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Writing music that sells in a recession

Musician Robin Bernard.

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Kai Ryssdal: Every now and again, you hear a song that really helps tell the story of the times. We've got one here that we play when the markets are up. Back when it was written, back in the Depression, "We're in the Money" was really a hope for better times.

Marketplace's Jeremy Hobson was in the capital of country music not too long ago, Nashville, Tenn., exploring how the recession and recovery are being felt and heard in the heartland.


Robin Bernard, singing: Well, I bought myself a rocking chair to see if I could lose these thin dime, hard times, hell on Church St. Blues.

Jeremy Hobson: Robin Bernard is singing me on a song about the recession outside the honky-tonks on Broadway, arguably the center of the country music world.

Bernard: Well I gave a nickel to the poor, my good turn for the day.

The problem is, besides me and one of Bernard's friends, no one is listening. And Don Cusic knows the reason why. He's a country music historian at Belmont University.

Don Cusic: You don't want any music that's gonna make somebody mad. You want music that'll sell. Now, every now and then, controversy will sell, but by and large, you're gonna play it safe.

I met with Cusic in his office the same room where Tammy Wynette's hit song, "Stand By Your Man," was written.

Cusic: You know most songs are about love: Either getting it, losing it, or keeping it.

But Cusic says since country is the music of the white working class, the struggles of that group can be found in the vast library of country music records that line the walls of his office.

Cusic: You can always look back and find a song, like you find "Okie from Muskogee," or "Stand by Your Man," the traditional values, or you've got "The Pill" with Loretta Lynn. So there are always those landmark songs, but they don't really dominate the music, but when one comes along and hits, it defines the music.

Alabama singing "40 Hour Week": There are people in this country who work hard every day...

Like this number one hit, "40 Hour Week" by the band Alabama. Released in 1985, Cusic calls it a salute to the working man in an economy that depended on manufacturers.

Alabama singing "40 Hour Week": And it's time a few of them were recognized. Hello Detroit autoworker, let me thank you for your time...

But as Cusic says, singing about politics or pocketbooks can turn listeners off. Who wants to hear a song about their day job during a night out on the town?

Karla Davis: You want me to play?

Karla Davis is wrestling with that very issue. She's a Nashville musician who likes happy songs as much as the next girl, but she thinks it's important to put her finger on the pulse of today's society, even if it doesn't sell. Her song "Here I Am" deals not just with tough economic times, but also war.

Davis, singing: Singing here I am, holdin' onto what I can. Singing on about how some can heal in me...

The risk seems to be paying off when Davis plays in small venues. She says you can hear a pin drop when she performs a song like "Here I Am" -- one that connects with people's suffering.

Karla Davis: It's giving people a message or giving them an experience that they've had before, that they can relate to.

Other musicians in Nashville prefer to take a different route. They believe now more than ever, music should cheer people up.

Steff Mahan: I think sometimes people come to my shows to escape.

Steff Mahan is writing songs in her one-story Nashville house. I asked her which of her songs best illustrates the Great Recession.

Mahan: I've got a song called "Red Dress." It's just like kids and the job got you down all week long and you seem blue. But on that red dress baby, 'cause you don't look good in blue.

Hobson: Let's hear "Red Dress." Can we do that?

Mahan: Sure.

Mahan, singing: Come on darling, pull your dress on. Let's go dancing to some honky-tonk. Kids and the job got you down all week long, you've been blue. Put on that red dress, darling, you don't look good in blue.

After our interview, Mahan pours me my first glass of moonshine, and I start to see her point. As one longtime country music producer told me, a down economy means hot sales for whiskey and happy music.

In Nashville, I'm Jeremy Hobson for Marketplace.

Mahan: ...Used to go cross down the lines for that redneck rock 'n roll, like we used to. Put on that red dress, darling, you don't look good in blue.

Ryssdal: Jeremy's trip through Tennessee continues this weekend on our personal finance show Marketplace Money with some people for whom the recession is just business as usual.

About the author

Jeremy Hobson is host of Marketplace Morning Report, where he looks at business news from a global perspective to prepare listeners for the day ahead.

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