A notoriously problematic genre, country music has slowly shifted from its post-9/11 patriotic simplicity, and it’s slowly dipping into complex ideas that most people dare not tackle within their sector. Luke Bryan’s 2017 song “Most People Are Good” recently made its rounds on Tik Tok. People from all walks of life appreciated his remark of “I believe you love who you love, ain’t nothing you should ever be ashamed of,” and praised him for making a statement contrary to what many other country artists believe or address. A lesser-known song came out recently from Thomas Rhett, Russell Dickerson, and Tyler Hubbard: “Death Row“
Interviews have told the story, but essentially, these three men went to a Tennessee prison to sing to death row inmates. The song that came from it can bring anyone to chills.
“I could feel myself trembling when I shook one of their hands. I thought that he would be a monster; turns out, he’s a whole lot like I am.”
This verse opens up the whole song, referencing their hesitance of going in to begin with. In an interview, Rhett mentioned how he was prejudging these inmates based on their circumstances and just how quickly he was humbled by the experience. It re-centers the thought process of understanding that fundamentally, even those who have made detrimental mistakes are worthy of forgiveness.
“I learned a lot about living from them boys down on death row.”
There are a lot of things that can teach a person about how to live their life to the fullest, but this line elaborates on the irony that few people would think death row inmates to be the people who teach about it. There’s a lot of emotion packed into this, which is likely why it’s a part of the chorus. It’s reiterated over and over again, and while this may center Rhett and his friends in the conversation about capital punishment, I do believe it’s a wonderful artistic choice. The majority of people, especially the demographic that tends to listen to country music, find it hard to sympathize, but by focusing on how it changed the artists’ perspectives, listeners are more inclined to see how these issues affect them.
“Then it hit me we’re all human, ain’t always proud of what we’ve done. Everybody’s days are numbered, only difference is they all know which one.”
There are so many things packed into this line as well, and listening to it for the first time, it introduces just how concrete the death penalty is. For years, inmates are locked into a cell, not seeing the world around them at all, dreading the day that they’ve been assigned. It makes the listener think about what they would do if they knew when they would die. Referencing back to other lines, it’s just another reinforcement of understanding that time is precious and forgiveness is so, so necessary.
“One of them sang ‘Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound’ with one hand raised and one foot chained to the ground. He sang it like he knew he’d just been found, that next week, they laid him six feet down.”
The most impactful part of this lyric is the quickness of it. Again, centering the listener and the artists, one can’t help but to think about how they could be engaging in a meaningful conversation with someone, then that someone is suddenly gone. Even though there’s an element of faith and gospel, the most jarring aspect is realizing how precious time is, especially in the context of having a life-changing experience, then meeting the end of that life.
“I can’t say that he’s in heaven, who am I to judge his soul? But Jesus don’t play favorites, ain’t a name that He don’t know.”
Arguably the most impactful message, I think that this line reconnects to Christianity (as a religion) in an unexpected way. It serves as a humble reminder that it is not up to humanity to place judgement and expectations onto someone we haven’t lived as. It connects back to the line where they sing Amazing Grace, because that’s really what all of this is about: grace, forgiveness, and perspective.
Throughout the expansion of country music as a genre, many things have been lost in translation. The first songs of country music were all about progress – making good change in the community, encouraging equality, and understanding the value in shared humanity. Because this type of message has been lost over the years, most of my generation associates country music with lyrics about alcohol, the objectification of women, and the well-known Chicks scandal that sent their careers into a downward spiral.
After 9/11, an outpouring of support for America engulfed the entire country music genre, with artists like Toby Keith and Aaron Tippin coming out with very popular songs showcasing their patriotism. Ironically, these songs were appealed to the very same demographic and people who had been in full support of anti-war, pro-peace, and rebellion against the government.
In my opinion, I definitely think that post-9/11 country music was more influential to its listeners political affiliation than vice versa. The people are going to vote for the things they hear, and what they were hearing was an outrageous outpouring of pro-Republic rhetoric.
However, modern country is slowly stepping out into the light, speaking out against racism, homophobia, and most recently, the government’s ability to take someone’s life (especially a criminal).