Country music, social class, and rural areas

Here is a discussion of how country music talks about social class, particularly lower classes, in small towns and rural areas:

It didn’t seem out of place to embrace a simpler life when all it meant was going without a few new dresses or sharp ties. In Garth Brooks’s 1990 song, “Friends in Low Places,” Brooks sings “Blame it all on my roots, I showed up in boots, and ruined your black-tie affair,” as he addresses his ex. He is dressed inappropriately for a formal event and uses bad manners; unlike Hank Williams, who sang of his ragged boots as a point of frustration, Brooks revels in being rough around the edges, even if he is poking fun at himself. Similarly, in “Redneck Woman,” released in 2004, Gretchen Wilson sings that she can wear WalMart clothes half-price because she doesn’t need “designer tags to make my man want me.” She frames it as a choice. It’s not that she can’t afford champagne; she prefers beer…

But when being rural and low-income starts to mean that you’re living without heat or that you’re struggling to pay for your own groceries, these songs begin to sound bittersweet rather than celebratory. It’s tempting to play a “happy warrior,” especially when much of American culture frowns upon people who acknowledge any sort of victimhood. (After all, notions that the poor are poor because they’re lazy still persist in much of America.) But it’s hard to ignore some of the harsh realities of rural life in America today, and Musgraves and Clark in particular have taken the issue head-on. “Merry Go ‘Round” and “Pray to Jesus,” two songs eerily similar to each other in both melody and lyrics, don’t try to sidestep the dreary reality that can be a small-town or low-income life…

Clark and Musgraves’s songs, though, embody a state of mind country music needs to acknowledge more often. People love country music, in part, because it speaks to the heart of rural existence, a way of life that many people find happiness in and a culture that seems more authentic.

Yet, like all real cultures, rural life has its shortcomings. People become bored in a way that is distinct to an isolation of place. Rural boredom is different from urban boredom: Much of the appeal of cities is rooted in the excitement of newness, of novelty, so urban boredom is a result of being surrounded by stimulation yet still feeling alone. Rural boredom, by contrast, is often exacerbated by the tendency to wonder what you’re missing out on. It comes from wondering if there is more to life than a familiar community (like the one Miranda Lambert sings of) and the limited romantic possibilities and career options a small town offers. Musgraves, Clark, and Monroe capture that suffocation perfectly, and more artists should take their lead in being honest about the limitations of small-town life. Because sometimes, even country music’s unsinkable happy-warrior protagonist needs to reflect.

See this post from a few years ago discussing a similar argument. It would be interesting to try to trace the link between talking about social class and rural areas with the movement of country music toward pop/rock music and mainstream American culture. How much does the textual content change over the years? It is one thing to talk about a few artists who might be bucking a trend but a more rigorous analysis could reveal something interesting. Additionally, it seems that all of this could be linked to the decline of many rural areas in the United States. Even as Americans often hold romantic ideals about small-town life, America is now a suburban country and has been for decades. How much can you sing to an audience that increasingly is more familiar with strip malls, lifestyle centers, and big single-family homes about the difficulties of rural life?

At the same time, such songs could bring attention to areas in the United States that don’t get much attention otherwise.

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