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When times get hard, country music gets happy

A new study reveals how honky-tonk hits respond to changing American fortunes

When times get hard, pop songs get sadder: A 2009 study found that in difficult social and economic moments, Billboard pop songs of the year become “longer, slower, more lyrically meaningful, and in more sober keys.”

But when Coastal Carolina University researchers Jason T. Eastman and Terry F. Pettijohn II (who had also worked on the pop study) decided to investigate country hits instead, they found that the effect of hard times in that genre is nearly the opposite. Eastman and Pettijohn examined the Billboard Country Song of the Year from 1946 to 2008. Using what they call the General Hard Times Measure (GHTM), which factors in such variables as the birth rate and suicide rate as well as unemployment and the consumer price index, they found that in tough times, country hits had more positive lyrics, faster tempos, and more major chords. The singers also tended to be older and were more likely to be female.

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Why is country music different? It has a distinct audience, the researchers note. Unlike the broad middle-class listenership for pop music, country music “remains firmly grounded in the cultural traditions of poor, usually southern, rural, working-poor, and working-class Whites,” they write. They speculate that this group might be more likely to look for catharsis from their music—a moment of fast, happy, major-key escapism from tough times, rather than a somber reflection of them. Here, Jason Eastman points out some highlights and lowlights in country-music economics.

(View an interactive version of this timeline here.)

1951

The ten years after World War II were good times for America, yet country music was dominated by slower songs with many non-major chords. Hank Williams, whose name is synonymous with songs of heartache, had three songs of the year, including 1951’s “Cold, Cold Heart.”

1959

The GHTM shows the first cracks in postwar prosperity. Meanwhile, Johnny Horton charted with one of the first happy-sounding songs to be the Billboard Country Song of the Year: “The Battle of New Orleans.” An upbeat tempo and major chords reinforce triumphant lyrics.

1968

In a pivotal year that included the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, the country’s uncertainty was captured by Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” which has an upbeat tempo but incorporates nonmajor chords and negative lyrics.

1976

A country still scarred by Watergate and the Vietnam war began to experience the effects of recession and the transition of blue-collar labor overseas. C.W. McCall’s upbeat working-man’s anthem “Convoy” uses major chords and has positive lyrics about challenging corrupt authority figures.

1983

Though the 1980s were high times for some, the GHTM identifies this as a hard year in a decade of growing inequality, and before a major push to suppress crime. Shelly West’s “Jose Cuervo” is upbeat and uses happy-sounding chords to reinforce lyrics expressing fond memories of a night drinking.

1993

Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee” is upbeat, uses major chords, and has overwhelmingly positive lyrics rooted in local community. According to the indicators we used, this is the happiest-sounding song in the sample. Fittingly, it comes in the worst year identified by the GHTM, as a pre-boom U.S. regarded a new president with uncertainty.

1999

With the economy improving steadily and the United States at peace, the country song of the year was Lonestar’s “Amazed”: somber sounding, with a moderate tempo and non-major chords, although generally positive in its lyrics.

2002

The GHTM captures the post-9/11 economic slowdown. While Kenny Chesney’s “The Good Stuff” is only moderate in tempo, it uses mostly major chords and has positive lyrics about choosing love over the bottle.

For the complete interactive version of this story, click here.

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