By Kurt Wolff
It’s often said that a great country song consists of “three chords and the truth.”
That quote is famously attributed to songwriter Harlan Howard, who wrote boatloads of ‘truth’-filled songs in the mid-20th century. But ‘truth’ and ‘honesty’ weren’t invented by Howard, of course — they’ve been landmarks of the genre since its humble beginnings. And in country music, we’ve come to associate that ‘truth’ with heartbreak, tragedy, and all manner of troubles.
Country music’s early days are littered with sadness. The Carter Family catalog alone will leave you in a puddle of tears, from the sad plight of “The Poor Orphan Child” to the death of a lover in “Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow.”
Jimmie Rodgers was right there with them, singing of a broken heart in “Never No Mo’ Blues” and telling the tragic tale of “The Soldier’s Sweetheart.” Ernest Tubb spent many an hour “Walking the Floor Over You,” Ted Daffan’s Texans dished out the woe-is-me classic “Born to Lose,” Hank Williams mourned that “There’s a Tear in My Beer” and Webb Pierce declared “There Stands the Glass.”
Later, Dolly Parton sang of her “Coat of Many Colors,” Jerry Lee Lewis revealed “She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left of Me),” Willie Nelson lamented that “It’s Not Supposed to Be This Way,” Keith Whitley admitted he was “No Stranger to the Rain” and Porter Wagoner told of reaching “The Bottom of the Bottle” and resorting to violence in “The Cold Hard Facts of Life.”
Sure there have been happy songs — Hank’s “Hey, Good Lookin,'” Lefty Frizzell’s “I Want to Be with You Always,” Roger Miller‘s goofy “Chug a Lug” or Donna Fargo’s 1972 hit “Happiest Girl in the Whole U.S.A.” But as with ‘tears’ and ‘beers,’ ‘country music’ and ‘sadness’ have for decades been seemingly inseparable.
Fast forward to the 21st century, though, and the mood is drastically different. In fact, if you spend any time with country radio today, you have to wonder: Is everyone just bubbly and upbeat, madly in love, “Cruise”-ing through life, and itching for that next tailgate party?
Was Willie Nelson right when he sang that “sad songs and waltzes aren’t selling this year”? Is all country music today all about the positive?
Little Big Town‘s Kimberly Schlapman agrees. “I think there’s a trend to hear happiness on the radio [a lot of] the time now,” she told Radio.com.
And both artists should know. Lady Antebellum topped the charts this summer with “Bartender,” a rare concoction that is both a drinking song and upbeat; last year they did the same with the peppy “Downtown.” As for Little Big Town, their career got a massive boost two years ago thanks to the snappy summer anthem “Pontoon,” and current single “Day Drinking” is proving equally catchy and fun.
Speaking of “fun,” that’s a word that has surfaced quite a bit lately. Hillary Scott invoked the term numerous times when we spoke with her this summer, saying that “fun” was a defining value for their new album 747.
“There’s songs on there with depth, that say some things,” Scott said of the album. “But for the most part, this is [an album to] ‘put on when [you want to] throw a party and just hang and have fun.”
“Fun” was also an operative word for the Eli Young Band on their latest release 10,000 Towns. “We wanted to be a little heavier on the fun side,” bassist Jon Jones told Radio.com regarding the moods permeating the album, which came out earlier this year. “Fun was definitely the theme we wanted to be the heaviest.”
Look at the charts, too.
In 2014 alone, No. 1 hits have included Cole Swindell’s “Chillin’ It,” Florida Georgia Line and Luke Bryan’s “This Is How We Roll,” Kenny Chesney’s “American Kids,” “Jake Owen’s “Beachin'” and Joe Nichols’ “Yeah.” Each of these songs has an upbeat melody and lyrics that take a positive outlook on life, with not a tear or frown to be found.
And last year, the list of country No. 1 hits ran just as deep in ‘positive’ vibes. Lady Antebellum’s aforementioned “Downtown,” for instance, as well as Blake Shelton’s good ol’ boy sing-along “Boys Round Here,” Brett Eldredge’s happy-go-lucky “Don’t Ya” and Luke Bryan’s thumping “That’s My Kind of Night.”
Even the Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” though it had a darker theme, was about a love so strong that death, should it come, would never keep the couple apart.
And let’s not forget Florida Georgia Line’s debut single “Cruise,” which spent weeks in heavy radio rotation and set that duo up as the poster children of today’s positive country movement.
