John Rich – “The Good Lord And The Man”

Karlie Justus Marlowe | July 10th, 2009

John Rich - Good Lord and the ManSongwriter: John Rich.

Like his last name implies, John Rich is a pro at constructing commercial country songs with built-in, ready-to-consume target audiences for artists such as Gretchen Wilson, Faith Hill and Jason Aldean. His latest single “The Good Lord and the Man,” an ode to the hard-working men and women Tom Brokaw famously dubbed “The Greatest Generation,” proves he is also able translate his special brand of craftsmanship into his own solo songs.

Where the populist “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” failed in its incredible discord between John Rich, The Working Man’s Voice and John Rich, The Blinged-Out Superstar, his latest effort succeeds. Unlike Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten” or Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” Rich’s song is not so much a defensive reaction or rallying war cry as it is a thank you note, and a convincing one at that: His understated vocal delivery effectively conveys his obvious pride and admiration for servicemen and women, while the acoustic beginning continues an acoustic-minded, neo-traditional trend in Rich’s production choices.

The song is obviously intensely personal, a fact Rich has acknowledged in interviews. Written about his father’s father, a World War II veteran who won six purple hearts, the details Rich injects into the opening lines provide the set-up for a heartfelt homage to his Grandfather Rich: “Well he was one of the millions/Who signed up to defend us, long ago in 1941/When they sucker punched us in Pearl Harbor, he fought under MacArthur/Seventeen with an Army Thompson gun.”

Unfortunately, whatever authentic patriotism Rich conjures up in the opening verses is instantly discredited by the song’s uncomfortably off-putting chorus. Rich doesn’t effectively channel the emotions his grandfather’s service evokes within him and his phrasing and lyrics end up straining both rhythmically and logically to make his points: “And I see people on my T.V. taking shots at Uncle Sam/I hope they always remember why they can/’Cause we’d all be speakin’ German, livin’ under the flag of Japan/If it wasn’t for the good Lord and the man.”

Lest we hold our breath and hope the chorus is merely Rich’s attempt at a hyperbolic characterization of changes that would have certainly resulted from an alternative ending to the war, in March the singer told the New York Times in no uncertain terms: “I mean [“The Good Lord and the Man”] completely literally.” Sadly, this superficial emotional payoff negates the lyrical story he sets up at the song’s beginning.

Another lyrical incongruity stems from the song’s titular reference to “the man.” In this context it refers to Rich’s grandfather and the many other individual soldiers that made up WWII’s armed forces. However, as a term usually relegated to disparaging commentary on the bosses, politicians and similarly power-abusing villains of the world that work in opposition to the honest, hard-working laymen thematically prevalent in country music, it rings off target.

What’s most upsetting about the song is how close it is to being a nice memorial to a generation that grew up under circumstances a world away from anything I could begin to imagine. The unsettling lyrics of the chorus become the focal point of the tribute, instead of the men and women it rightly set out to celebrate.

Thumbs Down

  1. Kelly
    July 10, 2009 at 9:11 am

    I found myself actually wanting to like this song as I listened to it, but the chorus is a bit too much for me. I get that he isnt likely speaking 100% literally, regardless of his claims to the contrary, but “speaking german under the flag of japan” is just so hokey and non-sensical and it belittles what he seems to be truly trying to accomplish in this song. Good review, Karlie.

  2. Jon
    July 10, 2009 at 9:14 am

    Hmmm. I hear “the man” used in the phrase “you da man” at least as often as I hear it used to refer to “the bosses, politicians and similarly power-abusing villains of the world.”

    Craft-wise, I think Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side Of Me” is a better song, but I’d be hard-pressed to say that the content is less off-putting than RIch’s chorus – and “Fightin’ Side Of Me” is a great song.

  3. Jon
    July 10, 2009 at 9:20 am

    ‘“speaking german under the flag of japan” is just so hokey and non-sensical …’

    Uh, that ain’t the line; Karlie quoted it correctly in her review. As she notes, it’s rhythmically awkward (something I almost always despise in a song lyric) and I think it’s too trivial an observation for the weight it ought to carry, but nonsensical, it’s not.

