If You’ve Got the Money

Country music sells its soul

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Last year I bought a $300 cooler. The purchase was conspicuous not because of the price—which is, certainly, too much for a cooler—but because the Yeti Tundra cooler is a status symbol among fishermen. As you may have seen (but perhaps failed to notice), the Yeti sticker is now a ubiquitous feature of pickup truck rear windshields nationwide. And although you can get a Yeti sticker with the purchase of any of the proliferating Yeti knickknacks (coffee mugs, hats, beer cozies), you only get the good sticker when you buy their signature ice chest.

Yeti coolers are over-engineered articles of hardcore outdoor living—real or imagined. Designed to hold the weight of a grown man casting a fly fishing rod, they can keep their contents cold for the better part of a week and prevent intrusion from even the most curious grizzly bear. In the last decade, Yetis have become preferred outdoor technology for weekend warriors and serious survivalists alike, particularly across the red states. Fandom began with anglers and spread rapidly through the camping and hunting crowds, then to the competitive barbequers, and finally to the mainstream. I’d wanted a Yeti cooler for a couple of years, although I never had the disposable income or the justification. Finally I resolved that you don’t buy a cooler for the life you have, you buy a cooler for the life you want.

The life that country singer Chris Janson wants, which, like mine, includes a Yeti cooler, helps explain how a bunch of country musicians wound up playing the presidential inauguration of a Queens billionaire last year. Janson’s debut album Buy Me A Boat (2015) was an instant success across the country radio nation, and its title track, which enumerates the cool things he would buy if he had loads of cash, reached numerous chart positions on Billboard and iTunes and was certified “Platinum” late in 2015. It begins with the lyrics “I ain’t rich, but I damn sure wanna be” and goes on to explain that money “sounds pretty cool” because it could buy Janson “a boat . . . a truck to pull it . . . [and] a Yeti 110 iced down with some Silver Bullets.” Money, in this fantasy, would afford Janson a big, expensive new cooler filled with the same cheap beer he’s always enjoyed. Or, to put it another way, the singer wants to be rich so that he can indulge his current tastes to the extreme, not refine them. This makes the Yeti cooler a particularly revealing object of desire. It is at once an overpriced luxury item (the 110 is $500) and a place for fishermen to store beer and cut bait. And this, in turn, means those stickers that have spread along with the coolers are paradoxes: they represent not only the cherished pastimes of browbeaten country life—namely fishing and bloodsport hobbies—but also their owner’s wealth and discerning taste.

Powerball’n

In a recent essay for the The Harvard Business Review, Joan C. Williams offers an idea or two about white working-class aspirations. “The white working class (WWC) resents professionals but admires the rich,” she argues. “The dream is not to become upper-middle-class, with its different food, family, and friendship patterns; the dream is to live in your own class milieu, where you feel comfortable—just with more money.” And a Yeti cooler. In her account, the white working class imagines the “wealthy” to be hardworking businessmen and entrepreneurs (“imagines” because the white working class doesn’t have much contact with the super-rich). Professionals, meanwhile, are known to be wise-ass scolds and privileged phonies—doctors telling them what they can’t eat, lawyers telling them what they can’t do, professors teaching their kids a nonsense curriculum. So white working-class aspirations leapfrog middle- and upper-middle-class life to land directly on rich-as-hell.

Janson wants to keep his Coors beer cold in a Yeti; he doesn’t want to start drinking chilled pinot gris.

Williams’s account of white working-class aspirations agrees with Janson’s lyrics, although it differs regarding the ways and means that would allow for such an epic financial leap. In her interpretation, hard work and entrepreneurialism are still the imagined routes to grotesque wealth. For Janson, those roads appear to be blocked: “Working like a dog all day ain’t working for me,” he sings. Instead, the performer stakes his future on instant cash: “wish I had a rich uncle that’d kick the bucket”; “I hear the Powerball Lotto is sitting’ on a hundred mil’.” Wealth, in other words, is more a Dickensian pipe dream than a reasonable ambition—although the real-life Janson is now a household name in country music, which I suppose is better than having a dead uncle or winning the lottery. In any case, both Williams and Janson find that the aim of getting rich is to transport one’s lifestyle into a nicer container. Janson wants to keep his Coors beer cold in a Yeti; he doesn’t want to start drinking chilled pinot gris.

