Cartoon by Homer Davenport from The Country Boy, 1910. Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons.
To be or not to be a country boy? To my ear, this has always been one of the animating questions in country music. In “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” (1974), John Denver, for instance, revels in the persona. From the picture he sketches, it’s not hard to see why. Country boys, Denver says, have all they need: a warm bed, good work, regular meals, fiddle music. The life of a country boy, he sings, “ain’t nothing but a funny, funny riddle,” and who doesn’t like a good laugh?
For Hank Williams Jr., however, this country boy business isn’t something to joke about. In “A Country Boy Can Survive” (1981), he says the rivers are drying up and the stock market is anybody’s guess and the world, as a general rule, is going to hell and if you knew what was good for you, you’d be a country boy, too, because in the end only country boys—the ones “raised on shotguns,” the ones who know “how to skin a buck” and “plow a field all day long”—will make it out alive.
Loretta Lynn could do without Hank Jr.’s heated rhetoric, but as she sings in “You’re Lookin’ at Country” (1971), “this country girl would walk a country mile / to find her a good ole slow-talking country boy.” Then, so as to underline her preference, she repeats, “I said a country boy.” Not just any country boy will do. Drawl aside, Loretta makes plain she wants a workhorse with a worn shovel who, in exchange for a tour around the farm, will “show me a wedding band.”
It’s doubtful Lynn’s narrator would have gone for the type Johnny Cash sings about on his first album, Johnny Cash with His Hot and Blue Guitar!—not that Cash’s country boy would care. He has “no ills,” “no bills,” “no shoes,” “no blues.” A country boy’s greatest privilege, Cash’s “Country Boy” (1957) suggests, is his ignorance of the finer things. In part, he’s happy with his “shaggy dog,” fried fish, and “morning dew” because he hasn’t been exposed to much besides.
Having little, Cash says, country boys have “a lot to lose.” Cash, who by this stage in his life had traded Arkansas fields for a Memphis recording studio, spends a lot of time wishing he could get back to being a country boy, but his hot-and-blue guitar says otherwise. The truth is you couldn’t go back if you wanted to, but would you go back even if you could? Read More