Then we danced and she whispered, “I need you/Take me away from here and be my man”/Then I looked into her eyes and I saw it/The reflection of my wedding band.
—From Almost Persuaded, by Glenn Sutton and Billy Sherrill
To the country music world, that may be just another 1966 hit recorded by David Houston. But to University of Arkansas speech professor Jimmie N. Rogers, 44, it’s “a perfect example of cognitive dissidence—when you make a decision, but you’re not sure it’s right.”
Rogers, whose mother named him after Jimmie (T for Texas) Rodgers, a C&W star who died in 1933, first heard Almost Persuaded on his car radio in 1975. While the song’s hero escaped seduction, Rogers did not; he began using the lyrics in his class on “Persuasion.”
He has since become familiar with, he estimates, 4,000 or so country music songs. He delayed a Willie Nelson concert for 45 minutes in April 1979 while he discussed love songs with the singer-composer backstage. (“Over the years hurtin’ love doesn’t seem to change,” Nelson told him. “This music seems to be medicine to people when they are going through those times.”) Rogers’ analysis of country hits since 1965 has led to lecture gigs around the South and a half-completed book, The Rhetoric of Country Music.
Lyrics have been changing, and that “must reflect a change in the attitude among the listeners,” Rogers reasons. Language in hit songs is more explicit, the viewpoint less conservative. Merle Haggard’s right-wing Okie from Muskogee might have some trouble with Ray Wylie Hubbard’s satiric Up Against the Wall Redneck Mother, while Tammy Wynette’s Stand by Your Man woman has heard Loretta Lynn preaching for The Pill. The traditional Will the Circle Be Unbroken gave way to Bobby Bare’s less pious Drop Kick Me, Jesus (Through the Goal Posts of Life).
Nowhere has the modernization been greater, Rogers adds, than with that honky-tonk staple, the cheatin’ love song. (Among 145 Top 10 lyrics he studied, hurtin’ love was the theme of 60, happy love of 23, cheatin’ love and “lifestyles” of 18 each.) In the 1960s the perspective on cheating was exclusively male, the result invariably guilt. “From the song content it was difficult to understand why anyone cheated,” Rogers observes. “None of the participants seemed to enjoy it very much.” These days, he says, it’s often an aggressive woman who’s cheating—and, what’s more, liking it.
Other academics are studying country music. University of Cincinnati sociologist Harry Dillingham uses it in courses on the family (“These songs reflect how small-town and rural people live,” he says). At Bowling Green State University, R. Serge Denisoff teaches the social, cultural and economic aspects of country music performers and fans, though he says 10 years ago C&W was “considered completely beneath academics.”
Rogers’ survey was painstakingly methodical. He and two graduate students divided the 145 hits into 11 categories—”miscellaneous” had one entry, Tennessee Birdwalk—then applied a complex statistical test to make sure the groupings were accurate.
At home in Fayetteville, Rogers has been a one-woman man, married 23 years to wife Jean, 43, a secretary. They have a son, Barry, 18, and twin daughters, Robin and Renee, 12. The professor relaxes by fishing from his homemade plywood pirogue—a kind of canoe.
Rogers suggests that many teenagers profess not to like country music, “perhaps because there’s more realism in the lyrics than they can take.” Some Southerners reject it because “they want to forget where they come from” (he’s from McNeil, Ark.). Others find the lyrics too racist or sexist. Still, Rogers says, U.S. radio stations play 28,000 hours of country music every day. “Fans are coming out of the closet,” he says. “Country music is the music of interpersonal experiences, one-on-one communications. It’s easy to get hooked on it.”