Singing What You Live: Hard Language in Country Music

June 6, 2012 - By Trigger  //  Random Notes  //  20 Comments

There’s never been a question in anyone’s mind if Johnny Cash actually shot a man in Reno just to watch him die. But that lyric, and Johnny’s song “Folsom Prison Blues” have gone on to become an iconic piece of country music history. This language was nothing new in 1955. Murder ballads and gunslinger tales trace back to the very roots of country music and America’s Gothic, violent identity.

Stretching the boundaries of lyrical content was something at the very foundation of the early Outlaw movement in country music. As has been pointed out many times before about American culture, violence is perfectly acceptable, but sex can be taboo. Nobody batted an eyelash at “Folsom Prison Blues”, but when the original Outlaw Bobby Bare recorded Tompall Glaser’s “Streets of Baltimore” with it’s fairly docile and veiled reference to a man leaving his wife, it caused a controversy.

Kris Kristofferson pushed the limit for drug references with his song “Sunday Morning Coming Down.” Johnny Cash later cut the song himself, and despite the “stoned” lyric, the song went on to be the CMA’s Song of the Year in 1970. The boundaries are continuously being pushed in country, until now in many respects country has lost most of its family friendly identity.

In underground country, racy lyrics have been at the very foundation of the movement, though in no way are they required. Hank Williams III’s Straight to Hell album was the first to ever be released under the CMA with a Parental Advisory, but the salty content is many times misunderstood as being autobiographical, or condoning the behavior being sung about. Sometimes it is, but sometimes, just like with “Folsom Prison Blues” it is telling a story with the real language and themes people face in modern day life.

“There’s just a little misconception…” Hank3 told IBWIP on their 5th Anniversary episode. “All the Williams’ have had a rowdy crowd, whether its Hank Sr., Jr., or myself. Most of my songs have been, you know I’ve lived a lot of them. And once in a while I’ll kind of put myself in other people’s shoes. Like the song “#5″ was some friends of mine that have been hung up on some really hard stuff, you know with the heroin and stuff like that. I just put some hopeful songs out there. Once in a while I’ll put out a little bit of a fantasy out there like the dedicated song to GG (Allin). Those kind of songs I haven’t done anything like some of the topics that hit on that song. I can just project, or put myself in that mode for a little bit.”

“One of the reasons I sing about smoking and drinking and all that stuff so much is because I try to create a partyin’, good time atmosphere when people come to see me. I’m not trying to bring them down, I’m trying to lift them up so they can forget about all their problems and all the stuff that’s happening in the world. And for two or three hours, they can come out to a show and just have some fun. And I always try to tell folks to pace it out as much as possible.”

When reviewing Bob Wayne’s recent album, the topic came up in a heated debate Bob Wayne participated in personally. “…So you’re telling me DAC (David Allan Coe) killed a women in TN then broke out of jail… I think a lot of his songs a true man… But I think he is also a storyteller,” Bob replied to critics. Bob Wayne regularly sings about drinking and drugs while in real life remaining completely sober, just like many underground country artists with racy lyrics like Joe Buck Yourself and Lonesome Wyatt.

It is hard to fault country music fans who do not want to see foul language or hard themes in a genre so tied to traditional values. Just like any genre of music, this is the reason well-defined lines are important so people can steer clear of content they may find offensive. But it is also unfair to fault artists carrying on the same storytelling traditions Johnny Cash and Hank Williams did while modernizing the language no different than how it’s being modernized in the mainstream of country. It’s also unfair to say singing songs you haven’t lived somehow makes them invalid. Street cred, dues, skin’s on the wall, or however you want to phrase it will always be important in country music, but the should never be essential to telling a story.

Hard language presents a challenge to underground country and its aging demographic. Most underground country fans are now in their 30’s. When Hank3’s Straight to Hell came out they were in their 20’s, and could relate better to many of the racy themes. Now, like many of the artists themselves, the fans have grown up, taken real jobs, have kids and spouses, sobered up possibly, and sometimes the hard language songs can come across as immature or hard to relate to.

Barring something similar to the Middle East’s Islamic Revolution, the trend will always arch towards the breaking down of moral barriers to artistic content in culture. With this freedom comes a responsibility to make sure people are only presented with questionable content when they want to be. Instead of looking at other people’s tastes and judging them, maybe we should feel fortunate we live in a time when censorship is lax and people can enjoy the music they find appropriate and appealing without it being run through a filter of other people’s opinions, tastes, or views.

And let’s all hope that the country music themes of morality vs. sin, good vs. evil, sober vs. imbibing, and law vs. the outlaw remain eternal in country music until kingdom come, because this eternal struggle is what we all face every day, and the reason country music speaks to us like nothing else.

20 Comments to “Singing What You Live: Hard Language in Country Music”

  • Just recently found this website and I have to say, this is hands down my favorite weebsite. I have been spending time going through every month of the archives to see what great stuff was written. Thanks Trig for keeping true country alive.

