While my wife and I were on a road trip recently, we had a rented car where we had not taken the time to learn how to operate the Sirius XM satellite radio system. So we had a country station on for several days. I would have dreaded that, but I found out differently. The music, except for the few bluegrass numbers, does not sound that different from adult rock nowadays. But many of the lyrics are more ‘adult,’ not in the sense of being ‘explicit,’ but in the sense that the narratives are about people with kids trying to live life. We are a society in which there is often a strong separation between people with kids and people without, and let’s say that there aren’t a lot of rock songs about people with wives and kids. And while not reflecting good Calvinist orthodoxy necessarily, some songs will mention God and even dare to mention Jesus! For whatever Christian world view they might have, country songs tend to be at least as emphatic as the book of Ecclesiastes on the importance of enjoying life. Some lyrics do feature the apparently unattached and single, often against their will, and they enjoy their beer. And there is even a genre of spring break or Caribbean vacation songs kind of in the Jimmy Buffett tradition. I will admit that I delight a little bit too much in twitting my wife that there aren’t country songs about drinking white wine, going to art galleries and museums, and shopping for home decoration!
The Beach Boys, and their chief followers Jan and Dean, were known for the extreme mundaneness of their lyrics. Their music was not unusual – it was not at all like the instrumental surf sound pioneered by Dick Dale. (During the Kennedy administration surfing culture gave rise to not one but two distinct schools of music!) But the lyrics were very mundane. They started out, of course, discussing surfing, but they went on to discuss things that people not living near oceans could relate to, like stock car racing (I think that’s the same as what we now called NASCAR), high school social politics, girls claiming to be going out to use the public library, hanging out on Saturday nights, and other such things. The Beach Boys even did a semi-religious song called “In My Room” in which, forsaking the outdoor scene, they sang about the value of one’s private space for “dreaming…scheming,…..[to]lie awake and pray.” Two years later in the same vein they did one called “When I Grow Up to Be a Man” that speculated on what it would be like to be a middle aged adult. To me, the country music of today, not rock , is the successor to their tradition. If the Beach Boys were to appear today, I think they would, in fact, be classified as country. And from of the sound of some of the stuff I heard, so would the much more recent Jimmy Buffett.