How do they afford it? You hear all these songs today about guys tooling around in gas-guzzling, tricked-out trucks, swilling beer by the case and whiskey by the bottle and partying ‘til the sun comes up. But do they ever work? If so, you don’t hear much about it.
Work used to be a core theme of country music because it was a huge part of everyday life. Take these 12-plus songs for example.
“Sixteen Tons,” Tennessee Ernie Ford (1955)
Grim and throbbing like a sore muscle, this song is a glimpse into the day-in-day-out life of an underground coal miner: “You load 16 tons and what do you get/Another day older and deeper in debt.” Nothing but misery to report.
Also recommended for students of the subterranean stress, Merle Travis’ other (and even more depressing) coal classic, “Dark as a Dungeon,” which warns, “Come listen you fellows, so young and so fine/And seek not your fortune in the dark, dreary mine/It will form as a habit and seep in your soul/Till the stream of your blood runs as black as the coal.”
“Six Days on the Road,” Dave Dudley (1963)
Reveling in the “freedom of the road” while simultaneously being confined to the cage of his cab, the long-haul truck driver has been and remains country music’s favorite working class hero. Dudley, Dick Curless, Red Simpson and C.W. McCall all built their musical careers around this mobile mystique. In “Six Days,” Dudley deals with the trucker’s constant companion — homesickness and the temptations it arouses. “Well, it seems like a month since I kissed my baby goodbye/I could have a lot of women, but I’m not like some other guys.”
Also recommended for interstate impresarios, Jerry Reed’s sunny odyssey, “East Bound and Down” (1977), and Curless’ clench-jawed “A Tombstone Every Mile” (1965).
“Detroit City,” Bobby Bare (1963)
Before Detroit became a symbol of industrial decay, it was a magnet for people in the South who sought high-paying assembly-line jobs. Homesickness is rampant here, too. “I want to go home,” Bare moans in his opening line. “I want to go home/Lord, how I want to go home.” That’s the reality — as is the dreary sameness of his life: “Home folks think I’m big in Detroit city/From the letters that I write they think I’m fine/But by day I make the cars, by night I make the bars/If only they could read between the lines.”
“Wichita Lineman,” Glen Campbell (1968)
There can be poetry in work, as well, even when it’s seemingly monotonous work. Songwriter Jimmy Webb found it in this virtual watercolor painting of a man whose job it is to “drive the main roads” and keep an eye out for trouble on the telephone lines. The very sameness of his job causes his mind to wander and imagine messages flashing through the system: “I hear you singing in the wire/I can hear you through the whine/And the Wichita lineman is still on the line.”
“Sheriff of Boone County,” Kenny Price (1970)
County cops are seldom towering figures of justice, and this one is downright cartoonish. But don’t cross him, son. “Yeah, I don’t take no lip with this cannon on my hip.” Don’t try to get around him either. He’s everywhere: “I run the grocery store down there/And I pump the gas and I’m the dogcatcher, too, yeah/The judge — that’s me.”
“Monday Morning Secretary,” the Statler Brothers (1973)
Before there were automated phone-answering systems and talk-to-text apps, every company had at least one secretary who held the whole business or department together. That’s the kind of worker the Statlers sing about here. Overworked and underloved, “She leaves home at 8, a little bit late/A little bit tired of it all/She unlocks the doors and does so much more/Than what she gets credit for.” After a day of doing for others and listening to the “latest dirty joke” from salesmen, “At 5 she goes home to her cat and two rooms/And cries cause she’s lonely as hell.”
“That Girl Who Waits on Tables,” Ronnie Milsap (1973)
This loser had his chance and blew it. So he now sits in a bar and watches other men put the moves on the woman who used to be his alone. “I watch her picking up their tips off the tables/And see them smile as she brings another round/That dress she’s wearing shows that she’s all woman/And reminds me I once had what they want now. … That girl who waits on tables/Used to wait for me at home/And she waited till all her love was gone.” Guess he finally got the tip.
“Bartender’s Blues,” George Jones (1978)
Bartenders are secular priests who hear confessions and erase past sins with more alcohol. “Well, I’m just a bartender,” this one sings, “and I don’t like my work/But I don’t mind the money at all.” And there are other compensations: “I need four walls around me to hold my life/To keep me from going astray/And a honky-tonk angel to hold me tight/To keep me from slipping away.” James Taylor wrote the words, and George Jones lived the life.
“The Reverend Mr. Black,” Johnny Cash (1982)
This was a pop hit for the Kingston Trio in 1963. Cash’s version was pretty much a chart bust, topping out at No. 71, but it did introduce a country audience to the preacher who was tough as teak and gentle as gauze — a man who bravely turned the other cheek when a lumberjack belted him and then calmed his assailant down with words from a hymn. “The Reverend Mr. Black” was co-written by Billy Edd Wheeler, who also co-penned the Johnny and June barnburner, “Jackson.”
“Rodeo,” Garth Brooks (1991)
With its ominous intro and relentlessly driving chorus, you know without even attending to the lyrics that this song is about obsession. Then the images come driving at you like hail: “Well, it’s bulls and blood, it’s dust and mud, it’s the roar of a Sunday crowd/It’s the white in his knuckles, the gold in the buckle, he’ll win the next go ’round/It’s boots and chaps, it’s cowboy hats, it’s spurs and latigo/It’s the ropes and the reins and the joy and the pain, and they call the thing rodeo.” As portrayed here by songwriter Larry Bastian, it’s not just a job, it’s an addiction.
Also recommended for rodeophiles, Brooks’ “Much Too Young (To Feel This Damn Old)” (1989) and “The Beaches of Cheyenne” (1995), Moe Bandy’s “Bandy the Rodeo Clown” (1975) and Dan Seals’ “Everything That Glitters (Is Not Gold)” (1986).
Reba McEntire (1991)
“She said be nice to the gentlemen, Fancy/And they’ll be nice to you.” Has any career advice from a mother ever been more cogent — or chilling — than this? Let’s just say that Fancy succeeds in the hospitality business: “I charmed a king, a Congressman and an occasional aristocrat/Then I got me a Georgia mansion/And an elegant New York townhouse flat.”
Also recommended for epidermal entrepreneurs is Johnny Darrell’s “The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” (1967). “Fancy” and “Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp” also achieved pop success — “Fancy” for its writer, Bobby Gentry, in 1969 and “Son” for O.C. Smith in 1968.
Toby Keith (2003)
Now that we have an all-volunteer army, soldiering is as much a job as it is a manifestation of national duty. But the soldier Keith gives voice to sees himself principally as a patriot: “I don’t do it for the money, there’s bills that I can’t pay/I don’t do it for the glory, I just do it anyway.”
OK, back to work. Break’s over.