This summer, Luke Combs released a country-rocker called “Let’s Just Be Friends.” Featured on The Angry Birds Movie 2 soundtrack, the song begins with a political parable set-up that’ll scan as familiar to anyone who’s listened to country radio over the past few years.
You’re from one side of the tracks
And I live on the other
Why we don’t see eye-to-eye
Really ain’t no wonder
But you got the rock and I got the roll
You got the heart and I got the soul
So let’s just be friends
Ain’t gotta fight about it
“Let’s Just Be Friends” was just the latest iteration of a certain type of song that has proliferated in country music during the latter half of the decade, crystallizing in 2019 with the release of songs like Florida Georgia Line’s “People Are Different.”
This group of hits — we’ll call them “let’s get along” songs — began with Tim McGraw’s 2015 “Humble and Kind,” and over the past few years has come to include Luke Bryan’s “Most People Are Good,” Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins,” and a song by Kenny Chesney plainly titled “Get Along.” Taken as a body of work, they have come to collectively serve as mainstream country music’s prevailing response to the last three years of American national politics.
“So much of the country seemed to be divided at the time,” Josh Kear, who co-wrote 2017’s “Most People Are Good,” has said. “We were looking for something that would serve the opposite purpose.”
Since the 2016 election, Nashville music has become the soundtrack of choice for the contemporary American obsession with civility. During a time when most Americans feel more alienated than ever by the other side of the political aisle, country music has become newly enamored, if not obsessed, with the romantic notion of a nation united.
The sentiment has fully saturated the genre as of late. All of the aforementioned songs continue to receive airplay, and have become some of the most streamed songs for each respective artist. Underwood closed every show of her 2019 fall arena tour with “Love Wins.” Chesney’s “Get Along” was featured in an inspirational television PSA that received more than 2.5 billion views this summer.
When Ellen DeGeneres sparked both scorn and kudos for her on-air defense of socializing with President George W. Bush at a Dallas Cowboys football game in October, country singers like Blake Shelton and Natalie Hemby showed their support on social media.
“We’re all different, and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK,” DeGeneres said on-air.
“Amen @The Ellen Show,” tweeted Shelton. “Thank you for saying this.”
The “let’s get along” ethos seems to be the country music industry’s attempt to somehow address — or at least not ignore — the divisive politics and rhetoric of President Trump, along with the rise of white nationalism, a newly vocal progressive left, and a slew of mass shootings that have directly impacted the country community. That country music’s contemporary political messaging is a direct response to the current president has been all but explicit from the beginning: “I had several people tell me I should send it to Donald Trump,” Lori McKenna, who wrote “Humble and Kind,” said after the election.
“Country music,” wrote the Washington Post’s Chris Richards after the 2017 CMA Awards — which, a few weeks after the Route 91 Harvest Festival massacre in Las Vegas, had previously tried to ban journalists from discussing gun control and its corresponding tribal politics — “is becoming the soundtrack of a nonexistent, apolitical no-place.”
Despite, or because of, the controversy leading up to the CMAs, that award show had been filled with incessant platitudes about the all-encompassing universality of country music. “I love the way we’ve all come together,” the show’s host Brad Paisley proclaimed during the broadcast, a sentiment — country music bridging gaps as a family — echoed by everyone from Carrie Underwood to Garth Brooks throughout the night.
It’s little surprise then that Luke Combs’ “Let’s Just Be Friends” was included in an animated children’s movie. The country genre’s preoccupation with politeness for politeness’ sake has resulted in a certain sort of kindergarten political consciousness. Its logical endpoint? The Angry Birds Movie 2.
“Americans have complained about the deterioration of public conduct ever since the founding of the country,” writes Keith Bybee, author of How Civility Works. In the introduction to his book, Bybee argues that “generations of Americans have felt threatened by escalating incivility and they had no trouble finding causes in their own time.”
Songs like “Humble and Kind,” “Most People Are Good,” and “Let’s Just Be Friends” all participate in a politics of loss, an integral narrative tradition that lies at both the center of country music history and American history: Why aren’t things the way they used to be?
