What Happened to Country Music?

If you know any fans of classic country music, you know how much we like to complain about today’s country scene and how it’s all gone wrong. What used to be a genre full of wry, bittersweet songs about bad luck and heartbreak, has become an endless series of interchangeable party anthems and syrupy love songs. (You could tell a similar story about R&B, but one problem at a time.)

Of course, in today’s world, no one believes anything without an infographic. And after years of waiting for Nate Silver to take an interest, I realized it was up to me to make one.

My initial plan was to take the annual Billboard country #1 hits for the last 50 years, tag every song according to its lyrical content, and then chart the trends over time. I quickly realized that would be way too much work, so I decided to use every tenth year as a sample: 2015, 2005, 1995, and so on. I made up abbreviated tags to summarize each type of song as I was going through the lists, like WCYBT (why can’t you be true) or CGOY (can’t get over you), and then tried to hammer them into a few larger categories.

What I learned is that there are four main types of country song, two sad types and two happy ones. After removing one instrumental track and a few novelty songs (mostly about truck drivers), the rest of the list fell into one of these four buckets:

1. It’s all over

What unites these songs is a core theme of regret or loss. Usually what’s over is a romantic relationship, but it could be about anything else good that the singer has lost, often by actively screwing it up. I Just Can’t Get Over You and You’ll Get Yours are among the subtypes; common elements include drinking, cheating, bad luck and bad decisions. In some ways this was once the quintessential country song, the one that spawned jokes like “What do you get when you play a country song backwards? You get your girl back, your job back, your dog, your truck, your house…”

2. It’s not working out

Again it’s usually about a relationship, but a little earlier in the timeline — and the main theme here is frustration. Subtypes include You Don’t Love Me Anymore, Why Can’t You Be True, Don’t Leave Me, and Why I’m Leaving You.

3. Love and devotion

I actually tagged most of these as SLS, for “sappy love song,” but decided to go with a more neutral label. It’s not so different from the same category of pop song, although some variations are particularly popular with country singers, including They Said We’d Never Make It (who did?), Back Together, and assurances of fidelity (maybe because so many country songs in the first two categories are about cheating).

4. The right way to live

The other type of upbeat country song, which turns out to be a key part of this story, has a dominant theme of pride and homespun wisdom. Other than the generic party anthem mentioned above, variants include Things Were Better Back Then, Me and My Rowdy Friends, and Let’s Get Back to Basics.


Diagnosis

There are still some common threads in the genre; one thing I noticed in going through the newer songs is how the old lyrical templates from the first two categories have been updated to be more positive. For example, “I’m over you (but clearly I’m not),” as practiced by George Jones, Connie Smith, Tammy Wynette and many others, has had the subtext stripped away in this song by Cole Swindell to become “I’m really over you, time to party” — which completely misses the central joke of the premise (why would you be singing about someone if you’re really over them?) and just comes off as mean-spirited. Or the classic “don’t screw up your life like I did,” often delivered by an old man in a bar (here are two examples from Vern Gosdin and Robbie Fulks), which has been inverted in this song by Lee Brice to make the old man a positive role model and source of trite life advice.

In any case, that chart pretty much speaks for itself: modern country fans are more interested in healthy relationships, motivational speeches and having a good time than sadness and misery. And on a certain level, who can blame them? But that tiny uptick in sad songs last year offers a ray of hope for those of us who still like a few tears in our beer now and then.


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