These Are My People: The Common Man and the Political Evolution of Country Music

Country songs are the dreams of the working man. –Merle Haggard

We’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way. –Toby Keith

I spent most of my summers in high school playing in a summer baseball league for my school coaches. Most of my wealthy New York prep school teammates had cars, or at least parents with cars, and could drive to the locations where our games were held, which were normally, to varying distances, north of the Bronx, and thus beyond the reach of the MTA subway system. I, on the other hand, was vehicle-deficient, so I would take the 4 Train to its northernmost stop and have my coach come pick me up and drive me the rest of the way. Cumulatively, I spent hours and hours riding around in Coach Carbone’s rattling, muffler-less car over the course of three summers, with one sound consistently accompanying us: the modern country music station on Sirius satellite radio. At first, constant subjection to this cheesy schlock was torture. I wondered how Coach Carbone, a fellow New Yorker, could possibly find any redeeming qualities in this type of music, which most Northern urban folk typically find repellent. “Me and Coach Mac played with this guy from Arkansas one summer,” he told me. “He was huge, Jer. Like, 6’7, 240. He chewed tobacco and just rubbed dirt on his hands before he hit instead of using batting gloves. His bat was like a fuckin’ log, and he could rake.” He smiled and shook his head. “Anyway, he got me into country. I know a lot of it’s stupid, but I don’t know, I just like it.” I remained baffled as I pondered how this seeming redneck stereotype could have managed to convert Coach Carbone to the ways of modern-day Nashville.

Soon enough, though, I began to understand how one could make that turn to the dark side. My natural predilection for twang began to mingle with my sense of humor about the ludicrous lyrics I heard coming over Coach Carbone’s radio during my rides, and soon I was able to derive some sort of muted, ironic pleasure out of songs like Brad Paisley’s 2007 smash hit, “Ticks” (a song entirely indicative of modern country music in that the line, “I’d like to check you for ticks” passes for a “hey baby, let’s get busy” sentiment). It was almost as if I’d built up an immunity to this music – the same way one builds up an immunity to chickenpox. While most people of rock ‘n roll persuasions typically break out in hives when exposed to modern-day Nashville product, I will remain unaffected, indifferent, and even a bit comforted. So much so that if I’m driving around middle America with no CD or iPod, I will immediately gravitate toward the local country music station, knowing that the classic rock station will play the same seven songs that every other classic rock station plays 90 times a day, and hey, what else am I going to listen to? Top 40? Nu-metal? Yeah, no thanks. However, I remain well aware of the tragedy that is what Nashville has become in the last two or three decades. And since my musical universe has expanded since the first time I rode around with Coach Carbone to the point where I can count country legends like Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash among my musical heroes, I now know that the cheesy pop metal sung by guys in cowboy hats that I was exposed to in Coach Carbone’s car isn’t really country music at all.

Anyone taking even a cursory glance at the trajectory of country music over the course of 20th Century will conclude that it has changed dramatically—harsher critics might say bastardized—over several decades. It is a testament to Nashville’s business savvy and ingenuity that the country music industry has managed to remain an extremely formidable force in American music. But while Nashville’s chameleonic nature may have succeeded in bolstering the continued popularity of country music, it has been less successful in maintaining its cowboy essence. Indeed, nearly every stylistic shift in mainstream country since the mid-1950s can be seen as blatant, shallow efforts to chase popularity. For instance, when the plaintive, high lonesome sound of Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, which had put Nashville on the map in the first place, fell out of favor among audiences due to the rise of Elvis Presley and rock ‘n roll, the Nashville Sound, designed to keep country from dying out, was born. A uniform sound featuring syrupy strings and backing vocal choirs, as influenced by the crooning of Dean Martin as Hank Williams, was applied to nearly all Nashville product. This allowed country music to appeal to middle of the road pop audiences throughout the 1960s. In turn, the Nashville Sound yielded to the Countrypolitan way in the 1970s and 80s, which took its cues from 70s pop and disco. And today, Nashville churns out an arena rock/pop hybrid, countrified only by tacked on fiddles, steel guitar and cowboy hats, that has proven as popular as any other form of country music ever was.

