Let’s begin by acknowledging that it’s a profoundly unnecessary question. A good song is a good song, whether you call it country, barbershop or Gregorian chant, and it won’t get any better—or any worse—by any other name. If you like a song, it doesn’t matter what genre it is.
Nonetheless, there’s few things Americans like more than an argument about genre definitions. What’s opera and what’s musical theater? What’s a romantic comedy and what’s a farce? What’s a historical novel and what’s a romance novel? What’s Broadway and what’s Off-Broadway? What’s a sports car and what isn’t? What’s a sport and what’s a game? What’s a conservative, what’s a liberal, what’s a Christian, what’s an American?
So, in the grand American tradition, let’s argue.
One famous answer to our question comes from the great Kris Kristofferson, who—as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame—might be considered an authority
“If it sounds country, man, that’s what it is, it’s a country song.”
Kristofferson said that in 1970 and, though since then he’s backed away from that definition, for many people that’s still sufficient. They might paraphrase Justice Potter Stewart and say that, while country is hard to define, they know it when they hear it.
Presumably what Kristofferson was getting at is that there’s certain instrumentation and vocal styles associated with country music, and certain others not associated with it. If you hear a steel guitar and a fiddle, and if the singer pauses to yodel, you think you’re hearing a country song. If you hear the singer shouting over an electronic percussion track, you probably don’t.
The biggest advantage of this definition, and the biggest disadvantage too, is that it’s the same as saying that there’s no such thing as a country song. No song is either country or not country until it’s performed, and it’s the performer that makes it one or the other.
Kristofferson was talking about his song ‘Me and Bobby McGee’ (1969), written with Fred Foster. It’s claimed by rock fans and by country fans as their own, and the Kristofferson definition allows that. The original recording by Roger Miller is country, as is Kristofferson’s own and later covers by such country icons as Loretta Lynn and Johnny Cash. Janis Joplin’s 1971 recording is rock, as are covers by Bill Haley and the Grateful Dead. Olivia Newton-John’s is pop and Jennifer Love Hewitt’s … well, I’m not honestly sure what it is, but it’s not very country.
This same approach is handy for other genres. The Beatles are a rock band, so when Paul McCartney sings ‘Till There Was You’ from The Music Man (1957) or, for that matter, ‘Yesterday’ (1965), we don’t have to ask what about these songs makes them remotely rock & roll. They’re played by a rock band, so that settles it.
As a songwriter, though, I’m not happy with the Kristofferson definition. It takes the songwriter out of the equation, for one thing, because it says that the intentions of, say, Irving Berlin in writing `White Christmas’ (1942) or Patty and Mildred Hill in writing ‘Happy Birthday to You’ (1893) are irrelevant—Ernest Tubb sang both of them, so that makes them country songs, at least when he sang them. The fact that ‘White Christmas’ has a great deal in common with many other songs that Irving Berlin wrote and not much in common with most of the other songs that Tubb recorded? An inconvenient distraction.
An alternative approach is taken by the R&B singer Rachel Marron, who famously described Dolly Parton’s ‘I Will Always Love You’ (1974), in the 1992 cover by John Doe, as “one of those somebody-is-always-leaving-somebody songs.”
The tone is dismissive, but it’s worth noting that Marron herself later covered the song.
Moreover, it reflects a useful insight: that genres of music have certain subject matters that are native to them. Songs of teenage angst may turn up in grand opera or polka, but they’re the heartblood of rock & roll. A song about two women who find themselves engaged to marry the same man is more likely to turn up in comic opera than in jazz. The sardonic ‘Gee, Officer Krupke’ (1957) may be a Broadway show tune by Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein, but if you’re looking for songs about abusive cops and neglected children with attitude problems, you’re better advised to look to hip hop than to the Great White Way.
