When the automobile was invented before the turn of the century, it was probably hard to imagine for its inventors to conceive of its major influence, especially with regards to automobility. Nonetheless, the automobile has become so ingrained in the American culture and economy that it has become near impossible to conceive of its nonexistence. From the way we live to the way we eat, the automobile makes it possible to eat fast food and live far from the city center. Such is the nature of automobility. But its influence is far greater than that. We are known and described by others all around the world by the culture, especially popular culture, that we exude and export.
Automobiles are one part of that culture but another major aspect is our music. Music often incorporates cultural or historical themes in its songs and this is no different in American music when it comes to the automobile. American music, therefore, has been heavily influenced by the automobile and its industry making it a facet of American automobility. Not only has this led to songs permeated with automobile themes but the combination of automobility and the need for musical entertainment has led to the technology and innovation of the car radio. With so many genres of music and so large a wealth of car-related songs, it is a monstrous task to discuss all the genres in regards to the automobile.
One genre, which is perhaps the most iconic of American music, is country music. To understand the influence of the automobile and automobility in country music, a brief history of the radio is needed to find the convergence point where music was made available to those driving. Radios became a big hit in the latter 1920s as the Great Depression swept America. As Cook and Krupar suggest in their article, the Great Depression not only hit Americans hard financially but psychologically as well. Americans “not only lacked adequate food and shelter, but they felt they were to blame for their desperate state.” The psychological consequences were devastating. People lost their hope through self-blame and self doubt. Yet in spite of the horrors of the Depression, the expansion of media was incredible, especially in regards to the radio. In the years spanning 1929 to 1939,
the number of radios owned and operated within American households grew from a presence in 45.8% of the households in 1929 to 81.1% in 1940. The number of radio stations increased from 618 to 847 at the close of this important decade. Even during these Depression years (1929-1939), when the gross national product remained at 0, radio sales’ profits expanded to well over $800 million in (1929) the worst year of the Great Depression.
There was an initial economic stimulus for this media form with the rise of the periodical press radio and its broadcasting to farmers. Farmers were far from urban centers where they could find entertainment and new information; the radio made it possible for them to enjoy life at home. As this media form spread, folks “accepted the universally pervasive presence of the radio in their homes across America, enjoying it for what it offered – entertainment, connectivity, information, and education.” This lay the foundation for the reception of country music and many other genres of music that were first broadcasted during this time.
Before the Great Depression, country music did not exist, as espoused in Will the Circle Be Unbroken?: Country Music in America. American music, prior to the Depression, was homemade music born out of English and Scottish ballads brought over from Europe. It was simply a form of entertainment employed in the privacy of the home or at town festivals. Up until 1924, “there was no cohesive, commercially marketed product in American popular entertainment that bore that name[country music], nor any body of music that consistently projected a rural flavor or sound.” Furthermore, it was only until the radio was widespread in the Depression years that country music began to form. Before then, there was only the sporadic “rural” music played by vaudeville country bumpkin actors that was sometimes recorded or broadcasted. That was in the commercial sector. Outside of that realm, rural folk music blossomed in homes and communities as their own form of entertainment but was never made public till country radio and records. The first recorded “country shout song” was “Bile Them Cabbage Down” by Uncle Dave Macon in July 11, 1924; this song resembled today’s bluegrass and folk music. At the advent of country music radio and its various early recordings, the music was not the country music we know today. Even though the data is scant, it is clear country bands did exist at the time and often performed in the years antecedent to radio. But they weren’t classified as country. It was radio and recording that settled these bands and gave them focus, bringing “a new kind of commercial exposure that brought disparate groups together.” When the first radio barn dance was broadcast on American radio at Fort Worth in 1923 on WBAP, it featured an old time fiddler and a Hawaiian band. It was this new medium of popular broadcasting that brought different kinds of music together, invaded folks’ homes, and soothed their aching uncertainty throughout the years of the Great Depression. This uncertainty had stimulated a desire among Americans to search for nostalgic, old fashioned ideas that they thought existed in rural life and that could be found in country music. With the emergence of country music radio broadcasts, especially WSM’s Grand Ole Opry, and new country music recordings, country music began strong and has become an iconic part of American culture.
