If country music gave voice to many American farmers during the 20th century, what does it have to say about the fundamental shift in farm labor that is coming to define the 21st? If farmers become robot herders, spending more time in Quicken than in the field, what will that mean for the culture that grew out of it? Will representations of farm work, like those in country music, keep pace with its realities?
The ongoing process of automation affects jobs in just about every sector of the economy, yet for farming, the shift toward robots creates a unique ideological problem. That’s because in American culture, the farmer usually represents self-sufficiency, both personal and national – the ability to live with two hands, connected to the land, without the need for modern devices like robots and computers. In country music, no song makes such a claim quite as forcefully as Hank Williams, Jr.‘s “A Country Boy Can Survive.”
A Number Two hit in 1984, “Country Boy” beings by foretelling an apocalypse: “The preacher man says it’s the end of time, and the Mississippi River she’s a goin’ dry.” The resulting environment of scarcity and conflict divides urban from rural, businessman from farmer. You can guess which side adapts quickest. Though as Hank tells it, the rural country folk barely need to adapt at all. They already know how to plow a field, harvest heirloom tomatoes and ferment wine. “I got a shotgun, a rifle and a 4-wheel drive,” he sings. What more does one need?
Williams’s country folk are drawn from myth as much as fact. Subsistence farming was once common in regions like Appalachia, but by 1984, the practice was nearly extinct. In the coal mines that the singer mentions, subsistence farmers were violently incorporated into the markets of capitalism. Those still in business tend to grow one crop, like wheat or corn, as nodes in a supply chain that extends around the globe. If “Country Boy” is an indignant song, some its fire seems to come from this fact: the singer has missed the first era of American household agriculture, so he eagerly anticipates the divine providence that will bring about a second.
Thus “Country Boy” is at once nostalgic and millenarian. It claims to speak for the working class yet it rejects solidarity with the urban poor. Over 30 years later, it remains one of country music’s major points of reference.