This originally appeared as a blog post at the Victoria Advocate on June 23, 2015.
Country music used to be about stories. I grew up listening to stuff like “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” “Folsom Prison Blues,” “The Thunder Rolls,” “A Boy Named Sue,” “Coal Miner’s Daughter” and “Mama Tried.” They were songs that had something to say, even if that “something” was about death, murder, infidelity, botched father-son relationships, poverty and prison, respectively. (It’s not the happiest genre.)
That tradition has somewhat continued into today’s music. Brad Paisley’s one artist that can spin a good yarn. The ending to Eric Church’s “The Outsiders” album contains some of the most off-the-wall songwriting in mainstream country music today, and he’s also got “Lightning” and “Springsteen” to his credit. Carrie Underwood, Miranda Lambert and Little Big Town have all had recent hits that showcased well-written and thoughtful songs.
But to find anything with lyrics more compelling than “Hey girl, slide your ass over here in them painted-on jeans and we’ll go out Saturday night sippin’ on whiskey in my truck out in the cornfield, while listening to Hank Williams and T-Pain,” you have to venture farther than country radio.
Besides the current trend of songs being “all about tonight” where singers go out to bars and get laid, another trend is emerging in popular country music where the songs aren’t even about living in a small town or enjoying the nightlife. Rather, to paraphrase True Detective’s Rust Cohle, they’re about someone’s memory of a small town and someone’s memory of enjoying that nightlife.
Country isn’t about telling stories anymore, it’s about creating an atmosphere for the listener to create their own story. So you have artists talking about sippin’ on whiskey. Summer nights. Mama’s home cooking. Name-checking other country artists. Trucks. Cornfields. Small towns. No consequences and no tomorrow. It’s all about tonight. The genre has become a to-do-list of fantasy buzzwords instead of one of America’s oldest storytelling methods.
And if the songs are just fantasies, that means the stories aren’t authentic. That’s why it’s always refreshing when an artist releases something that focuses on songwriting and is more concerned with real life than with projecting a nostalgic reality for listeners.
Two of those artists released albums Tuesday. Corey Smith’s 10th studio album,“While the Gettin’ is Good,” and Kacey Musgraves’ sophomore effort, “Pageant Material,” both embrace songwriting as an art form and not a checklist. And neither are probably going to get a lot of radio play.
Smith, who hails from Jefferson, Georgia, is a former 8th grade social studies teacher-turned country singer. His shows routinely sell out, and he likes to proudly proclaim at the beginning of each one that he wrote every song on every record he’s ever self-released. To this day, he’s one of the best live shows I’ve ever seen.
“While the Gettin’ is Good” is Smith’s first record to be produced by anyone other than himself. This time, Keith Stegall takes that honor. The 12-song album is a clear progression from his earlier work. The man who penned such live favorites as “F the Po-Po” and “Dirtier by the Year” is middle-aged with a wife and teenage sons, and it shows on this record.
Songs like “PRIDE,” about Smith’s high school experiences, and “Ain’t Goin’ Out Tonight” reflect the changes that have come with his age. “Feet Wet” is both a straightforward song about a lazy summer day and a metaphor for a new stage in his career. Album closer “Bend” probably encapsulates Smith’s outlook on life more than any of his others:
“It’s not too late to change your way of thinking
Life’s just one long fight you can’t win,
Until you learn how to bend.”
If storytelling is as much about your outlook than anything else, Kacey Musgraves certainly has that taken care of. The sarcastic 26-year-old from Golden earned critical acclaim for the quick-witted, assured personality on display on her breakout album “Same Trailer, Different Park” in 2013. Her songs, all written or co-written by her, deal with the trappings of living in a small town and feeling the urge to get out, while still retaining a sense of belonging. See: “Merry Go Round”and “Blowin’ Smoke.”
“Pageant Material” has modern lyrics but sounds like it was made in 1980. It sounds like nothing else on country radio today. It’s all wilting steel guitars and sweeping melodies, anchored by Musgraves’ stories about being on the outside looking in. The title track has her proclaiming
“I try to use my common sense
But my foot always ends up in my mouth”
“I just can’t wear a smile when a smile ain’t what I’m feelin’
And who’s to say I’m a 9.5
Or a 4.0 if you don’t even know me.”
She continues the trend on “Good Ol’ Boys Club,” taking a potshot at Taylor Swift’s record label:
“Another gear in a big machine
Don’t sound like fun to me.”
Musgraves risked becoming a parody of herself on this release, with the first single “Biscuits” sounding identical to “Follow Your Arrow.” The rest of the album is varied, with the highlights being the hidden Willie Nelson duet track “Are You Sure” and “This Town.” It’s well-known territory she’s trod before, but manages to make a statement with each new song. Like Smith did with “While the Gettin’ is Good,” this album is clearly the one Musgraves wanted to make, and she isn’t making any compromises on the material.
These albums aren’t perfect— Smith veers into Another Drinking Song territory once, and Musgraves repeats herself a time or two. But I’ll take these two albums over any other new releases right now.
For more country artists that write their own songs, see: