I am aware that the music I enjoy is widely considered to be the worst ever produced in human history. Worse than a roomful of children with recorders, cymbals and malice; worse than a poultry abattoir. Every so often, someone will ask me what I listen to, and I’m forced to tell them the truth. ‘These days,’ I’ll say, ‘it’s mostly country.’ Their nose will wrinkle, as if I’ve just let out a stealthy fart in their direction. ‘But old country, right?’ they’ll say, almost pleading. ‘Classic country?’ No, not classic country. I like Johnny Cash fine, I appreciate Merle Haggard and Dolly Parton and Waylon Jennings and all the other respectable stalwarts you’re allowed to enjoy as a vaguely bookish Jew from north London. But the stuff that really hits me right in the chest cavity is the ugly, overproduced industry trash released somewhere between 2000 and 2016, in which there’s no storytelling, no ‘three chords and the truth’, no poignancy, no heartbreak, and in which the primary object of erotic fascination is a truck.
I am not even slightly kidding about the trucks. Probably the most utterly perfect example of the genre is Brad Paisley’s 2003 masterpiece, ‘Mud on the Tires’. He croons, over fiddles and banjo: ‘I’ve got some big news/ The bank finally came through/ And I’m holding the keys to/ A brand new Chevrolet…’ The person he’s singing to is presumably a woman, a wife or girlfriend, and he tries to spin his purchase into a romantic opportunity. With this thing, we can go anywhere; we can go past where the dirt roads end, take a trip out into the back country, just the two of us…
“Tell you what we need to doIs grab a sleeping bag or twoBuild us a little campfireAnd then with a little luckWe might just get stuckLet’s get a little mud on the tires.
Some people have attempted to interpret this song as an elaborate metaphor for sex. It is not. It’s about a truck: about getting your truck stuck in a slick of liquid mud, pushing down hard on the accelerator, the wheels spinning faster, going nowhere, but spraying mud all over the place. The faint image of Paisley’s silent interlocutor, sitting frustrated in the passenger seat: she expected sex, but instead she’s the witness to a far more sacred union. Man, mud, tyres, truck; the sheer ecstasy of it, the panting engine, the wet sounds of the mire underneath…
As it happens, there’s a reason Paisley refers specifically to a Chevy. The company paid him.
— Brad Paisley (@BradPaisley) November 9, 2017
There are more of these, infinitely more. Kip Moore’s 2011 ‘Somethin’ ’Bout a Truck’ again tries to gesture towards some kind of ordinary human sexuality – a girl in a red sundress, a beer, a kiss – but keeps on diverting itself back to the truck, that holy symbol standing in its farmer’s field. Jason Aldean goes further; his 2014 track ‘If My Truck Could Talk’ dispenses with the girl entirely. It’s not, as you might expect, a love song to the truck, not entirely. Instead, the gimmick is that Aldean’s truck has been through so many scrapes with him that if it could talk, he’d have to kill the thing.
“If my truck could talk, I’d have to yank out all the wiresPour on the gas, set it on fire, anything to shut it upIt’s been good to me, but it knows too much, he’d sing it allI’d have to find a riverbank and roll it offIf my truck could talk
Sixty years ago, country music was basically about murdering your wife. Love and violence; heartbreak, regret. Somehow, by the 2010s, the same energies were funnelled into music about murdering your car. People still tend to associate country with some notion of rural backwardness, Southern swamps, trailer incest – but this is music from a J.G. Ballard nightmare-future. A cyberpunk world of machine sexuality, machine sadism, sex-death in the bowels of the machine. Country-pop is the most utterly modern music there is.
Trucks are not the only fetish-objects, of course. The holy trinity of the golden age of objectively awful bro-country is the truck, the pair of blue jeans, and the cold beer. There are endless songs devoted to each, but the really special ones are those, like the Zac Brown Band’s ‘Chicken Fried’ from 2003, that manage to run through all of them. Less an actually coherent narrative, and more a sort of ritual prayer, naming the totems in turn:
“You know I like my chicken-friedCold beer on a Friday nightA pair of jeans that fit just rightAnd the radio up…
About midway through the song, the music quietens down for a moment, and the tone turns solemn: military drums roll for Zac Brown’s tribute to the men and women of the US Armed Forces. ‘Salute the ones who died,/ the ones who gave their lives, so we don’t have to sacrifice/ all the things we love…/ like our chicken fried.’ Every kid whose brains were splattered against the floor of a defoliated jungle, everyone incinerated by a roadside IED in the Hindu Kush: it was all worth it, for the greater good of blue jeans and beer.
