Birdcloud is pretty accustomed to being banned.
Sometimes, it’s for the sillier things: like pictures of the Nashville-based duo’s bare behinds being removed from Facebook, because members Jasmine Kaset and Makenzie Green like to moon their followers. Most recently, three printing companies turned them down when they asked to manufacture “dick picks” for their merch table: not lewd images of the Snapchat variety, but guitar picks adorned with images of male genitalia. There are boob koozies aplenty, but no one wanted to help make Birdcloud’s cocks rock.
But the most egregious came in 2012, when their video for “Saving Myself for Jesus” — a song about abstaining from sex until marriage — was pulled off YouTube by the site’s administrators, who claimed the clip violated community guidelines. While they may make a mention here or there about dry humping (alright, it’s a little more graphic than that), none of those allusions are uncommon in other artist’s songs. Perhaps it was how the words were delivered that tweaked the more conservative viewers: by two innocent-looking women sporting prairie dresses and singing face-to-face in a trailer-park twang. A country song about the hypocrisy of religion, “Saving Myself” is only really funny because it’s true.
“We’re not setting out to make the whole wide world laugh their asses off,” says Green, sitting at an East Nashville coffee shop next to Kaset, her bandmate since 2011. The duo’s most recent release, Tetnis, came out last year. “We try to write true-to-life, fucked-up songs. If they are funny, well, that’s a byproduct of the writing.”
Those types of songs — true-to-life, with a healthy dose of humor — are actually a longstanding country tradition. The genre’s always had a special knack for folding social commentary into snickers and/or smut to create an even more perfect package. While the best-known example may be Johnny Cash’s Shel Silverstein-written “A Boy Named Sue,” it actually goes back much further than that.
From the early days of Jimmie Rodgers and his “Pistol Packing Papa” (nope, not about guns) and Jimmie Davis’s “Tom Cat and Pussy Blues” (not about animals, either) to the 1936 track by western-swing band the Tune Wranglers “Red’s Tight Like That” (a remake of bluesman’s Tampa Red’s song that is most definitely not about the color), the genre’s founders often dipped their pens into the dark side, frequently pairing them with a jaunty jingle and big ol’ smile. Even the legendary Roy Acuff had his own catalogue of dirty tunes from his early days with his band, the Crazy Tennesseans. In fact, much of rock and roll’s daring roots can be found in how brazen early Southern music could be.
Roger Miller, Bobby Bare, Red Sovine and Tom T. Hall mainly kept it clean, but excelled at using novelty as a way to make their point — listen to Miller’s “My Uncle Used to Love Me But She Died” or Bare’s “Dropkick Me Jesus (Through the Goalpost of Life).” David Allan Coe, however, took it to the extreme, diving headfirst into raunch with his underground X-Rated Hits. And to many, that’s where the racist, misogynist and homophobic album should have remained.
These days, weaving irreverence into country music can be a trickier art: use too many dirty words, or too much quirk, and there’s the risk of being labeled a comedian, something that’s plagued Birdcloud, Jonny Fritz and Australia’s Henry Wagons. It’s also created the interesting case of Wheeler Walker Jr., the dual identity of actual comic Ben Hoffman, who released one of the most traditional sounding country albums of the year, Redneck Shit — that just happens to throw around words like “cooches” and “puss-hole.”
“The music I make, the inspiration comes from decades past,” says Wagons, the frontman of Australian’s beloved alt-country outfit Wagons. On his new album After What I Did Last Night…, the singer croons about minutiae like cold burgers and fries to weeping steel guitar. “You can mix a comedic Vaudeville element and serious music. You look back to Johnny Cash. He did an Elvis impersonation, ‘A Boy Named Sue,’ and was still considered a serious songwriter. Some of Bob Dylan’s songs have the funniest things you’ve ever heard. The confessional singer-songwriter genre has become really serious all of a sudden.”
Indeed, “A Boy Named Sue” or the car tune “One Piece at a Time” didn’t classify Cash as a comedian, but singing about “Trash Day,” “Silver Panty Liners” or “Saving Myself for Jesus” has at times for Fritz and Birdcloud. Fritz used to go by the moniker Jonny “Corndawg,” but he returned to his given name when too many people took the joke a little too literally. While Birdcloud’s songs are raunchy, and Fritz’s sometimes silly, neither are without intent.
“We’ve had promoters that try to pair us with comedy nights, and we refuse to do it,” says Kaset. “Just because we can laugh at ourselves doesn’t mean that what we are doing is comedy. It’s an accurate commentary. We’re not singing about a mode of transportation on a dirt road.”
Much of what Birdcloud does is reactionary to what country music has become — those dirt roads and the trucks that drive ’em — but also to their experience growing up in the South: the obsessive religious indoctrination (“Saving Myself for Jesus”), the caged racism (“I Like Black Guys”), the common claim of varying degrees of Native American roots in “Indianer.”
