The Truth About Country Music Lyrics

Ever notice that every country song on the radio has the word “town” in it? References to a “small town,” the “edge of town,” and “this podunk town” are increcibly predictable — you can flip on a country station and hear one within minutes. That’s what it seems like, anway. To confirm this, I took the top 25 songs from Billboard’s Hot Country chart, Googled the lyrics and copy/pasted them into a word count program that allowed me to eliminate “and,” “the,” and other words of no significance. Here’s what I found:

Word cloud of the most common words used in BillBoard’s top 25 Hot Country Songs for the week of Feb. 20, 2016

“Got” is the most common word in country music, by far.

Think about it. Country music, however you define it, involves a performance of cultural identity. To gain trust, an artist must show that they are very much like their listeners. Sure, there’s a narrative that moves the song’s story along or drives toward an overarching point but, for the most part, song lyrics are intentionally crafted to win the approval of listeners. When it comes to wordsmithing relatable stories of who’s got what and who’s got who, nothing is more important than the word “got.”

The word “got” is subversive. It’s a shortest-distance verb that connects the proctor of any country story to the stage props and plot at hand. It is a declarative word of ownership and purpose. When Granger Smith sings “I got the windows down,” and Luke Bryan sings “Girl, we got all night,” the listener validates those intentions vicariously. Similarly, the word can also signal the loss of power — another notion country listeners enjoy empathizing with. When Chris Stapleton sings “I know just what got her gone” he is expressing remorse while challenging listeners to withhold judgment. We accept every time, don’t we? Country music is for the people, supposedly by the people. Bad decisions and poor grammar are not only fair game — they’re strategic communal touchpoints that are as country as Stetson hats and old Ford trucks.

The ten most common words in country music today.

Rounding out the other nine most common country words are an ensemble of simple terms that still manage to say quite a bit. “Ain’t” is as defiant and communal in purpose as country music itself. “I’m” and “you’re” sum up who’s talking and who’s the observed muse or former muse. “Love” is the ultimate of all objects and subjects. It’s also the most desirable and ubiquitous verb there is. “Like” is a handy, lighter variation.

Similes and analogies are the weak writer’s attempt at metaphor, which is arguably another reason why “like” is a top ten country song word. Strong writing, which involves a lot of risk, commits to a concept without showing any tells (“There’s a lady who’s sure all that glitters is gold…”), while weaker writing uses the word “like” to alert readers/listeners to the hopefully meaningful comparison that is afoot (“it’s like God let me dial up the weather”). These are all over country music, which is technically more of a multi-billion dollar commodity aimed at selling units to the masses than it is an art.

Just” is a perfect word for a country lyric, serving as a cue for conveying singularity (“the toasts just don’t feel the same”) or feigned humility (“I’m just trying to make you mine”).

I suspect that country music’s uses of “oohs” and “ohs” as verbal musical devices are similar to that of other genres. Country also relies heavily on the jack-of-all-trades word “one,” which is an adjective, a noun, a pronoun and an idiom. The word is quite handy for its implied idealism. (“It’s one of those moments,” “one more trip to my side of town”)

By the way, “lyric videos” are totally a thing now–officially released by artists and even tolerated by labels when created and shared by fans. They go a long way in helping an artist’s fanbase grow. They also help eliminate the misheard and misunderstood lyrics that plagued some artists who did their thing before the interwebs.

What about the tropes?

You can’t really use a word count program to key in on oft-repeated lyrical concepts that use different words to express the same thing. That requires more of qualitative analysis, so that’s what I did. Some of the following patterns might surprise you:

As for my hypothesis, I was wrong––the actual word “town” was not mentioned in 25 of the 25 of the songs analyzed. It was only mentioned in five different songs––although 11 songs referenced the geography and community elements of small town life, or at least the small town vs. the rest of the world dichotomy (backroads, small towns, fancy destinations, a downtown party, etc.)

So what have we learned? Would you be surprised if I told you I’m working on a country song? I’m starting with the chorus. It goes:

“I’m like, ‘Ooh, ooh. Oh, ohhh, oh.’ Ain’t love just like like the one you got?”

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By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.