During the opening quarter-hour at the Country Music Association (CMA) Awards on Nov. 4, millions of viewers saw one of the genre’s trends in action: John Mellencamp and Keith Urban performed “Pink Houses,” then eased into Urban’s solo take on “John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16.”
The latter song contains Mellencamp’s original stage name in the title and goes on to thread a litany of other celebrity names — such as Don McLean, Marilyn Monroe, John Wayne and Kris Kristofferson — as it portrays the cultural influences of a generation.
Meanwhile, Mellencamp’s “Pink Houses” is referenced — alongside Elton John’s “Tiny Dancer” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” — in the Kenny Chesney hit “American Kids,” which was a finalist for both single and song of the year at the same CMA show.
Those songs are just a few among a raft of 2015 titles that name-check other celebrities or songs. Two current singles, Eric Paslay’s “High Class” and Rascal Flatts’ “I Like the Sound of That,” pay homage to Justin Timberlake. Michael Ray tips a hat to Dale Earnhardt Jr. in “Kiss You in the Morning.” ?Canaan Smith cites both Tom Petty and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in the lyrics of “Love You Like That.” And Florida Georgia Line references Alabama in “Anything Goes” and several other artists — Merle Haggard, Bob Marley and The Rolling Stones — in “Sun Daze.”
“It’s just a trend, but it was working,” says Chris Janson, whose “Buy Me a Boat” cleverly rhymes “kick the bucket” with Warren Buffett. “I fell victim to it, and I’m OK with it.”
There’s no way to gauge if those cultural references are happening more now than in the past, but it certainly feels like they are.
“We use every little trick we can,” says BMI country songwriter of the year Rodney Clawson, who co-wrote “American Kids.” “We run out of ’em, and we end up overusing some.”
While it might seem that the volume of cultural references is larger these days, the actual use of celebrity names is hardly a new occurrence. Traditional pop songwriter Cole Porter regularly employed the names of high-society folks in Broadway songs during the ’30s, and a wave of World War II songs made specific references to enemy leaders Adolf Hitler and Benito Mussolini.
Artists are a particularly obvious point of reference. Duing the ’80s and ’90s, Haggard and/or George Jones were embedded in the lyrics of The Judds’ “Have Mercy,” Alan Jackson’s “Don’t Rock the Jukebox,” the Bellamy Brothers’ “Kids of the Baby Boom” and Doug Stone’s “Warning Labels.”
Elvis Presley’s made a mark on Luke Bryan’s “All My Friends Say,” Patty Loveless’ “I Try to Think About Elvis” and Sugarland’s “Stuck Like Glue.” Conway Twitty gets props in two Blake Shelton hits, “Hillbilly Bone” and “Honey Bee.”
And George Strait, thanks in part to a name that rhymes easily, has wound up in a passel of songs, including Garth Brooks’ “Ain’t Goin’ Down (Till the Sun Comes Up),” Greg Bates’ “Did It for the Girl,” Rascal Flatts’ “Rewind,” Brad Paisley’s “Crushin’ It” and Eric Church’s “Love Your Love the Most.”
As often as it seems to happen, referencing artists and songs is not something most songwriters set out to do, in part because it can limit a song’s ?potential in getting cut.
“As a writer, you’re concerned with ‘Will the artist like the [referenced] artist? Is that going to kill the song?’ ” says “John Cougar” author Ross Copperman. “So we try not to. ‘John Cougar’ was such a rare exception. It was just right. It had to be.”
Part of the issue is a song’s longevity. If it calls up a current artist or track, there’s always the potential that in the next three years or so, the reference could be dated. Thus, the artists tend to have a nostalgic connotation when they become a lyric.
“Country in its nature is a little retrospective,” says ASCAP country songwriter of the year Ashley Gorley, whose “That’s My Kind of Night” balances Twitty against hip-hop artist T-Pain in the same sentence. “Memories usually go with some kind of a melody, so we might go ahead and say what that is, whether it’s a Springsteen song or a George Strait song.”
The way a celebrity reference ages is well-exemplified in Jones’ 30-year-old hit “Who’s Gonna Fill Their Shoes,” which strung together numerous artists who were quite familiar to even the casual country listener in the 1980s. Contemporary fans will still understand the mentions of Johnny Cash, Hank Williams or Willie Nelson. But many younger fans would likely be clueless about the identities of Charlie Rich, Lefty Frizzell or Marty Robbins.
On the other hand, particular titles or phrases can become so antiquated that when they get dredged back up, they work on two levels, as did lines from a Carl Perkins song and “I Am the Walrus” in Paslay’s “Song About a Girl.” Younger listeners might hear those lines as quirks, while others who are up on their music history see them as sly commentary.
“I don’t even know how many people know when I say ‘Blue Suede Shoes’ ’ ‘coo-coo-ca-choos’ know it’s from Elvis and The Beatles,” observes Paslay.
That’s one of the benefits of the name-check. As people follow their favorite artists, the references might introduce a few fans to the artist’s influences. More than one Brantley Gilbert fan probably became aware of Waylon Jennings from the chorus of “Country Must Be Country Wide.” Others are becoming familiar with Elvis Costello, Ray Wylie Hubbard and Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy thanks to a verse of Eric Church’s new “Mr. Misunderstood.”
“Throwing out Hank [Williams Jr.] and George Strait, after a while, ?everyone’s doing it,” says Charles Kelley, who was part of the songwriting team that inserted Matthew McConaughey into Lady Antebellum’s “Freestyle.” “You have to come up with some new names to say.”
This article first appeared in Billboard’s weekly Country Update. Subscribe here.