In addition to inspiring heated debates between fans, impassioned panel discussions at radio conventions and jokes with punchlines involving pickup trucks, hound dogs and mama, the question of “What is country music?” long ago launched its own musical subgenre: Songs about what is, and what most certainly isn’t, country music.
Herein, 10 songs about country’s evergreen identity crisis.
LORETTA LYNN, “YOU’RE LOOKIN AT COUNTRY” (1971)
Among the earliest songs to proclaim its rural realness was Lynn’s 1971 single, with its unrepentant refrain, “When you’re lookin’ at me / You’re lookin’ at country.” That song arrived during Nashville’s “Countrypolitan” era, when many producers and musicians were striving to expand the genre’s reach beyond its blue-collar base by using orchestral accompaniment, background choirs and other trappings of pop music.
JOHN DENVER, “THANK GOD I’M A COUNTRY BOY” (1975)
The folk musician turned pop-rock star proto-rapped his country bona fides on the hit song: “Well life on the farm is kinda laid back / Ain’t much an old country boy like me can’t hack / It’s early to rise / Early in the sack / Thank God I’m a country boy,” sang the man who often flew in the Lear Jet he named WindStar 1 from city to city while on tour.
WAYLON JENNINGS, “ARE YOU SURE HANK DONE IT THIS WAY” (1975)
One of the original outlaws delivered a classic of the genre, as he wondered whether Nashville’s commercial success was coming at the expense of innovation: “Lord it’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar / Where do we take it from here? / Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars / It’s been the same way for years / We need a change.”
BARBARA MANDRELL, “I WAS COUNTRY WHEN COUNTRY WASN’T COOL” (1981)
Mandrell responded to the flurry of interest in country music among new audiences sparked by the 1980 film “Urban Cowboy,” which moved countless bar owners across the country to install bull-riding machines and triggered explosive sales of Stetsons and Tony Lama boots to city slickers. “I was listenin’ to the Opry / When all of my friends were diggin’ rock ‘n’ roll and Rhythm & Blues / I was country, when country wasn’t cool,” her No. 1 duet with George Jones asserted.
GEORGE JONES, “WHO’S GONNA FILL THEIR SHOES” (1985)
Jones got into the act on his own with a song that lamented the fading of country superstars from the radio airwaves as a new crop of country stars emerged: “There will never be another Red-Headed Stranger / A Man in Black and Folsom Prison Blues / The Okie From Muskogee / Or Hello Darling / Lord, I wonder, who’s gonna fill their shoes?,” alluding to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard and Conway Twitty, respectively, before adding a nod to Grand Ole Opry stalwart Roy Acuff: “Who’s gonna play the Opry / And the Wabash Cannonball?”
GEORGE STRAIT AND ALAN JACKSON, “MURDER ON MUSIC ROW” (2000)
Neo-traditionalists Strait and Jackson walked the knife’s edge with their version of a lament for the evisceration of traditional country music from the airwaves at the dawn of the new millennium. “For the steel guitars no longer cry and fiddles barely play / But drums and rock ‘n’ roll guitars are mixed up in your face / Old Hank wouldn’t have a chance on today’s radio / Since they committed murder down on Music Row.”
DIXIE CHICKS, “LONG TIME GONE” (2002)
The Dixie Chicks reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart with their hit, which measured the work of some of the Chicks’ peers against that of their celebrated predecessors. Guess who fell short: “Now they sound tired but they don’t sound Haggard / They’ve got money but they don’t have Cash / They got Junior but they don’t have Hank / I think, I think, I think, the rest is / A long time gone.”
EASTON CORBIN, “A LITTLE MORE COUNTRY THAN THAT” (2009)
Name-checking country greats from the past has become a rite of passage for aspiring country artists, whether Taylor Swift’s first hit single “Tim McGraw” in 2006 or Corbin’s song, in which he invokes the name and sound of perhaps country’s most celebrated singer and songwriter, Hank Williams: “Think of a Hank song from days gone / With a steel ride that’s so strong / It sends chills up your back / I’m a little more country than that.”
BRAD PAISLEY, “THIS IS COUNTRY MUSIC” (2011)
Paisley and co-writer Chris Dubois crafted a virtual public service announcement saluting their genre in his 2011 hit that premiered at the annual CMA Awards: “Well you’re not supposed to say the word ‘cancer’ in a song / And tellin’ folks Jesus is the answer, can rub ‘em wrong / It ain’t hip to sing about tractors, trucks / Little towns, or mama, yeah that might be true / But this is country music and we do.”
CHRIS YOUNG, “RAISED ON COUNTRY” (2019)
Over the last decade, hardly a week goes by without another addition to the self-referential canon, and the trend shows no sign of abating. Among the latest is Young’s top 10 hit from earlier this year: “I was raised on Merle, raised on Willie / Got my honky-tonk attitude from Joe Diffie / Daddy did too, it’s family tradition / If someone cranks it up, you can’t help but listen / My upbringing sounds like George Strait singing / And I gotta give props to the radio / ’Cause if you know me, I was raised on country.”