It’s much different from what Walker/Hoffman does, which is more directly identified as comedy — Redneck Shit, produced by Dave Cobb (Chris Stapleton, Jason Isbell), debuted atop Billboard‘s comedy chart when it was released in February. Still, the idea of developing a character to express a raunchier, edgier or weirder side of an artist is itself a longstanding part of country music history, from Garth Brooks’ Chris Gaines to Granger Smith’s Earl Dibbles Jr. Except for the references to boners, Walker songs like “Beer, Weed, Cooches” or “Better Off Beatin’ Off” are as refreshingly honky-tonk as you can find these days, and since it’s as unlikely for traditional country to be played on the radio as songs that mention drugs and sex, why not load up on the dirty words?
“Why clean it up?” echoes Hoffman — speaking explicitly in character as Wheeler Walker Jr. “It’s about being an individual and not censoring yourself. A guy like me who is playing real country music and is also singing about how he feels is not country, while Florida Georgia Line sounds like fucking Selena Gomez. Ain’t no band funnier to me than Florida Georgia Line — that looks like a parody. What ain’t funny is when they are selling more records than me.”
Walker, who connected with Cobb through mutual friend Sturgill Simpson, has a point. If artists already know that mainstream radio will be a challenge due to the inherent melodic structure of trad-country songs (as is the case with Walker, Birdcloud, Wagons and Fritz), there’s no reason not to push the lyrical envelope. As Walker claims, country music has morphed to a point where it sometimes is a parody of itself — but with zero self-awareness.
“I have a theory that all the great artists were always the funniest ones,” says Walker. “The Beatles are the only band who starred in their own comedy movies. FGL is not funny. But Willie is funny.” With few exceptions — Smith’s country-boy alter-ego Dibbles, maybe — that ability to be observant enough to self-mock, or at least take stock of the pulse of your own cultural climate, is becoming all the more rare.
Singer/songwriter/author/Renaissance man Kinky Friedman is one of the more original characters in the irreverent country game, known for songs with a fair share of raunch and comedy but also admired by Dylan for their songwriting strength and political cogency. Like Birdcloud, the Texas firebrand uses sly satire to offer commentary on everything from redneck culture to anti-Semitism, calling his band the Texas Jewboys to make listeners confront his heritage head-on and turning the pejorative from passive into power. Friedman isn’t exactly happy with what’s heard on country radio these days.
“It does sound like background music for a bad frat party,” says Friedman. “It’s not clever. Harlan Howard, Roger Miller, Shel Silverstein. . .that’s clever. Those guys were terrific.” Friedman, who is still writing new songs at the urging of his “shrink” Willie Nelson, attributes a lot of it to how enamored many modern country stars have become with fame. “If your life is having people signing up to get autographs, well, that’s not really being a songwriter,” he says.
Wagons traces some of the loss of humor to the over-serious nature of “good” music vs. mainstream. On one side you have Jason Isbell — brilliant, but most definitely not very funny (unless you follow him on Twitter) — and on the other there’s Brantley Gilbert, who if he’s ever funny, it’s not by intention.
“What people are missing is serious, intelligent songwriting with effective humor,” says Wagons, pointing to Fritz as a prime example of someone doing it right. “Music that is reputable and cutting-edge but also has humor. Sturgill [Simpson] and Chris Stapleton actually selling records is such a triumph for authenticity and intelligent music. But it’s all sad and all incredibly serious and thought-provoking. It’s like there is a hole in the matrix. There is room to poke the periscope while still remaining relevant and intelligent.”
It was certainly easier to do so when artists could write novelty lyrics without the risk of being completely misunderstood. “I don’t think Roger Miller set out saying, ‘I’m going to write this comedy song right now,'” says Green. “He was like, ‘These songs are wacky, and this is a little ditty about drinking too much.’ I think it was just having fun with words.”
Kaset, Green, Wagons, Walker and Friedman all point to another component that’s made it explicitly more difficult to weave raunchy social commentary into their music: political correctness. The women of Birdcloud know that listeners can often be more comfortable with the nature of their lyricism if they call it “comedy.” It’s easier to digest “Saving Myself for Jesus” if it’s taken as a joke, instead of accepting the hypocrisy of the song’s protagonist, who refrains from sex before marriage but allows her boyfriend slap her in the face and access her “back door.”
“I think political correctness is pretty scary, because everybody thinks the same thing and acts the same way,” says Green. “Even from when we first started doing this band, it feels like every year people shrink what’s allowed more and more. If we’re not getting kicked out of something or banned, that’s not normal. But I can say whatever the goddam fuck I want. And this isn’t who we actually are, we aren’t racist. We’re not specifically these characters we sing about in our songs. It’s a commentary on a mentality we have grown up around.”
“It’s gotten worse,” echoes Friedman. “Political correctness has invaded the whole culture.” The solution, he says, is for artists to keep pushing boundaries and making sure that clever language is never scarified for fear of being called “comedy” or deemed too vulgar for the mainstream.
“And,” he says, “I try to incorporate the word ‘motherfucker’ into my set at least a few times every night.”