How Country Music Made Me A Better Copywriter

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Well, it finally happened. country music (C&W — Country & Western) has gone respectable. In the US, PBS ran 8 episodes about the history of country music. Originally it was called hillbilly music. Today you’re more likely to hear what’s called “country crossover” from singers like Kacey Musgraves and (in my opinion) Garth Brooks.

Most people don’t know that I am a big fan of country music — classical country, the real thing, with Hank Williams, George Jones (my fave!), Johnny Cash … the whole line-up. However, now that it’s a big PBS hit, I can come out of the closet and admit it’s one of my two favorite genres.

I discovered C&W while driving around the US a long time ago in a classic VW bug with just a radio. Country music filled the airwaves and frankly, those truck driver songs were just what I wanted to hear on those long, lonely highways. It’s my background music when I’m writing copy.

While PBS claims country music is “America’s own,” the genre has found fans all over the world.

I remember standing on a curb in Amsterdam, Netherlands, when a familiar Johnny Cash tune came from a BMW stopped at the light.

When I visited Ukraine as an exchange professor back in the nineties, a nice young man drove me to the Kyiv airport in a large van usually reserved for the medical exchange program. The van had a tape deck and I had some C&W cassettes. The young man’s face lit up when he saw them and I gave him a handful to keep.

Country stars have performed to sellout crowds all over the world. And in one memorable video, Vince Gill performs with a country singer who has her own band in Sweden.

Here are three copywriting lessons from C&W music.

(1) Go big on emotions.

If you’ve ever listened to real country songs, you probably know they’re heavy on storytelling, emotion, and everyday life. The lyrics tend to lean on the side of melodrama, sadness, and heartache. The first PBS episode explains: the music appealed to a certain audience precisely because they could relate to the stories.

Today’s C&W singers joke a little about their subject matter. Check out “Hank Williams, you wrote my life” and David Allan Coe’s, “The Perfect Country Song.”

Copywriting also starts with strong emotions. We even go for melodrama.

A country artist might write about “crying into your unpaid bills …”

A copywriter might write, “Are you overwhelmed and frustrated because…” or the classic, “Are you struggling …”

(2) Tell the story in as few words as possible.

Country music compels attention by evoking images. We’ll look at three examples.

“You’re the Reason God Made Oklahoma.”

The story alternates male and female voices as if the characters were writing or emailing each other.

She’s moved to California, probably to see if she can make it in show business. She’s living in West Los Angeles in a small apartment with a calico cat. And she misses the big sky country, the open plains where you can see the stars and the real cowboys: she’s amused by the guys who hang out “on the Sunset Strip” hoping to be like her boyfriend, who’s a real cowboy.

Meanwhile, he’s still in Oklahoma, working all day in the fields, attuned to the changing seasons. He drives into town to have a couple of drinks, but he can’t get her out of his mind.

In just a few lines the writer has evoked a story that will resonate widely with a variety of audiences. It could even be the first two-thirds of a romantic comedy.

The man and woman love each other, but their identity is bound up in careers that can’t be transplanted easily. Los Angeles doesn’t have a place for real cowboys and she doesn’t seem to have a place in Tulsa; she may be a rancher’s daughter but she wants something different.

“The Cowboy in the Continental Suit.”

Apparently, at one time, freelance riders could win money by hanging on to a dangerous horse. In this story (which isn’t played as much nowadays), a stranger comes to town, prepared to ride “The Brute” to claim $1000. That would have been serious money back in the day!

Apart from being ready to ride the worst horse in town, the stranger stands out because wears a “continental suit,” which is totally inappropriate for riding any horse — let alone The Brute. A “continental suit,” worn by Cary Grant and others in the 1950s, seems to consist of a loose jacket and trousers, to be worn over a dress shirt and tie.

Yet the stranger establishes his street cred. He knows how to roll a certain kind of cigarette, a trick known only to true cowboys.

And sure enough, he manages to stay on the horse long enough to win the money before taking off to unknown places. Nobody knew where he came from or where he went after winning the money. He’s just “the stranger.”

In less than 3 minutes, we have a strong, suspenseful memorable story. It even comes with a moral or lesson: be careful when judging by outward appearance.

“A Place In the Country”

Finally, George Jones sang about a man who had always wanted a place in the countryside, where he could be surrounded by greenery and hear the birds sing.

But, the song goes on, his wife kept demanding more material possessions (a bit sexist there, but written a long time ago) and his children needed bailing out of their various scrapes. Finally, we learn, the man does get a place in the countryside…in a grave of the cemetery.

(3) Evoke images with details.

C&W songs paint elaborate word pictures. We see this in the Oklahoma song. Without saying, “Fall is coming,” the male voice sings about nights getting colder and makes reference to a “blue northern.” She’s in a “two-room flat” with a calico cat in West LA, a location that evokes images for people from SoCal.

The male hero doesn’t just spend a day on the ranch; he works ten hours on a John Deere tractor. He may be a cowboy but that’s not a horse! The hero also lets us know the female character is a green-eyed rancher’s daughter.

Copywriters and persuasive storytellers do this too.

Instead of, “Do you lie awake …” how about: “Do you dread introducing yourself at your next networking event (and want to promote yourself, without sounding the least bit sales-y)?”

For someone who trains people to build better relationships with their horses: “Have you always been a fearless lover of horses (and now you can’t bring yourself to jump into the saddle for a 5-minute ride)? “

When you get into specifics, in the language of your market, you send a stronger message.

Some copywriters think you attract weaker people who are struggling and losing — not the world’s greatest clients! — when you send a message of misery. In any event, you risk leaving your readers emotionally exhausted, drained, and eager to move on when you focus too strongly on generic pain.

The good news is that once you’ve leaned into some pain in the client’s backstory, you can easily revise the copy to build a strong copywriting message.

But for the first draft? Bring on the facial tissue! It’s much easier than starting with bland phrases or (worse) nothing at all.

If you’d like to work with me to create a client-pulling website or sales letter, or if you’re working on positioning and targeting, let’s start with a no-risk 90-minute consultation. We accomplish a lot in 90 minutes — a significant transformation of your marketing.

Originally published at on September 20, 2019.

Helping entrepreneurs and independent professionals grow their businesses one story at a time.

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