Gone Country: Here’s to the farmer

Wednesday was National Farmer’s Day, when America celebrates the hardworking men and women who harvest, grow and distribute much of the food and crops that land on our tables.

One of the biggest supporters of America’s farmers is country star and reigning Country Music Association Entertainer of the Year Luke Bryan. Since 2009, Bryan has put on a two-week “Farm Tour” concert series at the beginning of October. At each location (all farms), Bryan uses proceeds from that show’s ticket sales to go towards scholarships to the closest nearby college for children of farmers. He knows a thing or two about farming, as well. Bryan’s father was a peanut farmer in Georgia.

FILE - In this June 12, 2016 file photo, Luke Bryan performs at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tenn. The country singer is in currently performing in his Farm Tour, where he brings concerts to working farms in small agriculturally-focused communities and cities throughout the South and Midwest. (Photo by Al Wagner/Invision/AP, File)

In this June 12, 2016 file photo, Luke Bryan performs at the CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tenn. The country singer is in currently performing in his Farm Tour, where he brings concerts to working farms in small agriculturally-focused communities and cities throughout the South and Midwest. (Photo by Al Wagner/Invision/AP, File)

Say what you want about the man’s music and his Bro-country tendencies, but Bryan has quietly become one of country music’s most philanthropic stars. In addition to the Farm Tour, he also regularly donates to the City of Hope, an HIV/AIDS research and treatment institution; the TJ Martell Foundation, an AIDS, leukemia and cancer research organization; and The Red Cross.

“We grant some scholarships to kids from an agricultural background, and we try to be nice to our farmers that are our partners, and we develop relationships with them through the years,” Bryan said in a promotional video for this year’s Farm Tour.

This year, Bryan released an EP in advance of the Farm Tour, called “Here’s To The Farmer.” The five-song collection is the first EP in support of the tour. It features a great, heartfelt anthem for farmers (the song that bears the album’s title), but it also features a grave misstep akin to “Kick the Dust Up.”

“Love Me In A Field” is everything that’s wrong with country music in general, and country music about farming in specific.

In the song, Bryan sings about taking his paramour out to the farm, “get[ting] tangled in the tassels of some ten foot corn” and “tear[ing] our t-shirts in the cotton patch behind the barn.”

That’s not economically feasible! No self-respecting farmer would subject their crops to the possible contamination that may result from human sexual activity out in the cornfield! ( Not to mention, tearing your presumably cotton t-shirts in the midst of a cotton patch seems counter-productive.)

Plus, what farmer’s got time for all that? It’s October, Luke, it’s time to harvest and store and sell all that corn. All that cornfield lovin’ is a fantasy for someone who’s never been on a farm before.

Come to think of it, this song is probably what suburban country fans think living on a farm is like. Grow some crops, pray for rain, take your lady out in the field for a good ol’ time. Most modern, mainstream country music songs fail on this front, though. Bro-country and the rest of its ilk are more than happy to sing about praising the farmer and cash in on the homespun tropes of praying for rain and all the stereotypes of the farmer’s wife and farmer’s daughter. Rain is a good thing for farmers, but it’s a great thing for country singers.

At one time, we had the hard-hitting truths of “Song of the South.” Now, we have the escapism of “Love Me In A Field” and “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” And there’s a place for escapism in all forms of music, but when most of the songs become escapism, written by artists who are singing about something they’ve never experienced in a genre that commands authenticity, it becomes a problem.

Most country songs about farming aren’t made for farmers. They’re made for people who like the romantic idea of farming.

So, to find out what an actual tiller of the land thinks about his occupation being represented in song, I interviewed a former farmer.

My grandfather, Bill Harris, helped run a 35-acre cabbage farm for decades in East Tennessee. Along with his brother and the rest of the family, he helped to plant, harvest, load, transport and sell every head of cabbage that came across their land until I was a teenager.

The cabbage shed where generations of Daytonians bagged and boxed cabbage for Colonel and Bill Harris. (Photo: Ryan Harris. Used with permission.)

The cabbage shed where generations of Daytonians bagged and boxed cabbage for Colonel and Bill Harris. (Photo: Ryan Harris. Used with permission.)

Many people in town worked for my grandfather or my great uncle Colonel (yes, that’s his real first name; no, he’s never been in the Army) in the cabbage fields at one point, including my parents, my brother and me. And, while it was rewarding work, my grandfather isn’t disillusioned about how grueling the work was.

“It’s work, but it’s good work, especially when we had good workers in the field and in the shed,” Harris said. “We always had a lot of help, and a lot of the kids that worked for us went on to do big things. We’ve got lawyers, businessmen, judges, Army officers.”

The cabbage farm hasn’t been operational for about eight years now, but my grandfather and his brother still raise cattle, bale hay and grow vegetables. Now retired from farming, “Mr. Bill,” as he’s known to hundreds of people around Rhea County, Tenn. (in addition to working the cabbage fields, my grandfather was also a school bus driver, police officer and security guard. He now delivers papers for the Rhea Herald-News in Dayton, Tenn.) mostly tends to his garden at home, but his other passion is music. Specifically, country music.

“I don’t pay much attention to the country music on the radio now. Usually I’ll just listen to my Gospel CDs in the car or I’ll find the country station that plays the standards,” he said of today’s country music.

But what about country songs about farming?

“I think it’s good to talk about it, and if those artists really have been out there every day working in the fields and they write a song about that, then that’s great,” he said. “But also, I don’t think you should say you’ve done things that you didn’t do, but I also know some people like those songs [sung by people who have never farmed] and that’s fine. Everybody’s got their own opinion.”

Basically, the man likes authenticity. That’s why he listens to Gospel and country standards.

I didn’t have time to interview the rest of the people who worked in the cabbage fields with my grandfather (he’s one of nine children), but I think I stand on a pretty sturdy limb when I say his musical taste is about the same as the rest of his family. And I guarantee you he didn’t get up to the shenanigans mentioned in “Love Me In A Field.” I come from modest stock.

Luke Bryan’s “Farm Tour” is a great thing for farmers in America, and the money raised is definitely needed. But somewhere between Alabama’s “Song of the South” and Byan’s “Love Me In A Field,” mainstream country music lost sight of what it means to be a farmer in America. Escapism is all well and good, but too much chaff makes for a bad crop.

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.

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


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