‘I’m a serious aficionada of country music – Reba McEntire, Toby Keith, Montgomery Gentry. I’ve even written some songs. They haven’t done anything of mine yet. But it’s only a matter of time.’ – Maya Angelou
You speak true there, Maya.
If you’re a connoisseur of country music, I don’t think you need me to tell you what state the genre is in these days. If you bothered tuning in to last year’s Country Music Association awards, you might have heard such wonderful proclamations as:
‘And the award for Female Vocalist of the Year goes to….MIRANDA LAMBERT!!!’ (a.k.a. the feminist, tattooed balladeer of bipolar insanity)
‘And the award for Male Vocalist of the Year goes to….BLAKE SHELTON!!!’ (a.k.a. Mrs. Miranda Lambert)
‘And the award for Vocal Duo of the Year goes to…FLORIDA GEORGIA LINE!!!’ (a.k.a. the Bieber Twins)
‘And the award for Musical Event of the Year goes to… “HIGHWAY DON’T CARE” BY TIM MCGRAW WITH TAYLOR SWIFT AND KEITH URBAN!!!’ (a.k.a. never mind the highway – with these two metrosexuals and one pop diva belting out a half-baked power ballad, I don’t care!)
The one bone that was thrown the purists’ way was that George Strait won Entertainer of the Year. However, given that this was his first such win since 1990 and that his current tour is being billed as his farewell, this was obviously a lifetime achievement award more than anything else. All in all, the entire sorry spectacle seemed to be catering to the homosexual demographic just as much as every other high-level awards ceremony – albeit a demographic slightly more butch than that watching the Emmys or something.
Another low point last year occurred when professional sellout Brad Paisley penned a tune titled ‘Accidental Racist’, which he sang with his good buddy, LL Cool J. In the song, Paisley profusely apologizes for wearing his Confederate flag shirt, saying he did so only because he was a Skynyrd fan. LL Cool J responds by whining that Paisley doesn’t understand his saggy pants and bling and the hood and such, but he’ll still buy him a beer if he’ll just take his shirt off. Paisley calls himself a son of the ‘new south’, and LL thanks Abraham Lincoln for freeing him. End of song. Admittedly, this magnum opus was roundly (and deservedly) trashed by the critics. Still, it follows a pattern that Paisley has set for himself over the years. In his 2012 single ‘Southern Comfort Zone’, his tribute to international travel, he piously declares, ‘I know what it’s like to meet the only one like me/To take a good hard look around and be a minority.’1
Still not ‘edgy’ enough for your postmodern taste? One of the latest hillbilly harmonies that the cowkids are two-stepping to is Kacey Musgraves’s ‘Follow Your Arrow’, a perky, upbeat, do-your-own-thing number that promotes lesbianism with the lyrics ‘Make lots of noise/Kiss lots of boys/Or kiss lots of girls/If that’s something you’re into.’2 But not to worry, traditionalists, because she doesn’t exactly denigrate saving yourself for marriage or attending church, either! See? Modern country music can appeal to libertines and believers alike!
It’s at this point that traditionalists throw their hands up into the air and say, ‘That’s it! No more of this amoral, anti-heritage muzak! After all, this is supposed to be the music of our people! We’ll stick to the OLD singers, thank you very much! Hank Williams! Johnny Cash! Marty Robbins! George Jones! Now there were some tunesmiths who sang songs for the ages!’ Which is fine. By and large, I am in agreement with this sentiment.
As kinists, though, let’s not kid ourselves. While more blatant in their presentation, these are by no means entirely new themes in this genre. The bluegrass elegies and cowboy ballads which constituted our traditional folk songs were transformed after World War II into a commodity designed to rise and fall on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and make a lot of money in the process. Jewish figures played their part in this change – not on the scale that they would in other sectors of the entertainment industry, but there all the same. As such, the burgeoning themes of miscegenation, feminism, and amorality that were making themselves manifest on the rock-and-roll scene were showing up on the just-as-new country music scene, too. Of course, the latter added two other anti-kinist themes that would become better known to the general public – blind patriotism and bad theology. No one seemed to be overly concerned with this at the time. All that mattered was that a song had a good beat and you could dance to it in a bar in Texas or Tennessee, rather than on the set of American Bandstand.
