Now that I'm on my way?Do you still think I'm crazyStandin’ here today?
And in the same vein, I listen for Taylor Swift’s song “Mean,” which is unapologetic about its ambitions to get out of town and do better.
Someday I'll be living in a big ol' cityAnd all you're ever gonna be is mean.Someday I'll be big enough so you can't hit meAnd all you're ever gonna be is mean.
The video for the song shows young people saving for education, working at their passions for music and design, and succeeding. I’ll sing those lyrics, loudly, any time that my kids and I are in the car.
I sing just as loudly for songs like “Big Star” by Kenny Chesney and “Love Your Baby Girl” by Sugarland, both of which tell the stories of small-town musicians making it in the big city. And their success doesn’t come by magic or by good luck. It comes because “if you work hard to get where you are it feels good in the hot spotlight.” The waitress who features in Jason Aldean’s “Wide Open” has less of a meteoric rise, but is still focused on aspiration and change, balanced by the desire to hang on to her core values while she moves forward.
The corner cafe,She scrapes some quarters off the table,Says “Thanks yeah now maybe I'll be ableTo get that black MercedesI've been saving for.”The other girls say,“You oughta undo a couple buttons,Start showing off a little something.”She says, “Naw, you go ahead,Think I'd rather stay poor,See I'm just making rent.”She said, “This ain't where my road ends.”
The people in the stories told by country songs are often—though not always—moving, changing, and working to make their lives better. They are even, in Brad Paisley’s “American Saturday Night,” possessed of an Adam Smith-like understanding of the wonders of international trade that make it possible to have
Brazilian leather boots on the pedal of her German carListen to the Beatles singing "Back in the USSR". . . Canadian bacon on their pizza pieThey've got a cooler full of cold Coronas and Amstel LightIt's like we're all livin' in a big ol' cupJust fire up the blender, mix it all up
Admittedly, the songs mentioned so far are the kind of bubbly “upbeat and conventional” music that Wilkinson criticizes. They aren’t breaking a whole lot of musical or lyrical ground. But it’s not particularly fair to country music to pretend that these tropes of aspiration and success, of heading for bright lights and new futures, don’t exist.
And when you go even slightly farther afield in the genre, you find similar tropes expressed in more complicated ways. The assembly line worker in Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time” so desires one of the Cadillacs he builds, but can’t afford to buy, that he steals one, a piece at a time, from the factory. It may be illegal and rebellious (after all, it’s Johnny Cash), but it’s certainly a lot of hard work put into getting something better. And Brandy Clark’s album 12 Stories is filled with narratives of people who long to get out of their small towns and are struggling to find a way to do it. Some of them get high or take pills to dull their sense of being trapped. Others “pray to Jesus and . . . play the lotto, because there ain’t but two ways we can change tomorrow.”
None of this sounds to me like music written by a culture that fears change. It sounds, instead, like music written by a culture that is dying for it, celebrating when it finds it, and grieving when it cannot.