The World According to Country Radio

It's Pretty Basic, Baby

by Dave Heaton

19 July 2010

Country is a genre with its own sense of time. New songs on country radio aren't necessarily new. The songs aren't interested in capturing a point in time, instead, they're all about depicting the essentials of life.
Miranda Lambert 

“There’s things that matter / and things that don’t” – Craig Morgan, “This Ain’t Nothin’”

When you’re listening to your local country radio station and the announcer says, “Here’s the new single from…”, that word “new” could mean several different things. Most artists seem to follow a formula designed to maximize the impact of singles and at the same time prolong the shelf life of albums. A big country star will release a single before the album, building up expectation. Once the album is released, singles will keep coming out for as long as they keep being successful, up to two years even.

The hope is that you will stay prominently tuned in to the radio, waiting for those new songs, until it’s time for the next album, or at least close enough to it to start this whole process all over, again. As a country musician, you want the audience to always remember who you are, and you’re hoping that will increase the likelihood that they’ll buy the album at some point during its cycle. If the first single off Darius Rucker’s album didn’t grab you, for example, maybe by the fourth one you got hooked.

That’s one way that country is a genre with its own sense of time. It’s also common to reissue an album on a broader scale that did well on a smaller one; to re-release an album with some new bonus material, calling it the “deluxe” or “ultimate” version; or to throw new songs on with hits, to make a CD sound both fresh and yet familiar. These are common music-industry tricks in general, but especially so with country, a singles genre trying to hold up album sales.
For these reasons, it’s hard to think of a country-radio listening session as taking the pulse of American culture today. With some exceptions, the songs themselves tend to pursue the state of seeming “timeless” more than “of the moment”. The current Billboard top 20 country songs (for the week of 26 June 2010) contain few lyrical references to the circumstances of our particular time. The lyrics reference little that’s contemporary per se, from #1, Miranda Lambert’s “The House That Built Me” on through #20, Josh Turner’s “All Over Me”. 

Hardly any of these top 20 songs paint specific pictures of places or people. The places are city versus country, small town versus big. The lovers and devilish ex-lovers are figures whom you know very well, through their years of telling through the music—yet you can never really visualize. The songs on the whole try less to capture a point in time than they do to depict the essentials of human life. They proclaim, “This is life. This is how things are. This is how men act, this is how women act. This is how the world is”.

By the time a song hits the radio, many people have touched it in some way, from the songwriters to the artist to the record label. Not unlike greeting cards or television commercials, country radio songs seem like works of consensus and design that try to appeal to the basic instincts and experiences of their perceived audience. Collectively, the creators are predicting what listeners will recognize as events in their own lives, what will make them smile, cry, or hurt along with the song on the radio, in knowing solidarity.

Of course in their very creation they are probably saying something about today, about how we imagine other people view the world. Along with the songs, country radio as an entity throws in other assumptions about what its audience wants to hear. Stations often tie the inherent commercialism of mainstream radio in with notions of patriotism, faith, “family” and conservative politics. One local station is partway through its “Summer of Freedom”, which lasts “from Flag Day to 9/11”. It involves concert ticket giveaways and fundraising for medals to give local Vietnam War vets. It ends on 9/11, when the grand prize of a Harley Davidson will be given away. (That contest is the answer for those of us who have been wondering when the anniversary of 9/11 will become just another consumerist occasion.)

The country-radio stations present a set of messages that they imagine jibe with the perspective of the listeners, and of the songs. The songs themselves are more interesting than they get credit for, though. Some of the basic messages of life, as depicted in the country radio top 20, are:

  • People hurt each other; the hurt wish the hurt-er would be dead or gone (“Pray For You”, Jaron and the Long Road to Love; “Undo It”, Carrie Underwood; “Lover, Lover”, Jerrod Niemann)
  • Men in general don’t know how to treat a woman right, but some specific men do (“Love Like Crazy”, Lee Brice)
  • People make each other smile (“Smile”, Uncle Kracker”)
  • Everybody’s working for the weekend (“All About Tonight”, Blake Shelton; “Work Hard, Play Harder”, Gretchen Wilson)
  • Nature ties us all together (“Water”, Brad Paisley; “Rain Is a Good Thing”, Luke Bryan)
  • Summer ties us all together (“All Over Me”; “Water”, Brad Paisley)
  • Summer is about sex, really (“All Over Me”; “Free”, Zac Brown Band; “Water”)
  • Marriage is a sexual contract (“Little White Church”, Little Big Town)
  • Heartbreak is temporary (“Wrong Baby Wrong Baby Wrong”, Martina McBride; “She Won’t Be Lonely Long”, Clay Walker)
  • Love is high-stakes (“I’m In”, Keith Urban)
  • Love is all we need (“This Ain’t Nothin’”, “Free”)
  • Love is bigger than us; it’s worth dedication even if your lover lies and cheats (“I Keep On Loving You”, Reba)
  • God can remake us into better people; alone, we cannot (“The Man I Want to Be”, Chris Young”)
  • Growing up can break us (“The House That Built Me”)

These songs are populated with solitary figures, looking towards others with hope, disdain, appreciation, or anticipation. The vocals, too, are mostly individuals. Just three of the songs listed here are by groups. That is a classic country quality in a way. For every successful group there are at least a dozen successful solo acts. In lyrics and music these songs contain an internal dialogue between the past and the present, or at least between what’s imagined to sound “classic” and what’s imagined to sound “fresh”. 

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