Within this article you'll find a playlist of every song mentioned within -- 26 in all -- that we hope will give an appropriate spin to your Labor Day weekend. This piece first appeared in our twice-weekly "Country Update" newsletter, which you can subscribe to right here.
When Labor Day arrives Sept. 2, it represents a break in the repetition of the everyday lives of working-class Americans.
That repetition is reflected in country music, with its frequent celebration of blue-collar vocations, but even in the occasional repetition of the word “work” itself. It’s doubled up (“Work work all week long”) in the lyrics of Alan Jackson’s “Good Time.” And repeated three times in Craig Morgan’s “Little Bit of Life” (“Work work work all day long”) and in Eric Church’s “Drink in My Hand” (“I work, work, work but I don’t climb, climb, climb”).
Country’s history lies in rural family farms, union factories and dirty coal mines, the places where people worked, worked, worked 40 hours -- often more -- to keep shoes on the kids’ feet, a car in the driveway and, as Josh Thompson puts it, “Beer on the Table.”
That connection to the people in the trenches is, perhaps, one of the reasons country music is in a peak position today as the United States continues to dig out from its economic crisis. A large segment of the population craves a job. Others who have one are being buried by it.
“Those that hopefully are working, they’re working all day or all night, and the music is kind of a relief from that,” radio consultant Joel Raab says. “Our economy’s been kind of depressed for about five years, and it’s not come back real quickly. I think people feel that a little bit, and it’s like, ‘Hey, I want to just for three-and-a-half minutes be in another place.’”
That sentiment exists to varying degrees in the lyrics of many country songs that find singers moaning about the workplace and longing for some outside escape. It’s part of Church’s “Drink in My Hand,” Jackson and Jimmy Buffett’s collaboration “It’s Five O’Clock Somewhere,” Toby Keith’s “Drinks After Work,” Kip Moore’s “Beer Money” and George Jones’ “Finally Friday,” which remains a 5 p.m., end-of-the-week staple at many stations around the country.
Not that that’s a huge departure from the genre’s past. Escape from the daily grind is at the heart of Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues,” and fantasy about payback to the boss is in the grooves of Johnny Paycheck’s “Take This Job and Shove It” and Johnny Cash’s “One Piece at a Time.”
But behind that anger is a belief in the value of earning your way. It’s a tenet of the people in the heartland who traditionally make up the core of the country music audience, and it’s why work is so central to so many of the genre’s songs, whether they’re escapist fare or statements of bedrock pride.
“If you trace our history, when you look at the backbone of America -- starting with the American farmer and then rolling into the Industrial Age -- it’s all about hard work,” observes Access Brand Strategies chief strategist Paul Jankowski, author of "How to Speak American: Building Brands in the New Heartland." “That hard work is not exclusive to the heartland, but it has deep, deep roots in the heartland, so hard work and pride in that work continues to be represented, I think, in modern-day country music.”
That kind of pride is particularly ingrained in the “Don’t back up/Don’t back down” chorus of “The Only Way I Know,” a nose-to-the-grindstone anthem featuring Jason Aldean, Church and Luke Bryan. Released last November, it successfully mirrors a relentless drive that country listeners either possess or admire.
“We are a storyteller genre, and it would make sense obviously that our stories are about the exact people [who are] listening,” Brad Paisley notes. “It’s a very interesting connection, I think, that our fans have with it that’s different from most other forms of music. When I listen to other formats and things like alt-rock or jazz or, to some degree, pop, you find yourself going, ‘Wow, that’s a cool production. I like this song.’ You may not like the song because it’s you. But in country music, it’s almost always putting your finger on ‘This relates to my life’ when you love something.”
The typical worker can find all sorts of Labor Day-themed threads in country that reflect their daily lives. The tricky balance of work and home life are the foundation of Craig Campbell’s “Family Man,” Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Busy Man,” Josh Turner’s “Time Is Love” and Ronnie Milsap’s “She Keeps the Home Fires Burning.” The desperation of no work is present in Ronnie Dunn’s Grammy-nominated “Cost of Livin’.” Women in the workplace are key elements of Doug Stone’s “In a Different Light” and Sammy Kershaw’s “National Working Women’s Holiday.” And the frustration of rush-hour traffic is central to Sugarland’s “Something More” and Tim McGraw’s “Where the Green Grass Grows.”
That struggle for a paycheck is clearly a key piece of country music’s heritage. And even today, when the genre has achieved a level of cross-cultural respectability that it often lacked in the past, it’s central to the way many people relate to it.
“That’s where the roots of country come from -- rural [workers] to start with, and blue-collar workers,” McGraw says. “I think country music at its core is sort of a set of values that we represent when we sing and a set of values that we represent as a genre of music.”
The perspectives of the working class are often at odds with the viewpoint of the so-called job creators. That clash provided a backdrop for Dolly Parton’s “9 to 5” and Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons” that isn’t too far removed from the battle that led to the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2011. It’s also fuel for Aldean’s “Fly Over States,” which captures the lack of understanding that decision-makers on both coasts often have for the people in the heartland.
“Fly Over States” takes a similar tack to Alabama’s “Forty Hour Week (For a Livin’),” outlining various places in the center of the country where people work with little recognition to keep the economic engine humming.
“You get to see a lot of TV and movies about New York and L.A.,” says Neil Thrasher, who co-wrote “Fly Over States.” “But you don’t hardly ever see the guy that’s from Ellsworth, Kansas, glorified.”
Unless, of course, you’re listening to country music, where the factory worker’s drudgery is captured by Kenny Chesney and George Strait in “Shiftwork,” the construction worker gets a nod in Brooks & Dunn’s “Hard Workin’ Man” and the truck driver struggles with the separation his job creates in Zac Brown Band’s “Highway 20 Ride.”
Whether the singer is fantasizing about flipping a middle finger to the boss or basking in the self-esteem a job well done provides, country’s artists continue to relate to the waitresses, check-out clerks and soldiers who do a ton of work for little recognition.
“Country music really is about what goes on between the coasts,” Raab says. “In its truest form and at its roots, it’s Springfield, Mo., more than it’s Baltimore, Md. -- not that there’s anything wrong with Baltimore. The format has always kind of reflected middle-American values.”