The honky-tonks on the downtown strip in Nashville are a tough musical apprenticeship: wannabes play for tips, and drinks, to crowds of distracted, often inebriated tourists. Like many country artists, that is where Chris Janson got his start. When he moved from Missouri to Nashville – for country novices what Hollywood is to aspiring actors – “the doorman put me on stage and I got the gig.” For a few weeks he slept in his car. That was in 2005. He was 18.
Janson earned a reputation as a beguiling, slightly manic live performer, gangly limbs whirring as he blasted his harmonica (he also plays guitar). But his recording career stalled; even most country fans were unlikely to have heard of him. Until 2015, when he co-wrote and released “Buy Me a Boat”, a hit that transformed his career. In retrospect it seems a harbinger of a bigger change, one that has since convulsed America and the world.
“I ain’t rich”, Janson begins in his charismatic twang, “but I damn sure wanna be. Working like a dog all day ain’t working for me.” With the down-home wit that distinguishes the best country lyrics, he wishes he “was sitting on a pile like Warren Buffett”, because, the chorus explains, the guitars mustering and drums breaking in, the money “could buy me a boat”. Not just a boat, but “a truck to pull it”, plus “a Yeti 110 iced down with some silver bullets.” A Google search reveals that a Yeti 110 is a high-end cooler; silver bullets are cans of Coors Light. The second verse chafes light-heartedly against condescension. “They call me redneck, white trash and blue collar,” Janson deadpans, but “I could change all that if I had a couple million dollars.”
He sang “Boat” recently at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville, country’s “mother church”. In his two-song set he largely conformed to a popular persona among male country stars: the pious hellraiser, an oxymoron that bespeaks the genre’s debt to born-again religion. With his tattoos and hipster jeans, he knee-wobbled and high-kicked around the stage; in a homily delivered between numbers, however, he explained that there were three things the audience should know about him. “I’m a Christian. I love the Lord very much and I know him personally.” He was, he said, a proud dad, including to his two stepchildren, whom he calls “bonus kids”. Finally, “if you find true love, you need to hang on to it.”
He has found it, as the other song he performed, “Holdin’ Her”, commemorates. It opens with a memory of hellraising: “I’ve woke up in places I couldn’t remember/Who’s lying next to me or even how I got there.” Then it celebrates the redemptive power of love – for his wife, and God, who bestowed on him a “sweet baby girl/And ever since that day…I’ve been a brand new man.”
During “Boat” Janson goofily asked whether the audience was “ready to see a skinny white boy play this harmonica like Jerry Lee Lewis plays the boogie-woogie piano?” They were and he did. (Typically for country concerts, almost everyone was white, despite the pronounced overlaps, tonal and thematic, with African-American music.) “Boat” contains a godly aside, too. “I keep hearing money is the root of all evils,” it acknowledges, “And you can’t fit a camel through the eye of a needle.” Overall, though, it is a striking, materialistic departure from country’s standard take on deprivation.
Generally country songs revere the simple life and the fortitude it cultivates, renouncing luxury – rather than coveting it – in favour of the essentials, such as cold beer, cut-off jeans and fishing. Often they lament the deracinating sophistications of upward mobility and the city, with which, these days, many fans are familiar. Another turn at the Ryman that night, “Whispering” Bill Anderson, exemplified this boozily ascetic outlook. Anderson sang an ode to his grandfather’s boots. “He was just a common man, didn’t even own a suit”; still, his grandson wouldn’t take a million bucks if someone offered it for the old man’s footwear.
“The hand of God is on that boy,” the announcer commented as Janson left the stage. Perhaps it is. Lacking a label, he recorded “Boat” himself and sent it to Bobby Bones, a syndicated country DJ. Bones liked it and, taking a chance on an unsigned artist, played it on his show. As the song climbed the charts, he phoned Janson, on air. Bones wondered whether he would be splurging on a boat himself; Janson “said I’d buy diapers”.
“It was a blessing and God’s timing,” he thinks now. There may have been more than divine providence at work. The claim to a fairer share of America’s spoils; impatience with unrewarding labour, elite snobbery and consoling pieties; a refusal to know your place and stay in it: Janson says he was “just being real” when he wrote “Boat”, and it concisely expresses sentiments that motivated millions of voters. Indeed, Janson personifies the eclectic coalition – evangelicals allied with disenchanted workers – that powered Donald Trump to victory.
He was a fitting addition, therefore, to the Republican National Convention in July. The Democratic get-together had bigger names – Alicia Keys, Paul Simon, Katy Perry – but none captured the insurgent mood as Janson did. He played a tune he had co-written for Tim McGraw, an established country star, that hymns the cardinal country activities of “Friday night football, Saturday last call, Sunday hallelujah”, while, like “Boat”, hitting a note of defiance: “if you think this life I love is a little too country – truck yeah!” That title –“Truck Yeah” – captures the ironic self-parody that is another latter-day country trait. This time, Janson adapted it to “Trump Yeah!” “Let me hear you say, ‘Trump Yeah!’” he exhorted the delegates, as the Trumps evinced the pursed bafflement to be expected of New York plutocrats exposed to a cavorting country rocker.
With the exception of rare crossovers, such as Taylor Swift, country music is culturally segregated from mainstream pop, as its listeners tend to be, politically, from coastal liberals. Probably few politicians considered what the resonance of “Boat” might imply. But it was a sign.