It’s here that we begin to understand how the country singer could identify with Trump. The New York Times interviewed the billionaire-in-chief’s butler and learned, among other things, that Trump prefers to have his steak cooked so thoroughly that “it would rock on the plate”—not exactly the classiest of preferences. And this is the point: for both Janson and Trump, being rich doesn’t mean acting classy, it means acting however you want while surrounded by classy things—whatever you deem those things to be. What’s more, these luxury items and the money that buys them are signposts of the quality of one’s life, the measure of how a person should be perceived—a realization which leads us to the most profound moment in Janson’s song: “They call me redneck, white trash, and blue collar,” he sings, but “I could change all that if I had a couple million dollars.” That is to say, Janson is sure that making bank by itself would up his personal approval rating.

Donald Trump, of course, would agree, though he is not a member of either the working or professional classes. And I’m not sure Chris Janson is working-class either: he left his hometown of Perryville, Missouri, for a music career in Nashville as soon as he graduated from high school. I mention this not to question the singer’s authenticity—he may have been raised working-class—but rather to illustrate that the Yeti phenomenon has more to do with classiness than class identity. Although it is often attributed to the white working class, the desire to transport one’s life into a better container is not restricted to a single socioeconomic group. It is instead an effect of that much broader neoliberal phenomenon whereby all choices and behaviors are measured by their financial payout. After all, if every choice and behavior is weighed by the logic of monetary reward, then aren’t the behaviors of rich people necessarily the best ones?

Fall from Graceland

This ethical bankruptcy, I am sure, was not a part of country music’s early days. From its first moments to the golden 1960s, country maintained a conflicted relation not only to its own cultural milieu but also to wealth. Those days are now hard to imagine, occluded as they are by a caricature of the genre, one in which accents get thicker in song and a curiously corporate version of rural life is sacrosanct. To this musical cartoon, Hank Williams Sr.’s 1947 single “Wealth Won’t Save Your Soul” serves an obvious foil. Williams was a deeply religious man, and the song, which describes the end of all days, continued his earliest work in gospel music. “The rich man like all will be judged at that time,” he sings, “but all of his wealth will be left behind. / For no matter how much earthly wealth you get hold, / well my friend, it won’t save your poor wicked soul.”

Williams Sr. is admittedly an extreme example—in country lyrics elsewhere, money is given a more nuanced treatment. Williams’s son Hank Williams Jr. was aspirational about wealth, for example, and in many respects his “Money Can’t Buy Happiness” (1968) is a predecessor of Janson’s “Buy Me A Boat.” Both songs preface fantasies about wealth with the acknowledgment that “money can’t buy happiness.” But where Williams Jr.’s song is resolved to this fact of life (even if he wishes that, just once, he had the chance to “sit back and complain / About a steak that’s overdone and under-aged champagne”), Janson dismisses the thought altogether. “I know everybody says money can’t buy happiness,” he allows. “But it could buy me a boat.”

There are more bittersweet examples. Ernest Tubb’s “Fortune in Memories” (1952) treats fond experiences with a lost love as a true measure of wealth: “Count them all as lost and they are more than I can bare / count them all as memories and I am a millionaire.” Johnny Cash would make the same comparison in “My Treasure” (1961), a song in which the singer acknowledges the substantial riches he’s accumulated but laments that he overlooked his sweetheart in the process: “I saved a lot of money my fortune was untold / And like a fool I idealized my silver and my gold / My earthly treasure’s mounted but when I counted through / I realized the treasure I had overlooked was you.” Money is a diversion in these lyrics; true wealth lies elsewhere. It requires a rather substantial departure to get from “My Treasure” to Trace Adkins’s 2009 single “Marry for Money”: “I’m gonna marry for money / I’ll be so damn rich it ain’t funny /. . . Don’t really care if she loves me / She can even be ugly.”

