Country music culture wars
Music is never just about music
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American songwriter Harlan Howard famously described a great country music song as “three chords and the truth.” The quip captures something important about this quintessentially American genre: Country isn’t always musically complex, but, at its best, it manages to be earnest about the travails of the human experience in ways that other musical genres often aren’t.
Country music (at least in its more classic forms) avoids the youthful triviality of pop music and traffics in themes that are decidedly more grown-up: substance abuse, infidelity, divorce, poverty, faith, family, and death. It is difficult to imagine a pop singer crooning about the death of a grandparent, the pain of a self-inflicted divorce, or the memories of a childhood home—all common themes in country music.
Country music was once a regional and rural phenomenon, but the steady mainstreaming of the genre since the 1990s has brought it increasingly into the public’s consciousness. So, it should be no surprise that country music has become a flashpoint in America’s culture wars. A trio of recent songs illustrates the point.
First, there was “Try That in a Small Town,” a song by Jason Aldean (but written by a team of Nashville songwriters) that complains about inner-city crime and warns of the response it would face in a small town. Some claimed to see the song as a racist dog whistle, threatening a kind of vigilante justice and hearkening back to the “sundown towns” that terrorized African Americans during Jim Crow. Some even accused Aldean of being “pro-lynching,” a charge he has forcefully denied.
Next, there was “In Your Love,” a ballad by Kentucky songwriter Tyler Childers, who has built a cult following of fans who see his fiddlin’ style as a welcome revival of the country genre after a long winter of “bro-country” and other forms of pop crossovers. In 2020, Childers released “Long Violent History,” a song that expressed sympathy for black victims of police violence and wondered what Appalachia would do if the racial roles were reversed. Childers’ new song tells the story of two gay coalminers in 1950s Kentucky. Jason Isbell, a generational songwriter in his own right (who has, incidentally, penned two pro-abortion songs), cheered on Childers and his co-writer, Silas House.
Then, more recently, a song entitled “Rich Men North of Richmond” was released by a previously unknown songwriter from Virginia named Oliver Anthony (caveat: the song contains explicit lyrics). The song went viral, garnering praise from right-wing politicians and commentators, who hailed it as an anthem, and drawing derision from the left, who saw it as a reactionary rant. But the poetic lyrics and guttural vocals are undeniably authentic, expressing the cries of the working class against the power brokers in the nation’s capital:
Livin’ in the new world
With an old soul
These rich men north of Richmond
Lord knows they all just wanna have total control
Wanna know what you think, wanna know what you do
And they don't think you know, but I know that you do
’Cause your dollar ain’t sh-- and it’s taxed to no end
’Cause of rich men north of Richmond.
None of this is new. The country/western/folk genre has always had its share of socially conscious lyricists. Some have been more progressive. Think of Woody Guthrie, Johnny Cash, and Willie Nelson or, more recently, of The Chicks and Kacey Musgraves. Others have been more conservative, even reactionary, at times. Think of Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” or Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive” and “Tired of Being Johnny B. Goode.”
But sometimes, social commentary can become sanctimony. Childers and Isbell can sing movingly and authentically of their native Kentucky and Alabama, respectively, including the problems that still plague the South. But they and other progressive country artists can also exhibit a not-so-subtle condescension toward their native lands, or at least toward the conservatives who inhabit them. A track like “The Problem,” a pro-abortion jeremiad that Isbell wrote with his wife and collaborator Amanda Shires, plays better at NPR’s Tiny Desk Concert than it would at a county fair in north Alabama.
On the other hand, songs about the preservation of tradition can become pandering kitsch. Appeals to “small town” virtues can become cliché. The same goes for “the stars and stripes,” dogs, pickups, and dirt roads. Sometimes this lowbrow pandering can appeal to more violent impulses as well. Aldean’s song reprises many others that have warned of retribution from rural America.
Whether more progressive or more conservative, the most thoughtful singers and songwriters are those who prize their artistic independence. Artists lose their prophetic credibility when they become actively partisan or allow themselves to become co-opted by conventional politics. The transgressive nature of social protest becomes domesticated when it dons a partisan garb, be it an “I’m With Her” T-shirt or a MAGA hat.
What is so intriguing about Oliver Anthony’s viral song is that it seems to elude both traps: left-wing sanctimony and right-wing pandering. It represents something more organic and, therefore, more authentic. There is still a critique to be made of the substance. Its message is conspiratorial and confusing at points. The song trumpets the cause of the working class but then registers more conventionally middle-class complaints about taxes and welfare. He seems to shame the obese but doesn’t explicitly critique the food and economic systems that do them no favors. But regardless of the specifics, Anthony seems, for the time being anyway, to be strumming to his own tune, without sanctimony and without pandering, which is refreshing. Politicians and pundits are already lining up across the spectrum either to praise or to condemn the song. But we shouldn’t let opportunists drown out Anthony’s own voice.
So, what are Christians to make of all this? For starters, we should listen to music—or engage with any artform, for that matter—not simply because it reinforces our own political views but because of its quality and content. Sometimes we need to be challenged from outside our own perspective. Sometimes even when we disagree with a certain artistic expression, we can still learn (and feel) something from it about human longing and human suffering. In any event, art loses its intrinsic value when it becomes co-opted and weaponized for political purposes or when it becomes simply banal amusement. We should listen with discernment, but we should also listen for authenticity and for an encounter with the human experience. And if we listen carefully, even if the lyrics are set to only three chords, we just might discover the truth.
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