We Hear What We Want to Hear

Shu-Yi Oei

I’ve been preoccupied by country music these past few days. For this, I blame my Tulane colleague, Sally Richardson, who recently wrote this post on Property Law Profs Blog. In it, Sally makes the following observation:

Last week, my good friend, brilliant colleague, and property law scholar extraordinaire, Jim Gordley (Tulane), told me that he had been on a road trip and listened to a good deal of country music.  In the course of listening to a series of country songs, Jim decided that country music was about two things:  love and breaking the law.  Being from the south and having listened to my fair share of country music, I have to admit that Jim is right.  Just listen to Friends in Low PlacesAchy-Breaky HeartBefore He CheatsFolsom Prison Blues, and Ol’ Red and you can see for yourself.  Sure, there are some other songs about dogs and beer, but those are really in the minority.  Most country music is about love and the law.

Sally also shares some really genius lyrics coined by Jim, which include:

I assign and convey to you
That unencumbered heart
With one restrictive covenant
That we shall never part,
And this condition subsequent
That if you let it break,
Then I in my discretion
May reenter and retake.

Reminds me a bit of the Conway Twitty tax case—both the Tax Court’s Ode and the IRS AOD in response!

Of course, as a matter of substance, I think Jim and Sally are dead wrong. Love and breaking the law…pshaw! Aside from some notable lines such as the one about Ilsa the acrobat falling in love with Horatio the Human Cannonball, country music is, in fact, all about economic security, lending and financing, foreclosure, bailouts, and tax.

Let me explain:

Caveat: I have an immense soft spot for country music. Some days I have half a mind to move to Nashville and try to earn a living as a country music songwriter. (I’m only very slightly kidding about that.) However, I do not actually know anything about country music. And obviously, country music has a bazillion subgenres is about lots of other things as well (as this article describes), including the painful, painful process of creating legal scholarship.


Since this is a tax blog, I guess we can start with taxes, even though I really only find the tax references interesting insofar as they are embedded in broader sentiments about economic justice and security. A quick Google search yielded me this citypages top 10 country tunes for tax day list, which includes Johnny Paycheck’s “Me and the IRS” (1978), Willie Nelson’s “Who’ll Buy My Memories?” from his album, The IRS tapes, and Sleepy LaBeef’s “There Ain’t Much After Taxes” (1996) I particularly like Sleepy’s:

Take the taxes from the dollar that is hardly worth a dime.
90 cents is Uncle Sam’s, 10 cents is mine.
I can’t keep from thinking how better off I’d be
if I let him take the paycheck and he gave the tax to me

I mean, these lyrics are actually pretty nuanced. Sleepy not only hits inflation on the nose but also was all Murphy & Nagel before even Murphy & Nagel!

Banks and Financing

But actually, what I’ve found even more interesting and surprising than the IRS digs is how many references to banks, lending, credit, and bailouts I hear while just casually listening to country music. Sometimes, the references are dissatisfyingly inaccurate/incomplete.

Take, for instance, Brad Paisley’s “Mud on the Tires” which starts

I’ve got some big news
The bank finally came through
And I’m holdin’ the keys to a brand new Chevrolet
Have you been outside, it sure is a nice night
How about a little test drive
Down by the lake?

Absolutely no mention of dealer financing, subprime auto loans, or their securitization…I mean really, was he thinking? There is much to be worried about with respect to auto loans these days.

And then there’s Tim McGraw’s “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s”

Runnin’ round in this new truck
Bank lets me borrow from month to month
Running out of credit
Find a little cash on the radio

And then later:

‘Cause meanwhile back at mama’s
The for sale sign’s goin’ up and I’m gonna
Dump this truck and the little I got
On a loan to own and a three-acre lot
Put supper on the stove and beer in the fridge
Goin’ for broke and we’re gonna be rich
Watch the sun settin’ on the ridge
Baby tell me what you think about this

There’s that bank again—letting you buy that truck and loan-to-own a property. Banks and financing are extremely important in allowing the pursuit of trucks and the country side of life.

Bailouts, Foreclosures, the Auto Industry, Farms

Of course, banks also become material when things go horribly wrong. I’ve found quite striking country music’s references to foreclosures, bailouts, and their impacts on farms, the auto industry, and other aspects of economic security.

Here’s Willie Nelson & Bob Dylan’s Heartland (1993):

There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland
And the bankers are taking my home and my land from me
There’s a big achin’ hole in my chest now where my heart was
And a hole in the sky where God used to be 

There’s a home place under fire tonight in the heartland
There’s a well where the water’s so bitter nobody can drink
Ain’t no way to get high and my mouth is so dry that I can’t speak
Don’t they know that I’m dyin’ why’s nobody cryin’ for me
My American dream fell apart at the seams
You tell me what it means you tell me what it means

There’s a home place under fire tonight in a heartland
And bankers are taking the homes and the land away
There’s a young boy closin’ his eyes tonight in a heartland
Who will wake up a man with some land and a loan he can’t pay
His American dream fell apart at the seams
You tell me what it means you tell me what it means
My American dream… 

And here’s John Rich’s financial crisis tune, Shuttin’ Detroit Down (2009), which is just squarely about government bailouts. Lyrics here. Refrain here:

Because in the real world they’re shuttin’ Detroit down,
While the boss man takes his bonus paid jets on out of town.
DC’s bailing out them bankers as the farmers auction ground.
Yeah while they’re living up on Wall Street in that New York City town,
Here in the real world they’re shuttin’ Detroit down.
Here in the real world they’re shuttin’ Detroit down.

What’s really notable to me—based on a sample size just a few songs—is the role that our legal and economic structures for taxing and lending are thought to enable or obstruct a way of life regarded as precious. Country music is full references to fishing, hunting, cars, trucks, two-lane country (I was convinced all the songs were saying “Tulane country” for the longest time), red dirt roads, the simple things in life, family, community, work, beer, and your childhood home. So then bank loans become interesting and material because they enable trucks and tailgates and homes and communities and farms. And bailouts and foreclosures become interesting insofar as they’re perceived to destroy those things in favor of Wall Street and DC. And taxes become interesting because the “everyday libertarian” consensus is that they compromise the ability to live the simple life with one’s boots in one little house with the wrap around porch.

Thus tax—in combination with the references to banks and debt and financing and Wall Street and Main Street—paints an evocative picture of the socioeconomic concerns that shape everyday life and the constructed relationship of the individual to government and society. For another example, see Ronnie Dunn’s Cost of Livin’ (2011).

All of which is to say that love and breaking the law have nothing on lending, bailouts, taxes, and perceptions of economic justice. Curious to know what Sally and Jim have to say about that!

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