- The Washington Times - Friday, May 15, 2009

NASHVILLE, Tenn. | Recession? What recession?

Despite the sour economy, radio has been remarkably free of songs about tough times. The top songs from this week’s Billboard’s Hot 100 are heavy with dance tracks by the Black Eyed Peas, Lady GaGa and Flo Rida.

“I think people are partying on,” says Silvio Pietroluongo, director of charts for Billboard magazine.

He couldn’t think of a single song about the nation’s economic woes in pop, rock or R&B.;

Country music, however, seems the lone exception. John Rich’s blue-collar anthem “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” peaked at No. 12 last month, and a couple of other songs about the economy are getting attention.

In “Red White and Pink Slip Blues,” Hank Williams Jr. sings about a mill foreman who loses his job and is about to lose his house and his pickup, too.

“I paid my bills, I paid my dues. I paid my share of taxes, too. Now I can’t buy my baby shoes,” Mr. Williams growls.

The title track to Phil Vassar’s latest album, “Prayer of a Common Man,” is more a plea for help than an angry rail. Mr. Vassar sings over gentle piano riffs about being mortgaged to the hilt and feeling like he’s sinking in sand.

“I’ve got people counting on me. And I’m tired that’s all. I’m up against the wall. Lord hear me when I call,” he sings.

Mr. Vassar came up with the idea after seeing shuttered factories in his Virginia hometown. The song was never released as a single, but some radio stations picked up on it anyway.

“I always like to brag on country music because I think it’s such a lyric-driven genre,” Mr. Vassar says. “It’s real. Not that pop and rock can’t be, or even rap. They talk about issues, too. But there’s something about country; it’s simply put.”

Mr. Rich, half of the hit duo Big & Rich, wrote and recorded his song in a fit of outrage over corporate bailouts. An old school country tune with fiddle and steel guitar, it sounds spontaneous and urgent: “Because in the real world they’re shutting Detroit down. While the boss man takes his bonus pay and jets on outta town,” he sings.

“My own frustrations with what’s going on are in that song, and it just so happens that a lot of people feel the same way I do,” Mr. Rich said recently.

With its populist leanings, country music has long been fertile ground for songs about economic hardship. In the 1970s, Merle Haggard’s poignant “If We Make It Through December” and Johnny Paycheck’s rebellious “Take This Job and Shove It” captured the plight of the working class. More recently, Brooks & Dunn’s “Hard Workin’ Man” and Alan Jackson’s “Little Man” covered similar ground.

“Anything that affects the common man or middle-America values translates itself better to country music,” Mr. Pietroluongo says. “The sensibilities of country music allows that type of sentiment to come through rather than in pop, rock or R&B.;”

But some believe the lines between musical genres have become so blurred that country isn’t as topical as it once was.

“We’ve moved away from it to some degree because I think the industry has a different vision of who we are,” says John Hart, president of Bullseye Marketing Research in Nashville, which tests songs for radio appeal. “They’ve targeted younger people, so they tend not to go down that road.”

Still, as Mr. Rich’s success shows, country’s tradition of speaking out is far from dead. He argues that it’s the reason why country “trumps” other genres.

“Our radio stations, our artists, our songwriters — we are allowed to talk about anything we want to,” Mr. Rich says. “Country can talk about things that other stations won’t talk about because they (other stations) say, ‘My audience doesn’t want to hear anything but party music,’ or ‘They don’t want to hear anything that rocks too hard.’

“Country music doesn’t have that. It’s rock to party to patriotic to ‘Shuttin’ Detroit Down.’”

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