I WAS SOMETHING TO SEE on the May morning I left Missoula, Montana, for good, all my earthly belongings jammed in the back seat of my ’95 Oldsmobile Cutlass Ciera, which is heavily dented and extremely pink. Missoula is a wacky and lovable university town that is home to a half-dozen microbreweries, herds of urban deer, and one saloon that has been open continuously, 24 hours a day, since 1883. I lived there for four happy and shiftless years of reading, waitressing, whiskey, inner tubing, burritos, and karaoke. I lit out on Interstate 90 for my parents’ house in Lincoln, Nebraska, washed in the wide-open sadness of the American range.
The indulgent, corny romance of my melancholy was not lost on me. I saw myself as straight out of a country song. I left Missoula early on a Sunday. Milk crates of clothes and books in my back seat. Cruising I-90 in my pink Oldsmobile. Something something something steering wheel.
The maudlin country-western spirit of my situation was what motivated my experiment: for all of my 18-hour drive through some of the emptiest parts of the American West, I would listen to country radio. I cultivated an interest in contemporary country music similar to my enthusiasm for any other pop culture that is craven, crappy, backward, prepackaged, and shallow. Entertainment that is lucrative and ubiquitous, loved by many and known by most, can tell us a lot about our emotional triggers — and I don’t say that in a removed, condescending way. I am not an anthropological researcher of my own culture. Commercial pop culture is engineered to make people respond to it, and I respond to it. And the common tropes in country music broadcast the genre’s values so astoundingly literally that the feelings, beliefs, and history it appeals to in its audience are more obvious than for any other kind of American music.
I anticipated that my country radio marathon would be novel, enjoyable, and occasionally grating. What I did not account for was the concurrence of my trip and Memorial Day weekend, and all the cringing that would accompany hours of patriotic bathos. “Support our troops/America fuck yeah” is a venerable trope of commercial country music — driving through southern Wyoming I heard Johnny Cash’s “Ragged Old Flag,” a Vietnam-era spoken number expressing contempt for anyone who doesn’t smile with favor on all of the USA’s contemporary and historical military entanglements. Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” which updated displays of American patriotism to the Reagan years’ sappy jingoism, has become something of a standard.
Of course, today’s leading country saber-rattler is Toby Keith, whose anthem “American Soldier” — with lyrics as lazy you’d expect: “Oh and I don’t want to die for you/But if dying’s asked of me/I’ll bear that cross with honor/’Cause freedom don’t come free” — I heard just west of Scottsbluff, Nebraska. Keith took up his role as country’s patriotism police during his famous feud with the Dixie Chicks in 2003, after their lead singer Natalie Maines made statements criticizing President George Bush and the Iraq War.
At a concert, Keith displayed a picture of Maines photoshopped with a picture of Saddam Hussein, and Maines struck back by wearing a shirt saying “F.U.T.K.” to perform at the Academy of Country Music Awards. But Keith was vindicated — he won Album of the Year at the Awards for his über-patriotic Shock’n Y’all, while the Dixie Chicks were largely banished from country radio for their political statements. The Keith-Dixie Chicks conflict can illuminate a lot about country music’s gender dynamics. The genre’s most successful female act spoke out against authority, and the genre’s most successful male act felt it was his place to punish them for it. This is a notable pattern: in contemporary country, women are rebellious and angry, subverting a stifling (read: conservative small town) societal order whenever possible, while men hold fast to traditional norms, at turns smug and defiant.
This is pretty much the entire reason I almost always respond favorably to female artists on country radio, and to male artists almost never. The female singers are also more appealing vocalists, since a majority of male artists sing in corny, croony, tuneless baritone voices, imitating Keith and Garth Brooks. My most recent country favorite is Kacey Musgraves, who has taken up the space Taylor Swift vacated when she all but abandoned country for the greener pastures of pop radio. Like Swift, Musgraves is a young woman who sings in a simple, unaffected alto and writes most of her own music. But Musgraves is like Swift’s brunette alter ego in her “You Belong With Me” video — she is Swift with a dark side, singing, on her major-label debut album Same Trailer Different Park, about smoking pot and sleeping with her ex-boyfriends.
Musgraves has perfected an expression of the female country trope of longing to leave a dead-end hometown. Her single “Blowin’ Smoke” describes a group of waitresses and their big talk about quitting smoking and quitting their jobs. Her first hit, “Merry Go ‘Round,” is a sharp and sad panorama of small-town life, where “Mama’s hooked on Mary Kay/Brother’s hooked on Mary Jane/Daddy’s hooked on Mary two doors down.” Musgraves displays sardonic insight about why people in towns like these behave the way they do. “Same checks we’re always cashin’/To buy a little more distraction,” she sings, and, more to the point, “We’re so bored until we’re buried.”
