How Consumerism Devoured the Workin’ Man Blues
How did the genre transform from working class catharsis to an corporate marketing campaign for a certain version of the American dream?
There’s a very obvious reason why people have, since its origins, described country music as “blues played by white people,” even though white people weren’t really the ones who founded the genre. With its Depression-era beginnings in Tennessee and Georgia, country music has always been a refuge for working class Americans to find solace and solidarity in their personal struggles. Ranging from the classic “done me wrong” songs to powerful odes to the working poor, exemplified by hardscrabble tracks like Johnny Cash’s “Busted” and Reba McEntire’s “Fancy,” country music has always been rooted in an exploration of what it means to be broke and put upon.
Or at least it used to be. To listen to a country radio station or Spotify Hot Country playlist now is to see a pretty startling shift. The genre has transformed from working class catharsis to a slicked-up, endlessly corporate marketing campaign for a certain version of the American dream. Those big jacked-up trucks cost a whole lot of money, and Luke Bryan’s collection of sparkly jeans could probably cover the cost of health insurance for an entire small town for at least a year.
Country music has a rich history of making tunes for the working American, but that tradition is in danger of being completely replaced by a cynical, consumerist wasteland. There have always been country artists who have shilled products for companies, but the problem now is that there are no great songs about class struggle on the radio to balance that all out.
So many artists, including Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, and Kris Kristofferson have been credited with establishing country music’s working class ethos. Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” is perhaps the best exemplification of that lifestyle—what it means to scrape by with a family and children on a wage that sure as hell isn’t fair compared to what the bosses make—but it isn’t the only one, not by a long shot.
In 1955, Tennessee Ernie Ford held a #1 spot on the Billboard for more than 10 weeks with his version of “Sixteen Tons,” an iconic song about the exploitation of the coal miners of Kentucky. In the song, penned by Merle Travis, Ford croons about “owing [his] soul to the company store,” referring to the practice of paying employees in “scrip,” or vouchers that could only be spent in a store owned by the coal company. Also in the 1950s, Hazel Dickens, a bluegrass pioneer, feminist, and labor activist, took that one step further with “Fire In The Hole,” a blunt and unrepentant call for miners to strike for better working conditions and to organize unions to secure their futures.
Stand up boys, let the bosses know
Turn your buckets over, turn your lanterns low
There's fire in our hearts and fire in our soul
but there ain't gonna be no fire in the hole
Daddy died a miner and grandpa he did too,
I'll bet this coal will kill me before my working days is through
And a hole this dark and dirty an early grave I find
And I plan to make a union for the ones I leave behind
Moving forward more than a decade, Loretta Lynn brought the struggles of America’s coal miners into the spotlight with 1970’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” a track that told her story of being raised by a man who worked all night in the coal mines of Van Lear, Kentucky only to wake up to spend all day out hoeing rows in the fields to keep his family fed. It was an instant charmer, if only because it reminded plenty of people living in Appalachia and beyond of their own hardscrabble upbringings.
And then, in the 1970s, came Dolly Parton with “9 to 5,” arguably one of the genre’s most worker-empowering tracks of all time, and one that never quite gets the revolutionary due it deserves. It’s tongue-in-cheek, but Parton effortlessly describes the theft of capital from labor in this country, pervasive sexism in the workplace, and the general lack of appreciation for the working class. Toward the end, she even seems to call for a good old fashioned revolution, pointing out that most of us are “in the same boat with all of [our] friends” getting screwed by the boss.
9 to 5, yeah, they got you where they want you
There's a better life
And you think about it don't you
It's a rich man's game
No matter what they call it
And you spend your life
Putting money in his wallet
Well into the 1980s and beyond, country was still all about the working class. Alabama’s “Forty Hour Week” shouts out everyone from cashiers and firefighters to the auto workers of Detroit and Pittsburgh steelworkers, giving them credit for making the entire country work (even if they fail to mention that it was the work of labor activists, radicals, and union folks who gave their lives to secure those reasonable working hours). Even as recently as 2005, Jason Aldean scored one of his first top-ten hits with “Amarillo Sky,” a hopeful ballad written from the perspective of a struggling West Texas farmer.