This is not to say that quality country songs still weren’t being recorded at this time – yet it is always incumbent upon us to separate the wheat from the chaff. So let’s begin.
The very phrase ‘country music’ would probably best be described as a marketing misnomer. The demographic to which this genre traditionally appealed was whites – particularly rural or blue-collar whites, two historically racially homogeneous groups. The Celtic and Saxon transplants from the British Isles and Western Europe who settled the Appalachians were loath to relinquish their memories of the old country, and thus made the preservation of their traditional music a priority. By the early 20th century, this genre had come to be broadly known as ‘old-time music’. Relying on such instruments as the Irish fiddle and the Scottish dulcimer, it was a genre rich in ethnic identity, telling its tales through musicianship that made up in heart what it lacked in polish. The following points from an article on the subject summarize some of this music’s salient points:
Most of the ‘old time’ musicians were white rural agrarian Southerners. Their singing, by European art music standards, was unschooled (though not necessarily ‘artless’). The same might be said of their musicianship, expressed primarily via strings.
Religious faith and fable (Daniel Prayed) were underscored in song. Socially accepted pleasures (square dancing) were set to brisk rhythms and tunes. Balladic sagas of the bad (John Hardy) and the beautiful (The Four Marys) were more readily remembered (and strikingly heard) when [s]ung. Resonant in meaning and methodology, ‘old time music’ had been the heartbeat of Anglo-Celtic Southern America for many generations.
Songs scarcely remembered in their land of origin still held a kind of ‘racial memory’ spell over Southern descendants of expatriated yeomen.3
The hold this music had upon its people in no way dissipated when they continued their migrations further west, either. The ‘hillbilly’ music of the South was instead transferred into ‘western’ balladeering, depicting the region’s geography and standard of living from the same white viewpoint.
Thus the racial origins of country. Anti-racist revisionists, as is their wont, will naturally try to convince you that there were considerable black influences upon old-time music, as well. Their ‘proof’ runs the gamut from the banjo supposedly being of African origin (a claim stated in the aforementioned article, unfortunately) to a black guitarist being the inspiration for Merle Travis’s picking style (as claimed on Wikipedia) to DeFord Bailey, a black harmonica player, being an early Grand Ole Opry star. The fact remains that the progenitors of this genre were whites proud and jealous of their heritage. These same revisionists would also try to tell you that the Marxist, self-loathing FDR shill, Woody Guthrie, deserves to be included in the same genre, but what do they know?
Alas, oral folk songs don’t often translate into record sales, and by the 1920s that was becoming problematic. The flappers were jitterbugging to hot jazz on 78s, and if you weren’t a part of that medium, you were a chump, 23 Skidoo! Early ‘hillbilly’ singers like Jimmie Rodgers and Vernon Dalhart were beginning to release records, and the Grand Ole Opry began radio broadcasting in 1925, yet the genre remained primarily a regional phenomenon in the South, Midwest, and West throughout the rest of the decade and the Great Depression. A condition which, it goes without saying, wasn’t such a terrible thing from a kinist perspective.
Along came the ‘Good’ War, though, and the situation drastically changed. Not for the better, either.
How are ya going to keep ‘em down on the farm once they’ve seen the world? The short answer is: you aren’t. The Second World War coercively uprooted the tightly knit, rural, white communities of the American South and West, sending their members overseas or to jobs in urban areas. Such a demographic uproot, however, did not make them forget who they were. They retained their musical preferences throughout those years and introduced this formerly provincial genre to a new audience of Northerners and big-city goombas. While it might be a stretch to say it caught fire, the genre more than held its own against the jazz and big band songs that are more familiarly associated with the period. The USO regularly included hillbilly bands in its revues. The ‘singing cowboy’ movies of Gene Autry and Roy Rogers were popular favorites, both overseas and stateside. In a contest held on the Armed Forces Network, Roy Acuff was named ‘most popular crooner’, beating runner-up Frank Sinatra by 600 votes.4 Back home, it was discovered that this type of music played well in the increasingly lucrative jukeboxes which were becoming more and more common in the rowdier dance halls and gin joints. As a result, in January 1944, Billboard magazine began charting the performance of these particular records for the first time. The era of mainstream ‘country’ music had arrived.
