Country Music and Suicide

From VSL comes this list of truly weird scientific studies. My favorite was this one, which "assesses the link between country music and metropolitan suicide rates":

Country music is hypothesized to nurture a suicidal mood through its concerns with problems common in the suicidal population, such as marital discord, alcohol abuse, and alienation from work. The results of a multiple regression analysis of 49 metropolitan areas show that the greater the airtime devoted to country music, the greater the white suicide rate. The effect is independent of divorce, southernness, poverty, and gun availability. The existence of a country music subculture is thought to reinforce the link between country music and suicide. Our model explains 51% of the variance in urban white suicide rates."

Feel free to hypothesize in the comments. I'm not sure I buy the sub-culture explanation. Personally, many of my favorite sad songs are old country tunes. (I think it has something to do with the steel guitar, which is a uniquely mournful instrument.) After a few Hank Williams' songs, I'm ready for some anti-depressants.

PS. Conner Oberst, of Bright Eyes, wrote about the connection between country music and suicide on his latest album, Cassadega. These lyrics are from the track "Classic Cars," which features the lovely voice of Gillian Welch, who has written many fine songs that also make me sad:

She was a real royal lady, true patron of the arts/
She said the best country singers die in the back of classic cars/
So if I ever got too hungry for a suitcase or guitar/
To think of them all alone in the dark

More like this

Ridiculous. Classic example of how science is not supposed to work. Correlation does not equal causation. Try using music listeners in general and suicide rates. Or rap music and people with last names that start with the later J. Ridiculous.

I love it. This is a great example of "science" that confirms my prejudices. I think people who kill themselves are losers, and I think that people who voluntarily listen to (or sing, or write, or produce) country music are losers too. It's only natural that the two should overlap.

But you'd think they would have the same findings with white girl emo singers like Jewel too- if you make yourself listen to whiny songs about sadness and loss and how cruel the world is, of course you're going to be sad all the time, and more likely to want to kill yourself.

Country music doesn't cause suicide. Get real. If anything, it prevents it. It laments the hardships we all go through in life and makes us feel better because we realize there are so many other people experiencing the same thing we are (divorce, breakups/makeups, death, financial hardships, joy, peace, understanding, togetherness, etc. etc.) Country music mirrors real life and how we all perceive it. If people are likely to commit suicide, perhaps they "want" to listen to sad country songs more often, because it expresses their mood.

Certainly it is possible, as art and music have a huge influence on emotions, but this example is rather surprising. Generally sad art does not make someone depressed, rather it often makes people feel better, as they know they are not alone in those feelings. When pieces touch a deeper level, then this can change. A classic example is the legend of a suicide epidemic after the success of the Goethe novel "Sorrows of Young Werther". This is one of my favorite novels, but it is completely different than country music. In Werther suicide is looked at as a positive solution for an unhappy life. The suicide is not the tragedy in the novel, the loss of love and absence of a place in society is. So maybe I need to listen to country music more, as i didn?t realize that modern country music has that kind of depth.

By Matthew Putman (not verified) on 06 Dec 2007 #permalink

Pah. Everyone knows that suicide is caused by the song Gloomy Sunday, which could hardly be considered country music.

(As a data point, I should note that I own two recordings of Gloomy Sunday, the classic Billie Holiday version and an instrumental version by infamous Satanist Anton LeVay, and I am, to date, still alive.)

I wonder, how it would look if he looked at Blues instead of CM?

Does he include Bluegrass stations (if there are any) with Country? Most genre listings do, but the content tends to be different.

Maybe sad white people with suicidal tendencies to begin with are drawn to country music (as well as to whisky, loose women and heartbreak) because it reinforces their worldview and experience, but this identification doesn't make them feel better and eschew suicide. In other words, maybe the relationship is not one of causality but rather one of affinity.

Hm. If the authors' explanation holds up, then why didn't Johnny Darrell (and his immortal lyric "I guess I should get stoned/ and let the past paint pictures on my head/ Kill a fifth of Thunderbird and write myself a sad song/ Baby tell me why you been gone so long") ever make it big? Talk about someone who should be able to tap into the 'country subculture'!

Maybe everyone besides me who really dug him committed suicide?

Not all country music is about hard luck men; there is plenty of room for women singers as well. Take the plaintive, but souful and beautiful country music of Allison Kraus, and check out some of these lyrics,

'Same mistake that I made before
I'll be waking up
On the killing floor
I remember how
I made you laugh
Thought the next time round
Wouldn't be so bad'

Not exactly a pick-me up tune, but you have to admit, it sounds poignant, whatever it means. The next song features some happy banjo music, so it's not all downbeat. Sounds to me like someone who is trying to cope.

