When Country Music Goes to the Dark Side of Small-Town Life

Brandy Clark and Kacey Musgraves have defied country's tradition of celebrating the working class, and in doing so, they address the harsher realities of modern rural America.
Kacey Musgraves (left) and Brandy Clark (right). (AP / Wade Payne and Evan Agostini)

One of the defining characteristics of modern country music is its distinctly American way of acknowledging of class and place. Country singers have long embraced their working-class roots and expressed pride in the battles they fight to make rent; the genre's everyday Joes and Janes are proud to be everyday, or maybe even a little trashy, as evidenced in older songs such as Confederate Railroad’s “Trashy Women,” and Garth Brooks's “Friends in Low Places” as well as more recent songs such as Trace Adkins’s “Ladies Love Country Boys,” Blake Shelton’s “Hillbilly Bone,” and Gretchen Wilson’s “Redneck Woman.”

As someone from a rural area, albeit a more-than- one-stoplight town, I can see why it’s liberating to let go of the typical American pressure to try and “move up” in society. Country music has catered to that urge for a long time. But recently, a few female country singers have stepped away from this point of view, portraying small-town narratives in a more melancholy light. Instead of endorsing the country lifestyle, these artists question small-town living, the value of tradition, and the virtue in staying in one’s place. Instead of leaving life unexamined and being happy to be to do so, Kacey Musgraves’s “Merry Go ’Round” and Brandy Clark’s “Pray to Jesus” ask why people continue down the same road as their parents did. And as encouraging as many of the rebellious “embrace-hick-culture” songs were, these new songs feel more appropriate for the time we’re living in.

This isn't the first time, of course, that country music has acknowledged the obvious point that being poor isn’t fun. Dolly Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors,” for example, walked the line between dreariness and glee, expressing pride in her mother’s coat of rags as well as stating the challenges of being broke. Hank Williams sang nostalgically of “The Old Country Church,” but he also sang, “I’ll Never Get Out of This World Alive”:

No matter how I struggle and strive,
I’ll never get out of this world alive.

These shabby shoes I’m wearin’ all the time
is full of holes and nails,
and brother if I stepped on a worn out dime,
I bet a nickel I could tell you if it were heads or tails.

But even in earlier eras of country music, singers embraced their roots and expressed pride in the battles they fought to make rent: Johnny Cash, for instance, sang of his Southern roots and country life in “Country Boy” and “Southern Accents.” The rural, low-income life was presented as a freedom from materialism; Cash sings that he’s a “country boy, ain’t got no shoes; country boy, ain’t got no blues.”

In the early ’90s and into the mid-2000s, however, a brazen "hick" attitude developed in the genre, nourished in a time of relative economic health and the intensified post-9/11 nationalism of the early aughts. Rhett Akins released the much-beloved “Kiss My Country Ass” in 2005. Blake Shelton has since adopted  it as his "theme song," with good reason: Today, Shelton is the poster boy for this particular brand of country music. 

When the economic boom of the 1990s ended and the financial crisis of 2008 began, though, the profound gap between the rich and the poor—and often the rich and middle class as well—was exposed anew. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics put it in a report from earlier this month, the recession hit all of America hard; it caused unemployment rates to fall at equal rates in metro and non-metro areas in 2008 and 2009. But over the last few years, while employment rates in metro areas in America have begun to recover, job growth in rural regions and small towns has stalled. 

Country has evolved along with America, of course, and so it’s only logical that today, the cultural climate in real-life rural areas has become visible in country music’s sentiments toward the rural lifestyle.

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’ 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.

Presented by

Casey Quinlan

Casey Quinlan is a reporter at MFWire who has written for the New York Daily News, Feministing and The Legislative Gazette

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