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:
“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.
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.
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”)
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:
- 21 songs specifically mentioned time (Friday night, midnight, 2 AM, right now, forever, September, etc.). This important storytelling device is not lost on the scribes of country.
- 18 songs referenced touching and/or physical intimacy. Yep, 72% of the Top 25 country songs involve people touching people. That means 18 songs referenced at least one body part, if not a person’s entire body. (pretty blue eyes, hands, knees, arms, bare feet, etc.) Lips and/or kissing were mentioned 7 times.
- 18 songs referenced modes of transportation. (Sports car, trucks, white Maxima, black Pontiac, Plymouth, etc.) It’s not just trucks anymore.
- 17 songs mentioned phones or the radio. (11 radio, 8 phone, 2 both) You may recall that country songs used to reference the jukebox an awful lot. That practice never really evolved into referencing CDs or mp3s because the jukebox lore had more to do with the mood and public space of honky tonks than the vinyl 45s that powered them. Similarly, these 17 phone and radio references spoke to the moods of the protoganists and their ability to interact in the modern world’s version of public space — the internet.
- 15 songs mentioned things that are best explained by science… like weather-related phenomena (thunder, pouring rain, etc.), astronomical observations (Northern lights, sunset, etc.), natural elements (rivers, fire, etc.) and chemical reactions in manmade devices (jet contrails, sugar in a gas tank ruining an engine, etc.).
- 14 songs mentioned booze or drugs. (ice-cold beer, gin, Tennesse whiskey, hooked like a junkie, etc.)
- 12 songs referenced other music or even name-dropped other artists. (Marvin Gaye, Justin Timberlake, Hank, Cash, Elvis Costello, etc.) I don’t recall country & western singers of yesteryear name-dropping folks outside the establishment or referring to other genres or fandoms, at least not in a positive light.
- 7 songs referenced specific articles of clothing, accessories or makeup. (high-top shoes, cut-offs, lipstick, etc.)
- 6 songs included a male singer referring to a “girl.”
- 3 songs mentioned booty call relationships.
- 2 songs referenced barbed-wire fences.
- 1 song included a female singer referring to a “boy.”
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?”