The changes that country has undergone over the course of these decades deserve to be covered in their own encyclopedia. There is one particular aspect of country music that has at once changed drastically and remained largely the same: its intended audience. A large part of country music’s appeal has always been its identification with the common man and the glorification of his salt of the earth lifestyle. This was as true in Hank Williams’ day as it is now. However, Nashville’s definition of who exactly the common man is has changed and reflects how the country music machine has been, by and large, co-opted by a right wing social agenda.

Because country music has always been designed for, and lapped up by, a largely blue-collar audience, country music fans have always held a range of political views, but which often tact toward the conservative end of the spectrum. That has, for the past fifty plus years, been the nature of the blue-collar population in the United States. However, the majority of country music from the 50s, 60s and 70s, of both mainstream and outlaw varieties, was not specifically designed to pander to Nixon’s silent majority as so much modern day country is designed to pander to Karl Rove’s permanent majority. During its mid-century heyday, country music tackled all of the diverse aspects of blue-collar life – and that included healthy doses of alcohol and sex. Today, with Nashville’s audience having become predominantly of a right-wing Christian persuasion, mainstream country has become sanitized to the point where such topics are largely taboo. Spend a little time driving around with your radio dial set on a country station and you will soon be astonished to find that the only topics that do appear to be acceptable to sing about are 1) trucks, and 2) how “country” the given singer is. In Nashville today, a singer boasting about how “country” they are has become a catch all term for summarizing the extent of their associability with the common man. At times, singing about how “country” one is can be a way to vaguely hint at illicit behavior, but never near blatantly enough to offend a devoutly Christian, middle American audience.

When and how did country music go from being a reflection of “the dreams of the working man” to a reflection of the tastes and standards of Republicans? Again, because of its Southern base and working class association, a conservative element has always manifested itself within country music. A notable example would be the legendary Merle Haggard, who escaped a life of crime to emerge, beginning in the late 60s, as one of the greatest country songwriters and performers of all time. Haggard was perhaps the epitomic performer of Bakersfield country, a stripped down strain of the genre that originated as a reaction to the slickness of the Nashville Sound. Haggard’s songs at times played to a conservative audience; his classic, rollicking 1969 hit “Workin’ Man Blues” extols the virtues of the honest, working life and declares: “I ain’t never been on welfare, that’s one place I won’t be/Cause I’ll be working long as my two hands are fit to use.” However, more notorious were perhaps the two biggest hits of his career, 1969’s “Okie From Muskogee” and 1970’s “The Fightin’ Side Of Me.” Both songs address the hippie movement and the anti-Vietnam protests of the era and bluntly sympathize with the silent majority’s cultural distaste of both. The narrator of “The Fightin’ Side Of Me” displays the sort of jingoistic patriotism familiar to anyone who has lived through an American war:

