Olivia Durif

Whiskey, Women, and Gold: Loss & Profit in Country Songs


ISSUE 44 | FREE MONEY | SEP 2014

Everything was free in a black Volvo station wagon with the headlights duct-taped on. A right off highway 10 past Juarez. A vanishing point and that hurtling-towards-it feeling, breaking 100 miles per at sunset. Silos and windmills and trails of dust. Country on the radio. Oh, I should’a been a cowboy.

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There’s an old joke about what you get when you a play a country song backwards: you get yer dog back, you get yer money back, you get yer truck back, you get yer wife back … What happens in a country song is a game of profits and losses. Getting what you want and losing what you had. It’s from the perspective of “having lost” that the country song propels itself. Of course, most music is about loss (heartbreak, etc.). What sets country apart from the rest of popular music, however, is work. A focus on work ups the stakes of loss and gain, because of the way it throws human agency into relief: responsibility, liability, risk.

There’s a recurring “return of the native” narrative in country music that goes something like this1: an innocent boy comes of age. His mother and father urge him to stay home on the farm, instead of getting educated in the big city, which is a sure gateway to a life of sin. The farmer-parents need the help of their brawny young son to do the farm’s dirty work and keep their payroll budget low. They use the wrath of God as a warning: better stay home so you don’t stray from the righteous path out there on the dusty road. Naturally, the son disobeys his family’s wishes and sets out on a life of rambling. Eventually, the son returns, but too late: his parents are dead, or the fields lie fallow, which is just as bad.

For the farmer, the hope of profit is the hope of a good yield, and thus a good enough season to continue to support himself, the farm and his family. Profit in the present means the continuation of work into the future, means, at least, the possibility of next season. And the possibility of next season means the possibility of survival, because a farmer’s life stops when he stops working. The loss generated by a bad season is a way of life, and also death for the farmer. His work can only ever buy him the ability to continue working the way he has always worked. If he doesn’t suffer an untimely death of exhaustion, or turn to drinking, the farmer is forced to get a job in a factory or rove the country as a migrant worker. Or, less dramatically, a working man turns to drinking, always fantasizing (as in Merle Haggard’s 1969 “Workin’ Man’s Blues”) about tossing his dollars out the window and hopping on the next train to nowhere. But he’s got a wife and kids in town to feed and clothe, and the bar and his whiskey stay placeholders for the road and a horse.

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Gillian Welch’s “One More Dollar” tracks a life of loss. In the first verse, a man leaves his home for a job as an orchard laborer to support his family. In the second verse, a bad season puts the man out of work and drives him to gambling. In the third verse the man is a homeless beggar. As the man’s identity changes over the course of the song, the chorus, of course, remains the same:

One more dime to show for my day
One more dollar and I'm on my way
When I reach those hills, boys, I'll never roam
One more dollar and I'm going home

The eponymous “dollar” changes in meaning as the song progresses. Wage → bet → alms. The hope of profit contains within it the risk of loss. Payment → Chance → Charity. It is as if the innocent desire for better times to come actually generates a descent into a dark future. The laborer-turned-beggar in Welch’s song, interestingly, doesn’t blame himself for having done wrong, like so many other country-song protagonists. The way time works in the song does that for us. In time, a dollar turns from good to bad, the man’s intentions from hopeful to hopeless.

Hope of profit → reality of loss. But loss makes space to rewrite the past. The bounty of fantasy fills up the barren landscape of lived experience. The past can only created after it’s perceived as gone. It’s from the state of having lost something important (the farm, dog, a bet, your girl) that the country song takes off.

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Part of the historical context of country music is the total unsustainability of the independent family farm as an economic model. Loss, for the farmer, is apocalyptic, precisely because his is a life that cannot possibly account for loss. Loss is always a matter of life or death—whether of his crops, animals, family or dreams. His aim is not to gain enough that he can eventually stop working, but rather to gain enough so that he can keep on working the way he has been, which has probably been too hard. Working so that he can continue to, barely, keep on living.

Kip Moore’s 2014 summer chart-topper, “Beer Money,” can be read as a reaction against the impossible economy of the family farmer. For the working man of contemporary country, whose wage relies on his boss, rather than the seasons, the stakes are lower. The hope of profit is a paycheck, rather than a good season. The reality of loss is the money you’ve already decided to spend, before you’ve made it, on your Friday night beer. What the working man has that the farmer doesn’t is the weekend. A slice of freedom out of an otherwise unbearable way life. But the unbearable grind of the workweek is what makes feeling alive on the weekend possible. The more arduous the week, the better the weekend. It’s the structure of the workweek that enables feeling free. An appreciation of the ephemeral: beer, kisses, cash.

Organizing time and money around a Friday night (beer) justifies a week of backbreaking labor. Simultaneously, the week of labor enables the beer. Sunday morning service that will undo the weekend of debauchery. Like the week, getting up to no good is necessary in order to pray for forgiveness. This lifestyle asks a question about values. You work so that you can blow your earnings in one glorious flame. You blow it so you can repent. The value is in the flame, but the freedom of the flame is contingent on the structure of the grueling week, and the possibility for redemption on Sunday. Since the farmer’s goal of continuous success is bound to fail, there’s a glory in a kind of loss that regulates itself.

