America’s Alleged Soul
Country Music As England Sees It
The Economist/December 19, 2006
In 1943 Roy Acuff, a country superstar, invited the governor of Tennessee to a party. The governor snubbed him, complaining that he and his awful musicians were making Tennessee “the hillbilly capital of the United States”.
No modern American politician would dare be so sniffy about country music. On the contrary, many embrace it. Mark Warner campaigned for the governorship of Virginia in 2001 with a lively bluegrass song: “Get ready to shout it from the coal mines to the stills/ Here comes Mark Warner, the hero of the hills.” He won—quite an achievement for a Democrat in a conservative state, especially when you consider that he was “a Connecticut Yankee who had moved to northern Virginia and made a zillion in the telecommunications industry”, as conceded by his campaign manager, Dave “Mudcat” Saunders.
Mr Saunders reckons that “if you want to get a message down into the soul of a God-fearing, native-to-the-earth, rural-thinking person, one of the surest ways is through traditional country music.” He may be right. And there are an awful lot of God-fearing, rural-thinking folk in America. Some 45m Americans tune in to country-music radio stations each week. In the heartland, no other genre comes close.
But for some Americans, still, there is something risible about country. “I don’t like country music, but I don’t mean to denigrate those who do. And for the people who like country music, denigrate means ‘put down’,” quipped Bob Newhart, a comedian. When George Bush senior wrote an article about how much he liked country music for Country America magazine, the Washington Post reprinted it under the snooty headline: “George and the Oval Office Do-Si-Do: Heck, a President Ain’t Nothin’ but Just Folks”.
Outside America, the sneering is unrestrained. When Garth Brooks, who has sold more than 115m albums, appeared on British television in 1994, one interviewer chortled: “I thought you’d come in here and twiddle your pistol around.” Another shrugged: “He’s selling more records than anyone in the world, but none of us have ever heard of him.”
“Cool” people think country is hopelessly square. Country singers neither cuss like rappers nor grapple so boldly with “edgy” subjects. “Some messages are clearly not allowable [in country music], like ‘Fuck tha police’ or ‘I got 99 problems and a bitch ain’t one’,” writes Chris Willman in his excellent book “Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music”. “But then there are messages that aren’t allowable in any other popular-music genre that flourish here, such as: I wish I’d been there when my mama died. I miss my husband in Iraq. Babies and old people rule. If I die, take care of my kids for me.”
Once they pass a certain age, most Americans stop worrying about being cool. This is often when they start (or go back to) listening to country music. “It’s not about sexual innuendo or bling, but the problems and experiences of ordinary people: love, loss, family life, having a good time and a sense of humour,” says Joe Galante, head of Sony BMG’s country-music division.
Anthropologists studying obscure tribes in Peru or Papua New Guinea often mine their folk songs for clues as to how they think and what they believe. In the same way anyone who wants to understand the world’s most politically influential tribe—the people of Middle America, who pick most American presidents—should pay attention to country music.
After the attacks of September 11 th 2001, country singers expressed their fury more bluntly than most other celebrities. In “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”, for example, Toby Keith sang: “Justice will be served/ And the battle will rage/ This big dog will fight/ When you rattle his cage/ And you’ll be sorry that you messed with/ The U.S. of A./ ‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass/ It’s the American way.”
Darryl Worley, another country star, heard a fellow American say he didn’t understand why America had to invade Afghanistan. Incredulous, he wrote a song in reply: “Have you forgotten how it felt that day?/ To see your homeland under fire/ And her people blown away/ Have you forgotten when those towers fell?/ We had neighbours still inside going through a living hell/ And you say we shouldn’t worry about bin Laden/ Have you forgotten?”
Rhyming “bin Laden” with “forgotten” was controversial, but not as much as this couplet: “Some say this country’s just out looking for a fight/ After 9/11, man, I’d have to say that’s right.”
Some seized on the enormous popularity of such songs as evidence that America is a dangerously militaristic society. But even “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” is mild compared with the country songs of the second world war, such as “We’re Gonna Have to Slap the Dirty Little Jap” or “Smoke on the Water”, a hit that included the couplet: “There’ll be nothing left but vultures to inhabit all that land/ When our modern ships and bombers make a graveyard of Japan.”
Back in the more recent past, one country ensemble, the Dixie Chicks, took a different view of President George Bush’s military ventures. On March 10 th 2003, as war in Iraq loomed, Natalie Maines, the lead singer, told an audience in London that she was “ashamed” that Mr Bush was from her home state of Texas. At the time, the Chicks were arguably the most popular band in America, having recently sold $49m-worth of concert tickets on a single day. But country fans did not appreciate Ms Maines undermining the commander-in-chief on the eve of war. Furious listeners jammed country radio stations’ phone lines demanding a boycott, and most stations complied. The Chicks are still very successful, but some of their old fans have yet to forgive them.