The implied argument of a song like “Humble and Kind” is that modern life has become rude and harsh. In country music, the subtext of the type of nostalgia embedded in songs like “Get Along” and “Humble and Kind” is deeply tied to white identity, according to the scholar Geoff Mann. In his article “Why Does Country Music Sound White? Race and the Voice of Nostalgia,” Mann argues that country music’s disenchantment with contemporary life (and accompanying nostalgia for a mythical midcentury America) is an integral way the genre has learned to signify whiteness, in its appeal to a predominantly white listenership.
At the same time, a song like Underwood’s “Love Wins” posits a future with its “I believe” construction. The song’s title is based on a phrase that gained mainstream relevance after the Supreme Court guaranteed marriage equality in all 50 states. “Love Wins” was released as a single on August 31st, 2018, just in time to serve as a motto of sorts for the 2018 midterm elections, where it fell in line with a predominant narrative of corrective civility.
Ultimately, songs like “Love Wins” and “Most People Are Good” mirror the way in which this body of country music has come to resemble mainstream Democratic party rhetoric, as with Joe Biden recalling his civility toward two segregationist senators. Similar to Underwood’s song, Bryan’s “Most People Are Good,” with its powerful line “I believe you love who you love,” uses discourse that draws directly from gay rights and marriage equality sloganeering.
It’s easy to dismiss songs that pine for the good ol’ days where everyone got along just fine as simply something we do as Americans — wishing for better times is practically tradition. But the country songs of this past decade are actually something altogether new for the genre: they reflect a carefully articulated centrism and feel-good messaging aimed at signaling to white-identity nostalgia.
The seemingly apolitical theme of tracks like “Get Along” and “Most People Are Good” has been a useful and clever argument for Nashville to be making as the country music industry has continued, in the 21st century, to increase its market share and expand its demographic reach to young, suburban, and cosmopolitan listeners. Last year, former head of CMT Brian Phillips said that songs like “Humble and Kind” “are safe things to say because they’re kind of ambiguous, and it’s not going to get you into any trouble.”
By the 2017 CMAs, Nashville had figured out how to formally aestheticize the idea of “unity”; and in doing so, it found a message that sells. That year’s CMA Awards had its highest ratings in three years. Chesney, McGraw, and Bryan’s singles were all Number One hits. Underwood’s “Love Wins” went Top Ten.
Lest it seem like this trend of both-sides civil country songs is a mere focus-group ploy to sell records, the industry’s most talented songwriters see the trend as tapping into something much deeper. “What I keep coming back to is, ‘How do we love each other more?…What we’re all leaning towards is, ‘Are we writing songs that people can see themselves in and get some hope from?” McKenna said in an interview with Rolling Stone in 2017.
“What I learned from ‘Humble and Kind’ was, even though I like sad songs, you can almost affect people more if you give them some hope, some light… That’s where the songs have to start going,” she continued. “I don’t think they have to be super political. I know the Sixties aren’t going to happen again: the songwriters I know, none of us are really in that place. But I think there’s a place that we can go that can be just as important, that expresses love and human kindness and how we can affect each other positively…. Creatively, as artists, I think that’s where we’re all going to end up gravitating to.”
In some regards, these songs are simply the culmination of a false story that country music has been telling itself about its role in the political conversation: “get along” really means “don’t pick a side.” (Or you risk alienating your audience.) In the post-9/11 days after Toby Keith threatened to put a boot in your ass, even Hank Williams Jr. was preaching honky-tonk harmony. In the 2003 video for his song “Why Can’t We All Just Get a Long Neck,” he stood grinning behind a fake presidential podium imploring his constituents to set aside their differences and share a cold one.
In 2019, a year where talk of impeachment and a sure-to-be divisive 2020 election dominated the news cycle, country music has tried, more than ever before, to present stable unity, civility, and compassion as its dominant message. Because, as Little Big Town put it in 2017’s “Happy People” — co-written by McKenna — happy people don’t criticize.