(PLEASE NOTE: This is part two of a two-part look at the history of the political and artistic tensions within country music. Part one ran Friday.)
The 1970s were a bit of a high paradise time for country music. Sales were solid all decade, as stars like John Denver, Kenny Rogers, Dottie West, Dolly Parton, and Loretta Lynn reaping in the dollars for Nashville. Even the upstarts in the Outlaw Country movement were doing well, with classic albums like Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” and Waylon Jennings’ “Honky Tonk Heroes” moving units. The genre was making inroads into the rest of the culture, with Parton’s, well, physical assets becoming grist for the late-night comedy mills, not to mention songs such as “I Will Always Love You” and “Jolene” proving she was and is so, so much more than a punchline.
The CB radio craze led to novelty hits like “Convoy” (and a movie, one of Sam Peckinpah, Kris Kristofferson, and Ali MacGraw’s lesser efforts). “Hee Haw” survived CBS’s Rural Purge of the early 1970s (Trivia time: it was first picked by CBS as a replacement for “The Smothers Brother’s Comedy Hour”). Undaunted, Hee Haw hee-hawed into syndication and became a hit, for better or worse, depending on whether you were the rocker kid or grandkid who was forced to watch it or the parent or grandparent who loved it. In its defense, there were some pretty great music guests, and it did have two music legends as its hosts, although I feel it a bit sad that so many only know Roy Clark and Buck Owens as a couple of cornballs and not as great musicians.
During this time, country music wasn’t particularly political. Jimmy Carter was likely the first big country music fan to win the presidency, but the political part was limited to occasional skirmishes like Loretta Lynn’s fight to get “The Pill” played on the radio. Some DJ’s felt a woman singing about being excited to have worry-free sex with her husband was immoral, apparently.
The popularity of the genre peaked with the movie “Urban Cowboy” which featured John Travolta ditching a disco suit and The Bee Gees for Mickey Gillis and a mechanical bull. Hell, Barbara Mandrell even crooned “I Was Country (When Country Wasn’t Cool)” to all the Johnny-come-latelies. Country was hot, man. Then the bottom dropped out.
The big beat, high gloss, neon 1980s happened, and country music did not fit in. The New York Times even wrote a sort of obit for the genre. However, at the same time, some interesting new faces showed up, such as Randy Travis, Patty Loveless, Dwight Yoakam, Lyle Lovett, and KD Lang. Curiously enough, the cross-pollination of rock and country that really took off in earnest in the 1970s (The Eagles, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Allman Brothers, Eric Clapton doing Don Williams songs, etc.) started to show up in the alt world of post-punk. Jason and the Scorchers, X, Lone Justice, Elvis Costello, The Cowboy Junkies, The Jayhawks, and The Mekons were taking the style in interesting directions at a time when The Mandrell Sisters were on NBC in sequins giggling in chorus to try to glam up country.
This all was a foreshadowing of what was about to happen, and that was country’s 1990s resurgence. I think that there is something to the idea that the alt-rock/grunge era launched this resurgence, as fans of corporate rock in the 1980s that were getting labeled uncool by the flannel kids were looking for something new. And they found it in Garth Brooks, who wore a big cowboy hat while doing flashy shows that actually looked like 1980s rock concerts. At the same time, female artists like Reba McIntyre were putting out sexy, pop-leaning tunes. Many clones were launched, and Nashville became a flurry of big hats and tight belly shirts.
In response, we got the alt-country movement. Uncle Tupelo put out “No Depression” in 1990, and soon artists like Robbie Fulks, Robbie Fulks, Whiskeytown, Drive-By Truckers, Lucinda Williams, and Son Volt arrived. Whether you call it Americana or whatever, authenticity was the thing, man. These groups honored their forebearers like Johnny Cash, The Carter Family, and Hank Williams, while introducing rock and punk influences (curiously enough, Nashville talked tradition and refused to be traditional, turning their backs on older artists in favor of a more pop sound to the point that Merle Haggard had to sign onto a punk label to release his excellent 2000 effort “If I Could Only Fly.”)
So…what about the politics? Well, that started in earnest after September 11, 2001. While the 1990s were conservative in a family-values kind of way, country music jump into the Right-Wing Jingoism Pond with both feet and either you were a Bush fan or you were a Saddam/Bin Ladin fan. Clint Black with “I Raq and Roll” (groan) and Darryl Worley with “Have You Forgotten” flat out just say protestors should not be allowed to speak. Lee Greenwood dug up “God Bless the USA” from 1984, aka the “proud to be an American” song and repurposed it for the Dubya lovin’ crowd. Perhaps the worst was former Democrat Toby Keith, whose basic theme of this time was “let’s go kill us some brown people, and if you don’t agree you’re a little fruity commie.”
Nashville was fully on the right, and any balancing act by a left-leaning artist had no chance of making it on country radio. Voices of dissent soon formed in the alt-country and traditional country world, with people such as Emmylou Harris, Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, and Rosanne Cash speaking up. But no one paid as much as The Chicks, then known as The Dixie Chicks, who said on stage in England that as Texans the war made them ashamed to be from the same state as the president. What those three women went through was real canceling, not like say Bari Weiss getting fussy over Twitter random @leftydude94328 calling her stance on Palestine awful. It got ugly.
This ugliness and tendency to right-wing everything kept on going long after all this, although the politics toned down some with the advent of Bro Country. Suddenly, the party side of country became prominent, for better or for worse. Fights and trashing entire areas of cities became all too normal.
But before the Jason Aldean controversy that landed him one of them there Adrastos Malaka of the Week, politics in country music was relatively quiet. I say relatively, because for some reason, John Rich of Big and Rich is a major figure in Trump’s inner circle. There are also some fairly prominent lefty voices in country music, including another Jason, Jason Isbell, who Adrastos wrote about two years ago. So politics and the tension around it never fully went away.
A new thing that has popped up is the Nashville righty types sneering at the Isbells of the world (like his wife Amanda Shires, Chris Stapleton, Sturgil Simpson, Kacey Musgraves, etc.) as “Coffeehouse Country.” The claim is the Coffeehouse Country stars don’t sell many tickets because they don’t represent “real country music fans,” who are what God intended them to be, right-wing hateful jerks who believe the Lord is telling them to terrorize LGBTQ+ folks and force 12-year-old rape victims to have their baby. They also play in, God forbid, theaters in urban centers of the American South, which is an odd flex to attack someone over.
Whatever floats your boat, I suppose. Country music is a fairly wide-ranging genre, often at war with itself. Myself, I am a guy who lives in a very small town who is partial to the kind that does not shoot videos in front of lynching locations and issues vague threats to outsiders.
The last word goes to Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit.