WaPo Music Critic Accuses Country Musicians of 'Narrowcasting' to Small Town America

If you're a country music fan you might be advised to avoid reading the Washington Post Style section when its writers tackle country music. It might make you want to put your boot up the critic's posterior.

The latest nuisance is J. Freedom du Lac's analysis of why country music radio is so chock full of songs about small town America. To you and me, the answer might be obvious, but du Lac set out to paint the trend as "divisive" and reactionary. In this excerpt, du Lac sets out to discredit the professional opinion of a D.C.-area country music station programmer:

Says Meg Stevens, the WMZQ program director: "It's a global theme: Wherever you're from, that's your place. You see what's happening with the economy and what's going on in the world, and people are getting in closer to their roots and their community, whether you're from rural Virginia or downtown D.C."

But the Atkins song and others of its ilk -- from Jason Aldean's "Hicktown" and Miranda Lambert's "Famous in a Small Town" to Zac Brown Band's "Chicken Fried" and Josh Turner's "Way Down South" -- are narrowcasting to a specific community: the core country audience, whose roots aren't exactly in America's urban centers.

The symbolism and prideful sentiments of the songs are intended to create a sense of belonging among people with similar backgrounds and lifestyles, or at least people who romanticize life in the rural South. (It's not a place; it's a state of mind.) To some listeners, though, it might sound as if the artists are closing ranks.

"Some of these songs seem to fall into the 'we're from Real America, and you're not' camp," says Peter Cooper, who covers country music for Nashville's daily newspaper, the Tennessean. "Seems like being divisive while the industry around you crumbles is a poor decision."

Poppycock. There are plenty of suburban (like yours truly) and city-dwelling folks who love country music, despite having never grown up on or near a farm. Heck, New York City-native Sean Hannity is a huge country fan while Midwestern small-town born-and-bred Rush Limbaugh, not so much. A friend of mine of Hispanic heritage, raised in Washington, D.C., but who went to college in Tennessee, is a big country fan. One of the biggest rising stars in country music today is a black man, Darius Rucker, best known as the former lead singer from Hootie & The Blowfish.

Far from being divisive and exclusionary, most Americans can agree with the values and sentiments of songs like the Zac Brown Band's "Chicken Fried" with lyrics like:

And its funny how it’s the little things in life that mean the most
Not where you live, what you drive or the price tag on your clothes
There’s no dollar sign on a piece of mind this I’ve come to know

And this:

I thank God for my life
For the stars and stripes
May freedom forever fly, let it ring.
Salute the ones who died
And the ones that gave their lives
So we don’t have to sacrifice
All the things we love

Yes, that might make the hipsters du Lac knows turn up their nose, but to most Americans, they are laudible sentiments, even if the musical genre is not your cup of tea.

But du Lac isn't done, adding insult to injury by deriding country music as cliche:

Says the Tennessean's Cooper: "While these songs' lyrics tend to celebrate the special and idiosyncratic nature of the rural South, the music itself is often as distinctive as the Applebee's restaurant out by the interstate that runs next to so many 'small towns.' "

Moore's "Small Town USA" doesn't exactly break new ground. But then, that wasn't the goal.

Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd
Ken Shepherd is a writer living in New Carrollton, Md.