Country music at its best is Russian literature set to song. Heartache from marriages gone awry or anxiety about losing a job keep the music in tune with the very real pains of living in a modern regime. Such themes speak to the souls of Americans who live in rural areas or who work with their hands.
The pains of living in rural America and among the working class have never been more real, especially in the last generation. Scholars write of “deaths of despair” from suicide or drug use or alcoholism among white Americans without college degrees. Manufacturing, mining, and other working-class jobs have fled. Marriage rates have plummeted over the last half-century, as has church attendance. The decades-long climb in the rate of out-of-wedlock births, especially among the less well educated, has far-reaching consequences: Many of today’s rural whites don’t know both of their parents, much less their grandparents.
It should be a golden age of songwriting, with sad songs dominating the airwaves.
Instead, Nashville’s corporate Music Row acts like nothing has happened. Today’s bubble-gum country claptrap depicts easy good times and cheap thrills. Songs about drinking a beer on a tailgate on a dirt road after a Friday football game are in. Songs about divorce, alcoholism, prison, or drugs—once staples of country songs—are almost nonexistent on country radio. Mainstream Nashville just isn’t producing them.
Of course, worries about the direction of country music are as old as the country-music industry. Many of the country greats of bygone days who gave voice to authentic concerns were Nashville outsiders (think Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson), and some classic songs bemoan “Murder on Music Row” and how fakes have “Gone Country.”
Today’s disconnect goes beyond instruments and outfits. It goes to the connection between country music and its audience, between country music and the destiny of the nation. Nashville betrays its place in our polity when it ignores the deep despondency of the white working class and rural America.
Crickets from Nashville
No song better captures the current vacuity of Nashville—glorifying the surface of country life while missing its substance and its pains—than Riley Green’s 2019 hit “I Wish Grandpas Never Died.” Green wishes “coolers never run out of cold Bud Light” and “even cars had truck beds.” He wishes “girls you loved never gave back diamond rings,” “high school home teams never lost,” and “honkytonks didn’t have no closing time.” And of course he wishes “grandpas never died.” Luke Combs’s “Beer Never Broke My Heart” contains nearly the exact same list of country goods—right down to the diamond rings, football teams, and longneck beers. And in Jake Owen’s “Homemade,” a third song released during the same four-month stretch of 2019 as the other two, here are the same tropes again: Football. Dirt roads. Beer (although Owen makes it a Miller Lite for variety).
There’s even an entire subgenre of pop country devoted to toes-in-the-sand, island living (thanks, Kenny Chesney), surely a far cry from Loretta Lynn’s curiously proud lamentation about hailing from the coal-mining Kentucky backwoods.
To be sure, country music has always had its share of songs that were just cheap or slick or silly or superficial. And complaints about rising commercialization and declining authenticity in recorded music are perennial. But at its best, country—like the varied genres that have spoken to the hopes and fears of particular communities in particular times and places: bluegrass and the blues, folk and rap, punk and grunge—has been a source of wisdom and consolation, a celebration of virtues, a sharp commentary on social and economic realities. Today, the prominence of shallow country on the radio means that rural white Americans no longer have a poetry dedicated to their distinctive concerns.
Nashville now ignores divorce, for instance. Men and women regard divorce as a tragic loss, for themselves and for their children. Divorce separates parents (usually fathers) from their kids, creates financial insecurity (especially for mothers), splits communities, crashes dreams, and crushes children.
Until about a generation ago, country music radio still put these problems on the airwaves. It recognized that men and women need the love and community that marriage brings. Songs emphasized the pains of divorce and the loss of community and meaning. George Jones’s “The Grand Tour,” John Conlee’s “Backside of Thirty,” George Strait’s “Today My World Slipped Away” and “Give It Away,” Sammy Kershaw’s “Yard Sale,” Toby Keith’s “Who’s That Man,” and even—credit where credit is due—Kenny Chesney’s “That’s Why I’m Here” are songs of regret where men know they have lost something irreplaceable in losing their marriage. Evocative songs teach the importance of deep union for individual happiness—losing such a union rips something out of one’s heart. A man’s neediness even apart from divorce is missing from today’s country music.