  4. Stormy
    July 10, 2009 at 9:39 am

    The other problem with the whole line about speaking German under a Japanese flag is that it underscores a few of the less proud moments of the Greatest Generation. To begin with, wasn’t the most highly decorated single military unit in WWII made up entirely of Japanese Americans, many of whom joined the service to prove their patriotism to a country which had rounded up their families in internment camps? Secondly, immediately prior to WWII there were many towns in America that had German as a second language the way grocery stores and schools will have things listed in English and Spainish today. It was WWII and the discrimination these German Americans faced during WWII that caused them to either stop speaking German or stop interacting with their neighbors. I wonder where these groups of people fit in John Rich’s song, or if we are just supposed to ignore them entirely.

  5. Kelly
    July 10, 2009 at 9:47 am

    “Uh, that ain’t the line; Karlie quoted it correctly in her review”

    Jon – it’close enough. I was simply referring to the line and not attempting to nail it by the syllable. It is non-sensical, by the way. If we were to be living under a certain flag, other than the current one “we” would likely be speaking the language of whichever flag we were under (perhaps a hybrid of german and japanese, who knows). It’s not rocket science, sir.

  6. Paula_W
    July 10, 2009 at 10:09 am

    I’m definitely not a John Rich fan. But I’ve heard him sing this song live acoustically on a couple of occasions (trust me, I did NOT go to see/hear John Rich, he just happened to be at the event I attended) and I do like this song a lot. It could almost even make me like John Rich himself, but not quite. I think this is one of John’s better songs, and I think his performance of it is very good. (Dont worry, I’m still not a John Rich fan — but I am a fan of this song).

    As for the line in question, I dont see it as we would be speaking German and living under the flag of Japan simultaneously – but rather, had any war or battle gone differently from the way it did, we could be facing either of those, or a multitude of other, possibilities.

  7. Kelly
    July 10, 2009 at 10:23 am

    I agree with you Paula. The general scenario that was presented to the US by our oppenents could’ve created quite the unique “language situation” for us and I see how one flag can fly while a different language is spoken in that specific region. My main feeling is that the chorus took a really easy way out and ended up being a bit cheesy. With it being presented so simplistically, and according to Rich, so literally, I feel that it just doesnt make much sense in that regard however….

  8. Drew
    July 10, 2009 at 10:29 am

    I like it… not as good as “Shuttin’ Detroit Down”, which was one of my favorite songs of the past few months, but still a nice follow-up.

  9. Jon
    July 10, 2009 at 10:29 am

    Stormy, most of the members of the 442nd spoke little or no Japanese; also, you’re confusing World War II with World War I. Not that either has much to do with the song or the line in question.

    Kelly, you might want to chew for a while on the possibility of living under more than one flag. It happens under a variety of circumstances. You, in fact, live under two flags, and some of your representatives have been making a big deal about that lately.

    As I said, the problem with the line is that instead of building on the preceding observation – namely, that freedom of speech would be curtailed under occupation by foreign dictatorships – it turns to more inconsequential things.

  10. Jim Malec
    July 10, 2009 at 10:30 am

    The song decries people who “take shots at Uncle Sam.” To imply that the term “The Man” applies to anything other than that reference is fighting an uphill battle. Sure, the term “you da man,” is often used in general conversation, but context matters. It’s not as if “The Man” in this sense is standing alone. Nothing else in the song indicates that the phrase is directed at his Grandfather.

  11. nm
    July 10, 2009 at 10:41 am

    I’m just not sure that he gets it that lots of his grandfather’s fellow soldiers themselves engage in the sort of criticism that he calls “taking shots at Uncle Sam.” They fought so that they could do it themselves, ya know — it’s not an us-and-them situation the way he portrays it.

  12. Karlie Justus
    July 10, 2009 at 10:49 am

    NM, I struggled with that a bit too, but in a different way: “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” was essentially, in part, a shot at Uncle Sam itself. I don’t think he’s disapproving of people who take shots at Uncle Sam, but making sure they know they’re able to do so because of these men and women. But I agree, there’s kind of a feeling in the song that he should include himself in that group of people speaking out.

  13. Jammin' Jamey
    July 10, 2009 at 11:38 am

    Aren’t we being just a tad too politically correct by attacking the chorus of this song?

