Is the Sadness Gone from Country Music?

Has country music lost its capacity for brutal, unshakeable loneliness? Or are we just experiencing some calm before the next, inevitable heartache?

There’s this old joke that goes something like:

What do you get when you play a country song backwards?

You get your house back, your wife back, your dog back, your truck back…

I was reminded of that joke while driving across the state of Missouri at the end of July and came across the American Country Countdown on the radio, just in time for the top ten songs of the week. All ten were sung by male solo country artists. No groups. And no women, except one featured backing vocalist, the singer’s wife.

The #1 song was about a man settling down with a woman and finding his true self (“who I am with you”). He’s no longer a rolling stone, no longer a rambler, has finally found his domestic destiny. There was another song about settling down, from a macho man who never thought he’d settle down. “It ain’t my style, but I don’t care / I’d do anything with you anywhere”. The bucking bronco has been tamed.

There was a song about a night in the hayfield, where a woman — yes, you guessed it — danced in a car’s tail lights after climbing off a four-wheeler. They did some drinking, went down by a river, you know the drill. The river bank showed up in another song where a couple floated around on an inner tube, so in love, much happier than those rich folk on the cruise ships.

In another song, a group of guys felt like rock stars on that riverbank, the one you have to drive down “an almost two lane back road” to get to. They were singing songs to a small town girl, the one with the tan, who makes time stand still. And in yet another, our singer flies down a dirt road in a car, driving and drinking and smiling at a woman with baby blue eyes who he thanks God for bringing into his life.

There was a Chesney-ian nostalgic look back at “teenage dreamin”, almost a genre of its own. And, a modern tradition: a song about a summer beach vacation, with a blonde woman with tan lines who meets the singer at a reggae bar where everyone drinks Margaritas.

What tales there weren’t in any of these songs, were songs about losing the love of your life, songs about tragedy, about poverty, about sitting at the bar feeling like the world has been ripped out of your heart, your future pried from the grasp of your fingers. No songs about the deep sadness we traditionally think of when it comes to country music.

This is the genre that we poke fun at for its sadness, right? The provocation for jokes about the genre’s sad-sack, depressing ways. The one which supposedly has countless songs about losing your wife, losing your livelihood, looking at life from down in the dirt level.

The closest songs to “sad” among the ten — and probably the two best songs — were Dierks Bentley’s “Drunk on a Plane” and Tim McGraw’s “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s”. The latter plays with a country trope from way back, the city/country split. He’s running himself ragged in the city, trying to keep up with the fast pace and high-dollar costs, and finds himself dreaming of life at his mama’s house: the porch light, the rain falling on the tin roof, the dirt road you take to get there. If the foundation of the song is a restless sad, the overriding tone is a romantic wistfulness.

“Drunk on a Plane” is the only song played where a relationship has fallen apart, where someone’s been jilted. The scenario is creative: she’s gone, so he’s taking the honeymoon alone, getting wasted on the airplane. He’s hurt and angry, and trying to “drown the pain”, but the focus of the song is on that drowning, played for laughs, with a hip-hop swagger (“got this 737 rocking like a G6”) and a big hook that feels triumphant.

In general, these songs feel like a fantasy world, which isn’t a bad thing — that might be the essence of popular music. But the world isn’t quite the same one usually conjured up or stereotyped by the words “country music”. It does have the setting, or at least a few persistent pieces of it: the dirt roads, the riverbanks, the pick-up trucks, the front porches. Missing are the dark bars with mirrors to look into, the flickering honkytonk lights temporarily covering up the shadows of night where you come face to face with the darkness of your soul.

Sometimes for kicks I’ll read your prototypical “country music sucks”-type websites or “where has the real country music gone?” online comments complaining about current popular country music. It’s like listening to conservative talk radio: listening to those you vehemently disagree with, to help refine your arguments, get you riled up or just to try and understand.

The logic of those commentaries — a logic which, truth be told, spreads into the thinking of less esoteric music websites quite often, to the extent that it can almost, if not quite, be considered the ‘conventional wisdom’ — goes that country music lost its way around the time of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, and has only gotten worse since. It’s fake, it’s too commercial, too glitzy, too overproduced, too dumb, too soft, too ‘pop’, not “real” enough, not sad enough. It’s Hollywood, it’s Las Vegas, it’s reality TV.

From where I’m coming from, most of these arguments are easily shot down or at least easily complicated. Or maybe it’s more like some of these don’t seem like problems to me. I don’t mind pop music. It wasn’t ever that separate from country. I don’t believe in the purity of genre as a good thing. I hear plenty of smart, moving songs from the most mainstream sector of the genre, just as I hear quality work inside and outside the mainstream of most genres.

