What Makes A Country Song

No city boys were harmed in the writing of this article. But someone caught an ice-cold staredown from a hot-blooded woman when he foolishly asked what’s so great about Garth Brooks.

[Keywords: country music, guitar, rules, funny, cowgirl, tractor, honky tonk]

Length: Medium, 1178 words

Okay, here’s the thing: labels are important. If we didn’t have labels, you wouldn't know if you were buying a box of cereal or a box of noodles. And if you turned on a radio station and heard opera when you were expecting rock, you’d darn near drive off the road! 

However, these days it’s getting harder to classify music. Artists just don’t stay in their lanes anymore. And for those of us poor suckers who’ve never been cool, it’s deathly important to keep track of what song belongs in what genre. Or else, you know, you’ll look even more dorky than you already are. 

Been there, done that.

Which brings me to my point: what the heck makes a country song? I didn’t grow up listening to anything remotely honky-tonk, so I hadn’t a clue. That is, until I fell for a country girl. Those poop-covered cowboy boots swept me right off my Walmart-special hightop sneakers. I’ll give you one guess what we’ve been listening to ever since. Yep, one hundred percent country one hundred percent of the time. Seriously. It’s like she’s allergic to anything not corn-fed. But, as they say, if you can’t beat 'em (or if your love life depends on ‘em), join 'em.

The tricky part is that some “country” these days sounds more like Three Days Grace than Alabama. I mean, what’s a guy to do if he wants to make a playlist for his boot-scootin’ gal? If the wrong song gets chosen, she’ll literally start gagging. 

I know I’m not the only one in such dire straits. Country girls are like catnip to super-geeks like me. So, I did what any self-respecting, textbook-totin’ nerd would do: research. Sweet! I love studying! Next to kissing my sweetie’s watermelon chapstick lips, hitting the books is my idea of an Alan Jackson G-O-O-D T-I-M-E. And, because I’m so sympathetic to the plight of others in my position, I’m happy to share my findings with you all… er… y’all.

So, for any questionable song, simply breeze through my locally-grown Country Music Criteria and assign points as to whether it has the following characteristics. It’s science, so it must be true.

Category A: Instruments. First off, country music has some distinct sounds. Banjo, steel guitar, fiddle (I still haven’t figured out how this is different from a violin played really fast). Give the song one point for every country-ish instrument it features. And subtract two for each electronic instrument, like techno-bass, drum-machines, synthesizers… anything fake-sounding.

Category B: The Voice. Just like stereotypical country instruments, vocals can influence the country-ness of a song. Specifically, twang. That drawly accent from the southern states just sounds like it belongs in an old pickup driving along a dirt road, don’t it? Furthermore, if a singer has previously released albums that were labeled “country”, chances are subsequent albums will be considered the same. To a point. Sorry to all you Swifties out there, but Taylor hasn’t been country since Red.

Category C: Lyrics. If a song contains any of the following words, phrases, or themes, it’s leaning toward country.

Also, if a song gives a shout-out to well-known country artists of yesteryear, it’s trying real hard to be country. Johnny Cash, George Strait, Waylon Jennings, Merle Haggard, Tanya Tucker, Loretta Lynn. By the way, who the heck is Joe Diffy?

Now, add up your points and label the song. 

0-2 points: No-Way-In-Hell Country. Take your designer jeans and straight-brimmed ballcap back to the suburbs.

3-5 points: Kinda-Sorta Country. Yeah, you’ll probably get some air time on country radio, but those boots haven’t seen dirt in a long time.

6+ points: Yer-Darn-Tootin’ Country. Gosh-darn it, son, yer the real deal! Here, you can share my spittoon. 

Starting to get the picture? Country music is a broad genre, but all songs share some basic characteristics. And thanks to my infallible system, we finally have a framework to hang our ten-gallon.

But get this. Here’s the kicker. When I presented my well-researched findings to my country girl, guess what she did. She turned up her nose! Seriously! I nearly pooped a bird. 

“Listen.” I began my lecture knowing full-well that I didn’t stand a chance toe-to-toe in any argument with such a headstrong woman, let alone one about country music. Nonetheless, I pressed on. “I’ve spent the past four days learning everything there is to know about humbuckers, the Judds, and bluegrass music theory. So don’t you give me those super-sexy crossed arms and that know-it-all look.”

My words lacked conviction, because, as you can imagine, she actually does kinda know it all.

“Hun,” she said softly. I love it when she calls me Hun. “You're missing the point. Country music isn’t about criteria or labels. If it sounds country, then it is country. Simple as that.”

Damn. I hate it when she’s right. 

Thus, in conclusion, I’m sorry to say that my hypothesis was complete nonsense. Like a cow’s fart in the wind, I was just tootin’ hot air. Country music can’t be put in a box any more than my pretty wife can be cooped up in a city. It just doesn’t work. And she was bang on about what makes a song country. It just feels country. You know, earthy. Country music is real.

I’m still learning the ropes, folks. And fast, because now we live on a little farm just outside a small town. Dirt road, couple horses, few cows. Our four kids are growing up country - bare feet, sunburnt noses, constantly climbing trees - as wild as their mother. I even got myself an old tractor, and wouldn’t you know it, she really does think it’s sexy!

I don’t try to figure out what makes a country song anymore. I just crack a beer, sit by the fire, and enjoy the life that the good Lord’s given us. And that, friends, is what country music is all about.


© D. B. Ryen Incorporated, October 2023.