Country Music’s Civil-ish War (Part 1)

Earl Scruggs, left, and John McEuen of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band during the “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” recording sessions in 1971.

(PLEASE NOTE: This is part one of a two-part look at the history of the political and artistic tensions within country music. Part two will run Monday.)

Malaka of the Week Award Winner Jason Aldean recently put out a little tune that wanted to let all of you know who are not living in a small town that if you try any funny city stuff like being in favor of gun control, they will kill you.

You ain’t in Mayberry anymore, friend. Nor John Mellencamp’s Indiana, either.

So much for “ain’t go nothing against the big town.”

This little ditty got Mr. Aldean a lot of guff on the ol’ Twitter/X/Whatever feed, including people who pointed out the part about gun control is interesting given he had a literal front stage view of America’s deadliest mass shooting (thus far). No grief to Aldean for running off stage. I’d run, too. But I don’t think I’d put out something like “Try That in a Small Town” after such an experience. He also shot the video for the song in front of a courthouse that’s rather infamous in the history of civil rights.

As Adrastos said in the Malaka of the Week post, you don’t like to pile on someone getting annihilated on social media but Jason gave him no choice.

In the middle of the social media brouhaha, someone posted on Twitter Not X this little thread:

It is kind of dumb, and the guy who wrote it runs some right-wing Christian organization that given its focus on “morals” will likely have a sex scandal or two in its future because that’s just what happens with such people. But it really was nothing new to me.

This sort of tension has a fairly long history in the country music genre, and while it always had some political overtones, this latest spat between the mainstream Nashville country and more progressive upstarts seems to be more political than in the past.

I think you can trace the early years of this country music civil war back to countrypolitan vs. traditionalists in the late 1950s into the mid-1970s. Chet Atkins is known as one of the greatest guitarists of all time but he also is credited with sort of being the father of countrypolitan, introducing slick production, strings, angelic backup singer, and other elements to create a lush sound far removed from the more ragged corn-pone sound of folks like Hank Williams. The Nashville producer Billy Sherrill ran with this concept and became the King of Countrypolitan, producing hits by the likes of legends such as Charlie Rich and Tammy Wynette. Depending on who you talk to, Sherrill is either a genius or a hack (I am somewhere in the middle). The sound attracted people from outside the genre, including the great Ray Charles.

The first reaction to this slick sound was artists not wanting to lush up their sound leaving Nashville and setting up elsewhere. The Bakersfield sound of Buck Owens is one example.

The Bakersfield sound really attracted the interest of a lot of rock stars of the time. The Beatles covered Owens’ “Act Naturally”:

That is sort of interesting in that rock musicians both worshiped the reaction to countrypolitan, and Atkins. For example, while the Beatles covered Buck, George Harrison also loved and was influenced Atkins. One can hold two thoughts in their head, especially about music.

Later, starting in the early 1970s, the Outlaw Country movement started in Texas, with Merle Haggard, Waylon Jennings, Jesse Coulter, and the King o’ the Outlaws, Willie Nelson. Nelson’s case is especially interesting, as he was a clean-cut member of the Nashville establishment in the 1950s and much of the 1960s, penning countrypolitan classics like Patsy Cline’s “Crazy.” Ol’ Willie infuriated the Nashville corporate cats in the late 1960s by growing out his hair, losing the suit, getting himself a scraggly beard, and becoming as famous for smoking weed as he was for his great songwriting and guitar playing.

On a personal level, this style of music is important to me not just because I love it, but because my father loved it as well. A fond memory of my childhood is going fishing with my dad and this song coming on, then my dad’s perfect baritone dueting with Waylon.

The song, in its indirect way, was a metaphor for what they were doing. The song is about a couple finding no joy in a life of money (Nashville’s machine), a declaration that the real place to be is Texas, and professing a comfort found in “Hank Williams’ pain songs and Newbury’s train songs and ‘Blue Eyes Cryin’ in the Rain'”.

Around the same time and even a little before, the long-hairs were gradually starting to infiltrate country. Gram Parsons drove The Byrds solidly into the country zone in 1968 with the album “Sweetheart of the Rodeo.”

An Adrastos favorite (and mine too), the Grateful Dead, was co-founded by a certain jug band enthusiast that you may have heard of, Jerry Garcia. Known at first for aural psychedelics, the band released back-to-back two albums that are arguably their best studio work, “Workingman’s Dead” and “American Beauty,” with some songs that are more or less straight country.

You can’t talk about this transition without bringing up another classic that was designed as a bridge between old country music and the hippies, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal work “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” This album was a bridge between old legends and young musicians, despite Bill Monroe’s refusal to play a damn note with them dirty hippies and Roy Acuff really needing to be convinced to share a studio with them (The Grittys won him over in just one day). The results were a gold standard of the American songbook, including Mother Maybelle Carter’s version of her classic “Wildwood Flower,” a song considered a must-learn for anyone wanting to play this style of music (she never gets enough credit as a totem of guitar playing).

Were politics part of the tension during this time? You betcha. Johnny Cash was another musician who angered Nashville by commenting on the political tensions of the moment, from a rather decidedly left viewpoint, with the song “The Man in Black.” Cash was also requested by Richard Nixon to sing Merle Haggard’s deeply complicated “Okie from Muskogee” at the White House but he refused (Haggard’s own feelings about the song are rather complex given it became a theme for hippie-bashers everywhere).

However, the political side of all this was decidedly more indirect. Nashville was the center of power and wealth, tending to be more to the right, and the ones resisting the more corporate part of country music tended to naturally be somewhat more progressive.

So how did this get us to the Jason Aldean controversy? Hell, we have a ways to go. On Monday, I will outline country music’s lean-time transition during the 1980s that included growing stars who pushed the genre in interesting directions like Dwight Yoakum and K.D. Lang, the “alt-country” movement in the 1990s that reacted to the “empty hats and cheerleaders” glory days of Nashville, country becoming a little meaner, reactionary, and wilder in the Aughts, and where country music stands today in the time of Trump.

The last word goes to Johnny Cash’s “Man in Black,” where he explains how his fashion choices reflected his empathetic worldview.

2 thoughts on “Country Music’s Civil-ish War (Part 1)

  1. Was reading along wondering when you’d get to Parsons and the Dead, and there they were. The Byrds and the Dead convinced me that my hatred of country music formed by what was on AM country radio in the late 1960s was misguided. And then the Oulaws and their folkish fellow travelers. (I know nothing about Guy Clark or Nanci Griffith’s politics, but who cares). I still love David Allen Coe even through he’s a right wing, confederate-headed fuck-nut, partly because You Never Even Call Me By My Name was the unofficial anthem of The Abbey in the late 70s/early 80s when Betz Brown from Texas owned it. I mean, the bar would stop and everyone would sing when it came on. Looking forward anxiously to the rest of this.

  2. The story I heard was Nixon wanted Cash to play a song called Welfare Cadillac by Guy Drake. Never heard of either, myself.

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