I rarely turn on the radio in my car, but recently while driving, I inadvertently pressed the power button on the radio rather than the A/C button that I was intending to push. The FM station was tuned to a country music station, and a song titled “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” played. I’ve since learned that the song has been around a couple of years, but it was the first time I heard it. Now, I’m far from a country music aficionado, but I’m not one to bash it either. In fact, some of my favorite singer/songwriters live and write on the border of country: Jason Isbell, James McMurtry, Lori McKenna, Kacey Musgraves, etc. But this song by Riley Green was groan worthy in its use of country music tropes, and I just have to vent with full knowledge that there are few, if any, music fans more defensive about or protective of their preferred genre than country music fans.
Trust me, I have mad respect for anyone who can get anything published in any mainstream media, and I’m positive there are hundred of thousands of country music fans who love the song. The official live performance of the song has been viewed over 2.5 million times. If the only measurement we use is the number of plays,, views, and downloads, the song has been an unqualified hit, but then again, so was “Disco Duck.” However, one should never conflate popularity with quality, and whenever a song or any work of art crosses unintentionally into self-parody through an overabundance of clichés, there’s a problem whether it’s popular or not.
By the way, it’s not an occurrence limited to country music. Fiction writers who are fortunate and talented enough to publish a multitude of stories often fall into the difficult-to-avoid trap of imitating themselves. I think Metallica, whose Black Album, I feel, is one of the finest works of metal ever produced, creeped into self-parody with its Saint Anger album. To me, that album sounds like Metallica trying to sound like Metallica if that makes any sense. The phenomenon is the equivalent of when Fonzie “jumped the shark” in the television show Happy Days. It’s just lazy as a writer and too much to ask the listener, reader, viewer to swallow. Listening to Green’s song, I had to pause to make sure it wasn’t actually a Weird Al spoof.
To illustrate my point, I’ll make a bulleted list of the tropes that appear in “I Wish Grandpas Never Died”:
- Porch swings
- A longing for the time when children said “Sir” and “Ma’am”
- A shout out to iconic country songs/artists: Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried” and Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road”
- Friday night football
- Pick-up trucks and Chevrolets
- Coolers full of beer
- Soldiers overseas
- Farmers forced to sell their farms
Mind you, this is in a song that lasts just over four minutes. The pathos in the play on the emotions of anyone who has ever lost a grandpa is to go for the lowest of hanging fruit, but the real kicker for me is the complete lack of self-awareness in the line “I wish country music still got played on country radio.” As correct as that statement might be, this is not the song in which to make it. I can’t imagine Merle Haggard or Steve Earle or any serious country songwriter or singer writing or singing “I Wish Grandpas Never Died.”
Let me reiterate, my complaint is with this song and those like it that make zero effort to display any originality and that play to the lowest of common denominators. If I come off as an aesthetic snob, that is not my intention. At the end of the day, the quality of any work of art is subjective, and if even the schlockiest works of art resonates with someone and helps them to get through their night, then it has value in the world. Who am I to contend otherwise?
I’m sure Riley Green and his songwriting collaborators on “I Wish Grandpa Never Died” are supremely talented, and they have probably made some money from the song. Also, I understand better than most the difficulty of breaking through to a mainstream audience, and I say, “Good on ya, boys!” for that, and I certainly wish them nothing but future success. But fellas, I’m sure y’all can do better.
I really hate to do it, but check it out for yourself, and if you can get past the pathos associated with losing one’s grandpa, I dare you to disagree with my complaint.
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