d.b.a. Songwriters: “Why Are You Writing Country Songs?”

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Videos by American Songwriter

(Kenny Chesney and his sexy tractor)

I did a song evaluation for a client yesterday on a song that hit me as ‘big band’. I heard a swing beat, a sultry Frank Sinatra style vocal, horn stabs, and an A B A song structure. Thus, I reviewed it as a big band song. It was quite good. Being a jazz and big band enthusiast from way back, I offered some musical suggestions, such as adding more transitional chords (diminished chords between 1 and 2 minor, etc.), and perhaps dressing up the turnarounds a little, etc. She told me she was dismayed that I’d interpreted it as a big band song. She then let the cat out of the bag by telling me she’d intentionally written this song as a country shuffle because there’s not much of a market for big band music these days. She added, “folks just don’t know what they are missing.”

I agree. Naturally. But I realized it was another case of someone taking the style of music they feel drawn to, and attempting to make it ‘country’ so they can have a chance at getting a cut on a contemporary country artist. I’m sure that’s been done many times with success, and I myself, as well as many of you, have tried on numerous occasions to pull a rock, R&B, or blues tune into the country domain.

The reason we do this is obvious. Country music seems to be just about the last genre where a songwriter can get a song cut by someone other than him or herself. Sure, there are the Diane Warrens of the world, but most would agree that the pop/rock/R&B and rap worlds are becoming more and more comprised of artists who do their own writing. Of course this is a distinct trend in country music as well, but there are still country artists who look for songs from writers when putting out a CD. So why not try, right? No problem.

The writer went on to say that she especially appreciated my comment that the lyric was straightforward, focused, to the point, and easy to understand. She was grateful that I’d pointed that out, and used several contemporary country songs as examples of lyrics that she just couldn’t get until she’d seen the video. The first example was “Honky Tonk Badonka Donk.” I’m not exactly sure about the official definition of that word but, for me, just hearing it conjures up a vision of two grapefruits trying to fight their way out of a pillow case.

The other example she gave was “She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy.” I’m not sure what’s difficult to understand there but the mere mention of this song caught my interest for other reasons. There aren’t many songs that I’ve seen raise the ire of so many as this Kenny Chesney staple. There are those that would have you think it doesn’t even qualify to be taken seriously as a song. There are people that absolutely hate that song. But it was a huge hit so, being me, I immediately become interested. Those polarizing songs…gotta love ‘em! And hate ‘em!

My question is this…why do the haters hate this song? Because the song’s not serious enough? It’s too silly? Too hokey? Or could it be that maybe it’s just…too…country? I confess here before you and God that I used to turn my nose up at that song. I thought, “Give me a break! Who wants to hear that nonsense? I’ve got real songs, man! Songs about love! Romance! The meaning of life! World peace! And lots of songs about me!!!” All I could think was all that self-induced profundity, then some silly song about a tractor comes along and makes it on the radio. Is there no justice in this world?

I felt that way until I was driving home one night and a song came on that I didn’t know.

It kicked off with this funky fiddle hook and then proceeded to rock like a big dog. It was Kenny and it sounded like the perfect song for his voice. I had that same feeling after I heard “I’ve Been There, That’s Why I’m Here”; I thought that’s the perfect song for the perfect voice. And man, what a groove that thing had! I was like, “WOW, what is this? This must be new, and it’s not about the beach or reliving high school! How cool!” I absolutely loved it. That is until the chorus came in:

She thinks my tractor’s sexy
It really turns her on
She’s always staring at me
While I’m chuggin along
She likes the way it’s pullin’ while we’re tillin’ up the land
She’s even kind of crazy ’bout my farmer’s tan
She’s the only one who really understands what gets me
She thinks my tractor’s sexy

AHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!!!!! (My wife asked later if that was me she heard screaming from the Belle Meade Kroger parking lot 2 miles away). All I could do was laugh at myself. There I was, caught red-handed absolutely loving that song, and desperately trying to figure out some dignified way to NOT like it, not to mention reconciling the fact that I’d decided to not like it before I’d even really listened to it. I thought, why didn’t I like it in the first place? It’s written well by two fantastic writers, and I love the music. One of the most popular singers of our time is singing it and he did a great job. What’s not to like?

I began to realize that more than anything else it was probably a combination of the song title and my Yankee upbringing. I couldn’t relate and because of that I thought it was worse than silly. What in my urban world could I wrap around the idea of some girl digging my tractor? I hadn’t even really heard it, yet it had become invalid. That is, of course, until I heard it one day when I didn’t know what I was hearing, and actually listened to it. Sure, if I’d heard it and didn’t like the music, or if I thought it was written poorly, or if it was song just like some other hit that had just been out a few months ago by the same artist, yeah, I’d have reason to discount it. But it was none of those things. I loved the music and with me it always starts there.

Now when it comes on I turn it up. I think it’s funny and I love the groove. I can’t get enough of that groove.

Country music is about country living. People who live on farms out in the country have tractors and I’m very grateful for that. My wife served corn, tomatoes, and green beans for dinner last night and it was delicious. A country boy who plows a field to make ends meet totally gets “She Think’s My Tractor’s Sexy”. It’s fun, it’s goofy, it’s silly, and it’s a lot sexier than any of us non-farm boys and girls will ever know. Did you know that some of those tractor cabs have killer stereos, A/C, and big, cushy comfortable seats? (Insert plowing jokes here).