During the Great Depression, radios were home appliances and were very widespread. Progressive reforms made sure that four technologies—radio, automobile, the telephone, and electricity—were common in all rural areas of the country. By the 1920s these technologies had been introduced in rural areas, and by 1930 they continued to grow steadily in these areas. During the Depression years, these patterns shifted dramatically. The growth of automobiles in rural areas remained stagnant while those homes with telephones declined. However, the possession of radios in rural homes nearly tripled and by 1940 more farm homes owned radios than any other form of technology. Country music catered to the rural areas and Saturday night radio barn dances became widespread throughout the rural United States. The radio was able to make country music popular. But how did the radio become so popular? The psychological side has already been explained but Craig offers some economic reasons as well. During this time, radios had become very affordable. Prices for radios dropped dramatically and dealers offered to sell them on credit for those who couldn’t afford them now. Radios were also easier to keep up in contrast to automobiles and telephones which required continual financial outlay. In addition, battery operated radios were available and they became highly popular amongst those in rural areas who didn’t have power lines installed yet. Radios became the newest attraction in entertainment and were certainly more affordable than an automobile. Prices for sets ran from “ $136 in 1929 to just $47 in 1932, and by 1938 the average price for a set was down to $35. In addition, major retailers began offering time payment plans that allowed customers to purchase radios with small monthly payments.” They were spread throughout both rural and urban United States and were possibly one of the factors in alleviating the Depression. But one of the key factors in understanding the radio’s importance in America is the fact that the radio introduced new forms of mass culture, leisure, and consumer goods to rural areas without destroying their livelihood.
Enter the automobile in this sphere. The first car radios actually came out around the same time as did country music. In fact, “portable radios and radios for use in an automobile were one and the same.’ In the early 1920s, the car radio was very bulky and took up a lot of space. Many cars had radios that were individually adapted for being installed in autos. But the first car radios were mass produced for cars in the latter 1920s with the Airtone 3D, the Batt. 115-1926, and the “Transitone TH-1” coming out in 1925, 1926, and 1927, respectively. Because of so little data, a radio historian states that it is best to conclude that the first real car radio was produced in 1927. The first commercially sold car radio was the Galvin brothers’ $130 unit (a Model A Deluxe coupe cost $540) which was the first product to wear the Motorola name. The first FM radio came out in 1952 but the real ticket to success was in 1955 when Chrysler offered a small turntable in its high-end cars which could play seven-inch records with about 45 minutes of music on them. Around the same time as the advent of the FM radio, country music songs began having car themed lyrics.
Country music and automobiles share the same original desire for nostalgia and pleasure amidst work. When radios began to be installed in cars in the 1930s, radio broadcasts were available to all, whether on the road or in the house. But why was it not until the late 1940s and early 1950s that country music began inserting car themes in their lyrics? One would think that since the automobile has been in American culture for some time, there would be more songs with car themed lyrics. One reason is that the subject matter of the country songs during this early period was not focused on modern cultural ideas such as automobiles. Americans to go back to the “good ol’ days” where things were supposedly better than they were during the Depression years. During the late 1920’s and 1930s, top 40 songs included Gene Autry’s “I’m Back in the Saddle Again,” the Carter Family’s “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and Roy Acuff’s “Wabash Cannonball.” As hinted by the song titles, the songs being produced were either cowboy songs or gospel/bluegrass songs. They conveyed a nostalgia that did not include the automobile as a part of that rural culture, until the late 1940’s and early 1950’s. This pattern began to break away when country music became synonymous with drifters and drinkers, such as Hank Williams and Waylon Jennings whose carefree lives were dependent on the automobile to get from town to town and from lover to lover.
