The story of self-proclaimed country artists in 10 songs
Songs about a performer’s right to call themselves country are heavily criticized whenever a current star drops lyrical references to Alabama and Hank Williams or reminds us of their small-town upbringing. Yet, like much lamented about the current state of the genre, this trope predates the supposed “death” of “real country music.” Indeed, what Dr. Michael Longan of the University of Valparaiso calls identity songs date back to the heyday of Little Jimmy Dickens, Loretta Lynn and others long respected by listeners with the strictest definitions of country as a musical genre and way of life.
The motivations for claiming one’s place within a broad concept have evolved over time. What began as celebrations of artists’ stage personas and the daily lives of their listeners have blossomed into attempts to justify what qualifies as country music and, more recently, to disrupt the genre’s lack of diversity.
The following playlist covers over 70 years of popular music history and represents what has changed (and what has stayed the same) in identity songs.
“Country Boy”, Little Jimmy Dickens
Our timeline begins in 1949, when Little Jimmy Dickens put this statement of pride in rural life on the Top 10 of the country charts. Like many songs and skits from commercial country music’s formative years, Dickens’ hit and its June Carter cover (“Country Girl”) laughed with — not against — a hard-working audience who lived through its main theme.
“You Look at the Country”, Loretta Lynn
Besides being the most obvious song to include in this list, Loretta Lynn’s 1971 classic “You’re Lookin’ at Country” should inspire the most heated discussions of a historical trend. For example, what about the pop-country landscape of the time that was worth spotlighting another musical statement of personal authenticity just a year and two singles after “Coal Miner’s Daughter?” Specifically, why did one successful woman feel the need to double down on her well-deserved place in the genre so deeply embedded in country music history?
“Thank God I’m a country boy”, John Denver
Nearly 50 years later, John Denver’s 1975 crossover hit “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” is nothing more than a heartfelt celebration of rustic living and folk music that still touches a wide audience. audience.
At the time, some fans of mainstream country viewed Denver as a businessless pop intruder who was winning industry awards, including the coveted CMA Entertainer of the Year award in 1975. ever was the motif of the song, the historical context makes it a self-justification of Denver’s status as a Nashville star.
“I was country when country wasn’t cool”, Barbara Mandrell Feat. george jones
Although it is difficult now to see anything that has raised the traditional profiles of Mickey Gilley and Johnny Lee in the negative, some of the same traditionalists opposed to Denver’s country hit of the ’70s saw the 1980 film Urban cowboy as an existential threat.
One of the saltiest answers to the Urban cowboy the trend came via Barbara Mandrell’s 1981 single “I Was Country When Country Wasn’t Cool”. It was an anthem for anyone who felt defensive because they were already wearing pearl snap shirts and listening to old school artists (special guest George Jones included) before the posers started copying John Travolta.
“Gone Country”, Alan Jackson
As the country boom of the 90s proved to be more than a passing phase, talents from different backgrounds looked to Nashville as a land of opportunity. This 1994 No. 1, written by Bob McDill and sung by Alan Jackson, celebrates country music as a big tent more than it dismisses supposed strangers for wanting a piece of what had become a very lucrative pie.
“Redneck Woman”, Gretchen Wilson
Chart-topping Identity Songs roared back in 2004 when Gretchen Wilson told us about her deep respect for the musical legacies of Tanya Tucker, Charlie Daniels and Hank Williams Jr. Beyond that, Wilson destroyed the false but still widespread that redneck equals hyper masculine.
“I Love My Country”, Florida Georgia Line
Namedropping’s rural recreation and former stars have become a staple of “bro-country” as some of this century’s most critically acclaimed performers have kept a tradition alive. Florida Georgia Line exemplified this practice in 2020 by defending its controversial place in the genre while praising the sustained influence of George Strait and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
“Country Again”, Thomas Rhett
Thomas Rhett embraced a stripped down, folksy sound with 2021’s “Country Again” which intersects the roots-based approach of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Diamond Rio with more modern elements. Though Rhett’s best identity song is lumped in with the paint-by-numbers efforts of many of his contemporaries, his lyrical and sonic re-embracing of all things country sounds far more heartfelt than typical rural rallying cries.
“No one is country anymore”, Blanco Brown
Like Darius Rucker’s “Southern State of Mind” before it, Blanco Brown’s “Nobody’s More Country” (2021) comes across as claiming some of the genre’s territory amid much-needed diversification. Like Mandrell before him, Brown was country before it was cool, as evidenced by coming-of-age memories of Tim McGraw pickups and cassette tapes.
“Jesus Loving American Guy (Flack Wrist)”, Paisley Fields
LGBTQ+ artist paisley fields refuses to concede country music and country life to her narrow-minded oppressors throughout this preview of her 2022 album Soft wrist. It’s a fitting ending to a list that reminds us that a wide range of people can (and should) claim a place in a genre that’s at its best when it captures a broader, more accurate snapshot of the experience. American.