In Country Music, It’s All Relatives

Brad Paisley’s “He Didn’t Have to Be,” a tribute to a loving stepfather, reminds us once again how central the theme of family is to country music. Although it’s easy and even tempting to make jokes about all the “mama and daddy songs,” it’s hard to find fault with the sincerity that inspires them.

As they appear in most country songs, fathers are strong, hard-working and morally resolute, while mothers are wise, hard-working and unconditionally loving. The father in Montgomery Gentry’s “Daddy Won’t Sell the Farm” is determined to keep to the old ways, even as the city threatens to wash over him. In Loretta Lynn’s “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” the father keeps the family together only by herculean self-sacrifice and back-breaking labor.

Anita Cochran finds validation through the father who treated her like “one of the guys” in “Daddy Can You See Me.” Confederate Railroad memorializes a hard-working, common-sense father in “Daddy Never Was the Cadillac Kind,” as does Holly Dunn in “Daddy’s Hands” and Kippi Brannon in “Daddy’s Little Girl.”

Jimmie Rodgers, in “Daddy and Home,” and Gene Autry, in “That Silver Haired Daddy of Mine,” praise aging fathers for a lifetime of love and support. John Michael Montgomery honors the exemplary father in “I Miss You a Little” and James House in “Hard Times for an Honest Man.”

Jimmie Rodgers
Daddies can be tender mother-substitutes, too, as they are in Dan Seals’ “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” and Merle Haggard’s “Holding Things Together.” (Alas, the mamas in these two particular songs emerge as cold and indifferent.)

Bad dads are rare in country music, but Emmylou Harris sings about one in “To Daddy” and T. Texas Tyler in “Dad Gave My Dog Away.”

Merle Haggard anchored his long career with mama songs, most notably “Mama Tried” and “Hungry Eyes.” In the same vein are Shenandoah’s “Mama Knows,” Diamond Rio’s “Mama, Don’t Forget to Pray for Me,” George Jones’ “She Loved a Lot in Her Time,” Patty Loveless’ “How Can I Help You Say Goodbye,” Bill Anderson’s “Mama Sang a Song” and Melba Montgomery’s “No Charge.”

Alan Jackson celebrates both parents in “Livin’ on Love,” just as Lefty Frizzell does in “Mom and Dad’s Waltz.”

Not all family songs are reserved for Mom and Dad, however. Grandma and Grandpa get into the spotlight as well through such tunes as Randy Travis’ “He Walked on Water” and Gail Davies’ “Grandma’s Song.”

And who can forget “Uncle Pen?”

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to