Wait just a minute, though – where exactly did that term ‘country’ music come from? Well, the 1940s equivalent of marketing gurus quickly realized that calling this unique style ‘hillbilly music’ just wasn’t going to fly. In commoditizing anything, terminology is crucial, and the thinking went: in an increasingly urbanized society, no one is going to plunk down shekels to listen to a bunch of hicks scrape washboards and blow into moonshine jugs, or whatever it is they do! To sanitize the genre’s image, and to wipe out all traces of aphorism which might cut into profits, it was therefore necessary to rebrand it as ‘country’ music. As an afterthought, it was rebranded ‘country & western’ music, as an attempt to cash in on the popularity of Autry, Rogers, John Wayne, and ‘Gunsmoke’ on the radio. Interestingly, the old phrase ‘hillbilly music’ retained its popularity in the South, and was still in common usage there until at least the late 60s.
Cultural erasure for the purpose of monetary gain, of course, was and is a defining characteristic of the Jewish-dominated entertainment sector. The infant country music industry was no exception, albeit on a smaller scale than in motion pictures, radio, and other recording genres. Two pioneers, in particular, are worth mentioning:
Fred Rose began his career as a piano player and jazz songwriter in Chicago before moving to Nashville in 1933. He became a successful songwriter for such early country acts as the Delmore Brothers, Tex Ritter, and Ray Whitley. In 1942, he joined forces with Grand Ole Opry superstar Roy Acuff to form Acuff-Rose Publications, the first song publishing house in Nashville and one of the primary driving forces in making that city the world’s country music capital. He also worked closely with Hank Williams throughout his career, signing him with MGM Records and writing his songs ‘Kaw-liga’, ‘Setting the Woods on Fire’, and ‘Take These Chains From My Heart’. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1961 as one of three charter members.5
Paul Cohen joined Decca Records in 1934 as a talent scout and marketing executive in Cincinnati, and began to rise in the ranks of that label’s ‘hillbilly’ division until he took over as head of that division in the mid-1940s. In 1947, he joined forces with two of country’s biggest stars, Ernest Tubb and Red Foley, to begin recording sessions at Nashville’s Castle Recording studios – a company that was to Nashville’s recording industry what Acuff-Rose was to its song publishing industry. His signing of such acts as Patsy Cline, Kitty Wells, Webb Pierce, and Brenda Lee to Decca during his tenure helped make it the premiere country music label of the 1950s and 60s. In 1958, he started his own company, Todd Records, which would launch a young Mel Tillis on his career. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1976.6
And thus, the stage was set for the first-ever country music renaissance. Beyond a doubt, this renaissance in large part did take place. This was the era when legends like Hank Williams, Bob Wills, Lefty Frizzell, Eddy Arnold, and Tennessee Ernie Ford were either in their prime or just getting warmed up.
At the same time, though, the industry was in no way inured to the cultural Marxist agenda that was plaguing every other facet of life in the West in the mid-twentieth century. As a result, a lot of crap was being recorded alongside the relatively few pearls. Needless to say, the crap-to-pearls ratio only got more lopsided as the decades went by. If you think I’m trying to set up a segue to delve straight into the crap, you’re absolutely correct!
Themes of Multiculturalism and Miscegenation
Perusing the original Billboard chart statistics from 1944, it becomes painfully obvious that what was considered ‘country’ even then was murky, to say the least. In that one year we see that such black jazz or R&B figures as Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Jordan, Nat King Cole, and the band 5 Red Caps had songs that hit #1 or #2 on the chart.7 This, however, seems to have been a one-year anomaly, as the year 1945 shows us a phalanx of white performers dominating the top positions. With such cowboy (as opposed to hillbilly) singers as Bob Wills, Gene Autry, Tex Ritter, and Ernest Tubb having the most success that year, it would seem that the ‘western’ aspect of the genre prevailed over the ‘country’ aspect that year.