So who the heck am I to think even for a moment that country music should be about something other than tractors? Sure, I’m all about Farm Aid when it comes on. The romance of it all…it’s a beautiful thing, isn’t it? Yeah, support our national heritage! The heartland of the U.S.A is what this country was built on! God bless the farmers! Yeah, I’m down with that, especially when I’m listening to Neil Young rock out about the land of the free. But when it’s over and I head out to pick up some ground beef and a dozen ears of corn, I’ll turn up my nose when a song comes on that’s about farmers doing life.

So, why is it that I want to write country music?

I shouldn’t have to remind myself that not being a farm boy doesn’t make the music that I grew up on better or worse, more or less important, or more or less valid than anyone else’s brand of music. It’s not an easy thing to admit in this column that there are times that I’ve looked down my nose on songs that are written about good ol’ boys and girls doing life outside the city for reasons other than a lack of musical quality. And I’m a songwriter who lives in Nashville. Of course there are songs that are just bad, and that goes for all genres. But not being raised in the country already puts me at a disadvantage as a supposed writer of country music. If I actually look down on music that’s geared toward that audience I probably won’t have a row to hoe when it comes to getting a cut. (Sorry.)

Because of this recent experience I’ve found myself becoming much more open-minded as a writer. I’ve learned to dig stuff, or at least appreciate stuff I hadn’t appreciated before, and songs that I previously wrote off are getting a second listen. But make no mistake…I still have to dig the music. If I don’t like the music, the deal’s off, I don’t care what it’s about. The exact same thing happened to me with “Achy Breaky Heart.” I hated that song until one night I was driving and it came on and I wasn’t really listening to the words…I was just grooving on the groove. I thought ‘what a killer tune!’ until the hook. Then that snob factor kicked in and I wondered if I should allow my self to like it. After all, ‘true’ songwriters aren’t allowed to like “Achy Breaky Heart,” right? What a bunch of crap. That song really had a legitimate reason for being such a smash with the line dancers. It was a killer dance hit…another case of an unstoppable groove carrying the day. But wow, try to find a single songwriter who will say that’s a good song.

“She Thinks My Tractor’s Sexy” really does rock. It’s just a great song. It has a killer, funky, delta bluesy-style fiddle hook in it, an infections melody, an amusing chorus, and the groove is just unstoppable. It’s everything me and my snobby writer friends would love to say we’d written whether we want to admit it or not.

Is it a song that will cure cancer and save the whales and bring world peace? No. But neither will “Wind Beneath my Wings”, “A Day in a Life”, or “Free Bird” (??). So let it rock. It’s just a song!

I’m glad this happened. It made me realize I probably shouldn’t be trying to write country music if I discount a song like “She Thinks My Tractors Sexy” because it’s just a silly song about a girl who thinks some farmer boy’s tractor is a turn on. Isn’t that pretty much what country music is about if you’re the guy in the cab or the gal with the crush who’s watching him while leaning against the gate in the Daisy Dukes? Country music is widely assumed to be about people who live and breath country life. It’s become about a lot of other stuff to, much to the traditional country purist’s chagrin. There are those country purists who probably think songs like “Tractor” represent the downfall of country music as we once knew it. But times change in all genres and that’s the way it is. Regardless of how pure you are in your country music tastes, this song is first and foremost about life in rural America…and, like it or not, that makes it country. Period. The cool thing is even those of us who don’t live on a farm can dig country music. It’s out there for all of us. But who are we as non-country people to discount music that speaks to those who are?

Write what you love. If you love rock, write rock. If you love big band, write big band. If you like country music but you were raised on big band, sure why not try and re-sculpt that Glenn Miller like thing into something Alan Jackson might dig. No harm in trying, right? But if it’s the country part of country music that’s the part you don’t like…well, maybe you shouldn’t be trying to write songs to pitch in Nashville.

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Bill Renfrew has an extensive background in teaching songwriting and evaluating songs, and has years of professional experience consulting on songwriting and song rewriting, which he does through his website. He owns and operates Write THIS Music, an independent music publishing company, and Bombshelter Recording Studio, both of which are located in Nashville, TN. For more Renfrew, check out Writethismusic.com.

7 Comments

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  1. As a fan of country music (who grew up in a farming community) I really enjoyed your article. I reminded me to not judge songs so quickly.

    I also thought of this quote by Waylon Jennings when I was reading your article: “Country music isn’t a guitar, it isn’t a banjo, it isn’t a melody, it isn’t a lyric. It’s a feeling.”

    thanks!

  2. I grew up in the LA suburbs – but always loved the stories in country music – Ode to Billie Joe, The Green, Green Grass of Home, etc…. Thirteen years ago, I moved to a tiny cowboy town and write songs about the people here and the place I now call “home.”
    You never know where the music will take you. 😉

  3. Excellent article, and some really excellent points!

    I think you’re so right.

    Don’t we as songwriters want to write for our audience’s enjoyment as much as we want to write for our own satisfaction? Isn’t it up to us to speak to the listener in a language that they not only understand but also identify with?

    I also think your point about the music is so so right. A well written song should be well done lyrically and musically.

    Thank you for a wonderful and inspiring read.

  4. The funny thing is, this song was inspired by a John Deere “lawn” tractor” and the Title was cooked up because they wanted something that NO ONE HAS EVER TITLED A SONG BEFORE. Or so the co-write, Jim Collins, told in the round one night at the Bluebird. He grew up on a farm but lives in suburbs of Nashville now but hangs on to the farm thing a little bit with his big John Deere lawn tractor. . He and his co-writer had just recently had a run of songs that they had to change the titles on because they were already out there so they said, let’s write a song about something that NO ONE HAS POSSIBLY written about before or used this title. Jim was also co-writer on Big Green Tractor.

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