Enter Hank Williams Sr. and Bob Wills to the country music stage in 1949. They were the first country artists to include automobile themes in their songs at a time when the image of country music lifestyle was synonymous with Hank Sr.’s lifestyle. His nickname was “Luke the Drifter” and it fit the general theme of his songs very well. His first car themed song came out in 1949 and was titled “Lost Highway”. Although it never expressly mentions a car, it does mention a highway throughout and the only goings on highways at this time were cars: “I’m a rolling stone, all alone and lost,/ For a life of sin, I have paid the cost. /When I pass by, all the people say/ ‘Just another guy on the lost highway.’” This is somewhat reminiscent of the words or themes of gospel songs (“In the Highways”, “End of the Road”, etc) but nonetheless it mentions a highway as a metaphor for life. In 1951 he wrote perhaps one of the most well-known country songs ever and it was titled “Hey Good Lookin’”. Here the car imagery is more poignant:
Hey, hey, good lookin’,
Whatcha got cookin’?
How’s about cookin’ somethin’ up with me?
Hey, sweet baby,
Don’t you think maybe
We could find us a brand new recipe?
I got a hot-rod Ford and a two-dollar bill
And I know a spot right over the hill.
There’s soda pop and the dancin’s free,
So if you wanna have fun come along with me.
Hey, good lookin’,
Whatcha got cookin’?
How’s about cookin’ somethin’ up with me?
Here the car enters into the American culture in country music as a status symbol and a means for entertainment and romance. The “hot rod Ford” is identified as a status symbol and a means of showing off to the girl. This theme and imagery will reoccur multiple times throughout country music. While the automobile continued to be associated with romance and the drifter lifestyle, there were many other themes that country artists sung about. The most common themes include pickup trucks, the automobile industry, and freight trucks. Whilst there are plenty of songs which speak of these themes, it must be noted that a countless host of country songs mention some sort of car imagery, whether the highway, “dreaming about cars” or romance in the car.
Bob Wills and his brother, Billy Jack, wrote and performed several hits in the early 50s that really set the stage for early country music songs with car themes. Their best car themed songs came out in 1954 and were titled “Cadillac in Model A” (Bob) and “Out of Gas” (Billy Jack). Their titles alone suggest the wealth of automobile imagery in the songs. From then on, the automobile was here to stay in country music. There are hundreds of country songs with automobile themes and imagery but a few songs will suffice to show different themes within country music car songs.
During the 1950s, the imagery of automobiles in the songs is evident mostly in the title of the songs. Later in country music there are still songs which have car related titles but more often than not, the imagery is subtle. In the 1960s, there are songs like Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee which include car related themes such as “windshield wipers”, a “diesel”, and “driver”. In 1974, George Jones and Tammy Wynette’s “We’re not the Jet Set” duet was pivotal because it shows how country music juxtaposes itself between the more effluent and blue collar Americans. In the song, the couple sings that they are not “the jet set, we’re the Chevrolet set”. They go on to sing of how they are a part of the common man’s culture who rides a Chevrolet, drinks beer, eats hotdogs, etc. as opposed to “the Jet set” who fly jets, travel and eat steak and drink martinis. This is a common theme in country music; country music (As in John Conlee’s “Common Man”) identifies with the common working man and his often simple taste in autos. Another automobile theme in country music is the prevalence of pickup trucks. Songs like Joe Diffie’s “Pickup Man”, Rhett Atkins’ “That’s Not My Truck”, and Rodney Carrington’s “Pickup Truck” are just some of the few songs which exude truck imagery just by their titles. There are countless songs where the pickup truck is mentioned. David Allen Coe even wrote a song about makes a real country song. In the middle of the song he stops and gives a dialogue before continuing the song:
Well, a friend of mine named Steve Goodman wrote that song and he told me it was the perfect country and western song I wrote him back a letter and told him it was NOT the perfect country and western song because he hadn’t said anything about Momma, or trains, or trucks, or prison, or gettin’ drunk. Well, he sat down and wrote another verse to the song and he sent it to me and after reading it, I realized that my friend had written the perfect country and western song. And I felt obliged to include it on this album. The last verse goes like this here:
Well, I was drunk the day my Mom got outta prison.