This is a rather cold comfort, though, as a culturally Marxist context quickly began to make itself apparent in many songs these white singers were crooning. A prime example would be ‘Filipino Baby’, which Ernest Tubb would take to #2 in 1946. Its opening stanzas and chorus are thus:
When the warship left Manila headin’ out across the sea
All the sailors hearts were filled with fond regret
Looking backward to the islands where they spent such happy hours
Making love to every pretty girl they’ve met
(When up stepped a little sailor with his bright eyes all aglow
Saying take a look at my girl’s photograph)
Then the sailors gathered round him just to look upon her face
And he said I love my Filipino baby
She’s my Filipino baby she’s my treasure and my pet
Her teeth are bright and pearly and her hair is black as jet
Oh her lips are sweet as honey and her heart is true I know
And she’s my darling little Filipino baby8
Later on in the song, we learn that our intrepid sailor is from ‘Caroline’ and that he did, indeed, marry his Filipino baby. Phew. That’s a relief. Less of a relief is the fact that this song charted four times in the same year, with Cowboy Copas, Texas Jim Robertson, and T. Texas Tyler also having success with it. Roy Acuff also sang a cover, but it did not chart. This was not an unusual occurrence in the period, as the product coming out of Nashville’s publishing houses was limited at the time, but it still has to be considered disheartening.
As a corollary, Tubb recorded a semi-follow-up song, ‘My Filipino Rose’, in 1949. In this version, the sailor is married stateside and receives a letter from his Filipino baby, admonishing him to divorce his wife and come rejoin her because she’s lonely. Hank Snow would sing a cover of this song.
The success of the many versions of this song thus established an early trope in country music – white men pitching squeaky clean, all-American woo to various ethnic maidens. As ‘Filipino Baby’ suggests, the carnal experiences of those overseas during the Second World War played no small part in making this a popular theme. Indeed, country songs glorifying miscegenation with Asians would continue to pop up sporadically for the next twenty years. Was this also a catering to similar experiences GIs had in Korea and Vietnam? After all, country music programs were an established staple of the Armed Forces Network by then.
Witness Hank Locklin’s ‘Geisha Girl’ from 1957:
I have stood and watched the sun rise from the waters of the sea
And wondered how much beauty in this whole world can there be
My dreams are all worth dreaming and it makes my life worthwhile
To see my pretty geisha girl, dressed in oriental style9
(Locklin, incidentally, also recorded a version of ‘Filipino Baby’. What a guy!)
George Hamilton IV blessed us with ‘China Doll’ in 1960:
Sometimes I go down to old China town
And just walk around just wander around
Where amber lights gleam and blue shadows fall
Just dreaming a dream of my China doll10
Even as late as 1972, Buck Owens still found this theme fresh enough to record ‘Made in Japan’. Listeners must have felt the same, as it reached #1:
In the dark of night we would lay on Tokyo bay
And the singing of the birds woke us up at the break of day
Her smiling eyes always seemed to try to understand
All the love in my heart for the girl made in Japan11
One will search in vain for multiple examples of songs celebrating postwar romances with European girls. The only example that comes to mind is ‘Fraulein’, from Bobby Helms. The love affair with the Orient did not go unchallenged, though. ‘Answer songs’ were songs recorded to address the themes of earlier songs, and the 1950s was the peak of this musical trend. ‘Geisha Girl’ provoked enough of a backlash to warrant two answer songs in 1958: ‘Lost My Heart to a Geisha Girl’ by Skeeter Davis and ‘I Found My Girl in the USA’ by Jimmie Skinner. A small revenge, perhaps, but a welcome one nonetheless.
