Country Music Existentialism

Viewing the absurdity of existence through four classic country songs.

One of the most obvious reasons that fans of country music are attracted to the genre are the highly relatable lyrics it is known for. Country lyrics do not deal in abstractions, they cut to the heart of everyday life experiences like love and death and joy. For this reason it might seem like country music would be the last place we would uncover philosophical insights, but it is in precisely the simple grind of life where the existentialist view becomes most apparent. 

For those unfamiliar, here is a definition of existentialism from Philosophy Basics:

Existentialism is a philosophy that emphasizes individual existence, freedom and choice. It is the view that humans define their own meaning in life, and try to make rational decisions despite existing in an irrational universe. It focuses on the question of human existence, and the feeling that there is no purpose or explanation at the core of existence. It holds that, as there is no God or any other transcendent force, the only way to counter this nothingness (and hence to find meaning in life) is by embracing existence.

The following four songs are some of my favorite country songs of all time, and one of the main reasons for that is that each of them makes me ponder my existence far more deeply than is often comfortable. Here are the existentialist mental meanderings provoked in me by each of these songs.

I’ll Never Get Out Of This World Alive by Hank Williams Sr.

This is a song about being under constant attack by bad luck. It is a song about the lived experience of Murphy’s Law: If anything can go wrong, it will. Given the turbulent life lived by country music’s most beloved artist, the examples of cosmic smiting Hank gives throughout the song are probably highly biographical. But what is most interesting about this song is not how bad Hank was taking it from the universal forces of sadism and irony, but how he chose to respond to his fate. He’s not gonna worry wrinkles in his brow, cause nothing’s ever gonna be alright no-how.  And in writing this song he is not only accepting the sorrows of his existence, he is having a sense of humor about them. This is perhaps the only productive response one can have to the absurdity and pain of being. The ultimate irony being that the reward for taking it all on the chin with grace and style is to be ejected from the game for good. Perhaps the only possible victory over the farce of existence is to die the most ironic death possible.

Mama He’s Crazy by The Judds

The ideas that we have about love when we are young are naïve. This song encapsulates those youthful sentiments so perfectly that it is easy to see your younger self in the role of the daughter or boyfriend. All you had to do was find the right person and…BADA BING…a simple life of love would reward you through all the rest of your days. Okay, so maybe everybody didn’t think like this, but I sure did. And boy was I ever wrong. You never quite achieve love, in the gullible sense I described. You find someone(s) to love and then you constantly work to keep it alive and healthy. Only in fleeting moments do you ever actually feel fulfilled by it. Now don’t get me wrong, those are moments of rare, precious beauty, and they make it all worth it, but there is never any final satisfaction. You never conquer love, and at best, it will conquer you. So when I hear the daughter in this song tell her mother all these grandiose things about her relationship, I feel an ache of disappointment in life, and a longing to return to that adolescent state of unashamed innocence. All the while knowing that there are new levels of jaded cynicism yet to be achieved in my later years. 

Killin’ Time by Clint Black

This song combines the Dead Soulmate and Shameless Alcoholism tropes that we country fans just cannot get enough of; but it does so in such a way as to raise questions about the very nature of existence. Clint’s character is distraught and he is going to just keep drinking, even if it doesn’t help him forget. In rare moments of sober thought he realizes his life has become a pointless exercise in compulsive survival. And that the way he is headed, he might end up drinking himself into the afterlife, which is just another pointless exercise in existence, albeit eternal. But what if his lover had lived a full life, and they both remained together well into their golden years? Would he have transcended the meaningless of existence through love? Hardly. This guy could have lived a full life with his soulmate, become president of the entire world and invented a cure for cancer, and inevitably it would amount to nothing more than one itty bitty being just killin’ time, in the grand scheme of things. I mean, why not just slowly drink yourself to death?

All My Rowdy Friends Have Settled Down by Hank Williams Jr.

If you make it long enough through the absurdity of existence and the shattering disappointment of hindsight, you just might live long enough to experience the most crushing stage of life there is – the part when you and your friends are too old to have the kind of fun that got you through everything else in the past. This is not to say that joy is suddenly dead to you, but it is now only sustainable in smaller portions and at lesser potency. Sure, you now have the experience, opportunity and mental clarity to reflect on your past, and maybe even glean some wisdom in the process; but that is a consolation prize compared to a three day bender in the woods with a bunch of other idiots who don’t know how much they are taking everything for granted…yet. When you realize that it has become too painful to experience joy, ecstasy and beauty like you once could, that is a very major bummer. But when you realize that even if you wanted to do it anyhow, but none of your favorite humans are willing to join you in it, that is absolutely crushing. The only thing sadder is being the person who refuses to accept their fate, and keeps surrounding themselves with the young and dumb to fuel their denial. There is grace in accepting that the good times are going to become fewer and further in between, but first you have to get over feeling like you have given up on life, and I do not recommend listening to anyone named Hank Williams while you are pursuing that perspective.

Life is a beautiful disappointment. In order to get the most out of it you must strive to walk the fine line between hope and expectation, between desire and attachment, between faith and entitlement. There could be no balance harder to achieve than these, but the first step is seeing the work of your own mind in creating your disappointments, and then accepting this cosmic farce with as much humor as you can muster. And NEVER take for granted that all that beauty is a blessing beyond measure.

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