What we learnt from listening to country music

How much do you know about country music? The Tamworth Country Music Festival (Australia’s biggest!) started over the weekend and we thought we’d give the genre a proper nudge to see what it can teach us about love, loss and life. Country singers often get a bad rap for focusing on the negative, but they’re also some of the most insightful lyricists around. And you know, sometimes they just want to talk about beer. Here’s some good starting material for next time you find yourself in the dusty outback with nothing but a guitar and a pair of old boots.

Slim Dusty – Pub With No Beer

You can’t talk about country in this country without talking about the godfather. Slim Dusty recorded something in the realm of one hundred – yes, you read that right – albums, so he’s great inspiration in terms of work ethic. 
This is perhaps his best-known song, which is sort of sad but also pretty funny.  On the one hand, it’s all about dealing with loneliness, but on the other, it’s about being stuck in the middle of Australia in a pub with no beer. 

Standout lyrics
Now there's a dog on the v'randa, for his master he waits
But the boss is inside drinking wine with his mates
He hurries for cover and he cringes in fear
It's no place for a dog 'round a pub with no beer

Next time you’re feeling down, remember that at least your local has kegs that work. 

Dolly Parton – Jolene

Growing up is great. Seriously, it is. You get your own driver’s license and credit card, and people call you ‘Sir’ and ‘Ma’am.’ But then comes the point when someone younger and better-looking shows up and tries to steal your man (or woman). That’s the message behind Dolly Parton’s late-era smash, which is apparently a composite of a number of different women she encountered in middle age. 

Standout lyrics
You could have your choice of men
But I could never love again
He's the only one for me, Jolene

Bear in mind that even in her sixties, Parton is pretty smashing to look at, so this is just proof that everyone feels anxiety about relationships no matter who they are or how many millions of records they've sold. 

Lee Kernaghan – Hat Town

Kernaghan is about as country as they come. He was born near Albury-Wodonga and he’s spent his entire life writing songs about the outback and living in small country towns. ‘Hat Town’ is great, not only because it tips its hat to that Slim Dusty song from before, but also because it uses a great metaphor to describe that feeling of being stuck in a relatively small place with absolutely nothing to do. There are tons of songs about New York and Paris, but it takes real balls to describe the art of slowly succumbing to death by total boredom.

Standout lyrics
From the back of the channelled country, and across the dusty downs 
There’s a pub, a store and not much more, you’re living in an old hat town 

If you don’t live in a big city, Lee knows how you feel. But, you probably have a cinema, so things aren’t that bad after all. 

Johnny Cash – I’ve Been Everywhere

You might remember this song – Telstra used it in an ad for Bigpond Internet a while back. It’s a Johnny Cash original and remains legendary. Cash, who spent a good portion of his later years living up to his reputation as the Prince of Darkness, did have a lighter streak. When he wasn’t shooting a man in Reno just to watch him die, Cash was on the road all the damn time. This song is basically an itemised itinerary of the whole of America, but it’s also Cash talking about dealing with change. Because he’s always travelling, nothing fazes him, so he’s happy to make an upbeat ditty about it.

Standout lyrics
I've breathed the mountain air, man.
Of travel I've had my share, man.
I've been everywhere.

There aren’t a lot of Johnny Cash songs this happy-sounding, so it was a nice change from that time he covered Nine Inch Nails. 

Ryan Adams – To Be Young (Is To Be Sad, Is To Be High)

You’re going to want to spend some time with Ryan Adams. He makes feeling miserable seem like baseball. The youngest of the pack here – who happens to be married to former pop star Mandy Moore, – Ryan Adams almost single-handedly made country cool again by slapping the word ‘alternative’ in front of it and only playing at rock and roll bars. This is from Heartbreaker, his best album, which came out ten years ago this winter. Back then Adams was all about seizing the moment; he used this song to poke fun at himself for being morose from the perspective of someone older – and it worked.

Standout lyrics
Oh one day when you're looking back 
You were young and man you were sad 
When you're young you get sad 
When you’re young you get sad then you get high 

In essence what Adams spells out is what most country music is about – perspective. Even when it seems bad, it’s probably just a phase in your life, which will be as long as the dusty road that leads to a pub in some town in the middle of nowhere.
Hopefully there’s beer in it.

Last reviewed: 20 January, 2015
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  • ClCl    (596 days ago)

    This is brilliant! I love country music!!!!!!!! <3