Magazine

Country music brings home US economic woes

  • 27 September 2011
  • From the section Magazine

It's known for tackling some of life's grittier issues, among them loss, poverty and nostalgia. But today's country music lyrics are turning to the effects of economic hardship.

Country music and hard times. A cliche perhaps, but try telling that to legions of fans across the United States, many of whom are on the frontlines of economic struggles, seeking solace in the music.

Fans like 53-year-old Jim Yocius, from Windsor, Connecticut.

"For the first time in my life, I feel very vulnerable," he says outside the Comcast Theatre in Hartford, before a concert by Country star Toby Keith.

Barbecue smoke drifts over serried ranks of pickup trucks as fans enjoy pre-concert tailgate parties.

"I feel like that older white male who did everything right, and now I feel like the next generation really wants me gone," he says.

The music helps him by, especially Ronnie Dunn's latest hit, Cost of Livin', which describes an unemployed man's painful search for any kind of work.

"It gives me a spiritual lift, bizarrely enough, to hear that song and just go 'All right, pick it up, shut up, suck up and get going again'."

Hunt for work

Across the car park, it's the same message over and over.

"They know. They know what's happening," says Sandra Scavetta, a former insurance agent from Oakdale who lost her job when the recession took hold and who finds herself, on the wrong side of 50, looking in vain for work.

When Sandra first heard Ronnie Dunn's song, it brought a sharp pang of recognition.

"That's me. That's exactly me. When I first heard it, I got chills. It's exactly where we are."

When Toby Keith hits the stage, the crowd roars its appreciation for Made In America, a tale of patriotism and productivity under threat in the heartland.

The song hits back against a sense of moral and physical decline, and the audience - white, working class and proud - loves it.

American lives

Made in America and Cost of Livin' are just two of the most successful recent songs that address the country's economic woes. The past three years have thrown up a host of others, including John Rich's Shuttin' Detroit Down and Hank Williams Jr's savage Red, White and Pink Slip Blues.

Singer Toby Keith
Toby Keith: 'I don't write for Donald Trump'

On the tour bus, Toby Keith doesn't philosophise about his music. But he knows exactly who it's for.

"That's the person I'm singing to; that man and woman that live in that class," he says.

"I don't sit down and write a song and think I'm going to write it for Donald Trump. I don't get out of bounds very often and write about stuff I don't know about," says the former Oklahoma oil derrick hand and semi-professional football player.

Keith says Country music is especially well-placed to describe American lives and American woes.

The only other genre which performs the same function, he says, is hip-hop.

"I write the same thing they do," he says. "I just live in a different part of town."

Voicing anger

Part of the sprawling north-east urban corridor, Hartford might not seem like typical country country, but Keith says the fans are more passionate here than anywhere.

Not surprisingly, then, the city boasts a successful country music station, 92.5 WWYZ.

Breakfast show host Cory Meyers says many of the current songs reflect her listeners' pre-occupations.

"They're voicing what we all feel," she says. "We want somebody to blame. They're voicing our anger."

It's not all anger, of course. Tune in to country music stations across the land and the playlists still mostly revel in time-honoured themes: pickup trucks, long-legged girls and drinking.

But even here, some observers detect an undercurrent of unease.

"Economic conditions are definitely showing up in the music, not just in songs that talk explicitly about unemployment, but in songs that look at a search for identity and validation," says Jocelyn Neal, who runs courses in popular music at the University of North Carolina.

Radio host Cory Meyers
Radio host Cory Meyers: We want someone to blame

"It's looking for ways for these people in the song lyrics but also in the country music audience to say 'what is my purpose in life?'"

Perhaps no-one knows this better than John Howard.

A financial broker in Florida for over 20 years, making music had only ever really been a pastime. But Howard suddenly found himself depending on it when the company he worked for in Sarasota filed for bankruptcy.

He quickly penned a song called With A Little Bit Of Luck, and started playing it at his local Gulf Coast haunts.

"They love it," he says of his audiences. "First they start tapping their feet, but after they start catching the words... all of a sudden they're paying attention to it."

The song came third in a song-writing contest, got some radio airplay and finally went viral.

More Jimmy Buffett than Hank Williams, Howard is happy enough to place his song in country's tradition of story-telling.

"Country music is a genre which does seem to lend itself to these kinds of songs which hit very close to home when it comes to talking about hard times and reality," he says.