It used to be that back in the day the way you found new music was kinda amateurish and rotten – if you liked a few defining traits of a song you could often find songs that were like it, but sometimes you’d wind up sinking time and effort into a whole sweep of media that you just plain out didn’t like in hindsight. Now, obviously, my media tastes are a bit different given that I was raised in a bubble where even the most sedate forms of rock were considered smuggled contraband, emphasised further by the fact that my father regarded his status in the church as important enough to threaten us over if there was a risk someone else might see his, I dunno, Moodie Blues records.
This meant that the only really popular music we could listen to in this time of my life was not even pop radio, really – it was country music. And even that was dangerous. After all, there were certainly some good crossover gospel songs being made by country western singers, but there were still women who wore jeans. That was dangerous.
The good news is, growing up, some of this stuff has served to ground me in appreciating other music forms more. Country music has a lot to offer in theory, but as for the time of my life where it was the only new, reinvigorating form of media? There was some messed up stuff being played, and looking back on it, I remember learning some bad lessons about people from that.
Here, without any real structure beyond the first and last tracks, then, are five country songs that have really fucked up ideas about what’s okay.
David Allen Coe – If That Ain’t Country
Now, before you get pressing play and what-not, let’s all take a moment to stare in stunned, mute silence at David Allen Coe’s beard and hair and mustache and dead, cold-eyed stare out of the screen at you.
Okay, so a warning before you press the button, this song features a white dude saying the n-word and not for any reason I personally consider a good one, and I guess, if you’re twelve year old me, he also says ‘ass’ a lot and that’s terrible.
Anyway, I heard this song when I was twelve years old and, okay, yes, all the cusses horrified me, and I didn’t actually register that n*gger was any kind of swear just that it was a word I’d basically never heard. But also, this song is all about how authentic, how country the family depicted in it are, how there’s nothing about them that doesn’t fairly represent the heart and soul of American culture in the poor and rural south.
Which is to say, the heart and soul of American culture is a beat-down violent abusive drunk deadbeat who hurts his wife and daughters, and creates such a culture of fear everyone lies to keep the status quo. Better to be murdering foreigners than redeeming yourself in prison, I guess.
It’s just such a miserable song, and unlike a lot of other Country songs that were miserable at the time, holy shit do the people in this song sound like they deserve it. They’re not just poor, they’re poor and cruel. And then Coe rounds it out by trying to point out that he’s met Johnny Cash and been to the Grand Old Oprie, and placing himself as some sort of arbiter of things. This song isn’t just about a miserable family, it’s proud of it!
Tim McGraw – Indian Outlaw
If you were awake and listening to Country during the 1990s you probably knew about two big names – Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus. Billy Ray was mostly sold on his looks; guy wasn’t actually all that Country, he was just kinda jangly southern rock. Garth Brooks however was restructuring the damn industry around him, guy was a bonafide superstar. It is no exaggeration to say that Garth Brooks sort of defined the entire country genre, even to today. Verse-verse-chorus-verse-chorus-chorus (semitone higher) is a structure I was able to identify as a kid and damn if it didn’t permeate the Nashville factory.
In to this space stepped Mr Tim McGraw, who started out as a sort of Garth Cyrus. He was a good looking young man (I’m told) who didn’t have Billy Ray’s mullettyness or his seeming insincerity. Billy Ray was always kind of wearing country as a skin, but Tim McGraw was genuine, he was authentic, he talked about his heritage and his background. He wouldn’t front like that.
Yeah, country stars fronted, gimme a break.
This was Tim McGraw’s first big hit.
Now all of this uh… may be … mildly offensive. I mean… kinda infantalising. But maybe you’re like me, one of the young men who thought it was based on a true story, or some sort of tale from McGraw’s past. And uh, well, turns out, no. No, Mr McGraw is actually of Italian descent, and is about as “Indian” as he is Indian.
This song is all kinds of weird, creepy, and gross to listen to now. I mean, just ugh. Some of it is particularly fucking weird like how McGraw stars as the central figure in the music video, clearly trying to portray himself as the actual Indian Outlaw, focusing on a young lady who I have to guess has some Native heritage in the videoclip, but considering who they got to play the central character… ugh, whatever.
The controversy helped fuel this song’s success. It was a #8. I heard it so often I can still quote all the words. His next song was a song about how he was sick of having so little, and wanted to grab the things he wanted in life. Appropriation and entitlement, the double deuce.
By the way, Tim McGraw is now kinda a dad figure of country? Guy’s been around since then and he’s still making songs, with his wife, Faith Hill, who had a very similar arc of seeming-sincerity that melted away into mainstream pop when the lure of money became too good. Oh well, now he’s churning out empty-sounding platitude-a-thons like Live Like You Were Dying.
