Work the Line
Country music, like its middle class listeners, is in an era of disillusionment.
Before there was country music, there was the music of Appalachia. The region of the United States that surrounds that mountain range cuts a broad diagonal from southern New York to eastern Tennessee and is the source text for much of what we now recognize as “country.” From folk music to ballads, bluegrass to hillbilly, Americana, ragtime, gospel, and string bands—it almost all started here. It’s home to Bristol, Tennessee, the official “Birthplace of Country Music,” where the Carter family and so many others first recorded the hits we still sing today. It’s also home to U.S. Highway 23 in Kentucky, otherwise known as “Country Music Highway” because so many stars were born and raised in those deep, dark woods. There seems to be something in the water—or the mountains.
Country music, like the region it hails from, is often considered the de facto home of the political right. Everyone knows this, even if nobody wants to admit it—from the country artists who intentionally try to distance themselves from their listeners (especially during the race riots of 2020) to the Republican candidates who try to capitalize on the connection, playing country songs at rallies and campaigning in cowboy boots. Like the political right, country music is currently engaged in a debate over its future, with new, young artists on the darker side of country sparring with the good ol’ boys for the right to define the genre.
Country music used to be a dependable bellwether for the mood of the middle class. During the postwar economic boom, the rhinestone cowboy Porter Wagoner was writing songs about the dangers of finding your happiness in wealth in “A Satisfied Mind.” It was the sort of thing one could only sing to an audience of Americans with significant expendable income. Less than a decade later, Tammy Wynette recorded “Stand By Your Man” the same year Ronald Reagan signed the country’s first no-fault divorce law. Like many of her listeners, she followed it up with “D-I-V-O-R-C-E” just a few years later.
In 2002, Toby Keith released “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American).” It was a firecracker. One year after 9/11, America was on the verge of the Iraq War. Keith’s song became not just a pro-war anthem but a patriotic one, a favorite among service members as well as politicians, who couldn’t have written a better endorsement of the war if they’d tried. Like a modern Bob Hope, the USO paraded Keith out in front of soldiers for a total of more than 240 shows, singing “The Angry American,” “The Taliban Song,” “American Soldier,” and others. While Keith took flack from the media for doing the shows—he claims more than 30 artists refused to work with him as a result—scores of country music fans were on his side. The genre was beginning to be defined by kinship with the U.S. military, largely composed of the working class. This was another kind of optimism, one which saw America as the warrior hero in a world in which the good guys always win.
The aughts saw the birth of a more indulgent take on the cheerful genre. When Luke Bryan wrote “Country Girl (Shake It For Me)” in 2011, he leaned into the three topics behind every hit song at the time: trucks, tailgates, teenage love. Songwriters tapped into nostalgia for the small town ideal of the 1950s, with a heavy dose of the affluence and sexual liberation of the decades that came after it. The result was something like a “light” version of whatever the more liberal genres were dabbling in: No hard drugs, but a lot of beer on a Friday night; romantic liaisons, but mostly ending in marriage; a tryst was acceptable, so long as it was in a pickup truck and her daddy gave you a talking to. So long as he had a truck and a Southern girl, the average white, middle class American was still assured of eventual success.
As a genre, country was reaching an apex. In 2011, more than 40 percent of Americans called themselves country music fans. In terms of the economic standing of its fanbase, the genre was also rising from working class to middle and upper-middle class. Demographic research from MRI that year showed the average country music listener was 45 years old and had an income of $75,000 per year. The majority owned a home valued just above the national average ($229,000), and many had more than two children. At a time when only 43 percent of Americans said they ate dinner with their family every night, 81 percent of country listeners did the same.
In 2011, while Luke Bryan was singing about country girls, Tyler Childers was singing about coal. His tone is strikingly different. Childers was writing to an entirely different audience, one which has grown increasingly relevant in the country market again: the working class.
God made coal for the men who sold their lives to West Van Lear
And you keep on digging ’til you get down there
Where it’s darker than your darkest fears
And that woman in the kitchen
She keeps on cookin’, but she ain’t had meat in years.
