Country Clichés Unraveled: Tailgate Parties
By Kurt Wolff
In our series Country Clichés Unraveled, Radio.com takes a look at common subjects that have populated country songs for decades. This week the subject is tailgating.
Turn on country radio these days and it seems every other song mentions tailgate parties, ice-cold beer and pretty women dancing under the moonlight. But not that long ago, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a single song that mentioned this kind of fraternal revelry.
Tailgate parties are a hallmark of so-called “bro country,” a backward-baseball-cap-wearing trend in country defined by trucks, parties, women in tight jeans and a seemingly unlimited supply of beer. These tailgate parties are less about barbecues with friends at sporting events and more about raging down a dirt road or cutting loose in a farm field on a warm summer night.
In recent years, tailgates are seemingly everywhere in country, having been referenced in such hits as Luke Bryan‘s “That’s My Kinda Night,” Randy Houser’s “Runnin’ Outta Moonlight,” Brantley Gilbert‘s “Kick It in the Sticks” and Jason Aldean‘s “My Kinda Party,” an anthem whose lyrics and powerhouse chords helped define the trend. “You can find me in the back of a jacked-up tailgate,” Aldean sings, “chillin’ with some Skynyrd and some old Hank.”
Not everyone is happy about the trend, though. “If I hear one more tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke song, I’m gonna throw up,” Zac Brown famously said during a radio interview last year. He went on to call Bryan’s song “That’s My Kind of Night” (which was at that point rising fast on the charts) “one of the worst songs I’ve ever heard.” Ouch.
Unlike other common tropes populating today’s country music, though (trucks and beer, for instance, or even tributes to Hank Williams), tailgate parties are a recent phenomenon.
Ten years ago, such references were few and far between, and a generation ago, if a singer mentioned “tailgating,” it was of the “following too close” variety. “I got a memory on my tailgate, and old Smokey’s on my rear,” sang Johnny Paycheck in “his 1980 hit “Drinkin’ and Drivin’.”
So who started the whole tailgate trend? Let’s turn the dial back to the 1990s and start with the catalog of one of the era’s biggest hitmakers: Joe Diffie.
Diffie’s 1990 song “Almost Home” is one of the first country hits that mentions a “tailgate.” Though to be honest, it’s not quite in a “party all night” context. Instead of beer or BBQ, his truck bed is full of fishing equipment. “Cane poles on the tailgate bobbers blowin’ in the wind,” Diffie sang.
Three years later, though, Diffie brought up tailgating again in his hit “Pickup Man.” And this time, the reference feels more in line with the trend in today’s country:
You can set my truck on fire, and roll it down a hill
But I still wouldn’t trade it for a Coupe DeVille
I’ve got an eight foot bed that never has to be made
You know if it weren’t for trucks we wouldn’t have tailgates
I met all my wives in traffic jams,
There’s just something women like about a Pickup Man
While Diffie was on the right track, it’s really Tim McGraw who took things a step further and sang about a full-blown country tailgate party. His 1994 song “Down on the Farm,” the third single from his breakthrough album Not a Moment Too Soon (and written by Jerry Laseter and Kerry Kurt Phillips), comes complete with beer coolers and “old Hank cranking way up loud.”
Is “Down on the Farm,” then, the first true, red-blooded “bro country” song? That’s open to debate, of course, but the lyrics certainly make a good case: “There’s a big fire burnin’ but don’t be alarmed,” McGraw sings, “It’s just country boys and girls gettin’ down on the farm.”
Brooks and Dunn picked up on the concept, too, with their 1997 song “Days of Thunder.” The lyrics have a familiar ring, referencing trucks, beer, bonfires and hanging out on the back of the tailgate watching it all go down.
A lot of trucks lined up down by the lake
Drinkin’ beer on the back of the tailgate
Boys from the valley wanna start a fire
Hey baby what you wanna do tonight
At the turn of the 21st century, as Internet connections picked up speed, so did references to tailgating. In his 2000 hit “Country By the Grace of God,” Chris Cagle sang about “dancin’ on the tailgates” and “raisin’ a little cain.” Two years later, Montgomery Gentry’s “Speed (My Town)” referenced sitting “on the tailgate all night long.” And then there’s Neal McCoy’s 2005 single “Tail on the Tailgate,” which…well, you can listen for yourself.
Female artists, too, had a thing for tailgates. Julianne Hough‘s single “That Song in My Head” is about a boy who caught her eye swinging his feet off a a truck’s tailgate, while Lauren Lucas wanted to spend a “hang out on a tailgate on a Saturday night” with her guy in “The Carolina Kind.”
And then there’s Gretchen Wilson, who, in her smash 2004 hit “Redneck Woman,” made it known that she’s got no taste for champagne but instead would rather “drink beer all night in a tavern or in a honky tonk or on a four-wheel drive tailgate.” The song struck a chord with fans (females and males alike) and spent five weeks at No. 1.
The current trend of seemingly endless tailgating songs, though, is really about the party.
Colt Ford set the tone in his 2008 single “Tailgate” (“Come on hun, this is gonna be fun, let the pickup run, sit your buns on my tailgate”), and Aldean took it further down the road when he cranked up the volume on his 2010 anthem “My Kinda Party.” Soon the radio was seemingly inundated with hits referencing parties, trucks and tailgates by, among many others, Brantley Gilbert (who actually wrote “My Kinda Party”), Tyler Farr, Josh Thompson, Lee Brice (getting his “tailgate buzz” on in his good-natured sing-along “Parking Lot Party”) and Kip Moore.
Moore’s first big hit “Something ‘Bout a Truck” is much gentler in melody and spirit than “My Kinda Party,” but lyrically it has all the key elements: a “dropped tailgate,” “beer sitting on ice,” “a farmer’s field” and “time to kill.” And, of course, “a girl in a red sundress with an ice cold beer pressed against her lips.”
The opposite is true of Florida Georgia Line, a duo often associated with tailgate-type songs. Recent hits of theirs such as “Cruise,” “Round Here” and “Get Your Shine On” are party-friendly and fit the trend in spirit, even if they don’t specifically mention tailgating by name.
If anyone’s the king of the tailgaters, though, it’s got to be Luke Bryan. Not only did the Georgia superstar reference it in “That’s My Kind of Night” (“Might sit down on my diamond plate tailgate/Put in my country rock hip-hop mixtape”), but in 2011 he released an entire album under the name Tailgates & Tanlines, which was packed with such tailgate-friendly songs as “Country Girl (Shake It for Me)” and “Drunk on You.” The album went double platinum and set Bryan’s career on fire.
The tailgate trend has been taking some heat lately, thanks in good part to Zac Brown’s comments and a growing backlash against the current deluge of “bro country” songs. But that backlash hasn’t yet put much of a dent in the trend. In 2014, we’ve already heard about more tailgates and tailgating in songs like Thomas Rhett’s “Make Me Wanna” and two recent singles from Gilbert, “Bottoms Up” and “Small Town Throwdown.” And the year’s only a little past the halfway point. So keep that grill in the truck bed and pick up some ice on the way home from work, because no matter what anyone says, the party’s still on.