Runnin’ down the way of life,
Our fightin’ men have fought and died to keep.
If you don’t love it, leave it:
Let this song I’m singin’ be a warnin’.
If you’re runnin’ down my country, man,
You’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.
The sentiment is not dissimilar to modern day country star Toby Keith’s infamous post-9/11 reactionary screed “Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American),” which warns: “We’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way.” However, there is some question as to the sincerity of Haggard’s sentiments in these songs. Many, in fact, believe them to be humorous and satirical in intention. Haggard himself has admitted that he wrote “Okie From Muskogee” to reflect, not his own, but rather his father’s point of view about the hippies. The lyrics accordingly read like a parody of a blue-collar American’s idealization of a 1950s Middle American lifestyle – denouncing drugs and making “a party out of lovin’” while hailing the apparent Small Town, USA utopia of Muskogee, Oklahoma as “a place where even squares can have a ball” and where “the kids here still respect the college dean.” Undoubtedly there was a significant segment of the American population that still thought this way in 1969, but whether Haggard himself was really a part of it, or was just playing to it as a part of a larger blue-collar audience, is certainly debatable. A hint to his true intentions can be found in Haggard’s reaction to the Iraq War over 30 years later. Haggard vociferously criticized the war and what he perceived as the cynical, oil-based motivations behind it. He released several songs on the topic, including 2005’s “America First,” which lamented the government’s use of resources overseas when it could be better spent domestically on failing infrastructure.
The late Johnny Cash, on the other hand, was far less ambiguous about his political allegiances. Having emerged out of Memphis’ legendary Sun Studios virtually contiguously to Elvis Presley, Cash proved immune to the influence of the Nashville Sound, making his name on rockabilly and folk-based styles. He rose to superstar status in the late 50s and early 60s and, after a period of uncertainty in the mid-60s during which he struggled with drug abuse, reemerged in 1968 with the legendary live album At Folsom Prison, which became his best selling LP ever. Recorded with a stripped down lineup, it flew in the face of the slick, overproduced tendencies of the Nashville Sound, in that way was a notable precursor to the Outlaw Country movement of the 1970s which, spearheaded by stars like Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, achieved huge mainstream success with an old-school, raw aesthetic antithetical to the Nashville Sound and Countrypolitan styles. However, the significance of At Folsom Prison is not merely musical. The album was recorded at Folsom State Prison, a maximum-security prison in Folsom, California, in front of an audience of rowdy inmates. Though he had never gone to prison like Haggard had, Cash identified himself strongly with the imprisoned and wrote and performed numerous prison-centric songs over the course of his career; most famously his 1955 hit “Folsom Prison Blues,” a version of which opens At Folsom Prison. An advocate of prison reform, Cash was invited to the White House in 1972 to speak about the topic with Richard Nixon, the man who had won the presidency by advocating for “law and order.”
Cash, then, also sang for a blue-collar audience, but for a very different conception of it than the one portrayed in “Okie From Muskogee.” Cash’s songs sympathized with downtrodden characters left behind and mistreated by society; he made a point to stick up for those who had no voice rather than appeal to a silent majority – the majority. Perhaps the most notable example of this approach is his 1971 hit “Man In Black.” Based on his penchant for dressing in dark tones from head to toe, Cash had earned the nickname The Man In Black; “Man In Black” purports to explain the reasoning behind his dress code. With a jaunty rockabilly rhythm and a basic two guitar, bass, and drums arrangement indistinguishable from the style he made famous in the 1950s, Cash declares that his limited color palette has a greater purpose than just aesthetics:
I wear the black for the poor and the beaten down,
Livin’ in the hopeless, hungry side of town,
I wear it for the prisoner who has long paid for his crime,
But is there because he’s a victim of the times.           
He goes on to sing about walking “the road to happiness through love and charity” and wearing black expressly “so we’re reminded of the ones who are held back.” He concludes:
Ah, I’d love to wear a rainbow every day,
And tell the world that everything’s OK,
But I’ll try to carry off a little darkness on my back,
‘Till things are brighter, I’m the Man In Black.           
Such sentiments may be antithetical to Randian conservatism, but remain very much in line with the idea of country music as the voice of the common man. The fact that, in the early 70s, interpretations of who the common man is as wildly different as those of Haggard and Cash could exist simultaneously speaks to the multitudes that were contained within country music at the time.