What you have to understand is that country music does not, strictly speaking, exist. A century ago, white and black Americans in Appalachia and the South were creating broadly the same kind of music, mongrel string-band tunes thrown together from blues and Celtic folk. With the emergence of commercial radio, though, a wall was thrown up. Anything produced by white artists was sold as ‘hillbilly music’, and later as country. Anything produced by black artists was sold as ‘race music’. Racially mixed string bands – of which there had once been quite a few – couldn’t find a footing; they died out. And eventually, black artists stopped making the music that had once been theirs; it was hard to sell race records that sounded too hillbilly. They moved on, and invented all of 20th-century pop culture instead.
What defines country isn’t so much a musical style as a set of symbolic markers. The genre has repeatedly poached from the inheritors of ‘race music’ – first rock, and more recently hip-hop; there are plenty of country songs that feature drum loops and even rapping – but what counts are the totems. They conjure an image that bears about as much relation to the actual lives of its listener base as it does to mine. Only 1.4 per cent of the US workforce is engaged in direct agricultural production, and a good chunk of those are impoverished Central American migrants, forced from their own farms by Nafta, reduced to picking fruit in the deadly heat for nakedly exploitative wages. A huge portion of American farmland is owned by massive agribusinesses – increasingly, massive agribusinesses owned by the Chinese state. The independent farmers that remain are squeezed by the demands of big business. Tractor manufacturers, for instance: if the air conditioner on your John Deere breaks down, you can’t fix it yourself; you have to take it to an approved mechanic for a wildly inflated price. Otherwise, the tractor’s software will simply shut the whole thing down. None of these indignities of rural life make it into mainstream country music; most of its listeners are in the suburbs. Instead of telling meaningful stories, it parades the cultural signifiers of a type of person who, for the most part, no longer exists. Its ire is saved for sneering big-city liberals, but mostly it just frots itself against a truck.
All this sounds like a critique, but it’s not. I genuinely do love this music. ‘Mud on the Tires’ is an almost perfect song. I love the twanging vocals; I love the skittery banjo and the rasp of the strings. In a few notes it conjures up the great myth of an imaginary rural America: not a place where anyone actually lives, but a place we do get to visit. Every second of this mad hologram is intoxicating: the Oklahoma rodeos, the Texas honky-tonks, the Carolina BBQs, the Nashville bars where they play songs about trucks for people who just flew in from Boston for an insurance conference. This whole genre is dedicated to propping up a fantasy, but it’s a beautiful and enchanting fantasy. Purer, because it’s not real. I can’t even drive, but I want the truck. I am here in grey old Europe, but I want a deep-fried steak, a Coors Light, a barefoot girl in blue jeans, and a vast open sky. I want dirt on my boots. I’m beyond help. I love it.
That hologram is fading, though. Mockery works: Don Quixote embarrassed centuries of Arthurian romance into silence; when Merlin and co. popped up again in Hollywood, Monty Python shut them down just as fast. Bro-country’s Quixote was ‘Girl in a Country Song’, a 2014 single by the duo Maddie & Tae. It’s a brilliant, pitch-perfect satire of every dumb-jock trope in every dumb-jock anthem:
“We used to get a little respectNow we’re lucky if we even getTo climb up in your truckKeep our mouths shut, and ride alongDown some old dirt road we don’t even want to be onAnd be the girl in a country song
They got to the heart of it: this stuff was never about the girl, and always about the truck. The girl was just an elaborate hood ornament. It took a few years to stop thrashing, but now that genre is basically dead. These days, the dominant mode in Nashville is what’s been called ‘boyfriend country’: soulful, sensitive, schmaltzy songs about love, sonically identical to any other kind of pop music, but delivered in the ghost of a Southern twang. Its main platform isn’t the Grand Ole Opry, but The Bachelor. Backing tracks produced by Scandinavians. There’s hardly a banjo or a haystack in sight.
Yes, there are interesting developments happening elsewhere. Top 40 country radio has finally caved in and started playing music by Tyler Childers, currently the great hope for people who like to talk about what real country used to mean. This is absolutely a positive step. Sturgill Simpson has returned to country after a few years flitting around with disco beats and synths. Kelsey Waldon’s voice still trembles with suffering. The Turnpike Troubadours are back together, and if you don’t think Evan Felker is the greatest American songwriter of the 21st century it can only be because you haven’t been paying attention. All these people make music that really does reflect life in the fields and the hollers; the good country music is, well, good. But it’s not the same. I still miss the bright insistence of the caricature, that pure, blinding image. A field of corn. A cowboy hat. A truck. A truck. A truck.