Aside from the earliest Williams track, most of these older songs are sanguine about wealth if wary about its corrosiveness; cash as an ethical reward is mostly a contemporary phenomenon. Billy Currington’s “People are Crazy” (2008), a hit song about a chance bar encounter, is a case in point. In Currington’s lyrics, the protagonist meets an old man, and they discuss life over cold beers.

Talking politics, blond and red-head chicks / Old dogs and new tricks and habits we ain’t kicked. / We talked about God’s grace and all the hell we raised . . . / We talked an hour or two about every girl we knew / What all we put ’em through / Like two old boys will do.

Eventually the men part ways, never to see each other again. But years later, after his death, it’s revealed that the old man was a millionaire. He leaves his considerable wealth to the protagonist, and the song ends with the singer affirmed in his country beliefs: “God is great,” he sings, “beer is good, and people are crazy.” Although subtler than “Boat,” the theme is indistinguishable: instant money retroactively confirms an otherwise unexamined way of life.

Cultural Swap Meet

Contemporary country music’s appetite for money is not the only novelty in this equation. In the songs named above, money validates an otherwise unexamined “country” life. And while it’s true that country music has affirmed Southern, Western, and Midwestern rural life since the Great Depression (this is perhaps its most distinctive trait), that affirmation used to include some caution and even a bit of critique. In contrast, today’s country music has nothing but enthusiasm for (what it imagines to be) life in the heartland.

In the genre’s earlier history, fondness for country living was balanced against apprehension about its material struggles. Dolly Parton’s “The Good Old Days (When Times were Bad)” (1969) is representative. “No amount of money could buy from me / The memories that I have of then [i.e. her rural childhood],” she sings. But she continues: “No amount of money could pay me / To go back and live through it again.” The most famous example of this double feeling is undoubtedly Ed Bruce’s “Mammas, Don’t Let Your Babies Grow Up to be Cowboys” (1975), a song taken mainstream by Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson, which warns of the perils of rough, country living and implores mothers to raise their kids to be “doctors and lawyers and such.” Although there’s a kind of slant-wise, tongue-in-cheek appreciation for cowboy living sewn into the lyrics, the takeaway is unmissable—this life isn’t for everyone, and it shouldn’t be. Today such a sentiment is an exception rather than a rule (Kacey Musgraves’s “Merry Go ‘Round” [2012], which describes the disappointments of rural womanhood, serves as an example). The ambivalence of Parton and Bruce has otherwise given way to an all-but-total bland and corporate nationalism, one that allows a Yeti sticker to paste over the fruitful and often painful incongruities of rural life.

“Country” culture has ironically diverted itself into the ethical trashcans of both coasts.

It’s fitting to look to television for examples of this erasure of rural wisdom, given that it’s the arbiter of omnipresent branded sameness. There is no shortage of reality TV shows airing today that pretend to document the lives of wealthy rural Americans—Alaskan survivalists, Appalachian moonshiners, alligator-hunting swamp people, firearms dealers. Rednecks and hillbillies all, save for their money and fame. The most popular in this genre is the infamous A&E series Duck Dynasty, a show about a family of duck-call-inventing millionaires. The program’s conceit holds that the long-bearded, duck-hunting, camo-wearing Robertson family came into some money—in fact, they earned it—yet they’re still the selfsame good ol’ boys they ever were: they cling, without apology, to their guns and their god. Their new money matters, but only insofar as it buys expensive toys and affirms their rural values. They’re not rednecks or white trash, in other words, because they’re rich.

For a time, Duck Dynasty offered common ground for red and blue staters alike. The show’s appeal was broader in the South and Midwest than it was in cities, but it was generally palatable and, at first, inoffensively or even humorously hickish. But in 2013, at the height of the show’s popularity, Phil Robertson, the family patriarch, told GQ magazine that he thought homosexuality was a sin (and that vaginas had more to offer than anuses). The backlash was immediate. Duck Dynasty went on brief hiatus, but after fans protested it returned to air, this time with a smaller and more sympathetic viewership.

