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Willie Nelson and Toby Keith

Country’s Jingoistic Jingles

BY Craig Aaron

Country music is the nation’s most popular genre–with nearly twice as many stations devoted to it than any other–and perhaps its most political. These days, the jingle jangle jingoism from Music Row seems to only be getting louder.

Consider these lyrics from a few recent chart-toppers:

  • “Some say this country’s just out looking for a fight / After 9/11 man, I’d have to say that’s right.”
  • “You can stay behind or you can get out of the way / But our troops take out the garbage for the good old U.S.A.”
  • “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.”

Subtle they ain’t. Whatever you think of the work of Daryl Worley, Clint Black and Toby Keith, they have plenty to tell us about the state of the union. We may not always like what we hear, but as Chris Willman suggests in Rednecks & Bluenecks, country music is “a window into every aspect of lower- and middle-class life, the civic by no means excluded.”

You can’t spell Grand Ole Opry without the G-O-P. But country hasn’t always been the official soundtrack of the Republican Party. Back in 1964–when Democrats still held 22 of 26 Senate seats in the South–Lawton Williams even cracked the country Top 40 with a song called “Everything’s OK on the LBJ.” Of course, that was also the year of the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution.

Since then the South’s political polarity has completely reversed: By 2004, Republicans filled 22 of the 26 southern Senate slots. The impact of the “Southern strategy” has been as bad for music as politics. Willman notes that in a genre that once spoke directly to the working class, “You don’t hear many songs … anymore about the bottom rung.”

Rednecks & Bluenecks is no polemic; it’s more of a breezy tour of the country landscape that reads like Entertainment Weekly (where Willman is a senior editor). Willman interviews nearly everyone who’s anyone in country music, from Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn to current superstars like Ronnie Dunn–who offers a bizarre sermon on the dangers of Wahhabism–and alt-country icon Buddy Miller. A better music critic than political analyst, Willman still has his insightful moments.

He describes President Bush as “the ultimate hat act,” a scion of the establishment made over into a brush-clearin’ good-ol’-boy. As alt-country gadfly Robbie Fulks once put it: “You went to Andover / What’s the banjo fer?”

Such incongruity doesn’t faze the Nashville cognoscenti. “Country singers talk about [Bush] in nearly the same terms that their fans talk about them,” Willman writes. “As somebody who is larger than life and yet simultaneously approachable, who doesn’t put on the airs that he clearly has rights to.”

But not everyone in the South is on the bandwagon. “I’d say to Travis Tritt and Lee Ann Womack and the rest of ‘em that the one thing they better understand is that their core constituency is getting fucked out here,” says Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, a political consultant who’s trying to help Democrats reconnect with Red state voters. “In job loss, health care, everywhere you look, rural America’s getting screwed.”

Mudcat, though, is having a hard time finding musicians to spread his message: Nobody in Nashville wants to be the next Natalie Maines.

The downfall of the Dixie Chicks is the watershed moment of Rednecks & Bluenecks. On March 10, 2003–just days before the invasion of Iraq–lead singer Maines told a London audience she was “ashamed” that Bush hailed from her home state of Texas. At the time, the Chicks were the top act in country music, and their album Home was the top U.S. album in any genre, with more than 6 million copies already sold.

But once Maines’ quip hit the Internet, the Republican noise machine went nuts. Talk radio hosts and right-wing Web sites urged their minions to demand that local stations take the Dixie Chicks off the air. Citing the “public outcry,” Cox and Cumulus quickly issued a directive to local programmers not to play the band on their hundreds of stations; Clear Channel “advised” its 1,200 affiliates to “pay attention to their listeners.” Before long, DJs were holding events where listeners could throw their old albums in a bonfire or run them over with a tractor.

Blacklisting the Chicks was an easy way for the media behemoths–run by some of Bush’s biggest financial backers–to demonstrate their patriotism on the eve of the war. But the Chicks are still feeling the aftershocks. Two years after the incident, Home hadn’t yet moved 7 million copies, and the band was reinventing itself as a pop act. For the rest of the industry, the message was clear: Shut up if you want to sing.

The censoring of the Dixie Chicks was only the most extreme example of how media consolidation is killing country music. The Telecom Act of 1996–which abolished nationwide radio ownership caps and spawned the mega-chains–further constricted already limited playlists, abolished local programmers and imposed a homogenized, cookie-cutter sound to better court suburban soccer moms (which admittedly served the Dixie Chicks well for a while).

This “brought home in a graphic way how profoundly one piece of legislation can affect our world,” says Bob Titley, a former manager of Brooks & Dunn, who helped found a group called Music Row Democrats.

Fortunately, there is another side of Nashville, where performers are carrying on a “discordant duet” with the music factories down the road. Unlikely to get airplay anyway, liberal politics and old melodies mingle freely among the alt-country crowd, offering a ray of hope that progressive values and pedal steel aren’t totally incompatible.

Unfortunately, the protest music of these “Bluenecks” is often just as shrill as that of the right. With a few exceptions–like Steve Earle’s “Home to Houston” or James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here”–the topical songs too often feel like novelty records, no less ephemeral than reactionary ditties like Ray Stevens’ “Osama Yo’ Mama (You in a Heap o’ Trouble Boy).”

Grant Alden, editor of the alt-country bible No Depression, tells Willman “there isn’t very much lasting art to be created by addressing current events–some, but not much.” I hate to agree, especially since the antiwar movement could use a little twang. But by the end of Rednecks & Bluenecks, I was longing for a day when troubadours like Earle could go back to singing about outlaws, infidelity and trains.

Craig Aaron is senior program director of the national media reform group Free Press and a former managing editor of In These Times.

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