“All you need to write a country song,” according to the late Harlan Howard, “is three chords and the truth.” And if anyone knew what it took to write a country song it’d be Howard, a guy responsible for many now-classic hits—”I Fall to Pieces,” “Busted,” “I’ve Got a Tiger by the Tail,” and “Heartaches by the Number,” to name a few. So it’s not a huge surprise that, over several decades, his phrase has now morphed into something of a mantra, repeated time and again amongst musicians and fans alike: “Country music is three chords and the truth.” But for all of this pared-down honesty, it’s probably best to take Howard’s wisdom as more of a country koan. Because however basic the idea is, it also leads towards some pretty complex stuff—like the truth, and the question of country-ness, and maybe even working with three chords, the point at which Lou Reed once declared you’re entering the realms of jazz…
Country has always liked to tell on itself. It stresses the straightforward, then makes an art form out of the very idea of simplicity. It feeds on an American folk lineage but frets endlessly over questions of inheritance. The name—country—is national in scope, even as its practitioners have conjured up town lines and narrow borders again and again over the years. Take Brad Paisley’s “This Is Country Music,” from 2011, exemplary of a familiar move to define the genre by rehearsing its subjects, in which the singer locates himself and his song squarely in the tradition by cribbing iconic lines from legends like George Strait, George Jones, and Tammy Wynette. The lyrics suggest that what makes country country is a longstanding claim to a certain set of signifiers—canonical forebears, heartache, Jesus, “tractors, trucks, little towns, or mama”—and then the song says that these are important because they’re the stuff of real life: “This is real, this is your life in a song. / Yeah this is country music.”
Back in 1975, Steve Goodman parodied this tack when he declared himself to have “written the perfect country and western song” to David Allen Coe, who in turn pointed out the lack of a few quintessential references. Goodman responded with the addition of a new verse that included them all—”mama,” “trains,” “trucks,” “gettin’ drunk” and “prison”—and then, together with Coe, packaged the entire exchange into the lyrics of “You Never Even Call Me By My Name.” And while a bit more tongue-in-cheek than Paisley’s, both tunes articulate that persistent attempt to boil down country to some kind of primordial bones. Perhaps Tom T. Hall, writing about a year before Goodman, hit a little closer to the mark, precisely in his poetic open-endedness:
Country is sittin’ on the back porch
listen to the whippoorwills
late in the day … Country is what you make it
country is all in your mind…”
All of these token totems—from trains and trucks to wide open spaces and whippoorwills—have been sewn deep down into country’s creation myth. So too has a recognizable sonic language: the crying slide guitars, steely banjo, speedball mandolin… the close harmonies and a band on tight counterpoint… the gravity of an exposed solo performance and the singular instrument of the human voice twanging along a familiar path outlined by melody… But it should also be pointed out that many of these apparently native tropes are in part trappings of a particular moment in time—literally dated—and that this very datedness has, in turn, become a kind of mega-trope of its own. We see it distilled in the words of Willie Nelson, the genre’s outlaw sage: “ain’t it funny how the time slips away.” Or in the way that, for all its obsessions over the past, country music simultaneously accepts that time moves on while sad feelings don’t. This is what allows Johnny Cash to bellow about flying “a starship across the universe divide” in “Highwayman,” Alan Jackson to lament an ill-fated love in “www.memory,” and Dierks Bentley to embrace a less-complicated modernity and just get drunk on a plane.
Anyway, there’s no question that the best way to figure out what country is or isn’t is to listen to it, not read about it. Moreover, laying down a definition of any kind of music always runs the risk of being boring or bombastic—but here we are, trying to do our due diligence. What follows is a brief, careening portrait of country music and its weird energies. Our hope is that it helps situate the interviews to follow, most of which complicate and vivify the claims put forward here.
In the schematic sense, “country music” is a marketing term cooked up by business people to sell popular music derived from or inspired by traditions from the American South and West back to literal and spiritual residents of the American South and West. While the music it refers to was first recorded in the 1920s by labels like OKeh, Victor, and Columbia who were desperate to compete with radio and scouting out regional music to sell to regional audiences, the word “country” didn’t gain broad usage until the early 1950s when it supplanted “folk”—too many Communist overtones for McCarthy-era America—as the preferred trade and fan term for a diverse range of popular rural musical styles like zydeco, gospel, rockabilly, Cajun, old-time, and western swing.Country has always liked to tell on itself. It stresses the straightforward, then makes an art form out of the very idea of simplicity.