The remaining viewers of Duck Dynasty, in other words, were very likely to have voted for Trump, and that’s strange. While there’s a certain degree of commonality between Phil Robertson and Trump (both are bigoted reality TV stars), the two are, if not diametrically opposed, at least culturally alien: Trump is a pampered urban real estate heir, whereas the Robertsons are self-made entrepreneurs who eat squirrels. Nearly every other episode of Duck Dynasty involves some comparison between country living and (what they imagine to be) city living, and the butt of many of the clan’s jokes is the “yuppie” straw man.

Nevertheless, “country” culture, which can reasonably be said to include shows like Duck Dynasty, has ironically diverted itself into the ethical trashcans of both coasts, whether it’s L.A.-style celebrity-mongering or New Yorkish cash-worshipping crassness. Under these conditions, where principal coastal and “cosmopolitan” values can come to represent those in, say, the rural South, the question raises itself: Does “country” culture any longer exist?

Freed from a tradition of ambivalence about money—the ethical good sense exemplified in the music of Dolly Parton and Johnny Cash—country culture has swung crazily in the opposite direction. This much is betrayed by the very name of a show like Duck Dynasty—it is, after all, about a would-be dynasty. Rural voters may have recoiled from the family lines of the Clintons and Bushes, but in celebrating the Robertsons and the Trumps, they’ve merely traded the political dynasty for the dynasties of cash and capital.

If the last few years have roused broader American culture to the sad realization that many working-class whites believe they are oppressed, we also know that Trump capitalized on this sentiment, promising to turn the tide in their favor. But rural, working-class whites are not the only voters who sent Trump to the White House, and the belief that wealth is its own ethical justification is not their invention or exclusive vice.

It’s more that white-working-class culture has itself become a fantasy, one that is shared by a range of Americans, including suburbanites, urbanites, professionals, even intellectuals. Add to this those who listen to crossover country music, watch Duck Dynasty, or buy overpriced coolers because they imagine themselves to be rugged outdoorsmen or salt of the earth anglers. All of these factions are brought together, whether they’re for or against it, by the dubious and dreamily nostalgic delusion that white-working-class culture exists apart from the broader neoliberal morass.

This adds to the irony that the values country living has long held close have come under attack by efforts to protect the “values” and “behaviors” associated with, of all things, country music. Where once this music affirmed “it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God,” today it seems many in the business would trade salvation for the chance to drink crappy beer without being called a redneck.

These are the impressions that I get listening to contemporary country stations in Kentucky, West Virginia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania on long drives from my home in Louisville to my extended family near Philadelphia. I’m rather convinced that the turn I detect in this music is both real and damaging. But I also suspect—or maybe just choose to believe—that this turn is temporary. I have scant evidence to prove this, except for the vague sense that these stations are less celebratory post-inauguration than I had expected them to be. So I’ll offer one more lyrical analysis in hope of explaining—and maybe also encouraging—what seems to be a lingering skepticism of the super-rich and a holdover against the rising logic that money validates everything it touches.

Toby Keith was the headliner at Trump’s inauguration party. Keith is a country rocker known for pro-America lyrics like “you’ll be sorry that you messed with / The U.S. of A. / Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way.” He seems a natural choice for Trump’s America-first machismo (and his 2006 album is called White Trash With Money, which is also kind of perfect for this analysis).

Yet it’s hard to square what we saw at the inaugural party with the sentiment expressed in “Boomtown,” the title track from Keith’s second album. The song, written in 1994—years before the tragedy of 9/11 prompted an aggressively pro-American turn in Keith’s lyrics—narrates the rise and fall of an oil town. It describes the poor folks (“sleepin’ in their cars ‘cause they didn’t have homes”) who flocked to this “promised land” in hopes of striking it rich. It tells about the builders who construct hotels and bars to capitalize on the influx. And it describes what happens when investment dries up and residents are left with worthless homes and no clear understanding of what went wrong. It’s about as close as the singer ever got to old school country. And the strangest thing: Keith was a registered Democrat when he wrote it.

Chris Reitz is assistant professor of critical and curatorial studies and gallery director at the Hite Art Institute. His work has appeared in The White Review, n+1, October, and elsewhere. 

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