The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The last great country hit about protecting the Earth came out 30 years ago. We’re still waiting on the next one.

(The Washington Post illustration; iStock)

Country music gets its name from where it originates, and if you listen to the songs themselves, the scenery can be postcard-perfect. The sun shines. The corn grows. The moon glows. The river sparkles. Even when the rain turns dirt into mud, the earth still feels good and dependable beneath your feet.

Not on Alabama’s “Pass It On Down.” It’s the only country song about trashed beaches, vanishing ozone and toxic tap water to ever crack the top 10. With the band’s rhythm section ticking like a countdown clock, frontman Randy Owen takes a cold, hard look at our hot, fragile planet and offers a damage report: “Down in Brazil, the fires are burning still/How we gonna breathe without them trees?” Cough.

You won’t hear a more timely single on country radio right now, which is depressing because “Pass It On Down” was released on March 25, 1990. The lyrics were written after Owen’s bandmate and cousin, Teddy Gentry, learned that the mercury levels at his childhood fishing spot had spiked — and because our collective ecological awareness was different back then, the band felt an urgency to speak up. As Owen told the Chicago Tribune after the single hit the airwaves, “Change can’t come if people don’t know a problem exists.”

Then, 30 years passed. “Pass It On Down” didn’t change the world. It didn’t even change country music.

In a century-deep musical tradition that frequently celebrates the precious splendor of our natural world, this rogue eco-hit remains a freakish anomaly though its lyrics aren’t freaky in the slightest. Check out the refrain: “So let’s leave some blue up above us/Let’s leave some green on the ground/It’s only ours to borrow, let’s save some for tomorrow/Leave it and pass it on down.”

If that sounds like protest music to you, remember that Owen and Gentry — along with co-songwriters Ronnie Rogers and Will Robinson — are obeying the thematic guidelines that have defined country music from the get-go. This is a song about upholding tradition, preserving the past and staving off change, all while celebrating the sanctity of home and family. The final verse memorializes a swimming hole that has linked generations. “That water, it’s so pure,” Owen sings. “And I’m gonna make sure that Daddy’s grandkids can swim there like him.”

Since then, the country charts have been filled with odes to beaches, rivers, lakes, valleys, mountains and mud — and a dearth of songs about how to protect those things. Brad Paisley might be only Nashville A-lister to ever explicitly echo the philosophy of “Pass It On Down.” His 2014 tune “Gone Green” portrays the neighborhood solar panel enthusiast as a kooky do-gooder. “This old redneck has done gone green,” Paisley sings, later framing our imminent societal collapse as the result of getting “strung out on that black dinosaur juice.” When it comes to country singers using humor as an olive branch, Paisley is as good as it gets, but I still worry that this song will sound profoundly demented in another 30 years.

In fact, the only reason “Pass It On Down” has aged so well is because our society has aged so poorly. Owen was half-right back in 1990: Change can’t come if people don’t know a problem exists. But we aren’t ignorant anymore, just stubborn, stupid and in denial. If we want tomorrow’s country singers to have some country to sing about, it’s time for today’s to write some songs about it.

Hailey Whitters made the year’s deepest country album. Just look beneath the surface.

Kenny Rogers made life’s rough edges feel smooth

What’s a Grammy worth on this imperiled planet?