In “Beer Money,” women and beer have two things in common. First, a woman is like beer. A refreshing, well-deserved respite from the bustle of quotidian life. Second, women like beer. Simile gives way to an economy. Hard Work → Beer Money → Hot Chicks. Since women want beer, beer money will get you laid. And if your gentlemanly efforts to pick up the tab fail to get you laid, well at least you still have the beer. While it’s fun to get the girl, it’s almost more fun not too. Almost. Of course, it’s really all about the girl. The beer is either a catalyst or a consolation. While beer and women are nearly mutually exlusive (since beer and girls are similar, either one will do) the chain of events in Kips’s song enforces the hope that one desirable thing (beer), can be used effectively to get something even more desirable (the girl).

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Somethin’ bout a truck, in a farmer’s field
A “No Tresspass” sign and time to kill
Nobody’s gonna get hurt, so what’s the big deal
Somethin’ bout a truck in a farmer’s field

Somethin’ bout a beer sittin’ on ice
After a long hard day, makes it taste just right
On that dropped tailgate, on a summer night
Somethin’ bout a beer sittin’ on ice

Somethin’ bout a girl in a red sundress
With an ice cold beer pressed against her lips
In that farmer’s field, make a boy a mess
Somethin’ bout a girl in a red sundress

Somethin’ bout a kiss that’s gonna lead to more
On that dropped tailgate , back behind the corn
The most natural thing you’ve ever felt before
Somethin’ bout a kiss that’s gonna lead to more

“Somethin’ ‘Bout A Truck” justifies the joke about country songs played backwards. It’s a song about the process of getting. A truck can get you to the store to buy the beer, and has space for several large coolers to fill it with. It can get you to the girl and enables you take her back to the farm, where there’s plenty of space to stretch out, drink beer and kiss her. The truck catalyzes the progression from fantasy to realization, from wanting a truck, beer and a girl, to actually having them. Driving the truck around the farm is like a cold beer, is like a girl, is like a kiss. While the song establishes the fantasy that there’s nothing to lose because each desired commodity (truck, beer, girl, kiss) has equal value, the line about the kiss that leads to more exposes a teleology that the movement of the entire song suggests. A truck, a beer and a girl are all essentially similar because they are all essentially good, but getting laid is the highest good. The phrase “Somethin’ bout” assumes a universal understanding of what’s good. Is it because the characteristics that qualify goodness are pre-verbal? Primordial? Just better left unspoken?

In Eric Paslay’s “Friday Night,” a man wants to make his girl feel good. He expresses his desire metaphorically: I want to be your Friday night. Because the point is that the feeling of Friday night is ineffable, the singer explains the metaphor by stacking more metaphors on top of it. Friday night is also like: a sweet ride, summertime, a jackpot, a wide open road, a candy apple rag top, lemonade in the shade and, most importantly, money in your pocket (‘cause you just got paid). After listing similies in order to reveal the feeling of Friday, the chorus circles back on itself like the 7 day week, like the seasons—ending where it began. Ultimately, Friday night is like nothing else in the world but Friday night.

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Working too hard and barely getting by. The working man operates with the same sentiments that the farmer does. The same ideals are at play in his work. Respite from the chaos of the city, promise of a slower pace of life. Simplicity and groundedness, both literal and figurative. But the working man’s is a low-risk economy, based on the one structure that a farmer lacks: transit. Fixed to his land as substrate, his work is his life. It’s the opposite for the working man of contemporary country, whose work is the opposite of his life, which is his time off. But the limitation of the week is an indispensable condition of the pleasures of the weekend: without any limits there would be no possibility for pleasure. The work week exists precisely in order transgress it. But in order to transgress it, the limit has to be protected, hence church on Sunday. Think of it as a way to budget, not only money, but also time and space. Remember the elusiveness of the phrase “somethin’ bout” in Kip’s song, or the ring composition of “Friday Night.” Both devices function as means of description that works insofar as it doesn’t even attempt to describe the object. What do a truck, a beer and a kiss have in common? They all get you somewhere.

“getting out of town”
“hitting the road”
“rolling down the windows”
“cracking a beer”
“stealing a kiss”

Lightening-quick moments that country songs celebrate. They are all instances of transition, like Friday night, that make the feeling of freedom possible. On the road, you might have to head back home, get back to work or stop somewhere for the night. Once you crack open a beer, you’ll have to finish it. You might open another, but you’ll give up eventually. A kiss ends, too, and even if it gets you laid, it won’t ever be that first kiss again. Catalyst or a consolation. While the stakes are different for farmers and cowboys, workers and ramblers—the protagonists of country songs narrate the small glory of getting in order to lose, losing in order to hope, and hoping to get back the thing you lost in the first place. Or at least get a good country song out of it.


1 “Mama Tried,” Merle Haggard (1968). “The Fields Have Gone Brown,” The Stanley Brothers (1950). “Tecumseh Valley,” Townes Van Zandt (1969).