Some confusion gets baked in because the name has from the beginning been trusted to smooth over and sometimes whitewash a complicated web of ancestral influences. Before it was called country music it was “hillbilly music” and before that it was ballads, the blues, work songs, jigs, reels, spirituals, sorrow songs, olde tyme and so on—back into the mists of American settlement. Those earliest discernible roots reach down mostly to the experiences of laborers, forced and free, who arrived in the American South in the 17th and 18th centuries. These people—mostly western European migrant workers and enslaved people from Africa and the Caribbean—brought music with them, and subsequently, out of the vernacular traditions they preserved, modified, stole from, and shared, evolved a wealth of distinct sonic and lyric adaptations to life and death in a new land.
After the Civil War ended and the South began to industrialize, people started to move more and they took their music with them. Bluesmen rode trains from town to town, medicine shows toured the countryside, workers streamed out of the mines and off the farms and into the textile mills of cities like Atlanta and Charlotte. In the process of all of this, previously discrete musical styles began to further cross-pollinate, influence, and alter one another, creating even more local blends. By the dawn of the 20th century, the developing commercial recording industry recognized that there were regional markets for all this regional music. So early producers set to work recording southern artists—black and white—and it was under the standardizing pressures of this nascent music industry that modern country began to emerge.
Which is all to say that country contains the great and conflicted story of America, complete with all the possibility and the garbage that word implies. The process of applying this commercial pressure—not to mention transforming a raucous, varied field of musical expression into something financially reliable and predictable—involved a lot of sanitizing and forgetting, and what it produced was a genre that drew from a sprawling array of down-home experience and expression. Is it any surprise that the “official history” only acknowledges a select, uncontroversial few?
We might say country forgot its debt to the blues when executives drew a color line between hillbilly and race records for ease of sale to white audiences in the 1920s.
Or note the downstream effects of a culture that has maintained, refined, and ultimately amplified a deeply entrenched racism: Most apparently, the disturbing homogeneity of the industry and radio infrastructure, not to mention the genre’s stars, nearly all of whom—with the occasional exception of outliers like Charlie Pride and, now, Darius Rucker—are white.
Or question any commitment to honesty and free expression when, in 2017, the Country Music Association banned reporters from asking artists about guns and politics just one month after a mass shooting left 58 fans dead in Las Vegas, treating the horrifying incident less like a tragedy than a scandal that somehow threatened each and every shareholder in the legacies of the patriarchs Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Bob Wills.
Or observe that the overwhelming maleness of the country charts isn’t a simple matter of what country audiences want to hear but the product of a sexist industry where deeply entrenched gender discrimination masquerades as business realism. When producers and label executives complain that women are just harder to sell, or when Luke Bryan says women aren’t as successful because they take too long to get ready in the morning and can’t “hang with the guys,” as he once told Entertainment Weekly, they do more than just dodge the degree to which the industry remains a boy’s club. The demographics bear this out. At the time Brad Paisley penned “This is Country Music,” just 15 percent of the CMA board of directors, 19 percent of the Academy of Country Music board, and 21 percent of the Country Radio Seminar board of directors were women.
And still, try as tomorrow’s Music Row suits might to do damage control and improve and manage an out-of-touch image, country’s saving grace might actually be hidden in its unruly history. While aesthetically and politically rigid industries inevitably create their own gravediggers, the recent commercial and critical success of performers like Sturgill Simpson and Margo Price point to the enduring appeal of an anti-establishment stance—too much top-down conformity has stoked a desire for whatever speaks back to that authority.
Regardless, these pressures can help describe country’s unshakeable tendency to be hyper reflexive, self-obsessed, even narcissistic. The genre’s formative era coincided with shellac records’ move from novelty to primacy. When the artist and collector Harry Smith was asked to make an “Anthology of American Folk Music” for Folkways Records, he selected recordings made between 1927 and 1933. Released in 1952, Smith’s “Anthology” was no definitive document of folk music, but the collection did manage to capture the cacophonous diversity and raw energy present during that early and unbridled spurt to incorporate regional styles. To track this, Smith divided some 84 songs into three useful categories: “ballads” (narrative song), “social music” (for dancing and religion), and “songs” (broadly focused on the drama of everyday life). His keen curation illuminates this music’s rough transformation from a living social utility to a performative document of the past—a literal record—an associative, occult retrospective that tries to account for the ragged, undisciplined roots of American folk music rather than standardize or smooth them away. Accordingly, the Anthology’s influence runs deep, especially for another authenticity-obsessed genre: the folk revival of the 1960s.Country is that good kind of old thing, that which can be made new again, again and again—but always with the uneasy knowledge that everything could go too far and get fucked up.