One reason for the ferocity of the Chicks’ roasting was that a lot of country fans have friends or relatives in the armed forces. The same is true of the stars. Chely Wright, for example, has a brother in the marines, a father who served in the navy during the Vietnam war and a grandfather who won a Purple Heart on the Normandy beaches. She mentions all this in “Bumper of My SUV”, a song about a lady in a rich neighbourhood who saw the US Marines sticker on Ms Wright’s car, made an obscene gesture and shouted abuse at her: “Your fucking war is wrong!”
Ms Wright suggests that the marines help keep this lady safe as she drives her kids home from their private school. Such sentiments go down well with the troops when she performs for them. She once visited a remote camp in Iraq and found that the men had scrubbed a port-a-potty and not let anyone use it for two weeks so she could have a clean one. One soldier, she told Mr Willman, queued three times for her autograph and ended up hanging out with the band. The next day he was killed. His mother said later that she found herself staring at photos of Ms Wright on her website because “you were the last woman to talk to my son.”
As the news from Iraq has grown grimmer, country songs have grown more subdued. In John Michael Montgomery’s “Letters from Home”, a soldier reads messages from his family: “I hold it up and show my buddies/ Like we ain’t scared and our boots ain’t muddy/ But no one laughs, ‘cause there ain’t nothing funny/ When a soldier cries/ And I just wipe my eyes/ I fold it up and put it in my shirt/ Pick up my gun and get back to work.”
“As the war has gotten into the state it’s in, people have gotten confused,” says Joe Galante. As a result, he reckons, country musicians are producing fewer fighting songs and more about faith. When country fans need guidance on important issues, the only way to look is up.
Consider the 2005 hit “Jesus Take the Wheel” by Carrie Underwood (pictured above). The song’s narrator is driving home to Cincinnati to see her parents on Christmas Eve, with the baby in the back seat and no husband. With 50 miles to go, “she was running low on faith and gasoline.” Distracted by her worries, she skids on black ice and nearly kills herself and her baby. She throws up her hands and says: “Jesus take the wheel/ Take it from my hands/ ‘Cause I can’t do this all on my own/ I’m letting go/ So give me one more chance/ To save me from this road I’m on.”
It is as hard to imagine a mainstream pop act releasing a song like this as it is to imagine a country artist penning a song like John Lennon’s “Imagine”. Madonna may dabble in Kabbalah and Lisa Marie Presley may seek answers from L. Ron Hubbard, but among country singers it is pretty much taken for granted that you are Christian.
Country Christianity, if one can call it that, is neither puritanical nor unforgiving. Sex is fun and people stray, in country music as in reality. Cheatin’ songs, with titles like “Whose Bed Have Your Boots Been Under?” are common. But such songs are usually suffused with regret. Lee Ann Womack’s lines—“I may hate myself in the morning, but I’m gonna love you tonight”—eloquently capture an inner conflict doubtless felt by many of her fans.
Country singers see no contradiction in loving Jesus and partying raucously. Consider two songs by Joe Nichols, a young star from Arkansas. In the first verse of “If Nobody Believed in You”, he tells the story of a little boy who stops playing baseball because his father says, in a voice “loud and mean”, that “You won’t amount to anything.” How, Mr Nichols asks, would you feel? “You’d probably give up too/ If nobody believed in you.”
In the second verse, an old man gives up trying to pass his driving test because his son doesn’t believe in him. Only then does the velvet-voiced Mr Nichols reveal what the song is really about. “We take His name out of schools/ The lawyers say it breaks the rules.” How long will it be, he asks, before God gives up on mankind? “You’d probably give up too/ If nobody believed in you.”
Mr Nichols also wrote a hit last year called “Tequila Makes her Clothes Fall off”. This delightful song, narrated by a man, is about a lady who likes to go out and drink Margaritas with her girlfriends. This is embarrassing for him, because although she can handle “any champagne brunch” or “Bacardi punch”, not to mention “Jello shooters full of Smirnoff”, “Tequila makes her clothes fall off.”
Booze is, without question, the drug of choice for country folk. Toby Keith’s song “I Love this Bar” got to number one in America’s country charts in 2003, and “Get Drunk and be Somebody” made it to number three this year. Illegal drugs are more or less taboo in country music, but not just because they are illegal. Country music celebrates illicit alcohol, after all: the reference in Mark Warner’s campaign song to stills in the hills continues a tradition that stretches back at least as far as Bob Miller’s prohibition-era ditty, “The Dry-Votin’, Wet-Drinkin’, Better-Than-Thou Hypocritical Blues”.
