What Happened to Country Music?

Peter Lewis
Apr 30, 2016 · 4 min read

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

2. It’s not working out

3. Love and devotion

4. The right way to live


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

(UPDATE: see my follow-up post, Country Music and Alcohol)

Peter Lewis

Written by

@plewis67 / www.thedrawingboard.net