I’ve long lamented the dumbing down of modern culture — whether that’s reflected in populist political rhetoric, vapid cable TV news coverage, or even country music. And here, it turns out I’m not alone. The other week, I wrote about country star Collin Raye’s criticism of “bro-country.” (This is a real problem. As Gawker noted, all the hit songs of 2013 sounded exactly the same: “Truck – check. Dirt road – check. Sugar shaker in painted-on jeans – check.”)
And on Thursday, Raye and I had a terrific conversation about this phenomenon; we talked about his great hits from the 1990s, as well as his worries about the state of country music.
Today’s obsession with trucks and dirt roads is a far cry from some of the lyrics Nashville churned out even a few years ago. That’s not to say there weren’t silly or fun songs in the past, but let’s take Raye’s hit My Kind of Girl, as an example. It included the following lyrics: “You quoted William Faulkner and Martin Luther King.”
That line always struck me as an interesting, if highbrow, example of a country song. Raye didn’t write the tune himself, but tells me he liked it because “It was saying, ‘I’m a country boy, and I’ve got a brain’ — and it’s okay to be a country boy with a brain.”
Interestingly, though, it always reminded me of another song, which was somewhat similar — and yet, completely different. Tim McGraw’s I Like It, I Love It had a lot in common with My Kind of Girl. Both songs were from the same era, both had similar themes (how awesome a girl is), and both mentioned the Atlanta Braves (in McGraw’s case, he laments that he “ain’t seen the Braves play a game all year”).
And, coincidentally, when I ask Raye if anyone from the 1990s era helped sow the seeds of today’s “bro-country,” he cites this very Tim McGraw song:
He’s the first man who coined in the lyric, ‘At the county fair, I throwed out my shoulder, but I won her that teddy bear’ … Now, he knows the word is ‘thrown’ … ‘I threw out my shoulder’ [but] he said ‘throwed’ to play down to the ignorance. When I heard him say that — and I saw what a big hit that was — I thought ‘ah, this isn’t good.’ Now, to Tim’s credit, he would come right back with a really solid song. But I saw little glimpses of that…
Both songs made similar points, even if McGraw did it in less grammatically correct fashion. But which artist had the most impact on today’s country radio? It very well may be that 90s stars like McGraw inadvertently laid the groundwork for today’s stars like Luke Bryan and Jason Aldean. “The major labels and the industry in general is so obsessed with just playing to the lowest possible common denominator, and just keeping that machine going,” Raye said.
The good news is that the rise of alternative media at least allows for a niche like Americana music — authentic, roots-based artists ranging from Jason Isbell to Ryan Adams to Pat Green — to still forge a good career, while making good music. So, at least, there are other options for fans of traditional music.
But commercial country radio is still king. And since these things sometimes go in phases, here’s hoping we can get back to some more elevated lyrics. “I think country music should always be about songs that say something,” Raye tells me.