  14. Jon
    July 10, 2009 at 11:42 am

    Jim, you think “the man” in the title and lyric is Uncle Sam, and not the guy whose story is told in the verses?

    And not to make too much of one person’s experience, but I’ve heard “the man” used much more often as a positive reference than as a negative one in bluegrass and country circles over the past 30 years. I think that’s related to the more ambiguous and inconsistent attitudes toward authority held by those genre’s fans than some other socio-economic groups – attitudes embodied in the kind of self-contradictory populism that you find expressed by artists like Rich and Haggard.

  15. Chris N.
    July 10, 2009 at 11:51 am

    “I think that’s related to the more ambiguous and inconsistent attitudes toward authority held by those genre’s fans than some other socio-economic groups – attitudes embodied in the kind of self-contradictory populism that you find expressed by artists like Rich and Haggard.”

    Damn, I hate it when Jon’s right.

  16. Jim Malec
    July 10, 2009 at 12:32 pm

    The set-up for the hook is that people are taking shots at Uncle Sam (often referred to as “the man”–of course, other things can be “the man”, e.g. overbearing social/work systems).

    You can’t bring that up and then say that we wouldn’t be free “if it wasn’t for the man” and actually mean “the man” as something other than the thing you previously used in your set-up.

  17. Stormy
    July 10, 2009 at 12:48 pm

    Jamey: A friend of mine once said that political correctness was merely doing what we ought to have been doing all along.

  18. Jon
    July 10, 2009 at 12:51 pm

    Jim: “The set-up for the hook is that people are taking shots at Uncle Sam (often referred to as “the man”–….You can’t bring that up and then say that we wouldn’t be free “if it wasn’t for the man” and actually mean “the man” as something other than the thing you previously used in your set-up.”

    Well, leaving aside the fact that I don’t believe I’ve ever heard Uncle Sam referred to as “the man,” note that the “set-up” for the hook is, in fact, the first two verses. The chorus, which follows them, *starts* with the hook:

    “If it wasn’t for the good Lord and the man
    There wouldn’t be a breath of freedom in this land”

    *Then* comes the line about people taking shots at Uncle Sam, then comes the line about remembering why they can, then comes the line about speaking German and living under the flag of Japan, and *then* comes the repeat of the hook. Which means that not only does the song say that the good Lord and the man are responsible for freedom before Uncle Sam is ever introduced, and not only is the Uncle Sam reference peripheral (the focus on the people taking shots at him, who need to remember why they can, and not on Uncle Sam himself), but Uncle Sam actually winds up about as far away from the hook as he can be and still be in the dang chorus at all.

    I think it’s pretty clear that Uncle Sam is not “the man” here.

  19. Stormy
    July 10, 2009 at 12:57 pm

    Jon: It still would be nice for John to take into consideration that the very Japanese and Germans he implies it would be a horror to live under had very strong roots in our community and our troops in WWII. On the one hand, we were fighting the Japanese, but that would have been much more difficult without the Japanese Americans.
    When patriotic songs work is when they take something unique and specific and link their patriotism back to that, not when they make these big sweeping generalizations that base themselves on an untrue assumption that America is a vast vat of vanilla ice cream. And the biggest problem with trying to tear down any other country in a pro-America song is that other country, who likely contributed a great deal to the culture and people of America.

  20. nm
    July 10, 2009 at 1:08 pm

    “we were fighting the Japanese, but that would have been much more difficult without the Japanese Americans.”

    Eh, well, the 442nd fought in Europe. They were deliberately kept from fighting against Japanese forces. @Jon: are you sure that most of them didn’t speak Japanese? They were Nisei and must (at least) have heard it spoken at home all the time. A lot of them must have been their parents’ translators, unless they were different from any other immigrant group I know of.

    As for “the man,” I’m pretty sure we’re supposed to think both of Uncle Sam and of Rich’s grandfather (and, by extension, other veterans).

  21. Stormy
    July 10, 2009 at 1:11 pm

    Sorry, it would have been more difficult to fight the Germans without the Japanese; and vice versa.

    And, Uncle Sam isn’t a man; he was an advertising gimmick. Which makes “the man” decidedly more creepy and controlling because it brings in that element of never speaking out against propoganda.