And I went to pick her up in the rain.
But, before I could get to the station in my pickup truck
She got runned over by a damned old train.
Trucks have since become almost entirely associated with country music and that sort of culture.
Another theme of auto-related country is the automobile industry. One of the most famous songs in this regard is Johnny Cash’s “One Piece At A Time.” This 1976 classic song is about someone “working in Detroit on an assembly line.” It is very important for this study since country songs described the lives of those working in America. The automobile industry had become such an integral part in everyone’s lives that songs were being written about it. The artist talks about the assembling of car parts and as well as stealing them—“wheels on Cadillacs”, “fuel pump and an engine and a trunk”,etc. It also talks about how vehicles were registered:
So we drove up town just to get the tags
And I headed her right on down main drag
I could hear everybody laughin’ for blocks around
But up there at the court house they didn’t laugh
‘Cause to type it up it took the whole staff
And when they got through the title weighed sixty pounds.
While the ultimate point in the song is funny, the song is important because it shows how much the automobile and its production made an impact on American society. The band Alabama similarly sings about the auto industry (amongst other American businesses) in their song “40 Hour Week”. In the song there is another mention of the auto industry: “Hello Detroit auto worker, let me thank you for your time/You work a forty hour week for a livin’, just to send it on down the line”.
There are also quite a number of songs which describe the life of truckers. The most iconic of these being “Convoy” by C.W. McCall, Jerry Reed’s “East Bound and Down,” “Six Days on the Road” by Dave Dudley, and Alabama’s “Roll On Eighteen Wheeler.” Such songs often have lyrics which exemplify the CB radio slang common among truck drivers as well as common phrases like “put the hammer down.” Automobile and trucker imagery, as exemplified in “Convoy,” would include “hammer down,” “smokies,” “Interstate 44,” etc. Such imagery is very common amongst trucking songs.
While most country songs include some sort of imagery of driving a vehicle, usually a pickup truck, there are some that show how automobility has become imbedded in country music. Not only is there David Allen Coe’s song which mentioned how integral this theme is to the genre, but some artists have managed to show the nostalgic and integral side of the automobile. Alan Jackson, a Georgian by birth, has quite a few songs about the automobile. Many of them stem out of practical experience since his father was a mechanic. Songs like “Chattahoochee” display how essential the automobile was to the American male mindset. Lines like, “Talking ’bout cars and dreaming ’bout women” and “Well we fogged up the windows in my old Chevy” show how the romantic side of the car was not just found in rock n’ roll songs. His redo of an older song (written in 1949 by K.C. Douglas and Robert Geddins), “Mercury Blues,” demonstrates how country music often uses car brands in its lyrics and shows the craze over automobiles in America. The first part of the song goes:
Well if I had money
Tell you what I’d do
I’d go downtown and buy a Mercury or two
Crazy bout a Mercury
Lord I’m crazy bout a Mercury
I’m gonna buy me a Mercury
And cruise it up and down the road.
Not only does the song characterize the craze Americans have for cars but it also alludes to the common theme of cars and romance in the second stanza. The third Alan Jackson song that displays automobility, especially the nostalgic side, is his song “Drive”. Its theme is his remembering all the instances he drove, whether a plywood boat or his dad’s old Ford pickup or the jeep he lets his daughters drive, and the nostalgia of those memories. Here is the stanza about the Ford truck:
Just an old half ton shortbed ford
My uncle bought new in ’64
Daddy got it right ’cause the engine was smoking
A couple of burnt valves and he had it going
He let me drive her when we’d haul off a load
Down a dirt strip where we’d dump trash off of Thigpen Road
I’d sit up in the seat and stretch my feet out to the pedals
Smiling like a hero that just received his medal
It was just an old hand-me-down Ford
With a three-speed on the column and a dent in the door
A young boy two hands on the wheel
I can’t replace the way it made me feel
And I would press that clutch
And I would keep it right
And he’d say, “a little slower son you’re doing just fine”
Just a dirt road with trash on each side
But I was Mario Andretti
When daddy let me drive.
