Nearly forty years ago, David Allan Coe’s hit single “You never even called me by my name” included a satirical fifth verse in which he proclaimed that the perfect country and western song must include a reference to “Mama, trains or trucks, prison or getting drunk,” and so promptly began to rattle off all five references in a verse completely unrelated to the rest of the song.
It seems today as if, while the formula for the perfect Country and Western song has dropped the requirements Coe mentioned and replaced them with a requirement to talk about getting drunk while laying out by the river in the middle of nowhere with your girl in the bed of your truck. And she must be wearing jeans so tight they appear to be painted on.
Coe was complaining about the formulaic nature of country music in the mid 70s, particularly the outlaw country movement of which he was a part, but compared to the cookie-cutter country sound playing on the radio today, the music of Coe’s era would be a breath of fresh air.
There is perhaps no worse offender in this cookie cutter pop country movement than Florida Georgia Line, who have turned this lack of originality into an art form. Their music is as redundant as it is inexplicably popular.
The lyrics of their first three singles are strikingly similar. “In this brand new Chevy with a lift kit/would look a hell of a lot better with you up in it” they sing in their hit song “Cruise.” “I’m gassin’ up the Chevy/I’m gonna pick her up at 6,” they echo in “Round Here.” Yes, a reference to picking up a girl in their Chevy Silverado is made in “Get your Shine On” too.
These themes all are popular within country music for a reason: People can relate to them, and so following the formula can make a country music star pretty quickly. Many stars resort to the formula to get some popularity early on before they branch off into more original content. Look no further than the similarities between country newcomers Eric Paslay, Jon Pardi and Cole Swindell and their songs “Friday Night,” “Up All Night,” and “Chillin’ It,” which have flooded the airwaves in recent weeks.
Songs about the simple pleasures of country living have served this purpose for years. But they don’t have to be quite as mundane and cookie cutter as they seem to have become. The Zac Brown Band, who have never been accused of being lyrically unoriginal or derivative, started their stardom with “Chicken Fried.” Little Big Town got their first big hit with “Boondocks” which was stylistically and lyrically interesting despite being rather formulaic in its basic topic. Brad Paisley’s “American Saturday Night” provided a nice riff on the trope.
While doing a song like this early on to establish popularity is acceptable, and even a rite of passage in some way, once a band gets that popularity, it’s a sign of an uncreative band when every follow up single is just as formulaic, when every new song panders to the airwaves instead of exploring a more interesting lyrical topic
What’s worse is when an artist who used to have interesting, unique songs and who gained popularity with those songs, but who then resorts to this same pandering seen by emerging bands. Blake Shelton is perhaps the quintessential example of this. His debut single, “Austin” is one of the best country songs of the past few decades, and it was so popular that it even climbed the pop charts. An instant classic. Compare that early work to his recent “Boys ‘Round Here” and it is clear he’s sunk to a new low in pursuit of commercial success. Luke Bryan similarly has no excuse for “That’s My Kind of Night.”
And don’t even get me started on “Truck Yeah” by Tim McGraw, the man who used to be responsible for masterpieces like “Red Rag Top.”
Country artists shouldn’t be scared to take risks. They can pay off. Listening to contemporary, Nashville country music has gotten tedious, but it shouldn’t be. Following the formula mocked by David Allan Coe is not the only way to commercial success. Gary Allan has had countless number one hits, none of which mentioned getting drunk in the back of a truck with a girl wearing tight jeans. Four of the Zac Brown Band’s first five singles hit number one, the fifth made it to number two. They never pandered to the airwaves. Their musical talent spoke for itself.
Creativity speaks for itself, and creative risk can be rewarded. Florida Georgia Line and others should take note of this before they start working on their next album.