  22. Jon
    July 10, 2009 at 1:19 pm

    Stormy,”the very Japanese and Germans he implies it would be a horror to live under” were the fascist governments of those countries, their military forces and the people who supported them, and not Japanese- and German-Americans who opposed them. You can’t speak concretely at any length about World War II without at least mentioning who the Axis powers were, and doing that isn’t “tearing down” another country, it’s simply stating a specific fact in a song that (at least early on) is built around specific facts. And a song might not be the best place for a paragraph’s worth of footnotes about ethnicity, loyalty, the contributions of other cultures, blah-blah-blah.

    The political weakness of the song doesn’t lie there, it lies in the line about “the ones still fighting for our nation,” thereby equating World War II with, oh, the occupation of Iraq – a point which might stand up to much scrutiny – and in the indiscriminate “pot shots at Uncle Sam” line, which, as some folks have already noted, might include Rich himself. But as I said earlier, that’s rooted in a certain kind of populism, and isn’t necessarily fatal to the song as a work of art; in my opinion, it comes up short in that regard for other reasons.

  23. Jon
    July 10, 2009 at 1:26 pm

    NM, see the document at http://www.the442.org/442ndfacts.html . As near as I can tell – and this makes sense – Nisei volunteers who had some degree of Japanese fluency were largely assigned to translation jobs.

  24. nm
    July 10, 2009 at 1:38 pm

    Jon, doubtless I am looking right at something and not seeing it, but I don’t see anything at that very interesting website about translation jobs. Where do you find it?

  25. Jon
    July 10, 2009 at 1:53 pm

    Sorry, a little sloppy there – the document’s paragraph 1 (uh, the second paragraph 1 ;-) ) says “most of them cannot speak Japanese.” I picked up the point on the diversion of Japanese-fluent Nisei to translator jobs elsewhere, don’t remember where (although I do remember my dad, who served in an intelligence unit as a Japanese translator, telling me that he had a number of Nisei colleagues).

  26. Jon
    July 10, 2009 at 1:56 pm
  27. nm
    July 10, 2009 at 2:07 pm

    Thanks. OK, I can believe that an entire team of Nisei would be non-Japanese-speaking if the Japanese speakers were skimmed out before the unit was formed. Otherwise, it sure doesn’t sound like the experiences of most second-generation Americans I know.

    /derailment

  28. Chris N.
    July 10, 2009 at 3:59 pm

    BTW, I’m sure Rich doesn’t see “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” as a “shot at Uncle Sam.” That would equate the U.S. with its government, which I this strain of populism explicitly avoids. Unless Republicans are in office, of course.

  29. glory2001
    July 10, 2009 at 5:04 pm

    Do you guys actually listen to a song, and enjoy it, or why do you PICK a song apart, especially John Rich songs, it is a good thing people buying cd’s do not listen to critics or John Rich would not have had 36 or 37 songs in the top 40, songs sung by him and people like Tim McGraw, John Anderson, Faith Hill, Jason Aldean, and many others, movie critics and music critics are all the same, you watch for mistakes and politically correct so much you have forgotten how to just ENJOY! I am not just talking about John Rich critics, all critics for all music. If you can’t do criticize.

  30. Kelly
    July 10, 2009 at 5:43 pm

    No, Gloryhole2001, people can criticize because they want to, and you are reading it…as a blogger, i am enjoying music more than i ever did before I started blogging. God bless America.

  31. glory2001
    July 10, 2009 at 6:14 pm

    gloryhole? I comment, I do not insult.

  32. Rick
    July 10, 2009 at 6:46 pm

    Stormy said: “A friend of mine once said that political correctness was merely doing what we ought to have been doing all along.”

    Gosh Stormy, I’ve always seen “political correctness” as thought control for weak minded, easily duped “useful idiots” who actually come to believe that good is evil and vice versa as dictated by the liberal leftist establishment otherwise known as the Democrat Party. Hey, the party didn’t choose a jackass for their symbol for nothing! George Orwell was a little off in his prediction of when Fabian Socialism would overtake western civilization as it took until November 2008 to gain the upper hand here in the newly created USSA! Just pathetic…

  33. Stormy
    July 10, 2009 at 6:47 pm

    Glory: The people have also made the Black Eyed Peas #1. The people have bad taste.

