Editor’s Note: This article was originally published in Keep It Rural, an email newsletter from the Daily Yonder. Like what you see? Join the mailing list for more rural news, thoughts, and analysis in your inbox each week.
As a kid, I never thought country music was very good. I grew up listening to the likes of John Prine, B.B. King, Emmylou Harris, and Lucinda Williams on my dad’s hundreds (I mean hundreds) of CDs, without ever realizing many of these artists were foundational to country music. I thought they were folk and bluegrass and blues (which, of course, they are), but the fiddles and harmonicas that made up the soundtrack of my youth were also what made up the roots of country music.
I denied this fact for a long time. The biggest country artists I knew of when I was curating my music taste were people like Jason Aldean and Luke Bryan; musicians who were singing about their “big green tractors” and country girls who should “shake it” for them.
The top country music of the 2000s and 2010s was a caricature of rural life, simplified into three components: trucks, booze, and girls. Country music does not equal rural, but it certainly is the genre most associated with rural, perhaps because of people’s own misunderstandings of rural America. Lyrics like “I can take you for a ride on my big green tractor / We can go slow or make it go faster / Down through the woods and out to the pasture” do not help with this. So many of these songs play-acted small town living without ever speaking to the realities of small town living; on some level, maybe I instinctively rejected that simplification.
This music was a far cry from the lyrics spun by the folks I name dropped earlier, and who I now realize are some of the finest representations of country music’s storytelling roots. John Prine and Bonnie Raitt’s “Angel from Montgomery” will forever be one of the strongest starts to a story I have ever heard: “I am an old woman / Named after my mother / My old man is another / Child that’s grown old.”
Sung in Prine’s gravelly voice, accompanied by an organ and a guitar, it is all the more compelling. When asked by journalist Paul Zollo why he would write and sing this character as if he were her, Prine answered as any good writer would: “If you come up with a strong enough character, you can get a really vivid insight into the character that you’ve invented. You let the character write the song.”
And this is what mainstream country music of the 2000s lacked – there was no story, no characters. Or if there was, it was the same tired tale depicting a fantasy rural life without any of the complexities of the people actually living in those small towns.
Of course, this discredits the incredible country music artists like The Chicks, Rhiannon Giddens, Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell, and Brandi Carlisle who were also making a name for themselves while telling more complicated country stories. But unsurprisingly, the same (male, white) faces dominated the mainstream perception of what country was, which is why saying I like country music felt like an embarrassing admission.
Little credit was given to the genre until this summer, which I’ve begun referring to as the “summer of country music,” for better and for worse.
It started on a low note: “Try That in a Small Town” by Jason Aldean was released in May with some of the most atrocious lyrics – and accompanying music video – I have ever had the displeasure of viewing. It pits small towns against cities and drips with racist subtext, problems Skylar Baker-Jordan summed up in a Daily Yonder commentary.
Then came Tyler Childers’ “In Your Love” in July, which was accompanied by a music video featuring two young men working in a coal mine who fall in love, then, one ends up dying of black lung. The video was written by Silas House (poet laureate of Kentucky) and his husband, Jason Kyle Howard, and is a testament to Childers’ Appalachian roots and a fervent reminder that homophobia does not belong in rural America. It exemplified country music’s “long history of rebellion against oppressive social and political viewpoints,” as Kim Kelly wrote in an In These Times article, and received positive reception from fans who said the video encouraged them to come out.
Just a few weeks after the “In Your Love” release, a previously obscure musician named Oliver Anthony released a song on Youtube called “Rich Men North of Richmond” that quickly reached the number one spot on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. Purportedly an anthem for the working class, its lyrics dip into right-wing extremism and was latched onto by the Republican Party, who Anthony claimed his song was also criticizing.
Finally, to round out an eventful country summer (which had many other lows and highlights), is Zach Bryan’s eponymous new album, which has even my non-country loving friends in a frenzy because of how good they think it is.
And they’re right: it is good! The album incorporates fiddle, tambourine, fingerpicking guitar; but importantly, it tells a good freaking story. Yes, it features trucks, girls, and booze, but it tells a more complicated story about these three: “Strange words come on out of a grown man’s mouth when his mind’s broke / Pictures and passing time, you only smile like that when you’re drinking / I wish I didn’t but I do, remember every moment on the nights with you,” sings Bryan in “I Remember Everything,” the eleventh track on the album. A broken mind, the way alcohol distorts reality, a lost love – these are complicated human stories Bryan is telling not just on this song but the whole album.
Critically, Zach Bryan is not the first modern country music artist to be writing about nostalgia, regret, hope and love. The women he collaborates with on this album – Sierra Ferrell and Kacey Musgraves – have already been doing this, as have Tyler Childers, Chris Stapleton, and many other country artists who have been in the spotlight a lot longer than this summer.
But to me, the 2023 “summer of country music” shows a new interest in the genre, and a new interpretation of what it actually means. Good storytelling has always been country music’s strength. It seems like people are ready to have that back.