AROUND ABOUT THE TURN of the 21st century, George Strait and Alan Jackson took the stage at the Academy of Country Music Awards with “Murder on Music Row,” a song written by a couple of guys named Larry: Larry Shell and Larry Cordle, both Nashville stalwarts, the latter of whom included it on his 1999 album of the same name. The album’s cover depicted a crime scene — crowd of onlookers, body hoisted into the back of a hearse, chalk outlines of a man and his guitar.
Strait, at the ACM Awards, looked for all the world like a cool dad, a suburban cowboy; Jackson, in a long black coat, like a man who’s comfortable making money. Both had enjoyed careers nowhere near the margins of the industry. Yet their duet struck a tone both insurgent and wistful. The “Music Row” of the song’s title referred to the legendary Nashville district where singers, songwriters, and producers have for more than half a century gone down into the country mines and brought back up musical gold — a synecdoche, slightly more ground-level than “Nashville,” for the business at large. The victim of the murder was the music:
Nobody saw him running from 16th Avenue
They never found the fingerprint or the weapon that was used
But someone killed country music, cut out its heart and soul
They got away with murder down on music row
In fact, a couple weapons were alluded to — “drums and rock ’n’ roll guitars” — as were motives: “the almighty dollar” and “the lust for worldwide fame.” Strait and Jackson lamented the decline of the great old “drinkin’ and cheatin’ songs,” the fiddle and steel-guitar stylings that seem always under threat of disappearing.
Altogether a good song, and one that taps a familiar vein of country music: the bitter lament, the recriminative croon for the one who done you wrong. The pair sang it again last year at Strait’s final show, in Dallas, before retirement, on the last stop of a tour called The Cowboy Rides Away. He left a musical world that looks little like it did when he began his career. The Texas Monthly writer Craig Havighurst wondered if today’s industry would have any room for the likes of Strait, who even at the beginning of his career was something of a throwback: a “neotraditionalist,” they called him. Then as now, Strait’s hard-country sound was a bulwark against the synthetic incursions of mainstream pop.
With a few adjustments, really, “Murder on Music Row” could’ve been written at the beginning of his career. For that matter it could have been written in the late 1950s and early ’60s, when country executives responded to the rock phenomenon by diluting their own sound, hoping to broaden its appeal. Or in the 1970s, when Crystal Gayle (Loretta Lynn’s sister, but of a different musical lineage entirely) ruled the country charts with the easy-listening confection “Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue,” and Olivia Newton-John took home a Country Music Association Award for female vocalist of the year.
It could’ve been written 15 years later, in our own benighted era. Except, our era has a protest tune of its own: “Girl in a Country Song,” by the duo Maddie & Tae, reached the top of the Billboard country radio airplay chart in early December — the first female artists to do so in two years. This was all the more remarkable for what the song was: a pointed critique of a style that’s prevailed in country music over the past several years, termed “bro-country” by New York magazine’s Jody Rosen. In a 2013 column Rosen noticed that, on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart at that particular moment, positions one through 10 were filled by male acts — Jason Aldean, Florida Georgia Line, Luke Bryan — all singing, essentially, the same song. You know the one: about the trucks and the beer? The hot summer night, the swimmin’ hole. Oh, and the girls — lots of girls. What was missing from the charts, wrote Rosen, “besides any trace of post-1960s sexual politics, are actual girls — or, as they’re sometimes called, women.”
As Maddie & Tae point out, it has been a sad season for women in country music. “Girl in a Country Song” is a send-up of the bro-country ascendancy, poking fun at its goofy, sexist tropes (citing the preponderance of “painted-on cutoff jeans,” the singers ask, “Can I put on some real clothes now?”) while sampling specific bits from the songs it’s criticizing: the line “It’s driving me red-red-red-red-red-red-redneck crazy,” for instance, echoes both the Tyler Farr song “Redneck Crazy” (“Crank up a little Hank / Sit on the hood and draaaank”) and the chanting repetition of Blake Shelton’s “Boys ’Round Here” (“drinkin’ that ice-cold beer / Talkin’ ’bout girls / Talkin’ ’bout trucks” and so forth).
Bro-country offends not just Maddie & Tae but also the industry old guard. The music is influenced by southern rock and occasionally hip-hop, abandoning fiddles and twang in favor of Auto-Tune and walls of electric guitars. The lyrics, evacuated of anything resembling pathos, could not be more vapid. For instance, compare the country standard “For the Good Times,” written by Kris Kristofferson, with Florida Georgia Line’s “Here’s to the Good Times.” The former is a jilted lover’s bittersweet plea for one more night together; the latter exhorts one and all to “get your feel-good on.” (On the other hand, the singer here is better positioned than Farr is in “Redneck Crazy” when he warns, “I’m about to get my pissed off on.”)
