Country music is many things to many people. To some, it’s banjos, telecasters, and twangy steel guitars. Others focus on the strong storytelling tradition of country music, and make the case that it’s the lyrics, not the instrumentation, that define the genre. But beyond the stereotypes and clichés, beyond the eternal debate over country music’s definitional boundaries, an undeniable thread emerges: Country music is the music of Middle America.
It’s unsurprising that 2017 market research conducted by the Country Music Association reveals the highest concentration of country fans in the Deep South: Tennessee, Alabama, and Mississippi. What is surprising, however, is the region that takes third on that list: the Great Lakes (right behind the Great Plains). States like Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio have a higher share of the population consuming country music than traditional hotbeds like Texas and Georgia. Of course, these Rust Belt states are of increasing interest politically due to their outsized effect on the political earthquake that was the 2016 election. The CMA’s 2014 study, which breaks down country consumers by state—not by region—provides even clearer insight into the political importance of country music trends: the 2014 CMA map is strikingly similar to the 2016 electoral college map. Suffice it to say that country music is the predominant genre of choice for the key demographic that delivered the White House to President Trump.
So what can changes in country music tell us about the political changes that led to 2016? In the fall of 1995, Texas country singer Tracy Lawrence released a new single, “If The World Had a Front Porch.” The song experienced a quick rise up the Billboard music chart, peaking at number two a mere month after it was released. Evidently, Lawrence’s single resonated with the fan base of country music.
The lyrics of “If The World Had a Front Porch” would almost lead one to believe that Lawrence was a pop culture predecessor to the good folks over at Front Porch Republic. Throughout the song, Lawrence pines for the days of the ubiquitous front porch, not simply as an architectural feature, but as an indispensable facilitator of community life. His chorus dials up the nostalgia to drive the point home:
If the world had a front porch like we did back then
We’d still have our problems but we’d all be friends
Treatin’ your neighbor like he’s your next of kin
Wouldn’t be gone with the wind
If the world had a front porch like we did back then
The song harkens back to a time in Middle America when family and community were prioritized. Sure, 1990s small town America was hardly Mayberry. Indeed, as Alan Jackson’s 1997 hit “Little Man” shows, there were signs even then that the unraveling was well underway. But the commercial success of “If The World Had a Front Porch” indicates at least a nominal respect for the modes and mores of living that had ordered American life for decades. There was a market for a song that touched on themes of place and connectedness, despite the uncomfortable recognition that such themes were rapidly becoming more ideal than reality.
Fast forward to 2017, and popular country music paints a much different picture of the priorities of its fan base. What’s most striking is perhaps the extent to which the format avoids discussing the obvious trials of the white working class. Fans of the genre known as “three chords and the truth” seem wholly uninterested in confronting that latter component, opting rather for paeans to partying to provide an escape from the collapsing communities that surround them.
One need only to survey the Billboard country chart in recent years to observe this trend. A quick glance reveals a predominance of songs about girls, trucks, girls in trucks, beer, and more beer. Sam Hunt’s “Body Like a Back Road” shattered records this summer as the longest-reigning number one in the history of the Billboard country chart. Hunt’s depiction of his love interest’s physique is as superficial as the title would suggest, featuring gems like “Got lips like honey/So thick and so sweet.”
Country music’s escapist trend also wins the day outside of Sam Hunt’s pop-crossover sphere, as shown by Luke Bryan’s 2015 smash hit “Kick The Dust Up.” Bryan, arguably the biggest country star of the past decade, has made a career out of cranking out made-for-radio redneck party anthems. But “Kick The Dust Up” is exceptionally noteworthy considering its cringe-worthy lyrics (“We turn this cornfield into a party”), and the fact that most of its listeners will never experience the aforementioned cornfield party.
And then there’s Jake Owen, who seized on the commercial success of singing about the idea of small town life (rather than actual small town life) with his 2016 hit “American Country Love Song.” Owen achieved the impressive feat of packing almost every mindless country buzzword into one song: Daytona, Bud Light, stars and stripes, spring break, Ford trucks, fireworks, cheerleaders, quarterbacks, cowboys, country girls, and small towns each gets a shoutout. Predictably, the song went number one on radio.
Of course, not every song produced in contemporary Nashville skirts around the trials of small town America. Kasey Musgraves painted an all-too-accurate picture of life in the American heartland with her 2012 single “Merry Go ‘Round.” The song artistically details the same hypocrisy, adultery, consumerism, and drug abuse that have been similarly documented through social science (Charles Murray’s Coming Apart) and personal narrative (J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy). But country listeners, who in 1994 sent Toby Keith’s poignant depiction of broken homes to number one, largely panned Musgraves’s in 2012. Despite its critical acclaim, “Merry Go ‘Round” was largely unsuccessful as a radio single.
The genre that once spoke to the “cheatin’ and drinkin’” of Middle America—the good and the bad—has gone silent. As country music transforms, its audience continues to grow. But the escapism that permeates country’s recent hit-making formula reveals the depth of the problems that plague the regions traditionally composing country music’s fanbase, and offers a unique glimpse into the motivations behind the Trump phenomenon. After all, vague rallying cries like “Make America Great Again” speak to a sense of loss, without actually requiring the painful introspection necessary to identify that which has been lost. Tracy Lawrence may have been right that a revival of the proverbial front porch could provide some solutions. But discussing solutions requires recognizing problems—which, as the Billboard charts show, contemporary country fandom isn’t inclined to do.
Emile Doak is director of events & outreach at The American Conservative.