  34. Steve Harvey
    July 10, 2009 at 7:50 pm

    I like the verses, hate the chorus, find it a bit shallow and hokey overall. Saw him do this acoustically at Marty Stuart’s Late Night Jam last June. Was the lowpoint of an otherwise surprisingly excellent set.

  35. Jon
    July 10, 2009 at 9:04 pm

    “The people have bad taste.”

    And there you have it.

  36. Stormy
    July 10, 2009 at 9:40 pm

    I believe that I have already mentioned on these boards that I am on the side of aliens and robots. Robots especially are known Neko Case fans.

  37. Vicki
    July 10, 2009 at 10:22 pm

    Deutsches nicht sprechen? Ich verstehe nicht. Viele Kursteilnehmer erlernen, Deutsches zu sprechen

  38. Stormy
    July 10, 2009 at 10:47 pm

    Ich spreche deutsches wenig.

  39. Occasional Hope
    July 11, 2009 at 4:05 am

    On the plus side, he sounds much more connected vocally to this song than he did on Shutting Detroit Down.

  40. nm
    July 11, 2009 at 8:36 am

    Vicki, are you suggesting that this song is a criticism of foreign-language teaching in US schools? I’m not hearing that….

  41. RichFan
    July 12, 2009 at 12:56 am

    The line in the chorus under such discussion is correctly printed as “Cause we’d all be speaking German OR living under the flag of Japan.” Further it was included in the song because the line CAME from the Grandfather whom the song memorializes, his Pap Rich. (I’ve seen him state the line in interviews as well as use it as a “in memory” to his Granfather on a CD insert).

    As for the discussion of “The Man” in an interview John stated that for himself,
    “the man” was of course, his Grandfather, but that is was left to interpretation for others listening to the song.

  42. Matt B.
    July 12, 2009 at 2:50 am

    Richfan The lyrics of my copy of the CD doesn’t say that. So I think you must be reading into something that is clearly not there. It says this: “We’d all be speaking German, Living under the flag of Japan…” no “or” is there which in turn implies the “and.”

  43. Nicolas
    July 12, 2009 at 3:53 am

    The only reason for that line is because “Japan” rhymes with “Sam”

    John Rich compromised finding a better chorus lyric, for a rhyme scheme…

  44. Occasional Hope
    July 12, 2009 at 5:03 am

    “The only reason for that line is because “Japan” rhymes with “Sam” ”

    Except it doesn’t.

  45. Russ Hoss
    July 27, 2009 at 7:21 am

    Come on everyone. It’s a song about his grandpap. I was at a concert where he sang the song and it is truly moving to people lucky enough to have loved ones still alive from that war. Stop picking it apart. Granted, the word OR should have been inserted between German and Living in the chorus. It’s a show of respect for the sacrifices made by those Americans. I’m lucky enough to still have my grandpap, 83rd Infantry, 329 RCT, 3rd platoon, Company C. Sgt. Richard W. Gibbons and to me, he is he greatest man that ever lived. And, if you ask the singer, he’ll tell you the same thing about his grandpap. It’s attribute people, let it go.

  46. Ryan
    August 31, 2010 at 8:35 am

    “the man” is obviously his grandfather, who, according to the lyrics fought on the side of God to deliver the US and the world from the two most tyrannical, oppressive, totalitarian regimes of the 20th century…the author of this article completes his hatchet job criticism of Rich as he simultaneously degrades Rich for “commercial country” then admits that this song is deeply personal and concludes from those observations that it misses the mark somehow with offensive lyrics such as “speaking german” or “flag of japan” – both terms were/are popular “buzz words” from the time and post WW2 era…we still hear them today as echoed in this song….The song is meant, in some part, to point out the intrinsic good that is America and that we have become detached from the Greatest Generation – “takin shots at Uncle Sam” – its a good song, with good lyrics, if they offend you, turn the channel…

  47. Stephen H.
    August 31, 2010 at 8:56 am

    What channel? Has it been on the radio at all?

  48. Stephen H.
    August 31, 2010 at 8:57 am

    Or television, rather, in this case.

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