Country

Baby Talk: How Maturation Is Changing the Story In Modern Country Music

Brett Young
Reto Sterchi

Brett Young photographed on May 7, 2018 at Henrietta Red in Nashville.

When Brett Young inserted the heartbeat from his wife's first sonogram into the intro of his new single, he created an appropriate sonic atmosphere for "Lady," a song that celebrates both his daughter, Presley, and her mother, Taylor.

But the move also inadvertently emphasized the sound of a new baby boom in country music. Joining Young on the Country Airplay chart are two titles in which an unplanned pregnancy plays a vital role: Jake Owen's "Made for You" and HARDY's "One Beer," featuring Devin Dawson and Lauren Alaina. Additionally, Lady Antebellum's recent release, "What I'm Leaving For," captured the cycle of doubt and reassurance in a working mother who is carrying another child. Plus, Black River plans to introduce 19-year-old MaRynn Taylor with the June 5 release of "Dads and Daughters," a song that begins with a hospital delivery, to digital service providers. (Watch the video for the song here.)

Kid stuff is a timely topic. In the face of a pandemic that has killed over 97,000 Americans in a scant three months (according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), many listeners are reexamining their lives and reprioritizing their families. But the songs at the heart of the baby boom were all recorded before the average American had ever heard the term "COVID-19." The trend instead reflects a generation of 20- and 30-something country artists who are building families in a manner that's typical for their demographic.

"I've noticed the shift from when I first got to town," says Young. "Almost all the solo male acts were single guys running around Midtown and Demonbreun [Street]. A handful of them started getting married, and then next thing you know, everybody's getting married. Then a handful of them started having kids, and next thing you know, everybody's having kids."

That cycle is nothing new — it's a key part of how humanity replenishes itself and expands. But country has similarly been birthing such songs since its inception. Jimmie Rodgers' first historic recording session included the lullaby "Sleep, Baby, Sleep." The genre has since yielded newborn titles like The Harden Trio's bouncy "Tippy Toeing," Anne Murray's anticipatory "Danny's Song," George Strait's insightful "I Saw God Today" and Loretta Lynn's humorous "One's on the Way" ("Gee, I hope it ain't twins again").

But as much as society is trained to revere newborns, merely announcing the arrival of the stork may not be interesting enough to sustain a writing session.

"I don't think I would be crazy about a song where a regular couple had a regular baby and then that was the song without some sort of drama going on to keep me attached to that situation," says HARDY.

Sure enough, a significant amount of such songs have focused on difficult — sometimes tragic — circumstances: infant deaths in Ernest Tubb's "Our Baby's Book" and David Houston & Tammy Wynette's "My Elusive Dreams," loss of custody in George Jones' "The Grant Tour" or a delivery-room complication in Tim McGraw's "Don't Take the Girl."

Meanwhile, premarital pregnancies and/or shotgun weddings have fed the stories of Eric Church's "Two Pink Lines," Don Williams' "Rake and Ramblin' Man," The Oak Ridge Boys' "Leaving Louisiana in the Broad Daylight," HARDY's "One Beer" and Owen's "Made for You." Those scenarios might have generated some audience pushback in earlier decades, though modern listeners are less likely to judge the fictional characters in the story.

"Whether you're in the '50s or whether it's 2020, when someone realizes that you're bringing another human being into this world, it's getting real," notes Owen.

It's possible that McGraw's 2002 recording of "Red Ragtop" marked a turning point in fan response. An oblique line — "We decided not to have the child" — hinted at an abortion. The song stopped at No. 5 on Hot Country Songs, short of McGraw's usual No. 1 peaks at the time, though it clearly didn't harm his career and may have made it easier for other songs about imperfect birth circumstances.

"Everybody was kind of taken aback by that lyric, but I think when you look into a crowd, you've got people that have lived that line," says "Made for You" songwriter Neil Medley. "It's a more liberal world out there."

For his part, McGraw often has focused on noncontroversial topics and traditional family values in his songs, reflecting on a daughter's birth in "My Little Girl" and appreciating a parent in current single "I Called Mama." The songs affect him in a different way now as a 53-year-old parent than "Don't Take the Girl" did in 1994.

"It's a lot more personal when you record a song like that than it used to be when I was young," says McGraw. "You found a way to make it personal because you're an artist, and that's what you do: You lead with your heart. But when life steps in and really, really gets into the cracks of your life and causes the cracks in your face, that's where the beauty comes from."

The increased discussion about babies creates an artistic sweep that mirrors life. In 2013, the bro-country movement focused on one-night stands at drunken field parties. In more recent years, boyfriend country found male artists singing appreciative love songs about their girlfriends. Love, of course, leads to marriage, then comes a little baby in a carriage, reuniting the genre with some of its inherent core content.

"Our format is family, church, country," says Black River vp A&R Doug Johnson.

That family part is central to Taylor's "Dads and Daughters." The heart-tugging song kicks off with the girl's birth while exploring a key relationship between generations in a nuclear family.

"You know what this does to me?" says Johnson of the song. "It makes me want to call my little girl, who's now 28. And it makes me miss my mother. I call them bookends when a song can go both directions for you and hit you hard and make you cry and smile at the same time."

Thus, the wave of baby songs represents a return of more adult viewpoints to country's mainstream.

"We're not concentrating on Friday and Saturday night," says Medley. "We're concentrating on all aspects of life — the good, the bad, the work week —not just going out with your friends or trying to get a girl to come over. With that, I think people are recognizing their audience is not just 20-year-old people."

"There was a time that I would have said, 'I wonder if people ever want a story song again,'" agrees Johnson. "And it's amazing in the last year that young artists are saying, 'I want a story song.' In a '90s kind of way, younger artists are wanting to do a little more depth in their lyrics."

This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.