Do country singers favour alcohol because Jesus drank (or at least turned water into wine) but never snorted coke? More likely it is because their fans prefer a fridge full of beer to a bag of white powder. With a Bud, you know exactly how much each gulp will intoxicate you (not much, if it’s Bud Light). So you can let yourself go on Saturday night without much risk that you’ll wind up in hospital and unable to drive the kids to school on Monday morning. Country folk are sensible, mostly.
Booze also dulls the pain of heartbreak, an essential theme of country music. In Brad Paisley’s haunting “Whiskey Lullaby”, a man’s lover “put him out like the burnin’ end of a midnight cigarette/ She broke his heart; he spent his whole life tryin’ to forget/ We watched him drink his pain away a little at a time/ But he never could get drunk enough to get her off his mind/ Until the night/ He put that bottle to his head and pulled the trigger/ And finally drank away her memory.”
Some say country music itself is a better balm for broken hearts. Whereas anguished Manhattanites pay hundreds of dollars an hour to lie on a couch and talk about themselves, country fans put on a Wynonna Judd CD and hear someone sing about problems that sound awfully like theirs. Say you have endured a family break-up or think you might be addicted to food: Wynonna has been there, feels your pain and articulates it far more tunefully than you ever could. As another country singer, Dierks Bentley, once put it: “Country music has always been the best shrink that 15 bucks can buy.”
White working-class and rural Americans, especially southerners, used to worry that the coastal elite looked down on them. They still do, but many are now reclaiming the labels “redneck” and “white trash” and wearing them with pride, just as some gays call themselves “queer” and some urban blacks call themselves “nigga”.
Toby Keith, who was once an oil driller in Oklahoma and also played semi-pro football for a team called the Oklahoma City Drillers, has an album called “White Trash with Money”. And Gretchen Wilson (pictured below), a country star raised by a single mother in a trailer park in Pocahontas, Illinois, has a great song called “Redneck Woman”.
“Some people look down on me/ But I don’t give a rip/ I’ll stand barefooted in my own front yard with a baby on my hip,” she declares. Being a redneck means: “I keep my Christmas lights on, on my front porch all year long/ And I know all the words to every Charlie Daniels song.” She grew up short of cash, but didn’t care that she couldn’t afford fancy underwear: “ Victoria’s Secret/ Well their stuff’s real nice/ Oh but I can buy the same damn thing on a Wal-Mart shelf half-price.”
Country Music Television (CMT), a cable channel, carries a show featuring Jeff Foxworthy, a comedian whose catchphrase is: “You might be a redneck if...”. There is an inexhaustible supply of punchlines, from “the photo on your driver’s licence includes your dog” to “you think the last words to ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ are ‘Gentlemen, start your engines’.”
The humour on CMT may be goofy, but it is mostly clean. The viewers tend to have children, says Brian Philips, CMT’s boss, and do not want to have to change the channel when the kids walk in. Country-music videos are sometimes raunchy, but not too raunchy: an outcry over the brief nudity in the video for “I Melt” by Rascal Flatts prompted the band to issue an expurgated version. And “Trick my Truck”, CMT’s version of “Pimp my Ride” (a popular show in which people make their cars flashier), is startlingly wholesome.
Some fans find mainstream country music too cloying or conservative. For those who want a different kind of country, there is a thriving “alt country” scene, also known as “ Americana” or “y’allternative music”.
Todd Snider’s songs, for example, blame “Conservative Christian, right-wing Republican, straight white American males” for many of the world’s ills, particularly “soul-savin’, flag-wavin’, Rush-lovin’, land-pavin’ personal friends to the Quayles.” Another alt country singer, Robbie Fulks, fulminates about how, as he sees it, George Bush is a north-eastern preppie posing as a southerner. “If you went to Andover, what’s the banjo fer?/ You wasn’t raised in a shack so you better not act so/ Countrier than thou.”
Of course there are also country artists who paddle rightwards out of the mainstream. The Right Brothers, for example, have a song called “I Want to Live”, narrated by a fetus. Another singer, Royal Wade Kimes, rouses National Rifle Association conventions with “In My Land: The Second-Amendment Anthem”. And, going back a few years, Ray Stevens, a comedy country singer, encapsulated the concerns of God-loving, tax-hating conservatives with “If 10% is Good Enough for Jesus, It Oughta be Enough for Uncle Sam.”
But angry political songs are not really what country is about. Most of all, it is about realism, says John Rumble, a historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville. And reality, for Middle America, is mostly quite pleasant. Consider Craig Morgan’s song “That’s what I love about Sunday”: “Sing along as the choir sways;/ Every verse of Amazin’ Grace,/ An’ then we shake the preacher’s hand/ Go home, into your blue jeans/ Have some chicken an’ some baked beans/ Pick a back yard football team/ Nothin’ much of anything/ That’s what I love about Sunday.”