Introducing the Country Cringe Hall of Fame
"Undivided," "Accidental Racist," and the very worst that country music has to offer
I didn’t watch the inauguration last week, but I’m told that country music legend Tim McGraw debuted a new song about unity with one of the dudes from the boat-party country act Florida Georgia Line.
McGraw got some kudos from the centrist media for lending support to the peaceful transfer of power, so I decided to look up the song, which is called “Undivided.”
Turns out it sucks.
The song does more whitewashing than a work of founding-fathers fan fiction, and it’s drenched in enough sap to make you choke. We are witnessing schlock at levels not seen since “Heal the World.”
Now, I don’t mean to beat up too much on Tim McGraw, who has earned his bona fides elsewhere. He stands in a long tradition of country artists taking a swing and a miss on a song about “the issues.”
So in the spirit of fairness and healing, I’ve started to compile a Country Cringe Hall of Fame. Here are my first inductees:
“Undivided” - Tim McGraw and Tyler Hubbard (2021)
The song, written by Florida Georgia Line dudebro Tyler Hubbard, starts with McGraw singing a maudlin verse about a boy named Billy who got picked on in school. Eventually Hubbard jumps on the track with a half-cocked rap about moderation:
You either go to church or you're gonna go to Hell
Get a job and work or you're gonna go to jail
I just kinda wish we didn't think like that
Why's it gotta be all white or all black?
The binaries presented here are 1) eternal salvation and damnation, and 2) employment or … debtor’s prison (?). This song was explicitly written to bridge a modern political divide, but Mr. Hubbard decided to go hard on the hot-button issues of Dickensian England for some reason.
Oh no oh lord oh no, here comes the chorus:
I think it's time to come together, you and I can make a change
Maybe we can make a difference, make the world a better place
Look around and love somebody, we've been hateful long enough
Let the good Lord reunite us 'til this country that we love's
I’m not against these sentiments per se, but I’ve read enough cynical appeals to unity to know that promoting unity without justice allows powerful people to skate free of consequences for their actions.
These guys debuted their song two weeks after the outgoing president’s militiamen stormed the U.S. Capitol and tried to overturn an election. If we skip straight to the hand-holding without even making Donald Trump and Ted Cruz sweat a little, you can be sure that harebrained fascist putsches will become a recurring feature of our country’s political life.
We're all the same to God
No matter what, we get His love
I'm tired of lookin' left or right
So I'm just lookin' up
Tim and Tyler aren’t the first people to pull this rhetorical dodge. If you went to a white evangelical church on a recent Sunday, there’s a good chance the pastor tried to paper over the conflict too.
Depoliticizing the moment sounds nice as long as your life is in no way affected by politics. “Left or right” is not a superficial division, and I’m deeply skeptical of anyone who pretends otherwise.
“Accidental Racist” - Brad Paisley and LL Cool J (2013)
Cast your memory back to the year 2013. Barack Obama was well into his second term in office, and it looked like we had this racism thing licked. As if to put a final nail in the coffin, country superstar Brad Paisley went into a recording studio with LL Cool J to record the “Ebony and Ivory” of their generation, a song called “Accidental Racist.”
The song’s narrator starts off by pleading ignorance when a Starbucks barista takes offense at the Confederate flag on his Lynyrd Skynyrd T-shirt.
“I’m just a white man comin’ to you from the southland,” he whines.
And it ain't like you and me can re-write history
Our generation didn't start this nation
We're still pickin' up the pieces, walkin' on eggshells, fightin' over yesterday
And caught between southern pride and southern blame
The song defies parody. It goes on for nearly six minutes, and it includes some of the most dumbfounding false equivalencies in rap history delivered by Mr. Ladies Love Cool James:
If you don’t judge my do-rag, I won’t judge your red flag …
If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains.
“Drunk Girl” - Chris Janson (2017)
Kathryn Schulz summed this one up in The New Yorker: “Seldom has a musical creation been so well-intentioned yet so wrongheaded; leave it to country, I thought, to gussy up in soulful piano chords and self-satisfaction a P.S.A. about not raping women.”