I’ve written songs in a variety of genres, most notably musical theater, for pretty much my entire life. These days most of the songs I’m writing are what I consider to be country. This has nothing to do with my background—my mother was from backwoods Michigan and my father’s father was born in Centerville, Miss., but if you’re looking at me, you’re looking at city—but rather with the subject matter of the songs and the tradition that inspires them.
What’s the native subject matter of country songs? I’d point to a few currents that run through country from the days of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family down to the present day.
One is an adult perspective. Tin Pan Alley typically wrote its songs in the voice of young singles, say between the ages of 18 and 25. Rock & roll (which arose out of a fusion of country and R&B, as country itself had risen out of a fusion of folk ballads, gospel and the blues) pushed the age back to maybe 13-20. Country, however, typically is in the voice of an older person, married, often with children of his/her own. There are country songs about teenagers—especially in recent years, when actual teenagers such as LeAnn Rimes and Taylor Swift have emerged as singer/songwriters—but they’re the exception rather than the rule. There may be as many country songs about elderly people as there are about teenagers.
Along with this adult perspective is a realistic, often disillusioned view of the world and of human relationships. Most American music, whether it’s Tin Pan Alley, swing, rock & roll, contemporary pop or even hip hop, tends to be optimistic to the point of exuberance. Country is rarely that way. There’s a rueful tone even to upbeat country songs: The Carters urge us to ‘Keep on the Sunny Side’ (1928), but the song includes such lines as “Though the storm in its fury break today,/crushing hopes that we cherish so dear.”
I open my current show with Hank Williams’ classic party song ‘Settin’ the Woods on Fire (1952), an exuberant ode to Saturday night which evokes singing, silliness, good clothes, fast driving, “parking” and dancing, vowing that “We’ll show those folks a brand-new dance that never has been done.” What I love most about it, though, is the final verse:
“You clap hands and I’ll start bowing!
We’ll do all the law’s allowing!
(Tomorrow I’ll be right back plowing.)
Settin’ the woods on fire!”
This is a party song that wouldn’t have been out of place on playlists for the Everly Brothers, the Rolling Stones or the Bee Gees, but the penultimate line marks it as a country song through and through: In country music life is a complicated business and, even in its brightest moments, darker and harder than most other genres of popular music are ever willing to admit.
Country music isn’t afraid to talk about infidelity and divorce, about alcoholism and drug abuse, about violence and crime and sickness and death. Religion is an integral part of its identity, as is sin—acknowledged as such, but not done any less for the acknowledgement. It recognizes, more than any other musical form, that life is a random business that is, more often than not, strikingly unfair. Thomas Piketty may have opened some eyes to the economic inequality of today’s world, but his statistical insights merely confirmed what any fan of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carters, Hank Williams or Johnny Cash knew all along.
I came to country music in my late 40s, and the music resonated more to me then (and now, at 54) than it ever had in my youth, when I relished the Beatles, Broadway and Gilbert & Sullivan above all. I still love all three of those, but at 54 I listen mostly to country. I don’t think that’s a coincidence. As we grow older, most of us are forced to see life as it really is, and we have an increased appreciation of works of art that do the same. Less Neil Simon, more Shakespeare; less Madonna, more Verdi; less Michael Bay, more John Ford; less rock & roll, more country.
Country is far more than “someone-is-always-leaving-someone songs.” It has a rich vein of humor that exceeds any other form of American music since Tin Pan Alley’s heyday. It isn’t afraid to embrace real romantic passion in all its scary intensity. It parties all the heartier for its acknowledgment that the party can’t last and the plow awaits. It tells us stories, sometimes funny ones, sometimes moving ones, sometimes devastating ones, that mirror what we see in the world around us.
Kristofferson isn’t wrong—most of the time, while telling us those stories, it uses a steel guitar and a fiddle or two. But there’s more to it than that. Playing ‘Yes, We Have No Bananas’ (1922) with fiddles and a stand-up bass doesn’t make it country, and playing ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ (1970) with a symphony orchestra doesn’t make it anything but what it always was: country, heart and soul.