Gone Country: When country sings about technology, is it adding to the ‘Noise’?

Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.

Call to Arms,” the closing song on Sturgill Simpson’s latest album “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” finds the alt-country star in angry form. The five-minute bombast is part political rant, part anti-technology screed, presented as words of wisdom to his newborn son, who inspired the album. The end of the song packs the biggest punch, when Simpson is speaking about technology and its place in the world:

“Nobody’s looking up to care about a drone
All too busy looking down at our phone
Our ego’s begging for food like a dog from our feed
Refreshing obsessively until our eyes start to bleed
They serve up distractions and we eat them with fries
Until the bombs fall out of our f—ing skies.”

Simpson isn’t the first country artist to lament the impersonal nature of technology and how it affects people. It’s a well-worn trope, especially in a genre that espouses down-home values. Other artists have recently released songs dealing with this subject matter, too.

Kenny Chesney’s “Noise,” his latest single, is the biggest “statement” song he’s made in a while (maybe ever?). With “Noise,” Chesney steps away from his role as the Next Jimmy Buffett to wax nostalgic about a time when talking heads weren’t all over the TV:

“Twenty-four hour television, get so loud that no one listens
Sex and money and politicians talk, talk, talk
But there really ain’t no conversation
Ain’t nothing left to the imagination
Trapped in our phones and we can’t make it stop, stop.”

Kenny Chesney at Austin360 Amphitheater, April 5, 2013. / Photo by Tammy Perez for the American-Statesman

Kenny Chesney at Austin360 Amphitheater, April 5, 2013. / Photo by Tammy Perez for the American-Statesman

Want more? Miranda Lambert’s “Automatic” touches on how easy it is to speak your mind publicly these days:

“If you had something to say
You’d write it on a piece of paper
Then you put a stamp on it
And they’d get it three days later.”

 And then there’s maybe the King of All Anti-Technology songs in country, Hank Williams, Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive,” which got its own Y2K remake:

“Computer man says it’s the end of time
December 31st nineteen ninety-nine
People buyin’ up Army surplus things
Afraid of what the New Year will bring
I live back in the woods you see
Y2K don’t mean a thing to me
I’ve got a shotgun, a rifle
And a four wheel drive
A country boy can survive
Country folks can survive.”

Again, all of these songs are carrying on a country music tradition of enforcing old-school values. And many of them are hits— “Automatic” peaked at No. 3 on Billboard’s U.S. Country Airplay chart in 2014, the original version of “Country Boy” peaked at No. 2 on that chart in 1982 and “Noise” is currently  at No. 14 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. It’s too early to see how well “Call to Arms” will do, but it’s doubtful it will get played on radio.

But almost none of the above mentioned songs (and many of the others in the genre that talk about how great the old days were) feature an actual call to action. With the exception of “Call to Arms,” all of those songs simply present a problem— we’re too wrapped up in the hustle and bustle of the world to actually pay attention to what’s right in front of us— yet no solution. And even the call to arms in “Call to Arms” is a simple “The bulls—‘s got to go!” at the end of the song.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

At least one artist is trying to use the ever-changing ebb and flow of technology as a creative stimulant.

Robert Earl Keen, while thinking about how easy it is for audiences to get distracted while playing live, has decided to try out a series of short, two-minute songs that were written in 30-minute sessions.

Eric Church pulled a Beyonce last November when he quietly released a whole album online and in the mail exclusively to his fans, then released the physical copies to the rest of the market. Sure, he could’ve done that years ago without the Internet, but the album wouldn’t have gotten as much word of mouth without that medium.

And for as much as Luke Bryan sings about partying in corn fields, he used every bit of technological marketing he could get his hands on to promote “Kill the Lights,” including a Tinder promotion and a Facebook video with Jason Derulo.

Now, there are some country songs that celebrate how far we’ve advanced technically. Brad Paisley has always leaned towards the more progressive side with his embrace of tech. See: “Online,” “Welcome to the Future,” “Southern Comfort Zone.”

Minus Paisley’s examples, though, most of the songs written about technology in country music paint it in a negative light, with no real solution as to how to fix it, or how to become a better person.

Diagnosing the problem isn’t the same as solving it.

And until more artists start to come up with a call to action, all of those songs will just add to the noise.

Other News:

-Prince died today at the age of 57. Here’s how some country music stars reacted to the pop star’s passing.

-Zac Brown last week admitted he was at a Florida hotel room when police raided it for drugs. Brown wasn’t arrested, but did issue an apology for being at the wrong place at the wrong time.

-Sturgill Simpson could be on his way to having the best-selling album across all genres next week when one week totals are released for “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth,” according to Saving Country Music.

-Meanwhile, on the opposite end of the sale spectrum, Chase Rice’s sex jam “Whisper” stalled at No. 56 on the charts this week. His weird apology letter to fans about the song probably didn’t help.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or by email: jharris@statesman.com.


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