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.

Country music highlights the ideals of the country in the midst of a suburban nation

A music critic suggests makers of and listeners to country music are mostly in the suburbs, not the country:

Of course the actual lives lived in those small towns are somewhere within these songs, but many of the details are glossed over, romanticized, politicized or just plain ignored. There are megachurches in small towns now, not just cute little white chapels. There are Meth labs. There are business sections of town that don’t look too different from what you see in suburbs around big cities; e.g., not very pretty. There are factory farms, which bring some uglier realities than the idyllic farms of country songs (the stench of large-scale hog farms, for one). There are immigrants from other countries, possibly even (gasp!) illegal ones, often working the least appreciated of the farm and factory jobs. There are eccentricities and new developments that just don’t fit the portrait of rural America in country songs.

Plus, the country singers and songwriters aren’t all living in the country these days, but are just as likely to be found in your McMansions in the suburbs (look, for example, at the neighborhood Brad Paisley stands in, whether it’s actually his or not, in the music video for “Welcome to the Future”).

Country music fans live in such suburbs and cities, as well. Country today preserves the myths, half-truths and conjecture associated with the divide between small towns and cities, rarely acknowledging the gray areas in between. (Montgomery Gentry: “Don’t you dare go running down my little town where I grew up and I won’t cuss your city lights”). In country music today there is a constant sleight of hand going on with regards to “the country life”, shuffling up ingrained ideas of what it means with ones rooted in today or yesteryear.

Sometimes this might be political, a way to smuggle (or, more often, showcase outright) conservative ideas about the way America should and shouldn’t be. More often it’s probably of convenience or laziness, repeating past successes or playing into what artists imagine their audiences want to hear. But on another level this is about genre, about preserving a certain library of scenes and stories, to make the music recognizable as country and further the tradition. Then again, genres are shaped by the minds of the fans as much as the musicians, and by the times we live in.

In this argument about country music, the themes of country music highlight (a stereotype of?) the rural nature of America even as the producers and consumers are all part of a suburban or exurban existence. I tend to think of suburbs as an American adaptation to the issue of cities versus rural areas, a debate that began in the early days of the American project. The suburbs offer some of the city life, particularly the access to business and culture, with some of the country life with single-family homes and lots and a closer proximity to nature. In this case, the genre of music highlights a past era of American history as we are clearly a suburban nation today.

Are there country songs that celebrate the suburbs? I’m always on the lookout for cultural products that highlight the suburbs. Also, is it fair to single out a country music star for a McMansion – do other music stars also in suburban McMansions?

If there is a popular genre of music that holds out an ideal vision of the country life, is there a genre that does the opposite, hold out an ideal vision of city life?