This is the chorus:
Take a drunk girl home
Let her sleep all alone
Leave her keys on the counter, your number by the phone
Pick up her life she threw on the floor
Leave the hall lights on, walk out and lock the door
That's how she knows the difference between a boy and man
Take a drunk girl home
Credit goes to my wife, a lifelong country fan, for bringing this one to my attention. We pulled up the video on our TV one night after our kids were in bed and spent the next 4 minutes cussing at the screen.
What a depressing indictment of our standards for male sexual conduct! The bar is on the floor and this dude is patting himself on the back for clearing it. We’re not talking about the difference between the behavior of “a boy and a man” here; we’re talking about the difference between a crime and a consensual act.
According to a “Behind the Song” video Janson released on YouTube, his co-writer Tom Douglas originally wrote the line “Take a drunk girl home” for a commencement speech at his son’s high school graduation, a detail that somehow makes the song a little grimmer.
The explanatory video exists in a genre of its own. It purports to be an under-the-hood songwriting workshop, but it comes across like a non-apology.
“For any of you watching out there, I just appreciate the support. We all do,” Janson says at the end. “And just know that it came from a real place, and it came from a real good place.”
Did it, Chris? Did it really???
“Indian Outlaw” - Tim McGraw (1994)
There are ‘90s songs that don’t hold up anymore, and then there’s “Indian Outlaw.” Even at the time of its release, one Billboard reviewer described it as “either one of the catchiest or one of the stupidest songs ever written."
I know I said I wouldn’t pick on Tim McGraw too much, but come on:
You can find me in my wigwam
I'll be beatin' on my tom-tom
Pull out the pipe and smoke you some
Hey and pass it around
Naturally some Native American community leaders took offense at McGraw rattling off Hollywood stereotypes in a song for white people to square dance to. A few radio stations took it off the air, but it climbed the charts anyway.
McGraw, for his part, stood his ground and raked in the money.
“It happens in country music every day,” he told the L.A. Times. “I see the entertainment value in it. I understand (the Native Americans’) right to be upset, but my personality doesn’t go along with that.”
WaBun-Inini, a representative of the American Indian Movement, was not amused.
“I have no doubt that the intentions were not to be offensive,” he said. “But if somebody told me something I did was offensive, I would apologize and not do it anymore. Now the ones who are doing the offending try to dictate to us what should be acceptable. That’s boorish arrogance.”
“Brown Chicken Brown Cow” - Trace Adkins (2010)
Look, one of the things I like about country music is when artists make a joke at their own expense. There’s something endearing about a bemulleted Toby Keith popping Viagras at the bar and talking trash about his own golf game.
Trace Adkins, a man who looks like a hunky trucker with a heart of gold, has done his fair share of corn-dog country songs over the years, and he usually plays the part well. “Brown Chicken Brown Cow” is not his finest moment.
The premise of the song is that “brown chicken brown cow” sounds kind of like “bow chicka bow wow,” and in case you don’t catch the subtle innuendo, the music video features some off-brand Muppets canoodling in a barn.
Love you, Trace, but this ain’t it. I’m gonna go listen to “Every Light in the House” to get my head right.
“Corn Star” - Craig Morgan (2012)
Corn Star. The name of the song … is Corn Star.
I realize I’m being a negative Nancy, so to make it up to you, here are a few things I actually enjoyed this week:
This short video of Werner Herzog talking about skateboarding.
This issue of Lyz Lenz’s newsletter Men Yell At Me, in which Lyz goes to a gun show and a church service the weekend after the Capitol riot.
This episode of the Comfort Monk podcast featuring Thom Wasluck of the band Planning for Burial talking about songwriting, niche metal scenes, and heavy amplifiers.
This essay by Elvia Wilk in the L.A. Review of Books about exercise routines, the discipline of writing, climate collapse, and the loss of a sense of purpose during quarantine. She wrote an excellent sci-fi novel called Oval that got me hooked on her writing, and now I’ll read anything she has to say.