Country music isn't usually associated with serious messages. In fact, one songwriter, the late Steve Goodman, parodied its stereotypical themes by penning a stanza that included every country cliche: "Well, I was drunk the day my mom got out of 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."
But in recent years, several country songs have plunged into weightier issues: Martina McBride's "Independence Day" is about domestic violence, Sonya Isaacs' "Barefoot in the Grass" deals with terminal cancer and, perhaps darkest of all, John Michael Montgomery's "The Little Girl" features a triple whammy of child abuse, murder and suicide.
The shift reflects a change in the country music audience, observers say. As the nation has become less rural, country music similarly has moved from its traditional roots into the same, suburban world that most Americans live in.
"The audience for country music is better educated, higher income these days. People are becoming more urban, it's not all singing about the railroads and the rural countryside any more," said Jimmie N. Rogers, a communications professor at the University of Arkansas and author of the book, "The Country Music Message: Revisited."
"The core country music audience has basically been working-class, rural they've not been people prone to take a cutting-edge stance on current issues," said James E. Akenson, a professor at Tennessee Technological University and co-founder of the International Country Music Conference. "But once you reach a certain level of affluence, you can do issues."
Political stances in country music tend to be conservative, he said.
"Your country music audience would be traditionally sympathetic to the 'guns don't kill people, people kill people' message," he said. "During the Vietnam War, the majority of songs that came out were overwhelmingly pro backing the war. As a whole, these people aren't activists."