As a song judged on its own merits, Jake Owens’ “American Country Love Song” is a) catchy, but sort of lazy and not an actually great song and b) emotionally manipulative if you have ever been kissed while wearing a shirt you purchased from a seafood restaurant adjacent to a public beach. But the very attributes that make it that way also make it an easy and instructive look at the ways country musicians express their lives and describe their memories. The song distills the whole of country music—and the whole of the lives that inspire country music—into a tidy series of tropes: Ford trucks, blue eyes, Daytona airbrushed t-shirts, broken curfews. In totality—and here, even in list form—they tell a story: an incomplete and somewhat hazy one, but one that offers just enough detail for your mind to fill in the blanks and make it whole, for you to imagine this experience and write your own experience onto it, to inspire feelings that are universally, deeply felt out of many people buying in personally.
Nowhere is that phenomenon on more vibrant display in country music than in its coming-of-age songs—the songs that Owens’ song is a paean to, and a sedimentary layer that runs thick through the genre and spans decade after decade, Old Testament-style: Merle Haggard’s “Roots of My Raising” beget Luke Bryan’s “We Rode In Trucks,” beget Florida Georgia Line’s “Here’s To The Good Times,” etc. And today, I say unto you that the greatest of country’s coming-of-age songs is Alan Jackson’s “Chattahoochee.”
The Chattahoochee River snakes diagonally across the state of Georgia, starting near South Carolina and extending all the way to the Georgia-Florida border—but it also winds through Jackson’s mind, linking together memories of summer(s) in young adulthood. In describing these moments, Jackson recreates through writing the experience of looking backward: a few crystal-clear images cloaked in a rich, honey-hued happiness: the kind that’s alive with possibility but feels like safety. A pervasive feeling punctuated by moments of specificity isn’t just exactly how we remember things or how we’re able to recount them to other people: it’s also the way we build understanding and inspire others to connect to our own experience and by extension, to us. Every time we write—and especially any time we write in order to share our experience—we strive to reach that very place: the place where we’re not merely understood, but where people empathize with us, live our lived experience. And the most reliable way to elicit that response is to tell a story with the exact right level of detail. Too much detail and you lose or bore them; too vague and you don’t reach them. The middle ground is that magical tipping point where the personal becomes universal—and the best country songwriters find that tipping point frequently and reliably, so you know where the song and story’s going as soon as you hear how it begins.
The other important life lesson centers on the concluding lines of the chorus: “I learned how to swim and I learned who I was/ A lot about livin’ and a little ‘bout love.” “I learned how to swim and I learned who I was” is the most hilarious and incisive song lyric to me: the two achievements don’t really seem to be on equal footing, but c’mon—think about how fucking FAR you can go in life if you know how to swim and you’re self-aware. Those could be literally the only skills in your arsenal and you’d still be doing better than most people. A charter school that didn’t do anything except teach swimming and offer a pathway toward selfhood would have a waiting list of like 800 people.
The lyric that follows broadens the scope of what Young Jackson learned: “A lot about livin’ and a little ‘bout love.” I think there’s a clear reason coming-of-age songs are so often set in the summer—because during the period of your life when you’re makin’ memories (as Tim Riggins eloquently described and science confirmed), summer is the only time when you can really live life on your own terms, when you can direct your time and make your own choices and revel in or suffer from their consequences. We learn and grow through experiences and by trial and error, so the only way you become YOU is to act, to do: to stack beer cans in a pyramid, to bro down about cars, to strike out with girls—to start wading out into the muddy waters of your own life.
Living and then contextualizing your lived experience through art demands outward and inward focus: the same duality faith demands of us. It’s why it doesn’t sound over the top when Maren Morris calls country music her church: the act of making art and experiencing art can play a similar role in our lives. And I think the concept of art-as-church makes the most sense when you think of a song—especially a song like “Chattahoochee”—as a sanctuary.
We ask sanctuaries to serve two purposes: to be a refuge for self-reflection, and a beacon that draws the like-minded together for a shared experience. They’re places to be by yourself in the presence of others: it’s the appeal of yoga classes, it’s the appeal of worship services. When we listen to songs about adolescence and young adulthood, it’s the same experience: we hear ourselves in the voices of others, we strengthen our memories and draw meaning from our lives by linking them together.
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