Born the son of a strip miner and raised in Eastern Kentucky, Childers isn’t trying to be the next Kenny Chesney. He’s trying to be the next John Prine. A former teacher of Childers’ recalled to Rolling Stone in 2019 that Childers was the only kid he ever had who asked him about Jack Kerouac. “He [Childers] was an old soul.” Meanwhile, Childers’ wife, Senora May, reportedly pals around with Wendell Berry’s granddaughters.
Perhaps the majority of country listeners weren’t ready for Childers in 2011, but many more are today. In 2017, the album Purgatory (produced by fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson) broke through to the mainstream, and in August 2019, Country Squire spent a week at the number one spot in album sales. While he’s yet to have a number one hit, his popularity has steadily grown, and he’s got two Grammy nominations under his belt already.
By his own insistence, Childers is determined to make country music good again, which means singing about the struggles of real Americans, struggles that have not seen a place in country music in a long time. Portraying this means Childers is talking about a way of life that is neither glamorous nor remotely familiar to journalists at Billboard or big time Nashville producers. The working class listener is not going on the spring break splurges Luke Bryan sings about. If he is doing drugs, it is not to have a good time but to numb the pain of the very harsh realities of life at the bottom. It’s a stark change from the optimism of the aughts.
Few songs demonstrate this better than “Whitehouse Road.” Childers sings of having “women up and down this creek” and getting “higher than the grocery bill.” For country music, the land of the clean and the home of the straight and narrow, this is edgy. In Childers’ lyrics, we repeatedly meet depressed souls worn down by poverty (“Creeker”), addiction (“Whitehouse Road,” “Feathered Indians”), and class strife (“Bus Route”). In “Country Squire,” Childers aspires to buy his sweetheart the grandest of all castles, a refurbished camper.
These struggles are not imagined. This is Childers’ world, and unlike many artists from Appalachia, he’s content to remain in it. Despite growing success, he still lives in an undisclosed location off the U.S. 23. It’s the world of many of his listeners, too, who seem to have grown weary of hearing their hometowns turned into slogans by artists who moved to Nashville from California.
“The problem with country is we’ve turned the props into the play,” Childers told the Guardian in a 2019 interview. “It doesn’t make sense to move to one of the biggest-growing cities in the nation to sit in a room with 12 people and write a country song. They’re all singing songs about ‘the place down the road,’ but what is that place now?”
That place is a place of hardship and distress. Its native population is in decline. In Appalachia, the average annual household income is nearly $10,000 below the national average. Twenty-two percent of Childers’ Kentucky live below the poverty line. Many of those who do work find mining jobs, where accident-related deaths are not rare. Worlds away from partying, SEC football games, and coming home from a 9-to-5 to a perky wife and baby, these Americans are often single, divorced, or living with a boyfriend, and feeding a baby from the Federal Reserve or night shifts.
Childers is not the only artist reckoning with the changing sociopolitical landscape. Zach Bryan, a former active duty member of the U.S. Navy, sings in “Heading South” about a Southern boy who chases success, only to find “they’ll never understand that boy and his kind.” His song “Oklahoma Smokeshow” tells the tragic story of a small town woman mistreated by her boyfriend and with nowhere to go. Even Morgan Wallen, the single biggest name in country today, who has achieved success thanks to those very twelve-person songwriting rooms in Nashville, is not singing about what Childers called “Solo cups and pickup trucks.” “Silverado For Sale” is about a boy who has to sell his truck to afford a ring for his girl, a marked turn from the financial ease of the Kenny Chesney era.
This is not the first time country music has gone dark. In fact, unlike most of its radio hits of the last several decades, the subgenres of folk and blues from which country music sprung are known for dealing with such heavy topics. Johnny Cash himself did it, most memorably with “Folsom Prison Blues,” the song that, in so many ways, started it all.
Country came from gospel music, too, and the earliest country artists leaned heavily on their Christian faith to make even the bad times come out hopeful in the end. Childers is singing his own kind of gospel music, but he’s not preaching to the choir.
So sometimes, I imagine that I’m getting pretty close to Hell
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And in my darkest hour, I cry out to the Lord
He says, “Keep on a-mining, boy, ’cause that’s why you were born.”
His overtly religious language in songs like “Purgatory” demonstrate the difference. Childers begs, “Catholic girl pray for me, you’re my only hope in heaven.” The distance between the Almighty and the working man is tremendous and palpable.