Well when considering the Blues, i especially think that it is unlikely that this research is good. I heard a historian, i think Stanley Crouch, say that there was a higher incidence of depression of slave owners than there was of slaves. He acredited this to the blues. Making music lifted them out of desperate misery. Of course this could be different in this situation, since those listening may not be involved inc reating music. Also the music may not be good enough to lift the spirit.

By Matthew Putman (not verified) on 06 Dec 2007 #permalink

"Southernness"! LOL!

By David Marjanović, OM (not verified) on 06 Dec 2007 #permalink

It wouldn't explain why the world's highest suicide rate is in China.

In response to Sandra, have you ever listened to Chinese music? Just kidding.
However, your comment made me think about how we humans like to give out "suicide trophies" to nations, professions and now, apparently, listeners to various musical genres.
For instance, I've heard it said that dentists have the highest suicide rate. But I have also heard it said that my fellow translators have the highest suicide rate as a professional group (it has also been said we have the highest rate of alcoholism).
So I'm wondering where we get these statistics? Is there some generally accepted reliable source?

Eh...I'd need to see data for this. What are the methods used in this study? What sorts of interviews were conducted?

...And furthermore, correlation suddenly = causation? Since when?

To be fair, country music does make me want to kill myself...

Country Music, eh? What about the other kind of music? You know...Western.
Regardless of the fact that this study was a terribly gross abuse of someone's funding, I wonder what brand of Country music they studied. For instance, I could understand increased suicide rates being a product of minds saturated in Garth Brooks and Trace Atkins....ewww....and Cowboy Troy....dear holy mother of Mary, that sounds torturous. But I wouldn't officially qualify that as Country music when you compare it to Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, and George Jones (among a host of other old-timers). Just remember kids pedal steel and/or fiddle + 1-3-5 harmonies does not result in instant Country music.

I'd like to see the suicide rate for the people who do such ridiculous studies.

If there is any truth in this postulation it makes me feel sad for our Western Civilisation that some people are moved to such a depth of dispair as to lead to suicide based on such shallowness as found in country music. Sorry to say this but the music itself is rather void of any depth and meaning and the words are mostly corny and sentimental. Samuel Barber's Adagio from his string quartette, the second movement of Beethoven's 3rd symphony, the adagietto from Mahler's 5th symphony, to mention but a few pieces, are stirringly sad pieces but also life enhancing. But then I suppose it has to do with one's education and culture.

By Marthinus (not verified) on 07 Dec 2007 #permalink

It's probably got more to do with the disappearance of the manufacturing sector than anything else.

Marthinus, way to go with the completely shallow generalization of an entire genre of music. I'm pretty sure my 13 year old niece could not have done a better job. She wouldn't have been as condescending about it, though.

I don't especially love country, but there are a lot of great songs in the genre, and a lot talent. Even that a non-country fan like me can appreciate. Patsy Cline? C'mon! Beethoven has nothing on her voice ;)

Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash? You don't have to like them, but just because they aren't Beethoven doesn't mean they didn't have talent or anything valuable to say.

Complete and utter rubbish. There are Country songs that might move you to tears, but suicide? Get real. And Marthinus, get your heard out of your rear end and get with the times. Classical music as you know it is dead, listen to some modern stuff like Russell Watson & Katherine Jenkins.
There's probably more people listen to Country than Classical, and no doubt more deaths attributed to listening to Classical, given the old style's stuffs tendency to bore you to death.

I do not believe this study is completely correct. I committed suicide, but I had never listen to any country music in my life.

By Horatio Buckwalter (not verified) on 11 Dec 2007 #permalink

The amount of time devoted to country music airplay in a local area is the result of market research..and if n% of your sample are suicidally depressed, some (assumed constant everywhere) fraction of them will add to the m% of the sample that likes country music anyway, and will respond so to surveyors. The amount of airplay country music gets in an area (above the baseline m%) is a sign that a city is unusually depressed (for whatever is making them depressed).

By Ebenezer T Wil… (not verified) on 20 Jan 2008 #permalink

Another fine case of "Don't believe everything you read."