She was sippin’ on Southern and singin’ Marshall Tucker
We were falling in love in the sweet heart of summer
She hopped right up into the cab of my truck and said
“Fire it up, lets go get this thing stuck”
Or maybe that poster child is actually Luke Bryan. The Georgia singer, after all, is one of country’s biggest stars right now, thanks to a series of seemingly nonstop hits like “Country Girl (Shake It for Me),” “Rain Is a Good Thing,” “All My Friends Say,” “That’s My Kind of Night” and “Play It Again.” He was named ACM’s Entertainer the Year in 2013, and he’s been eager to prove he deserved such an honor with massively popular live shows that are as high in energy as they are in spirit (meaning: he just might be the happiest guy in the whole U.S.A.).
So, yes, when you look at the the more popular songs of the past few years, it’s hard to argue the point: Country music is aiming positive, and working hard to shake off the ‘down and out’ reputation it’s been saddled with for years.
But, to be fair, that’s an incomplete picture. Because, when you step back and listen, the sonic landscape actually shows more diversity than the seemingly endless spins of “Cruise” and “That’s My Kind of Night” might imply.
For starters, not every song in the country Top 40 these last few years has been sunshine and roses. Bryan, for instance, may be all smiles when he headlines stadiums, but he also released one of the saddest country singles of the last few years. Cowritten by Chris Stapleton and Jim Beavers, “Drink a Beer” told of a character’s reaction to hearing news of his friend’s sudden death. Talk about ‘three chords and the truth’: “Drink a Beer” is simple and stark, with a slow, mournful arrangement and lyrics that feel fresh, honest and deeply personal. And if you believe the truth is in the bottom line, look no further than the song’s sales figures. “Drink a Beer” went platinum, selling more than a million copies.
Another example comes from Kacey Musgraves, a relative newcomer and one of the genre’s best writers right now. Her debut single as a solo artist was “Merry Go ‘Round,” a bittersweet ballad that delivered an unvarnished picture of small-town life. Its tone was nonjudgemental, but Musgraves made a deliberate decision to avoid sugarcoating her melody or lyrics.
There are plenty more examples, too. Miranda Lambert saw huge response to the ballad she wrote with Blake Shelton, “Over You,” about the death of his brother; several years earlier she earned accolades for tearjerker “The House that Built Me,” easily among the 21st century’s finest country songs. The Zac Brown Band hit No. 1 in 2012 with the mournful “Goodbye in Her Eyes,” about that moment when you realize a relationship is finished. And in the same year Toby Keith released his moody barroom ballad “Hope on the Rocks,” which he said “will always be one of my favorite songs I wrote.”
And we can’t overlook “I Drive Your Truck.” A devastatingly powerful song about coping with grief, it resonated strongly with millions of country fans and wound up winning its singer, Lee Brice, Song of the Year honors at the 2014 ACM Awards.
So while the upbeat party songs may often dominate the charts, the way sad songs did decades ago, there is now, as always, more than one way to sing a country song.
So maybe the problem, then, is we’re not digging deep enough. Or, that we’re trying to define the genre by a particular theme or sound.
The latter was Jason Aldean‘s take. “Over the years, country music’s always had that stereotype that it’s about sad songs,” Aldean told Radio.com. “To me, when people start saying ‘that’s what country music is,’ it’s a clear sign that you don’t listen to country music very much.”
As for those “sad songs,” Aldean has no issue with them. “I think country was built on songs like that…those hurtin’ songs. You have love songs, things like that, that never go out of style. So that’s always going to be there.”
Hillary Scott concurs. “I think also there will always be a place for sad songs that, when you’re going through a really hard time, will be able to express how you feel better than you can.”
Same goes for the members of Little Big Town. As Schlapman points out, “the biggest country song people think of is ‘He Stopped Loving Her Today.’ It doesn’t get any sadder than that. And with that being the foundation, I think it’ll always be there.”
“Or like ‘I Feel a [Cold] One Comin’ On,’” said Philip Sweet. “The list goes on and on.”
So, perhaps by today’s Top 40 standards, Willie Nelson was right about those sad songs and waltzes. But the shelf runs deep, if you take the time to move the boxes and cans around, and the choices are many. And, as we’ve seen over and over again, time marches on and popular tastes change as often as the weather.
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