Lyrics Uncovered: Keith Urban, ‘John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16′
Keith Urban's "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" lyrics are some of the most interesting at country radio today, but the song was so challenging to write that it almost didn't see the light of day.
The song came about through a collaboration between three of Nashville's top songwriters. Ross Copperman already had the skeletal structure on acoustic guitar before he got together with Shane McAnally and Josh Osborne for a session. He also had pieces of the melody, but had no idea what to do lyrically.
It was actually a past hit that got the ball rolling. Osborne's father gave him an old gramophone after "Merry Go 'Round" became a hit for Kacey Musgraves, and a reference to that kicked off the lyrics, which proceed through a long list of cultural touchstones that includes Elvis, John Wayne, Pepsi and Don McLean's classic, "American Pie."
It wasn't easy to bring together all of those disparate references, and the writers admit to Billboard that they considered abandoning the song. But ambiguous lines like “I’m a child of a backseat freedom, baptized by rock ‘n’ roll / Marilyn Monroe and the Garden of Eden, never grow up, never grow old," are at the heart of what makes the song so special, and so unlike anything else.
"I don’t exactly know what that line means, but that’s my favorite line in the whole song," Osborne says.
In the end, bringing the three Johns together provided the solution for the "John Cougar, John Deere, John 3:16" lyrics.
"John Cougar references all the sort of sexual tension of teenage angst all of us were growing up in," McAnally says. "John Deere represents the way that our parents worked and what we saw living in the country, and of course [there’s] the element of religion. And [there’s] irony in John Cougar starting the line, and John 3:16 ending the line because that was the push and pull of that teenage thing."
They completed a demo and sent it to Urban, who visited Copperman's studio a few days later to try his voice out on the song. He debuted the song live at the Country Radio Seminar on Feb. 25, and Urban says he wasn't sure the song was going to work until then.
"Maybe two days later, somebody sent me a YouTube link, and that’s the first time I actually heard the crowd react to the end of the first chorus," he tells Billboard. "I thought, ‘Oh, that’s a good sign. It’s sort of like the punch line landed and they laughed.’ It connected in the way I hoped it would, so I think that’s probably what had all of us start thinking maybe that’s the first song we should get in the studio and work on."
The song is the first taste we've had of Urban's next studio album. "It's a work in progress," he tells Taste of Country, adding, “I’m always looking for new people to create with ... I did it with Fuse and I’m doing it with this record as well.”
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