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.
We live in trailers and apartments too
From California to Kalamazoo
Grow up, get married, and when that one ends
We hate sleeping alone so we get married again…
Don’t want to buried in debt or sin
So we pray to Jesus and we play the lotto
‘Cause there ain’t but two ways
We can change tomorrow.
Musgraves, meanwhile, sings,
Mary, Mary, quite contrary
We get bored so we get married
And just like dust we settle in this town…
Tiny little boxes in a row,
Ain’t what you want it’s what you know
Just happy in the shoes you’re wearin’.
In Musgraves and Clark’s narratives, there is boredom, and even worse, there are dreams that go stale. People living in urban areas aren’t necessarily spared these problems, but there are more distractions available and often they have a better shot at realizing those dreams.
Ashley Monroe’s “Satisfied,” additionally, isn’t specific to small towns, but unlike much of traditional country music, it expresses unhappiness about the everyday aspects of life. Monroe sings about disappointment in the familiar and in the reality of commitment, and excitement in what’s new or what’s been left undiscovered in the past. Monroe sings,
Old man lookin’ at a photograph,
of a love that’s long gone from his past,
and his wife’s got a letter that she can’t read,
from a boy who never came back from the sea.
That’s a psychological place modern country music has tried to stay away from: The biggest country music stars in the past decade have embraced tradition and staying in the place you grew up. In “Back Where I Come From,” for example, Kenny Chesney sang, “Some say it’s a narrow place, narrow eyes on a narrow wage / But I make it a point to say that’s where I come from.” Lambert extolled the virtues of small-town celebrity over anonymity in the big city in “Famous in a Small Town” when she sang, “I dreamed of going to Nashville, put my money down and placed my bet, But I just got the first buck of the season, I made the front page of the Turner Town Gazette.” Brad Paisley sang of the virtues of traditional Southern values in “Too Country.” What does "too country" even mean? he asks, and cheekily defends the country life:
Is it too many pearls of wisdom under grandpa’s old hat
Is it too old-fashioned, is it just too antique
Is the question too strong or is the answer too weak?
Clark and Musgraves’s songs, though, embody a state of mind country music needs to acknowledge more often. Because it’s just as important for country music to tell the sad side of the story.