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I was Country when Country wasn’t cool

Over a decade ago I experienced something of an epiphany. On a long drive under the endlessly wide skies of the Canadian prairie, I tired of the bland AOR from the FM stations on my hire car’s radio so I flipped over to AM and started listening to the first station I found, which was a country music station from somewhere in Western Saskatchewan, complete with commercials for tractor tyres and fertilizer.

Country music was decidedly uncool for a 20-something Brit like me in the 1990s so it was in a slightly ironic sense that I kept listening. It fit the environment I was in, and over the day I found myself more and more appreciating the music, the lyrics, and the emotions contained therein. It has been my observation as I’ve travelled that rural and farming communities worldwide have surprisingly similar concerns: the corner of rural Oxfordshire that I grew up in has more in common with the North American West than you’d expect.

So my trip to the Royal Tyrrell Museum began a listening habit that has stayed with me ever since. My Canadian in-laws have kept me supplied with CDs unobtainable in the UK and my friends have responded with tolerant amusement to my car stereo blaring Corb Lund, Willie Nelson, or the Be Good Tanyas. I’m reminded of something from country’s slightly cheesier past, Barbara Mandrell’s 1981 hit I was Country when Country wasn’t cool.

Following a genre and culture from a distance means that I can never acquire an encyclopedic knowledge of it. The opportunities afforded by my occupation have, however, allowed me to get to know country music from another angle: the language involved.

Famous In A Small Town

A strong theme in country music is that of defending the values it espouses and the communities that form its heartland. Probably the most famous song in this genre is Merle Haggard’s 1969 hit Okie from Muskogee, though it is a trend that has continued with Gretchen Wilson’s 2004 Redneck Woman as a more recent example. Other songs on the same theme capture an air of sadness about the American Mid-Western lifestyle in particular, a concern that it is in decline and that an era is somehow passing.

Geography plays a strong role in the country music psyche. Small-town roots are frequently referred to, as a sentimental metaphor for a less complicated past. Waylon Jenning’s 1977 hit Luckenbach, Texas (Back to the Basics of Love) for example refers to a settlement so small as to have nearly become a ghost town.

Thanks to the Google Visualization API, we can plot the frequency of occurrence of US city names in country music lyrics on a map of the continental USA. The redder, and larger, the dots on the map, the more frequently a place is mentioned in the country music corpus.

Straight away we can see the relationship between country music and its heartland in the south-eastern USA where it evolved from the folk traditions of European and African Americans. Aside from a high frequency of occurrence for New York City and Hollywood, the most frequently mentioned cities are all in the same quarter of the continent, in Tennessee, Louisiana, eastern Texas, and Missouri. An interesting cluster of place name mentions can be seen in California’s central valley; this owes its existence to the influx of people from Western states to California during the Great Depression.

This map provided something of a surprise to me. Having connections to the part of the West at which the prairies meet the mountains, I had always experienced country music as a Western phenomenon as much as a Southern one. Language analysis has the power to surprise in this way: it’s what keeps me coming back for more!

If You Ain’t Lovin’ You Ain’t Livin’

The above image is a wordle of the most common words ending in “in'” in the country music corpus. The larger the word, the more frequently it occurs.

The lyrical charm of country music comes from its informal spoken style. It’s good to see, for example, that country artists spend a lot more time lovin’ and singin’ than they do fightin’ or hurtin’ (see wordle). Similarly, it is gratifying (or should that be gratifyin’?) that, for a genre often associated with the more melancholic side of life, dyin’ is much less common than dancin’. All areas of life can be found within the lyrics, with a real emphasis on the everyday matter of factness that accompanies real life (despite what soap operas might tell you). Plenty of time is devoted to runnin’ and talkin, waitin’ and drivin’ (with, of course, the expected nods to cheatin’ and lyin’).

So if you take the popular view of country music as something of a joke simply because it is not from your culture, I hope my brief introduction from another angle has given you something to think about. I have discovered some wonderful music in my outsider’s voyage through country music, even if whistling Me and Bobby McGee as I walk along the corridor outside our office has generated some funny looks. . .

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