The same cannot be said of country music today. Nashville’s modern day conception of the common man is little more than a pro-God, pro-guns, pro-Bush stereotype. And though these sorts of people have always been a significant portion of the country audience, as evidenced by the success of songs like “The Fightin’ Side Of Me,” country music was never their exclusive territory. Now, the “country” lifestyle, as portrayed by Nashville, has been homogenized, exploited, and depicted as the exclusive property of Republican voters. For real-world proof, one need only recall the career-torpedoing ostracization experienced by the enormously successful female trio, the Dixie Chicks, for innocuous comments made in 2003 by their lead singer, Natalie Maines, concerning their less than enamored opinion of George W. Bush and the Iraq War. Only a few months after Maines’ comments, the now-wizened Merle Haggard released his first anti-Iraq War song, “That’s The News,” and spoke out against the treatment of the Dixie Chicks, saying, “I don’t even know the Dixie Chicks, but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion. It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.” It speaks volumes about the current ideological center of country music that the man who had once written songs that epitomized the views of conservative Americans was now among the only voices in country music willing to publicly oppose the actions of modern day conservative country fans.
There are a million examples I could use to illustrate Nashville’s modern day homogenization of the common man. But I’ll choose one. Over this past summer, I found myself in the stands at a baseball game at St. John’s University when I heard an all-too-familiar-sounding hunk of generic, super-slick, fake twang straight out of the Nashville factory assembly line emanating from the stadium’s PA system. I took a mental note of some of the more amusing lyrics and later, thanks to Google, determined that the song was 2009’s “Good Ole American Way” by Justin Moore, one of the scores of interchangeable cowboy hat-wearing, stubble-sporting, crucifix-bearing singers that sprout up out of Nashville today seemingly one after another. But I remembered the song very distinctly – not because it sounded any different from anything I’d heard in Coach Carbone’s car, but because I found the lyrics so unintentionally hysterical. The song aspires to be an anthem “for country boys like me,” as Moore puts it, and the struggles they go through in the modern world. In that way, it is very much in line with the country music tradition of sticking up for the common man. However, where “Okie From Muskogee” could have been construed as parody of certain conservative attitudes, the lyrics to “Good Ole American Way” read like an apparently completely sincere laundry list of sentiments Moore gleaned from an afternoon spent listening to right-wing talk radio. After establishing his “country boy” bona fides (“A rifle and a four wheel drive is all I need/Small mouth bass on the end of a hook/Daddy read from the good book”), Moore declares that he’s out to save the “country,” blue-collar lifestyle, otherwise known as “the good ole American way,” from forces that are apparently out to destroy it. He identifies these enemies as the “politically correct,” “the foreigners” and the fact that “we tolerate everything and just call it love.” He presents himself as a bold voice standing up for “the little man.” “Somebody with a backbone please stand up,” he implores. “We can’t stand by and just let it fade away/The good ole American way.” The song then ends with a bombastic musical quote of “The Star Spangled Banner” in order to ensure that the listener knows how patriotic Moore is. This song is a clear as day indication that the conception of the common man in country music has been rhetorically co-opted by conservative values.
In the summer of 2010, I vacationed in Nashville. I toured the Ryman Auditorium, the original home of the Grand Ole Opry. My tour group included a wide range of people from very disparate parts of the United States – places that we don’t today conceive of as bastions of country music fandom. Later, I visited the Country Music Hall of Fame, which featured exhibitions and memorabilia associated with figures from the entirety of the history of country music, from the earliest bluegrass pioneers to modern day hitmakers, from the Carter Family to Taylor Swift. As I explored the museum, I marveled at the diversity of the artists that were celebrated right next each other, from the most revered country legends to artists that the people who indentified with “The Fightin’ Side Of Me” probably despised, like Elvis or Gram Parsons. My wonderment reached new levels of intensity when I, totally unexpectedly, discovered a vinyl copy of an album by my beloved rock band Drive-By Truckers in the gift shop. But I couldn’t help but wonder what had happened to Nashville; why it no longer made music that reflected the ideals documented in its great commemorative temple. A quote by Merle Haggard is inscribed on the side of the museum: “Country songs are the dreams of the working man.” I lament the day that Nashville decided that the working man’s dreams were so one-sided. 

One Comment

  1. victoreador wrote:

    Well put and comprehensive Mr. Etc..

    My favorite line from the immortal Merle’s The Fightin’ Side Of Me is a direct gut punch to the anti-war hippie freaks and is far more powerful than Ronnie Raygun’s famous put-down:
    “A hippie is someone who looks like Tarzan, walks like Jane, and smells like Cheetah”.

    I read about some squirrely guy
    Who claims that he just don’t believe in fightin’.
    And I wonder just how long
    The rest of us can count on bein’ free.
    They love our milk and honey,
    But they preach about some other way of livin’.
    When they’re runnin’ down my country, hoss,
    They’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.

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