A variation on this theme is the song about reluctantly leaving a small town to follow big dreams, as in Sugarland’s “Baby Girl,” where the narrator writes to her parents back home to send money while she gigs in a big-city bar, chasing music stardom. I heard this song in western Montana, although not very well. The windows of the pink car don’t roll up all the way, and a mechanic had taped plastic over the gaps before I left Missoula. The plastic slowly tore off as I went down the interstate, producing a static so deafening it was actually painful. I heard the radio only faintly until I became desperate and pulled over at a scenic turnout in eastern Montana and ripped the plastic off.
But songs about small town alienation are actually less common than ones about small town fulfillment — a trope male country artists love to indulge in. Mile after mile I heard songs about how amazing small towns are, how country is superior to city in every way. Most of these songs blatantly pander to rural and Southern culture, invoking totems of church, sweet tea, the word “y’all,” and, especially, pickup trucks. On a station in western Nebraska claiming to be “the only station with a gun rack,” I heard Luke Bryan’s hit song “We Drove in Trucks,” a sentimental ode to “huntin’ and fishin’,” red Georgia dirt, Jesus, and “tobacco and beer in can.” While songs like Musgraves’s express frustration that feels real, personal, most of these pieces of small-town adulation sound insincere and generic. How can nostalgia that only serves to reinforce American rural virtuousness be genuine? Not to mention that many of these songs conveniently conjure an idealized past perfectly in line with conservative political values. Tim McGraw’s “Back When” laments the degradation of American English, longing for a time “when a hoe was a hoe/Coke was a Coke/And crack’s what you were doing/When you were cracking jokes.”
There are also songs that celebrate not small-town virtuousness, but on the contrary, all that is rustic, run-down, unsophisticated, and badass about backwoods life. Blake Shelton’s massive hit “Boys ‘Round Here” is the best example of this on recent country radio, with its nods to “the honky-tonk, where their boots stomp,” “digging in the dirt,” four-wheel drive, and of course the girls ‘round here, “shakin’ that sugar, sweet as Dixie crystal.” Shelton is usually relatively solid, but this song is an abomination, a pseudo-hip hop novelty in the Kid Rock vein. “Red red red red red red red red red red redneck,” an auto-tuned Shelton raps over the bridge. In its chorus he sings of the eponymous boys “sending up a prayer to the man upstairs/Backwoods legit, don’t take no shit/Chew tobacco, chew tobacco, chew tobacco, spit.”
“Boys ‘Round Here” is a tribute to partying, another favorite subject of male country artists. At the time of my drive, two virtually identical songs about picking up an anonymous hottie in a bar were in heavy rotation, “Hey Girl” by Billy Currington and “Don’t Ya” by Brett Eldredge. But the men of country music are not afraid of commitment, and their songs are often mushy hymns to monogamous love. Making my way toward Cheyenne, Wyoming, I dodged thunderstorms for hundreds of miles, driving toward and next to some of the scarier cloud formations I’ve ever seen. In the shadow of these storms I heard an interview with country star Trace Adkins about his new album, Icon. “You know they asked me,” he said, taking over his own interview, “‘Why did you decide to tackle love on this album?’” Maybe it’s just this feeling of authority that lets male country artists sing with such satisfaction about every aspect of romance — one-night stands and marriages alike are fun and free of regret. Male country artists’ love lives are going just fine.
Female country singers are invariably not so happy about love, or at least their hit songs aren’t. There are tracks on Miranda Lambert’s third and fourth albums, after she married Shelton, that are sweet, contented love songs — but she was smart enough not to release any of them as singles. She has made her fortune mostly as a hell-raiser, a woman wronged, actually naming her second album Crazy Ex-Girlfriend. At the time of my trip her single “Mama’s Broken Heart” (co-written by Musgraves, incidentally) was in the top five on the country charts. It’s a brilliant song about getting dumped and going on a rampage, and it also provides some commentary on the expectations for a “proper” Southern lady: “Powder your nose, paint your toes,” Lambert sings, “Line your lips and keep ‘em closed.”
Angry breakup anthems are the contemporary country diva’s bread and butter, and there are usually one or two of these gems in radio rotation. But female country stars’ fury goes further than that. There cannot be another subset of popular musicians who sing about killing their spouses more frequently than female country artists. Lambert’s first major hit, “Gunpowder & Lead,” is about an abused wife planning to murder her husband. During my country radio road trip there were two major hits on the subject, The Band Perry’s “Better Dig Two,” in which a wife all but says she will kill her husband and herself if he leaves her, and Carrie Underwood’s “Two Black Cadillacs,” about a wife and a mistress who kill the man they have in common. It is bizarre that even the genre’s most wholesome starlets blithely take part in this trope — and that no one seems to notice how transgressive they are being.