(Disclaimer: I legit really liked some of the songs on this album.)
Alan Jackson – I Don’t Even Know Your Name
Historical detail: Alan Jackson, before 9/11, was not just a country star, he was the country star. While Garth Brooks was commanding enormous concert values and – hey, notice how many of these things are by dudes? I’m probably just getting a pinhole view on things – Alan Jackson was the more sincere version of that same character. Alan Jackson made Chattahoochie, which was basically the country-er version of Boys of Summer.
After 9/11, he released a song called Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning, a song composed of pure, congealed glurge, a song so desperately country that it somehow makes it seem like the Twin Towers were in Nashville and not over where those coastal elites may have gotten dusty. Jackson was gross before that, though – and thanks to a tape of Greatest Hits, I got to learn all about this one.
Being raised fundamentalist, you get fucked up views on what, exactly, alcohol is and does. I don’t hold that against the song per se. That it conveys alcohol as basically being some advanced hallucinogen isn’t the problem. The secondary details – things like driving drunk and hugging women who clearly aren’t interested – aren’t even the most messed up stuff in this song.
But here, and it’s a lesson country returned to over and over again: You don’t have to get to know someone to fall in love with them. You have no idea how many relationships this screwed up for me – and I mean, like, even base friendships. I’d see a girl I didn’t know, imagine that there was meant to be some reaction, and then be too shy to talk to her, because what if I was misunderstanding my feelings? Clearly, a winning formula.
Martina McBride – Independence Day
Some of you don’t know this song. Some of you are listening to these songs now, imagining what it’s like to listen to songs at the age of ten to twelve and have this be your only window into the world. And those of you doing that just listened to this song.
Holy shit, eh?
This song is kinda a historical curiosity in that it’s basically a One Hit Wonder in a can. Martina McBride is a competent enough musical voice and she’s done some other stuff since then but this song is so tightly bound with her identity that it’s basically all she’s really remembered for, and it’s a song that amazingly I learned Americans like to play on Independence day.
The song about a battered wife orphaning her daughter and murdering her husband and herself in a fiery conflagration that is being compared to the revolutionary war of independence! There is no solution but grotesque overkill. This was really scary to me as a kid! Because it wasn’t just the story you hear as an adult – where a woman, pushed too far, takes her revenge. That’s classical, and it’s also laced with some lovely Christian self-sacrifice imagery as well. You saw that a lot in Country – a woman would Do A Bad Thing but she’d die or suffer for it, which made it okay. There’s a lot of murder-suicide in mid-90s country.
This is just the most up and happy and enthusiastic sounding one about murder by immolation.
Remember, this song is regarded as a classic, and Goodbye Earl was banned from radio stations.
John Michael Montgomery – Sold! The Grundy County Auction Incident
I could make a book that’s just ‘here’s some media that teaches you women are objects.’ And in country, that’s really evident, because most of the metaphors country songs seemed to use were all about objectification. There were songs where women were balls and chains, songs where women were suicidal puppets waiting to die, songs where women were baby birds, songs where women were comparable to head trauma, but this one still stood out over them all.
Sold! isn’t really gross in the same way that some of those songs are; I mean the metaphor of the dude bidding at a cattle auction for a woman’s affection is at best classless and doofy. And he does after all in the catchy, remember-it-because-you-can-sing-it-like-a-parlour-trick chorus, try to offer of himself, saying he’d be basically her servant and that she stole away his heart with, y’know, a look.
But this song is basically a dude catcalling a woman
In a public space where there’s a lot of people witnessing and seemingly okay with it so we have social pressure too.
And then she likes it enough to marry him.
What the fuck?!
I think the real rounding error of this is that the song can’t just stick with the idea of the doofiness of it. It isn’t enough that he got carried away and he tried something silly. No, it has to put a bow on it and say to the audience, to the listener, that this doofy idea worked. So we’re back at the idea that women can be won, and we’re at the idea that you can fall in love with someone at first glance, and we’re rounding that off with the idea that a goofy gesture is super important and the whole relationship thing isn’t such a big deal.
Oh, and by the way, this song? This song was a #1 hit. This song was in the top 10 of its year. This song spawned multiple parodies. This song was a bonafide trendsetter. Oh, and the artist, John Michael Montgomery would go on to make the song ‘I Swear,’ your favourite All 4 One song.
Bonus points for the sorta-racism in the video clip, too – and I gotta say I’m glad I did this because holy shit do these clips look awful and awkward in hindsight. You can tell which music industry was not used to the idea of grown men dancing as well as being able to sing.
Ed: In the initial version of this article I incorrectly identified the cover version of I Swear as being by Boys II Men. This is, it seems, a pretty common mythunderstanding.