But over time, the smoothing still happened. The Carter Family, who appeared frequently on the Anthology, made their commercial recording debut in Bristol, Tennessee, in 1927, for the Victor Talking Machine Company. The same sessions first documented Jimmie Rodgers, known as the Singing Brakeman, whose infectious blue yodel—a folk/blues hybrid he’d picked up from gandy dancers and hobos—became so popular so quickly, it was as if he’d breathed something new into being overnight. Although the first hillbilly records had been cut a few years prior and similar recording sessions were taking place throughout the southeast at the same time, the Bristol Sessions were retroactively dubbed the “Big Bang” of country music—and the town itself eagerly embraced the title “birthplace of country music.” Given the monumental and enduring influence of Rodgers and the Carters, combined with the runaway proliferation and sale of records, the explosive energy of the Big Bang describes the magnitude of the event, but also obscures the heterogeneous, nearly ethereal beginnings of these manufactured products—the messy but magical world glimpsed in Smith’s Anthology.
Nor was the tension between the pre-commodified music and industrial pressure limited to a specific medium or point in history. As country music spread from vinyl discs to television, solipsistic affirmations also strengthened. The great songwriter Loretta Lynn—famous for the feature-length movie of her life called Coal Miner’s Daughter—performs to great inter-media effect as she proclaims on an early Technicolor TV performance that “if your eyes are on me, you’re lookin’ at country.” But however studied country might have been in reality, however much work and polish went into producing this music that called up or looked back to a past, it has always cherished the promise of the authentic, the old, and the untutored—even as it is deathly aware that this promise it has, this thing of immense value, rarely survives its own sale.
This irony—a folk thing with popular commercial appeal—produces a lot of country’s tics, hang-ups, and beauty. While trying to bridge past and present, it partakes of what the music historian Robert Cantwell called the romantic, embattled claims of folk culture—immediacy, tradition, the idiomatic, the traditional, the communal. This is a culture of “characters, of rights, obligations and beliefs,” he continues, and as such it is always under threat by “a centrist, specialist, impersonal, technocratic culture, a culture of types, functions, jobs, and goals.” On the one hand you have something that’s exciting because it’s old, or old-adjacent, and on the other hand you’ve got the means to preserve and reproduce and distribute that old thing, which now seems to be getting newer by the minute. Country is that good kind of old thing, that which can be made new again, again and again—but always with the uneasy knowledge that everything could go too far and get fucked up.
Some people want to equate country’s simplicity with simple-mindedness when it’s actually in the running for the most secretly self-obsessed, borderline neurotic form of popular American music. It turns history over and over in its head, venerating heroes, commenting again and again on progressions and digressions, berating itself for a failure to live up to the myths the tradition has created, and never getting to the bottom of any of this. As a genre, it’s rivaled only by rap for a tendency to sing about itself and evolution, to take itself as its own subject and find the emotional resonance of something like a style or a tradition.
Waylon Jennings’ classic song “Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way” laments the glitzy self-delusion of modernity:
Lord it’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar
Where do we take it from here?
Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars
It’s been the same way for years.
But there’s also guilt—the singer recognizes that he is leading the charge into new terrain, further and further from Hank Williams’ purity:
Lord, I’ve seen the world, with a five-piece band
Looking at the back side of me
Singing my songs, and one of his now and then
But I don’t think Hank done ’em this way, no
I don’t think Hank done ’em this way.
With a distinctive, stately pound and the slow-phased whir of a Telecaster, the song screams about change, new sounds and new attitudes, but any progress that Waylon sings about is only visible when framed by tradition.
A lot of this comes from that persistent fear of losing touch or breaking time or somehow betraying the history you love and feel a part of. These anxieties suffuse the music—on and off record—and consciously so. Plenty of people believe that country and country musicians have, as a rule, some naïve belief in authenticity, and inarguably you can find a long list of phony authenticity hawkers and lost causers and sentimental hacks in the genre. But the good stuff either couldn’t care less about the idea or preoccupies itself with it.
Like George Jones’ classic “She Thinks I Still Care,” for example.
Just because I asked a friend about her
Just because I spoke her name somewhere
Just because I saw her and went all to pieces Lord
You know she thinks I still care.
Mark Twain once wrote that, “the humorous story is told gravely; the teller does his best to conceal that he even dimly suspects that there is anything funny about it,” and you’d be hard pressed to find anyone more dimly suspicious than Jones’ narrator. But the joke and the genius of the song is that in the narrator’s repeated, emphatic claims that he’s fine, it’s absolutely clear he’s falling apart.