The reason country music may cause or correlate with more suicide is because it reiterates old and unhealthy values to people who believe in old and unhealthy values, like homophobia, getting married, women staying home, drinking excessively, eating BBQ, and going to church.. all of these "values" lead to early deaths and can influence a person's desire to commit suicide.. say a cowboy who likes men... listens to music that is homophobic and strictly adheres to bible belt hetero-centric god fearing drivel, and connects him to people who think he's better off dead than gay.. THAT would make me want to off myself.. not saying it causes it.. but the beliefs correlate~

country music and suicides probably do correlate but so do hip hop music and violent crimes. nuff said

I have been listening to country music (against my will) in the office I work in for about 3 weeks now and I have to say, these songs really do make me want to blow my brains all over the walls of this place.

personaly my time on full house is what made me want to kill myself, not the depressing country music.

By bob saget (not verified) on 17 Sep 2009 #permalink

I just find this study to be funny. It just comes full circle with how all you country folk wanna blame heavy metal and "Emo" music for all the suicides in the world.

I found these comments on our paper rather interesting. Just a few notes though:
1. The kind of study that is more rigorous than the kind of statistical analysis of data that we did is controlled experiments. It is simply unethical and illegal to conduct a controlled experiment where the dependent variable is suicide. Why? because you could be responsible for killing someone.
2. The nature of country music has changed substantially since the country music that was popular during the late 1980's which was the time the data were collected for our paper. Country music has become less likely to focus on depressing life events and has become more popular. An exception is "Whiskey Lullaby" by Paisley and Kraus.
3. Mortality data has recently been made available for the time "Whiskey Lullaby" was popular and became quite popular. This country song clearly shows suicide as a way to escape the problems of an unsatisfactory life. I collected data on the number of times this song was played on the country radio stations in metropolitan areas during the year after it was released and I will soon be merging the data on the times this song was played on radios with suicide data to see if suicides rates increased in the metropolitan areas where this song was played the most.

Anyway, it was interesting to see this rather old study being recently discussed.

By James Gundlach (not verified) on 11 Dec 2009 #permalink

Dear Martinhus:

I am a harpist, composer and classical music fan. I sneered at country for a long time but have recently found myself drawn to it. You are a complete moron, but maybe I can enlighten you. Country music and classical music come from the same source, which is human emotion. The difference is that classical music has complex harmonies and (usually) no words, whereas country music tends to have simple harmonies and words that speak very directly about people's experiences, with little in the way of metaphor or allusion. You call country music "shallow" because it's simple. But there are benefits to simplicity in music. Classical music has turned itself into a niche market for snobs who pride themselves on being the only ones to appreciate its complexity. Its lack of words makes interpretation very much open to debate. Country music, with its bare-bones harmonies and direct lyrics, keeps the focus on the story behind the song. And those stories are ones that ordinary people can relate to.

Maybe more country fans would listen to classical music if it wasn't for assholes like you, who want to keep it your exclusive private club.

What do you get when you play country music backwards?

You get back your wife, your dog, and your job....

By The Atomizer (not verified) on 13 Jan 2010 #permalink

I believe correlation does not imply causation definitely fits this case. That's going to be the biggest argument about this case.

But you have to reverse this study and make it look at something else.

Not to be racist, but think about this. In lower income communities dominated by african american populations, there may be more rap and hip-hop stations. In these areas, there may be higher crime rates stereotypical to the area. Does that mean rap causes people to rob and murder?

I hate country music aside from the classic stuff, but that doesn't mean it causes suicide.

Funny, Mahler has the same downer effect on me. Huge sobfest, every time.

Country music makes me want to off myself. Mass produced twang. UGH.

Sad music equals to a sad mood.
Does not have to be just country music.

By Boulevard Nights (not verified) on 19 Jun 2010 #permalink

Why does everyone bust on country music for being sad and whiny? Obviously, you are not listeners of the genre or you would know better. What exactly do other music genres "speak" about....beating your girlfriend, doing drugs, killing cops....oh those are MUCH happier subjects, right?
Music is going to speak to your mood. If your mood is dark and suicidal, you are going to seek out that kind of music in what ever genre you prefer. Depressed, suicidal people are not all going to start tuning in to country music. They are going to seek out the depressing songs in the genre they already like and identify with.
Oh and btw, teket - you are an idiot.