There are people in this country
Who work hard every day
Not for fame or fortune do they strive
But the fruits of their labor
Are worth more than their pay
And it's time a few of them were recognized
Hello Detroit Auto Workers
Let me thank you for your time
You work a forty hour week for a living
Just to send it on down the line
It’s true that, for the most part, country music’s politics range from publicly neutral to aggressively conservative, but despite the bigoted contributions from some of the genre’s artists (Don’t go Google “Wallace in the White House,” a track penned for white supremacist George Wallace’s run for the presidency), the struggles of working class Americans have always been at the heart of this music.
Now, though, as the popularity of country music has exploded, the genre’s stakeholders are looking for even more opportunities to cash in. There are endless debates to be had about the state of country music sonically — it’s too influenced by hip-hop and EDM, too slick and poppy. However you feel about the soulful sounds of Sam Hunt and poppy crossovers, it’s most troubling to see Nashville completely abandon its working class roots over the last decade or so. The country music of today is deeply aspirational in a capitalist sense; in 2018, we hear artists name-dropping luxury brands like Mercedes and Prada instead of farmers, or miners, or stay-at-home moms.
Outside of the lyrical content, country music is now fully embracing its boldly capitalist identity with vigor. Sure, country artists have always advertised with beer companies and posed in Wrangler jeans, but now, labels and marketers are monetizing every single component of an artist’s existence, and advertisers are infiltrating the actual music. Maren Morris released “The Middle,” her chart-topping hit with EDM star Zedd, in a Target commercial during the 2018 Grammy Awards.
The video, suspiciously, is bathed in red and white-colored lights, eerily reminiscent of the massive retail chain’s logo. Earlier this year, up-and-comer RaeLynn partnered with makeup brand Too Faced to create her own cosmetics line. Shortly after, she released “Festival,” a song and accompanying that is essentially an advertisement for those products, which allegedly “inspired” her makeup collection.
Before that, Granger Smith (better known as online ding-dong Earl Dibbles Jr., known for littering Facebook with his “yee yee” laden memes and allegedly humorous videos) collaborated with Remington to brand his album of the same name with the gun manufacturer’s logo. Newcomers LoCash partnered with the National Rifle Association’s NRA Country brand for live performances in 2017, reportedly name-dropping the organization at one music festival upwards of a dozen times in a short 45-minute set.
At this point, country artists are incredibly attractive to brands looking to hawk their wares, and the genre’s major artists appear to be willing to sacrifice their own creative dignity for that cash. It’s one thing to pose with a Budweiser in hand, it’s quite the other to hypothetically get paid by Budweiser to write, record, and sing about their (highly average) beer. We’re already walking down that road.
Instead of incisive commentary on the ever-shrinking middle class and the growing gap between the rich and poor, the bulk of what country fans are now left with is either commodified songs sponsored by predatory corporations, or platitude-laden schlock reminding us to be “humble and kind” or that “most people are good” or that it’s “different for girls.” At a time when the working class is battling back extreme attacks from moneyed interests, the right kind of country music could serve as a spark for the best kind of class warfare.
Fortunately, though, there are some artists who are still carrying that working class torch—they just don’t get played on country radio. Tyler Childers, Angaleena Presley, Brandy Clark, Jason Isbell, and Sturgill Simpson are making country music that’s as political and class-focused as it’s always been. Need a little working-class oomph in your country playlist? Add Jason Isbell’s “God Is A Working Man,” Tyler Childers’ “Nose On The Grindstone,” and the entirety of Angaleena Presley’s 2014 album American Middle Class.
Not all is lost just yet, but Nashville would do well to remember its origins. This country is likely heading for a serious economic reckoning in the near future, and it sure would be nice to have some good, twangy protest tunes to chant outside the windows of our corporate overlords as we prepare to overthrow them.
Amy McCarthy is wearing cowboy boots to the class war on Twitter.