Yet listening to this top ten did get me to pondering on this, the question of whether country music is losing its sadness. Going back and looking at the #1 songs from earlier in the year didn’t help. While I can think of plenty of brutally, devastatingly sad country songs from the past five or ten years, I’m struggling to think of commercially successful ones from this year. I end up with something like Eric Church’s “Give Me Back My Hometown” or Luke Bryan’s “Drink a Beer” (which Wikipedia says Bryan has described as “the coolest sad song ever”), but these are more ruminative than chronicling the sort of deep, hard-to-believe-it-feels-like-this, gut-ripped-out songs that are legion in the genre overall.

A couple years ago at a garage sale I picked up a used vinyl copy of the American Country Countdown from December 1989. It’s a radio station copy, spread across five records, commercials and all. It’s been sitting on the shelf since I bought it, but this seemed like a good time to pull it out, for comparison’s sake. It’s not a perfect comparison, or a scientific one. But it is interesting.

This top ten has five solo male artists, three solo female artists and two groups (one fronted by a female singer and one a male). The songs are predominantly about heartbreak and love, from lonely love songs (Patty Loveless’ “Lonely Side of Love”) to bitter ones (Highway 101’s “Who’s Lonely Now”) to jealous ones (Lorrie Morgan’s “Out of Your Shoes”) and songs of longing (Shenandoah’s “Two Dozen Roses”). Even the songs of absolute devotion have an intensity that speaks to darkness; like Don Williams’ “I’ve Been Loved by the Best” (#4) and Garth Brooks’ “If Tomorrow Never Comes” (#2).

Though thematically they’re similar, they also seem more varied within that, in terms of approach. So if country music in 2014 is less sad, it also seems more monolithic, if you go by that particular top ten. Musically, the songs from 1989 are still varied — not ‘pure country’, if there ever was such a thing. The #1 song, Randy Travis’ “It’s Just a Matter of Time”, is in form a sort-of tribute to doo wop. It also hits on one of those prototypical country (maybe even prototypical pop) scenarios: a man watching, waiting for the day that a woman will come back to him. He know she’ll need him again, even though she spurned him, she put him down, she called him a clown.

Maybe this is the flip side of those women dancing in the tail light, the rest of the story. Maybe in 2014 we’ve regressed back to the beginning of stories, we’ve returned to the calm before the storm. Maybe by privileging contentment and comfort we’re just building up to next year’s flood of utter devastation, shock and unrest.

Maybe there’s a summer versus winter quotient here. While I think the ‘summer song’ notion might be a more recent phenomenon, like the ‘summer movie’ or ‘summer book’ idea, perhaps there are some themes we’re more attracted to in summer versus winter. Also, the timing of that comparison between 2014 and 1989 might play into the hand of the ‘modern country sucks’ crowd a bit too much. After all, that was the year of Garth’s debut album, before Shania, before country supposedly changed. So let’s look at the top songs of some other years in between, to see what we get.

The #1 ACC song of the year 1990 was Clint Black’s “Nobody’s Home”, one of those ‘things aren’t the same since you left’ songs. Fast forward seven years, to 1997, and the top ten ACC songs for the year were much more lovey-dovey — “It’s Your Love”, “Love Gets Me Every Time”, “How Your Love Makes Me Feel” – but sung by a variety of voices. Go another seven years, to 2004, and you get to performers who are still on the charts today, but they’re singing about a variety of topics: looking back across time, the changing of seasons, drinking beer, the way raising a family, being a ‘redneck woman’. Those topics don’t fill the sadness quotient I feel like I want, though looking further down that year’s charts there are other songs that do.

It’s possible my impression of 2014 is something that’s been coming up from the ground for years now, that the 28 July 2014 top ten represents various trends that can be traced backwards. (In other words, maybe the haters are partly right.) Setting aside the poor quality of this particular group of ten, maybe the shift away from gut-wrenching pain is not an entirely bad thing.

Do we need to maintain country’s sad-sack tradition forever, in order for it to be country? Maybe the new trends could push the genre in interesting new ways, even if it doesn’t feel that way right now.

What probably should be more alarming than the happiness in today’s songs is the likemindness of the songs and similarity of the performers. The gender uniformity, for one. While pondering this topic, I looked through a variety of chart listings from over the last 20 or more years, and I don’t think I saw a single one where the top ten was all male solo acts, though I’m sure they’re there. Last year most of the best country music albums (and the saddest, come to think of it) were made by women – Brandy Clark, Pistol Annies, Kacey Musgraves, Ashley Monroe, etc. Those albums weren’t all the same as each other, musically or lyrically, either. Maybe the variety, the emotions, the quality hasn’t vanished from contemporary country music at all, it’s just been pushed towards the bottom of the charts.

Maybe the songs I’m longing to hear are the flip side of the stories in that 28 July top ten. What is the small-town girl dancing in the taillights, down there by the riverbank, really thinking?

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Photo credit: Woman and guitar with sunset silhouette image from Shutterstock.com.