Here the country song generates feelings about driving and about what autos mean to American families. This is very characteristic of country songs. There are countless other Alan Jackson songs which contain auto imagery but these are perhaps the more well-known and certainly the most useful to this study. At its core, “Country music has always been a format of music that writes to and for the real people out there, the workin’ man.” Consequently, it has used the automobile in its lyrics to identify with the working man just as rock n’ roll did.
As the automobile became integrated into many different music genres, this complementary pairing became evident in the way automobiles were marketed and advertised. With music becoming an increasingly crucial part of branding and advertising strategies for carmakers, some auto manufacturers—Toyota, Ford, and Volkswagen— are expanding the traditional role of music in their marketing efforts through a series of new initiatives. This is not a new practice. The most notable is Chevrolet’s music driven advertisements. In fact, Chevrolet probably maintains the right to say that the most of the automobile themed songs mention some kind of Chevrolet. There was once a billboard for a classic car event in Detroit that stated, “”They don’t write songs about Volvos.” Consequently, songs about “Chevy-200 and counting, and the General Motors Corp. brand is counting”. This notion has shaped Chevy’s advertising and its cultivation of the “classic image”. Chevrolet’s greatest campaign in cultivating this image has been their “Like A Rock” campaign which used the same titled Bob Seger song to impress customers with its strength and reliability. One of Chevy’s biggest musical successes was its jettisoning Bob Seger’s “Like a Rock,” which was the theme song for the Silverado campaign for 14 years. “Rock” was replaced by ” Now More Than Ever,” a 14-year-old track from John Mellencamp. This song has immortalized Chevrolet in many American mindsets and continues to do so, especially to those who remember those commercials. But why have Chevy’s advertisements been so famous and so popular? Chevy realizes the importance and power of music in today’s world. Some of their car models are aspirational, while others are more guy-next-door, but Chevy is sure to pick the right piece of music for each model. Chevrolet continues to be sung about in all genres of music and has unofficially become a symbol of American culture, just as rock n’ roll and country music are.
Automobiles have converged with country music to become major icons in American culture. After 1950, country music lyrics become saturated with automobile imagery and are integral to the country music lifestyle. They cannot be separated because autos have become integral to the way of life both in the urban and rural sector. The pickup truck has proven to be incredibly essential to the farmer and therefore has become an image of country music. Both country music and Chevrolet exhibit a type of lifestyle that caters to the working man. While country music certainly caters to the rural side of the American dream, Chevrolet caters to both rural and urban since lifestyle is often judged by what sort of car you drive. Americans are known around the world by what they produce and Chevrolet and country music are certainly a part of that.
Acclaimed Music website
Alabama, “40 Hour Week”. 1985.
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Cash, Johnny. “One Piece at a Time”. 1976.
Coe, David Allan. “You Never Even Called Me By My Name”. 1975.
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Douglas, K.C. and Robert Geddins, “Mercury Blues”. 1949. performed by Alan Jackson. 1993.
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Kristofferson, Kris. “Me and Bobby McGee”. 1969.
Jackson, Alan. “Chattahoochee” 1993.
—. “Drive”. 2002.
—. “Home”. 1989.
Jones, George. “We’re not the Jet Set”. 1974.
McCall, C.W. “Convoy”. 1995.
Paoletta, Michael. 2005. Music Revs Chevy’s Engine. Billboard 117, no. 52 (December):38.
Reed, Jerry. “East Bound and Down”. 1977.
Williams, Hank Sr. “Hey Good Lookin’”. 1951.
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 Quoted by Mary Neth. Ibid. 11.
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 Qtd. in Halliday, 2.
 Shinman quoted in Ibid. 2.