Country music is only made for money
and can cause people to be sad suicide on the
other hand is caused by depression how people end up with
that I don't know and Try not to think about reason's
to kill my self Music is an excuse how ever explain why we
are on this planet if life has meaning and explain
Whiskey Lullaby which is about couple that killed themselfs
in sadness over each other in all creativity it is
ad up and the couple both reunited as Ghost at the end of the vidoe and please don't kill you're selfs over Seminole wind don't confuse sad music with beutiful and kill you're
selves over happy tears

By Darrell Rude (not verified) on 22 Oct 2010 #permalink

Great Interesting article and one which should be more widely known about in my view. Your level of detail is good and the clarity of writing is excellent. I have bookmarked it for you so that others will be able to see what you have to say.

How can somebody say classical music is dead? The most talented instrument players and singers choose to play classical music because it indeed is challenging, complicated, and fun to play. Now, I am not saying anything against Johny Cash or Willie Nelson or any other old country singer. But the fact that you people have the nerve to say that Mozart or Beethoven or Bach are not as good as them is absurd. Both genres have stuck because they are good. To say that their music is dead because it is old is only saying that your music will die when it gets old also. I'd would like to see if country music outlasts classical music, that would be impossible at the least.

Country is not suicidal at all. it do help some people overcome their problem. and if someone run across a song that relate to them it make them feel better. science could be proven wrong. scientist had said that human are evolution of ape/money but than later from tadpole/fish? GET REAL! Country music is so wildly spread unlike rap and some other genre that talk about sex, drug, rape, crime, killing etc.Depressing music come from all genre but some of those don't should depressing at all. With country music listener can understand the word and/or the meaning of it. i don't even know what the hell rap, rock and other "hardcore" genre talks about! So Country music is the genre that cause the highest suicidal rate is crap to me. how would we know if they're lieing or not. maybe they just hate the music and try to subotage it?

and to the people who what to kill themself by listening to country music at work. is it REALLY the music or the job? bacause it maybe a possibility that it's the job.

to Erik and nounni I listen to country music occasionaly and I can say I have considered suicide more than once since I started!!!!!!!!!!!

By Christopher Smith (not verified) on 08 Apr 2011 #permalink

This is probably one of the best brings up of this subject I have seen in a long time. It's obvious that your understanding of the topic is actually heavy which made for an extremely fascinating study.

What a awful mail! Because of you in regard to sharing it on your site.I've been visiting your blog instead of a while conditions and I always summon up a jewel in your recent posts. Thanks in support of sharing.

I love country music, and just because some-person says that sad country music songs infulence suicide doesn't mean a damn thing.
A. What proof do they have, most sad country songs actually make me feel better because I'm not the only one experiencing these things, so why would I want to kill myself over it, it's just pointless & stupid. And because if everyone who felt that way did that there would be nobody to make these songs to help you get through those tough times, and there would be alot less people in the world.
B.And why do people allways talk trash about country for being sad and upsetting? Obviously, you dont listen to country or you would know better. What exactly do other music genres "sing" about....beating your girlfriend, doing drugs, killing, whores, sex, and in rap/hip hop EXTREMELY foul language....ohh THOSE are MUCH happier topics. Sure, and pigs can fly too right?
C. If your emotions express sadness and depression most likely you will try to find music that expresses those same feelings, in the genre that you prefer to listen to listen to. Most people will stay within the genre(s) that they like, not head straight to country music.
ohh and hwo ever the hell tekel is YOU ARE F*CKING RETARDED you dont know a damn thing about good music, so you can just go f*ck yourself.
for all others, please excuse my language.

By Me, myself, & I (not verified) on 21 Jul 2011 #permalink

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I know that contry music should be banned for a long long time because it causes depression and all the things I have heard about it when ever i look it up

By Brian Ballard (not verified) on 28 Sep 2011 #permalink

Check your spelling and your facts.

By Morgan B. (not verified) on 06 Oct 2011 #permalink

finally someone who agrees with me. country music is the biggest bullshit of depressents i have ever heard. everytime i hear it, it makes me want to pick up drinking. statistics prove it, and if you country music fans cant accept it, then go crawl back under the tobacco plant you came from. i live in corbin ky and i hear this shit everyday. seriously, same old bullshit everytime. so COUNTRY MUSIC SUCKS!!!!!!!!!!!

By country sucks balls (not verified) on 07 Oct 2011 #permalink

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I have never liked country because of the twangy sound and every time i listen to that crap i wanna blow my brains out,btw im a metal head and i do wanna break something everytime i listen to metal but oh wait i always wanna destroy something or make something go boom or set something on fire and i play video games ALOT and i do get angry but i dont feel like killing myself so stfu u country listeners

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