Or Lucinda Williams’ “Passionate Kisses”:
Is it too much to ask?
I want a comfortable bed that won’t hurt my back
Food to fill me up And warm clothes and all that stuff
Shouldn’t I have this?
And passionate kisses
Passionate kisses, whoa oh
Passionate kisses from you?”
These songs are as much about struggling to articulate heartbreak as they are about the heartbreak—as much about how hard it is to say something simply as they are about the simple things themselves.
We put together this playlist, “An Idle Hour,” named for Nashville’s best bar—and we played it for a friend. After six songs he turned with a pained face and asked why they were all so sad? It’s a good question! And there are lots of answers. This was hard time music, originally, remembered and created by migrants and the enslaved, people who were uprooted and moved around the world and thrown into foreign climes, forced to make do. Later it was the soundtrack of army barracks and mysterious border blasters and country folk adrift in northern cities. So much of it tells about loss. You lose your lover, your home, your way, yourself, lose the way the music used to be. And unlike music given to catharsis, in country you dwell in that loss. You sit at the barstool, play the jukebox, check the timeline, watch the record turn and turn and turn and, as Del Reeves once said, tell the same old story a dime at a time. Whatever any given singer’s lost though—whether an old flame or an old town or country music itself—there’s an enduring memory of the past, gone for good but impossible to shake. And to a large degree that inability to process and move on makes the music so melancholic and evocative and weirdly social.
When Hank Williams sings,
Hear that lonesome whippoorwill
He sounds too blue to fly
That means he’s lost the will to live
I’m so lonesome I could cry
…and when Ronnie Dunn sings about life in the shadow of the neon moon, where “The jukebox plays on, drink by drink / And the words of every sad song seem to say what I think,” and when Garth Brooks brags about his “friends in low places”—they’re all keeping company by way of the loneliness. Despair transforms into a party when you “break out the bottle, bring on the crowd,” as Porter Wagoner sings:
Tell funny stories, turn the jukebox up loud
come on sit at my table, where the drinks are on me
just gather round me because misery loves company.
Rich as it sounds, part of country’s abiding power is that sense of community in the fellow-feeling among sad sacks, the moment of bruising recognition, the pathetic solidarity.
We’ve compiled a series of interviews with artists who are exemplars of the kind of inventive, critical country music that works within a tradition while pushing at its conventions and boundaries. They are performers and songwriters and preservationists and insurgents whose work makes good on whatever promise country holds. In some sense, they’re the counter balance to the more familiar story we’ve just laid out, all trying to widen the scope of what country is and what it can be. Not out of any fealty to the genre but because, like all creative people they work within the constraints of a style and a tradition and a history. We aimed to interview people from different corners of the landscape, who could tell us what the good stuff sounds like these days. What we found were musicians who were doing that work, who weren’t defensive or overprotective of a tradition, but attentive to what country makes possible today—and what it might make possible tomorrow.
Which brings us back to that Tom T. Hall line from earlier—”country is in your mind.” He’s probably right. We’ve tried to lay out and unpack part of a framework here, but really inspired music usually weaves in and out of any kind of charted territory. In 2013, Kacey Musgraves, co-writing with Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark (interviewed herein), got her first single on the top ten of Billboard’s Hot Country chart with “Follow Your Arrow,” which feels a bit like a contemporary refrain of Hall’s underlying wisdom.
With lyrics like…
If you save yourself for marriage
You’re a bore
If you don’t save yourself for marriage
You’re a whore-able person
…Musgraves chips away at some of country’s most entrenched, and most problematic simplifications and double standards—the good girl, the bad boy, the sinner, the saint, the drunk, the prude, and so on—while, like David Allan Coe and Steve Goodman before her, simultaneously referencing them all. The effect is a lyrical progression that resonates across a wide swath of experiences—the song could be about small town talk or industry branding or just figuring your shit out. Probably it’s about all of them. And, insomuch as country’s landscapes are riddled with these kinds of reductions, double binds, and impossible positions, “Follow Your Arrow” exemplifies the ways in which something as simple as a song can also offer up a way out. As Musgraves says plainly over the stirring minor lift to her resounding if a bit starry-eyed chorus:
When the straight and narrow
Gets a little too straight
Roll up the joint, or don’t
Just follow your arrow
Wherever it points.
–Jesse Montgomery, Alex Spoto, and Peter Nowogrodzki
From Gone Country, ed. Jesse Montgomery, Alex Spoto, and Peter Nowogrodzki. Courtesy Fowre. Copyright 2018.