Wives and mothers also experience deep pain when a marriage ends in divorce. Patsy Cline, who herself divorced young and seemingly without regret, serves as a pre-feminist depiction of female heartache. Nearly every one of her songs is about the anguish of a woman who has lost her man. She goes “Crazy” for feeling so lonely. The women of her songs are needy and even clingy, because they put affairs of the heart at the center of their lives. Tammy Wynette, herself no stranger to divorce, put a woman’s neediness at the center of her career in songs like “I Don’t Wanna Play House” and “D-I-V-O-R-C-E.”
Those songs, though, date back to the 1960s—before feminism made such sentiments verboten. Since Wynette, divorce has appeared more as an expression of women’s empowerment than a personal tragedy. The last top-ten song by a woman bemoaning a divorce appeared more than a decade ago. In fact, today’s women in country songs just aren’t that needy at all. Independent and sassy, they would rather castrate a cheater, kill him, or ruin his truck than express something like neediness, loss, or betrayal. And standing by your man? No way. “Fist City” would be directed at her man, not the homewrecker. You might even team up with the homewrecker to kill the jerk.
Heartache comes easy on today’s radio. Getting left at the altar makes some men get drunk on a plane but mostly they are glad to be unburdened from the woman. Women didn’t need that bum anyways! Plus, she can still get whatever action she wants from someone else. Break-up songs from the lips of Nashville’s dwindling number of women singers concern spite more than regrets.
Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes?
Today’s pop country similarly trivializes substance abuse—celebrating a sort of mild, carefree drinking filled with fun and devoid of consequence. Such fun songs have always been around (Tom T. Hall’s “I Like Beer,” for instance), but were mingled with songs about the hangover and the anguish. Sinful Saturday nights existed alongside songs of penance and pain.
Kris Kristofferson’s lonesome moaning about Sunday morning coming down has no place in today’s Nashville, where drinking, like living and loving, is mostly easy and untroubled. The old drinking songs also generally emphasized how the “white-collar crowd” was just totally different from the good ole country boys, whereas today’s music is aimed more at bourgeois nostalgia.
A few artists still offer songs like those of the best of old country—songs about the distinctive concerns of the rural and working classes. Jason Isbell, the best of the new old country, sings about hard drinking, drug abuse, despair, depression, and suicide—the pains of living in today’s rural America. In “Alabama Pines,” he speaks to the trials and tribulations of the human condition: “And I can’t stand the pain of being by myself, without a little help on a Sunday afternoon.” Isbell bends the strings, moans the blues, and makes folks know that he feels their pains. One of his most beautiful songs, “Relatively Easy”—a song about how first-world problems can be deeply human—mentions the death of a friend who, alone for the holidays after having just been left by his wife and kids, takes “Klonopin enough to kill a man of twice his size” and culminates in a lonely man sent to prison out of despair rather than criminality.
Among these artists, Chris Stapleton is easily the most famous. He burst onto the scene with his soulful cover of a country music staple, “Tennessee Whiskey”—a David Allan Coe song, made famous by the Possum. Indeed, Stapleton seems to be a contemporary version of George Jones, the rare product of Nashville whose authentic, realistic music touches on classic country themes. He has sung about prison and trains, getting drunk, and praying when you hit rock bottom. And his “Scarecrow in the Garden” is a nod to old bluegrass murder ballads.
Country music radio all but ignores the opioid crisis and its related deaths of despair among the rural working class. More grandparents are raising kids, because mom and dad OD’d. Listeners cannot imagine the ubiquity and variety of drugs—“marijuana, LSD, psilocybin, and DMT”; “Methamphetamines”—that are ruining lives in rural America. One has to turn to Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, or Old Crow Medicine Show to hear about it.
These few artists remind one of an earlier era, when a young John Prine spoke of the pains of a drug-addicted Vietnam vet who returns home, racked by depression and tormented by the ghosts of war, seemingly indifferent to his family’s well-being, and who, trying to dull the pain, finally succumbs to his hundred-dollar habit in a room that smells “just like death, with an overdose hovering in the air.” Around the same time, Merle Haggard worried that “the Good Times” were really over for good.
Big Nashville country music no longer tears your heart out; instead it tries, in vain, to lift your heart with worn-out banalities and insincere nostalgia. Unfortunately, at a time when rural Americans could use musical nourishment for their souls, they receive the psychic equivalent of junk food. For country music at its best, as an expression of something true, beautiful, and important, we have to return to the classics, or discover the handful of lesser-known alt-country artists trying today to recover its spirit.