    I like to think of Chris Knight as a great story teller. Listen to the words of his songs and there’s a lot of deep stuff going on. Did he really avenge his brothers death and send the killer “Down the RIver”? No, but the story and the grit coming from Knight allows us to believe the pain and anger felt. There’s not a song of Chris Knight that does not tell a great story. It’s funny to me when some mainstream artist tries to cover a Chris Knight song. His songs are not meant (at least I beleive) to be popped out by mainstream country.


    • I agree. Chris Knight has raised the bar for story telling songs. I have never played him for anyone who didn’t become a huge fan.


  • Best SCM read yet. Been talking about this subject a lot with friends lately. Good stuff


  • Range goes a long way, and gives you lots of latitude. Johnny was incredibly prolific, singing outlaw to gospel and everything in between, and later in his career showed he could sing virtually anybody’s song on any given subject and make it sound like it was his own. Hank’s biggest criticism is definitely his played out themes, but he’s got that unique voice, super tight band, and incredible live show that keeps his fans loyal. His first 3 albums displayed enough variety, and he was kind of in the process of pushing an envelope. Then the next couple started sounding redundant even though they were fun albums. And after his last effort displaying the cajun influences, I think he’ll branch out in new directions even more. Some of the other newer artists you’ve mentioned have not shown the kind of range that shelters you from this kind of criticism,….nor can they sing like Johnny, Kris, Hank, and so on.


    • Great point about range. Cash could never have his morality questioned, even when he was using drugs and singing about killing because of his devotion to gospel music. He also was able to stay out of the ire of many 60’s conservatives as he fought for prison reform, Native American issues, hung out with Bob Dylan etc. because he was so easy to love no matter what your politics were.

      One of the things I love about Hank3’s “Straight to Hell” is for all the songs about sinning, disc 1 starts with a gospel song, and sums up with a song that’s ostensibly a gospel song about how if you love an angel of sin, she’ll never be there for you.


      • Cash was a dove with talons.


    • By all accounts, Cash truly was a “walking contradiction”. A person could actually find him in church on Sunday. Though, at times he may have been strung out on speed, he didn’t just go for the singing. He had an actual devotion to his faith. That seems less common these days. Though a touring underground artist may perform gospel songs on Saturday, I’ll bet there are few who get up and find a local church on Sunday. This doesn’t mean that they are null and void, but Cash had the range in LIFE, not just as a performer.


      • …then again, Cash would likely have had a backstage dressing room, a nice hotel room, and a limo ride to and from the theater where he performed from 7:00 to 8:30pm. Today’s performer would be playing from midnight to 2am, get a microwave burrito at a truck stop and sleep in the van. Probly won’t feel to churchy in the morning…


  • Country music is art.

    David Allan Coe is a remarkable songwriter and storyteller, and he is certainly an artist.

    Like Ernest Hemnigway, DAC conveys deep feelings with an economy of words and with interesting images.

    I have been listening to him for almost 40 years ,and I am happy to see the talented younger generation of artists songwriters whose music I insist on buying (including, among many others, Bob Wayne, the guys at Hellbound Glory, Shelton, etc.) and who follow the path that DAC and the other outlaw musicians forged over the last several decades.

    I buy everything that Guy Clark, Billy Joe Shaver, Jerry Jeff, Gary P. Nunn and Kris Kristopherson produce, but it’s also encouraging to see other younger artists and bands entering the arena.,


  • You know the cool thing about what is going on here with the Texas Red Dirt scene is you have that “range” you mention. I can pop in some Dale Watson and her songs about cheating, drinking etc. I can listen to REK or RWH and hear everything from cosmic tall tales of love and insanity to murder and intrique and yes you can pop in some JAB or spme Early Pat and sing along to the frat boy anthems about floatng the river and drinking beer and raising hell with your buddies all in a variety of styles from tradtional country to rock and blues to folk music.


  • When Straight to hell came out i was 16 years old goin on 17 years old i needed somethin aggressive and somethin edgy to relate to. When that album came out i was doin a line or two every weekend smokin a joint everyday and drinkin alot of white liquor i turned 23 years old yesterday i dont do anymore lines i still keep a quart of white liquor and i may smoke a joint once in a while but it was what i needed it spoke to me and my generation and is still my all time favorite record i listen to it at least every other day some folks just need a little edge and ive always despised rap it was a defining album for us good ole boy hellraisers from the south thank hank and thanks triggerman for the awesome review


  • I was going through the worst break up in history and all that it entailed when straight to hell came out and it literally brought me out of it. It’s all about what you can relate to in music.


  • This is a great topic to blog. I don’t think we should focus t so much on STH by Hank3, that album is very good, and even the hard lyrics are done well with depth and creativity. And Hank having done it doesn’t mean it ushered in “modern language” to describe stories.

    I think when there is a discussion of hard lyrics, I look at how they fit in. Are they just put in there to grab attention or do they really help the story/song?
    For instance, Johnny Cash simply said “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.”
    Is there any reason to put the word fuck in there? Back in 1950 or in 2012? No. Yet I have heard underground bands cover this tune and they drop it in.
    Perhaps this dicussion should be about “hardcore punk/metal” artists going country and bringing over the F-bomb as if it is ok cause Cash gave the finger on a t-shirt image. Again, cause Cash did that, it didn’t usher in “modern language” to country.