Tensions are such that observers have characterized Nashville as in the midst of a “civil war.” As chronicled at EW, much of the drama went down in 2013, beginning in January, when the megastar Blake Shelton characterized fans of classic country as “old farts” and “jackass[es].” Country legend Ray Price responded angrily in a Facebook post; Shelton apologized. Willie Nelson renamed that year’s tour the Old Farts and Jackasses Tour. Naomi Judd criticized the CMT Music Awards for showing insufficient respect to the memory of the late George Jones, Alan Jackson complained that “there’s no country stuff left,” Zac Brown called Luke Bryan’s latest single, “That’s My Kind of Night,” “the worst song I’ve ever heard,” and Jason Aldean fired back in solidarity on Instagram: “nobody gives a shit what u think.”
Along comes “Girl in a Country Song,” released in July 2014. It taps into a long tradition: country that’s about country. Country loves talking about itself — in the form of tributes, brags, lamentations, and, sometimes, specific plaints about the nature of the business. For Maddie & Tae the issue is the representation of women in country — and they’ve taken pains to point out that it’s all in fun — but others’ worries have been even broader, concerning the soul of the music itself. For as long as it’s been a commercial enterprise, country’s practitioners have worried about the slipping boundaries of the genre — worried volubly, and in song. There’s commerce in that, too. Even “Murder on Music Row” was a breakout hit.
Before country was country, it was “hillbilly” music. The word first appeared outside of the musical context in a 1900 issue of the New York Journal that characterized the hillbilly as a “free and untrammeled white citizen of Alabama, who lives in the hills, has no means to speak of […] drinks whiskey when he gets it, and fires off his revolver as the fancy takes him.” By 1926 the hillbilly had apparently moved east, though his treatment in the press wasn’t any less shabby. In a piece about the emergence of “hill-billy music,” Variety described “a North Carolina or Tennessee and adjacent mountaineer type of illiterate white whose creed and allegiance are to the Bible, the Chautauqua, and the phonograph.” The hillbilly label came to the music in an offhand way in 1925, when the talent scout Ralph Peer, recording a rural string band, asked what he should call them. “We’re nothing but a bunch of hillbillies from North Carolina and Virginia,” one of them reasoned; thus they were called the Hill Billies, and then so was the music.
In Creating Country Music: Fabricating Authenticity, the historian Richard A. Peterson wrote that when it first started to draw attention in the 1920s, hillbilly music represented a more primitive alternative to the prevailing, highly polished standard of Jazz Age music, and appealed to audiences seeking something more “authentic” — which Peterson defines, following Maurice Halbwachs, as “a socially agreed-upon construct in which the past is to a degree misremembered.” The fabricated authenticity upon which country relies was present long before country became country: in the late 1920s, most musicians who played the Grand Ole Opry were Nashville residents with steady jobs, dressed down and dumbed down to evoke a “poor white trash” idyll. Opry founder George D. Hay, writes Peterson, drew inspiration from vaudeville, in which ethnic differences were exaggerated and rendered into stereotypes. Hay renamed bands that appeared on his show along these lines; for instance, a group called Dr. Bate and His Augmented Orchestra became the Possum Hunters.
The backwoods shtick endured for decades with programs like The Beverly Hillbillies and Hee Haw. Even as the music’s national popularity became undeniable, though, derision from the mainstream press (“Hillbilly Boom Can Spread Like the Plague”) inspired country partisans to seek a new name for the genre. As Peterson reports, by 1950 Billboard seemed to be selecting from a grab bag each time it talked about the music, calling it “rustic,” “country,” “hillbilly and cowboy,” “western and hillbilly.” One contender, advanced by Hank Williams among others, was “folk.” It wouldn’t have been inappropriate: especially then, country thought of itself as music of and for white rural and working-class people. But following Joseph McCarthy’s red-baiting attacks on the Weavers, at that time a wildly successful folk outfit, industry bosses dropped the idea like a hot rock. By 1953, country was country.
This is important because of how passionately successive generations of artists would seize on the word not just as an expression of music but of being. Where performers in the Hank Williams era established many of the durable tropes that would come to characterize country, like going honky tonkin’, those who followed would collapse them all into a singular identity. This is what it is to be country.