It is a strange side effect of country music’s narrative spirit, the assumption that the singer and the persona narrating the song are separate. This plasticity of identity is one way female country singers escape rigid expectations, try out different roles, mess up, act out, get mad, and fall back in line. Without much dissonance, Underwood is able to sing about women conspiring to murder in “Two Black Cadillacs,” and also about a young mother in peril fervently praying in “Jesus, Take the Wheel.” The latter was an enormous hit for Underwood, spending six weeks at number one on the Billboard Country Chart. In my two days of driving I heard the song three times — never mind that it came out almost ten years ago.
Country radio is conservative, and not just politically. The country audience is comfortable listening to the same artists, songs, and albums for a long, long time — Lambert had a number-one hit with “Mama’s Broken Heart” nearly two years after the album it appears on, Four the Record, came out. It is also where washed-up acts from other genres retreat for a second chance at success. During my trip, two 1990s rock stars, Darius Rucker (of Hootie & the Blowfish) and Sheryl Crow both had songs moving up the country charts. That Rucker’s hit was a cover of Old Crow Medicine Show’s beloved “Wagon Wheel” proves even further country’s fondness for the familiar.
But the most startling example of this on the weekend of my drive came as George Strait, just before his 61st birthday, had his 60th number-one hit with “Give It All We Got Tonight.” It is an unremarkable song of the “summer fun” genus. This is the trope that Kenny Chesney has made a career out of, his beach-bum shtick and deep, lugubrious voice placing him always in some creepy Margaritaville. During my trip his song “Pirate Flag” played incessantly, the tale of a man who abandons the Smoky Mountains for an island existence of a “Jolly Roger flying on the picnic table/Blender in the kitchen, willin’ and able.” Brad Paisley also had an emerging hit with “Beat This Summer,” a sweet if shallow tribute to the boardwalk, tan lines, wayfarers, seashells, and “the sun in your hair.” Paisley is supremely hit or miss — he may be the only country star corny enough to rhyme “summer” with “bummer,” and his “Accidental Racist” is extremely, if perhaps accidentally, offensive.
But he is also the only male country artist attempting to be realistic about what nostalgia for a golden Southern past might imply, and about the kind of close-mindedness country musicians are pandering to. His number-one hit “Southern Comfort Zone” is a revision of the “Jesus-and-four-wheel-drive” trope. “Not everybody drives a truck, not everybody drinks sweet tea,” he reminds his listeners. “Not everybody owns a gun […] Not everybody goes to church or watches every NASCAR race.” He sings of how he loves his native Tennessee and its culture, but explains, “I can’t see this world unless I go/Outside my Southern comfort zone.” The song’s masterstroke is a détourne of that great hymn to the old Southern order, “Dixieland.” “Look away/Look away,” Paisley sings, discouraging his audience from just the cultural isolation that it is often country radio’s business to foster.
But attempts like this toward some kind of progress, toward a more nuanced and various picture of Southern and small-town culture, are rare in country today. I admit that as I entered the outskirts of Lincoln on I-80, I turned my radio off. As much as I love some of these singers, it had become numbing — how many times could I hear the same songs, the same sentiments? Alan Scherstuhl, writing for the Village Voice, described the sound of today’s country as “cauc-pop”: an amalgamation of “every type of music white America has ever loved.” He goes on to list the echoes one might hear during an hour of country radio:
“Margaritaville” and “Sweet Home Alabama,” pre-Dre breakbeats and rapping, hair-metal guitar solos and the corroded chords of alt-rock, honky tonk piano and chiming Beatle-style arpeggios, stiff Christian rock and the toked-up shuffle of the Doobie Brothers, power ballads that with the pedal-steel mixed out might have been on the Top Gun soundtrack.
At its best, this variety of influences leads to the most creative and interesting production in current country. At its worst, the songs become a rehash, especially when coupled with a sentiment just as stale as the sound. I am grateful to female country artists for, even at their most melodramatic, keeping it emotionally real — real about insular, alienating small towns, being bored and dissatisfied, wanting to fuck up your ex-boyfriend and kill your husband if he cheats on you. They may be appealing to their audience’s frustration just as insincerely as their male colleagues are to country pride, but not as artlessly — their hearts are in it.
Alice Bolin is an essayist in California. Her last piece for LARB was “Just Us Girls.”