    Hank3 sings some hard stuff, but he doesn’t over due it with the F-bombs either.

    There are other artists that sing about tough things too, with creativity and depth. IMHO only using the hard lyrics if they help the story and not just for shock value (or because they are a metal singer in a country clothing).

    If an artist is 20yrs. old, and drops the F-bomb all over, I get it, young and full of piss and vinager. But if the artist is 30+ yrs. old and every other line/song has F this and F that….it is immature and dare say amature hour. I guess if that artist is playing to a crowd of 16-25 yr. olds, then have at it… but don’t we rip maintstream country acts for signing to that demographic too? Mainstream just sings it to the female gender 16-25yr. olds.

    Hard topics and lyrics should be addressed, but there are far more songs that address them with versions you could play when grandma and grandpa are in the house vs. the versions you would think a 16yr. old kid ranted out the lyrics for.

    Honestly, I think it comes down to flat out talent. If you can’t get around F-bomb language…well then…something is lacking.


  • I have absolutely no problem with foul language or hard themes in country music. It’s the overuse of foul language and hard themes that turns me off. I think Leroy Virgil is a perfect example of a song writer who talks of hard times but does it in a way that’s meaningful and not off putting. Bob Wayne I think is on the other end of that spectrum and Hank III teeters somewhere in the middle.

    You mentioned Folsom Prison Blues above. What a great song! Would it have been as great if it went like this?

    I hear a motherfuckin’ train comin’ rolling around the fuckin’ bend and I ain’t see the motherfuckin’ sun shine since motherfuckin’ when…. I shot a cocksucker in Reno just to watch the fucker die!

    I think certain artists would be taken a lot more seriously if they were a touch more respectful. I’m sure Johnny and Waylon said fuck all the time but they didn’t have to use it in a song to prove how tough they were. I just find it immature and I have a hard time investing in an artist who relies on such heavy uses of profanity to get a point across. That’s not good writing in my opinion.


  • somethings never change or they just keep coming around again.

    “As a matter of fact, I can remember Elmer telling me that you really had a lot of talent, but he didn’t see how anyone could ever make it that insisted on saying FUCK on stage.” The voice of Suzy Creamcheese, “Our Bizarre Relationship”, Mothers of Invention, “Uncle Meat”, 1969.


  • I know Hank 3’s STH album gets credited often for being the first country album with a PA label, but there was a David Allan Coe album called “Country Outlaw” released in 2003 with a PA label.



    • Plus DAC should get a lot of credit for pushing the boundary with his “X” rated album.

      I know it may be a silly distinction, but “Straight to Hell” was the first release under the CMA umbrella organization that includes all major country radio stations, labels, entities, studios, etc. etc. Not saying DAC’s album is not “official” or anything, but you can make the case STH was the first album to have the label in the mainstream.


  • For all the talk about authenticity, for me it has always come down to empathy. Can you put yourself in someone else’s shoes and convincingly convey a message or emotion from that other person, real or fictional? To me, this is what made Johnny Cash great. He understood such a broad swath of people, that he could put himself in their shoes and convincingly send your their message. This is why I love Steve Earle, too.

    As far as hard language, if it is natural to the character singing the song then it makes sense. If it is a crutch to avoid exposing a limited emotional connection with that character, then it comes off shallow. And all performers play characters – even if they’re playing themselves.


  • One thing I’ve always wondered is what people think of artists who never served in the military writing songs from the first person perspective of a soldier? I’m not sure whether it’s right or wrong, and I’ve never served so I have no idea what it’s like. Some examples that come to mind are:

    Tour of Duty- Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit
    The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down- The Band
    Johnny Come Lately- Steve Earle
    The War-Lucero

    I’m sure there are hundreds more. I’m not sure where I stand on this, wondering what everyone else at SCM thinks.


  • I certainly have no problem with anyone’s music, or art, songs, etc. I think what most folks take issue with, and what always gets lost in the shizzle, is how corporate radio has censored, or dictated traditional country, Americana, etc., etc. In other words, when is the last time you heard Johnny Cash, Haggard, heck, even Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, on your radio dial lately? I think folks get confused. Some artists decide to write or take this commercial road to make a living. We shouldn’t fault these artists, or these fans for what they do. It is just not that blk and white any longer. Corporate radio dictates every damn thing you hear on FM radio. (thank the gods for satellite radio but that’s another story). Somewhere there is an artist, band, or songwriter that is phenomenal, that will never make it up the ladder simply because you, or we will never have the chance to hear them on our radios as we once would have. I can remember a time riding in my truck, listening to the radio and a new song would come on. I have literally stopped the truck to listen and to find out who this artist was, I can’t tell you the last time I have had this happen. Today, songwriters are instructed to write down the middle. If most artists will ever make a meager living they follow suite. The songs can’t be to emotional, not too sad, not too happy, the songs can’t tug on the emotions a lot, they just need to program the people that listen to buy our sponsors products. There are a few that have defied the rules, but only the ones that have made enough damn money they can do what they want! Remember, you can always look at the arts and see where we are as a nation, or human beings, etc, no matter what genre your into.


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