The pursuit of being country is one of the defining features of the genre, and evident most everywhere you look. At its broadest, the style involves the invocation of the music as a tonic to whatever ails you, most often heartache. In both Red Steagall’s “Lone Star Beer and Bob Wills Music” and the Bill Anderson tune “Bright Lights and Country Music,” the singer finds refuge down at the honky-tonk, his loneliness drowned out by the high and lonesome sounds of country music. Like “Lone Star Beer,” Vern Gosdin’s “Set ’Em Up Joe” goes so far as to call out a specific song, in this case Ernest Tubb’s classic “Walking the Floor Over You”:
I’m gonna spend the night like every night before
Playin’ E.T. and I’ll play him some more
I gotta have a shot of them old troubadours
Set ’em up Joe, and play “Walking the Floor”
“Joe” is still mostly about the singer and his lovelorn experience; more direct are the scads of tracks where country artists celebrate one another. These can be written after a fellow artist has died, sometimes attempting to claim his mantle — for instance, Moe Bandy’s “Hank Williams, You Wrote My Life,” which begins, “You wrote ‘Your Cheatin’ Heart’ about / A gal like my first ex-wife” — but they don’t need to be. All subjects of David Allan Coe’s “Willie, Waylon and Me” were alive when Coe recorded it, as were half the members of Stoney Edwards’s “Hank and Lefty Raised My Country Soul.” George Jones’s “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” released in 1985, name-checks a roster of artists both dead (Elvis) and living (Merle Haggard). Jones was the subject of his own tribute following his death in 2013: Randy Travis’s beautiful “Tonight I’m Playin’ Possum,” which incorporates into its lyrics the names of songs from the Jones catalog.
An All Music reviewer described “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes” as “the kind of mystical, self-serving necrophilia that country music is all about.” And nowhere is country’s regard for itself more evident than in songs about the pure state of being country, which are legion — songs with titles like “Countrified,” “I’m a Little More Country Than That,” “If That Ain’t Country,” “Country Is,” “Country ’Til I Die,” “I’m Country,” “I’m That Country.” The recently departed Little Jimmy Dickens summed up the bare simplicity of the country state of being in “Country Boy”:
I’d be the same in Hollywood
Or right in my own kitchen
I believe in fussin’ when you’re mad
And scratchin’ when you’re itchin’
The same themes in bro-country run through many of these songs — farms, trucks, dropped g’s — but they tend to offer a richer, cleverer worldview. Often the songs refer to a perceived slight on the part of an interlocutor who identifies in the singer, in fact, an excess of country, as in the line “Well, they say that I’m too country,” at the top of Loretta Lynn’s “Country in My Genes,” the single from her 2000 album, Still Country. Suffice it to say that, after 40 years in the business, it’s unlikely anybody was actually telling Lynn they found her “too country.” Perhaps only Nashville executives.
Lynn is really one of the giants in this arena. Compare it with rock ’n’ roll, where rock often shows up as a verb: “We Will Rock You.” Rock is something one does; country is what one is. (The blues, meanwhile — an early influence on country music — is something one has.) Lynn’s “You’re Lookin’ at Country” is a seminal text: “You don’t see no city when you look at me / ’Cause country’s all I am,” she sings. The claims she makes to being “country” rely heavily on the details of Lynn’s upbringing, which are well known, courtesy of the song, book, and movie “Coal Miner’s Daughter.” She was born in an eastern Kentucky holler in 1932; in other words, 20 years before an emerging musical industry absorbed the life experiences she sings about to create an identity known as country. In songs like these, country sounds as if it’s old as the hills. In reality it’s as fresh as postwar capitalism.
For reasons of bad taste, my personal favorite in this field is 1981’s “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool,” the signature song of the pop-influenced Barbara Mandrell. Its lyrics hit all the important signifiers — listening to George Jones, putting peanuts in Coca-Cola — but the music couldn’t be further away: this may as well have been recorded by the Bee Gees. Country’s willingness not just to admit but to celebrate music that stretches its boundaries — a big-tent impulse, if perhaps a cynical one — dates as far back as the Depression, when broadcasters softened the music in an attempt to appeal to perceived tastes of the women and children who, they found, constituted a large chunk of their audience.
In the 1950s and ’60s it was rock that caused country to change; as Bill C. Malone writes in his authoritative history Country Music, U.S.A., audiences sought in country the sorts of softer, middle-of-the-road pop sounds that rock had supplanted, and country obliged, ditching instruments like fiddles and steel guitars in favor of full string sections and backup vocalists. Countrypolitan, this was called, signifying its departure from country’s rural roots. It was also called the Nashville Sound or the Chet Atkins compromise, after the Nashville guitarist and producer who was its chief architect. Supposedly someone once asked Atkins what exactly the Nashville Sound was; he is said to have jingled the change in his pocket and replied, “That’s what it is. It’s the sound of money.” In some quarters this was seen as no less an existential threat to the music, writes Malone: “[C]ountry music was beginning to be faced with the debate that has only intensified in the decades that have followed: would the music lose its identity, and its soul, as it gained the world?”
In the 1970s, change in country music went the other way — toward the rougher sounds of the Outlaws, a movement of musicians that included Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and Tompall Glaser. The Outlaws emphasized the autobiographical in their lyrics, singing explicitly — often boastfully — about their experiences in the world and in the business. They were also happy to share their opinions about country music, which they felt was ready for something new. In “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way,” Jennings sang, “We’ve been the same way for years / We need to change.” Nelson, who’d been successful as a Nashville songwriter — he wrote the Patsy Cline hit “Crazy,” for one — pushed back at the worn-out sounds of the Nashville machine in “Write Your Own Songs”:
We write what we live and we live what we write, is that wrong?
If you think it is, Mr. Music Executive,
Why don’t you write your own songs?
Hank Williams Jr. mounted a rousing defense of the Outlaws with “Leave Them Boys Alone,” which featured vocals from an aging Ernest Tubb — the grand old Grand Ole Opry star giving his stamp of approval to the stuff on the margins. Tubb’s son Justin subsequently introduced his own critique with “What’s Wrong With the Way That We’re Doin’ It Now,” though as Malone points out, it’s unclear exactly whom Tubb took issue with; he singles out only “progressives,” a label that at that time referred to singers like Nelson and Jennings — not country-pop artists like Mandrell. The song, in any event, is a plea for a return to country’s roots:
What’s wrong with the way that we’re doin’ it now
What’s wrong with fiddles and steel
What’s wrong with telling the world that you’re country
If that’s how you really do feel?
One of the best of the autocritique genre is also the funniest: “You Never Ever Called Me by My Name,” written by Steve Goodman and John Prine and performed by David Allan Coe. It sounds initially like a standard heartbreak song, albeit a good one, but eventually Coe breaks the fourth wall, as it were, with a bit of dialogue poking fun at the shopworn stereotypes of country lyrics: “Well a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song,” this patter goes, “and he told me it was the perfect country and western song. I wrote him back a letter and told him it was not the perfect country and western song, because he hadn’t said anything at all about mama, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin’ drunk.” He henceforth sings a final verse incorporating all of these elements (“I was drunk the day my mom got out of prison [...]”).
As country strayed further from its roots — in Malone’s estimation, appealing more to suburban audiences than to working-class ones — criticism from traditionalists became yet even more pointed. Travis Tritt referred to the 1990s generation of country musicians as “hat acts”: all style, no substance. In Tritt’s rather Faulknerian “Country Ain’t Country,” the selling of “the back forty” represents a break with tradition: out with the old, in with the new. The song ends with a long yodel — an allusion to Jimmie Rodgers, the first country star. The Dixie Chicks’ “Long Time Gone,” released in 2002, did a similar thing, lamenting the loss of rural ways before going on to complain, while citing the giants of country’s past, where the industry is today:
[…] the music ain’t got no soul
Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard
They’ve got money but they don’t have Cash
In 2000, the same year he duetted with George Strait on “Murder on Music Row,” Alan Jackson’s “Three Minute Positive Not Too Country Up-Tempo Love Song” poked fun at the genre’s radio-ready uniformity. And just last year, Dale Watson responded to Blake Shelton’s characterization of classic-country fans as “old farts” and “jackass[es]” with “Old Fart (A Song for Blake),” in which he observed that he’d “rather be an old fart than a new country turd.” The conversation continues.
The same July 2014 day that Maddie & Tae dropped “Girl in a Country Song” saw the release of a new single by the country artist Maggie Rose. Called “Girl in Your Truck Song,” its resemblance to “Girl in a Country Song” was spooky. Both discuss, in their own way, bro-country; they allude to some of the same lines and images. But here’s how Rose’s starts out:
Friday night, I’m getting ready
Call you up to come and get me
Got my jeans on tight, I'm feelin’ sexy
Tonight, tonight I wanna be the
Girl in your truck song
Rose’s contribution is in the vein of the tribute songs that, as Ben Yagoda has written, constitute an “intertextuality of admiration” throughout the history of country music, whereas Maddie & Tae take their place in the smaller ranks of dissenters. One song could be a response to the other, but for their coincident timing. Both are bound, and separated, by a common language: the language of country, which lyrically is not reluctant to tread the same road twice. The economy of country signifiers singers share is sufficiently impoverished, apparently: if Conway Twitty is a hero to the bros of country then he will also be a touchstone for Maddie & Tae, who, remembering a time when “we used to get a little respect,” sing, “Conway and George Strait never did it this way.” To each her own Conway.
“Girl in a Country Song” expresses simultaneously a wistfulness for the past and the hope for something better. It refers to, and perhaps projects on to, the elders whose traditions the singers respect while expressing impatience with their current lot. Country represents a kind of rolling nostalgia, for good old days that did and did not exist. In a genre bent on revisiting the past, Maddie & Tae imagine new futures.