One has to wonder, though, if the girl Mr. Skinner found in the USA belonged to another racial group romanticized by country artists: American Indians. This group has probably been the most popular subject of interracial country, for obvious reasons. From The Last of the Mohicans to the novels of Louis L’Amour to Dances with Wolves, the literature of the American frontier has always had a soft spot for comely Indian squaws or braves for the white protagonists to fawn over; hence it was only natural that this should carry over into the music supposedly extolling frontier values. Perhaps the most well-known example of this was the old chestnut ‘Indian Love Call’, co-written by the Jewish Oscar Hammerstein II in 1924. Slim Whitman would take his version to #2 in 1952. It would also be covered by Chet Atkins, Ray Stevens, and Jim Ed Brown, among many other artists.
A typical example of this pairing is found in Hank Thompson’s inane 1958 single ‘Squaws Along the Yukon’ – a #2 hit:
There’s a salmon-colored girl who sets my heart awhirl
Who lives along the Yukon far away
Where the Northern Lights they shine she rubs her nose to mine
She cuddles close and I can hear her say
Ooga ooga mooshka which means that I love you
If you will be my baby I’ll ooga ooga mooshka you
Then I take her hand in mine and set her on my knee
The squaws along the Yukon are good enough for me12
One can just imagine the young baby boomers running around hollering ‘OOGA OOGA MOOSHKA!’ all day and driving Mom nuts. One doesn’t want to, but one can.
Undoubtedly, such songs have also been popular because so many country singers use their partial Indian ancestry as a selling point for their careers. Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings were famously part Cherokee, and Roy Rogers was the great-great grandson of a Choctaw woman. Hank Williams was also part Choctaw. Kitty Wells, Willie Nelson, Loretta Lynn, and Billy Ray Cyrus claim part Cherokee ancestry, while Carrie Underwood has Creek ancestry.13 Perhaps bearing in mind the genre’s still predominantly Southern demographic, country publicists will eagerly promote its stars’ relations to the area’s ‘civilized’ tribes. Precious few, if any, singers have ever claimed descent from, say, the Sioux or the Arapahoe.
Almost as popular a theme as Indian love has been Mexican love, a theme thought to be more resonant in Texas and the southwest. Marty Robbins’s ‘El Paso’, a ballad dedicated to the ‘Mexican maiden’ Felina, is perhaps the most famous example of this. That song also introduced a unique theme to this particular grouping: these songs tended to end much more violently than the panegyrics to Asians and Indians. The song ends with the cowboy protagonist being shot and consoled by Felina while dying. In Faron Young’s ‘Yellow Bandana’, a soldier who leaves to fight in the Indian wars returns home to find that the Apaches have burned down his village and killed his Mexican girl. Billy Walker’s ‘Matamoros’ ends with the singer’s girl in Old Mexico leaping in front of a knife meant for him and perishing. The subtext becomes clear: Mexican dishes are spicy but alluring. Sigh.
Related to this are travelogue-style songs set in the Caribbean, a sub-genre made famous by Jimmy Buffett in the 1970s and, more recently, by Kenny Chesney and the Zac Brown Band. The 1950s also produced a plethora of these, of which Mitchell Torok’s ‘Caribbean’, a #1 hit from 1953, had the most representative lyrics:
Columbus searched for spices but he missed the nicest
part of the Caribbean
He didn’t see the charms and the open arms
it was the gold that he was seein’
But I’m glad he missed the sweetest thing I’ve kissed
cause we’re on our honeymoon
I’m so sorry Chris to talk about you like this
but you were five hundred years too soon14
Incidentally, this is only the second song quoted so far that makes it clear the protagonist and his ethnic girl actually married. Multiracial country songs tend to shy away from the nuptials far, far more often than standard love songs do. This, too, is by design. Part of being an effective cultural Marxist is knowing how far you can push the envelope. Too blatant an agenda, and wave bye-bye to the rural whites you are indoctrinating. For this reason, country songs depicting black-white romances are almost unheard of. Also for this reason, the singers of these songs are all males. Females serenading the charms of a stalwart Navajo brave or a heroic Japanese samurai would have caused listeners to snap off their radios in disgust.
Oddly enough, by the 1970s this theme was in serious decline, and in the subsequent years it has never been able to regain its popularity. Perhaps the last significant example of it was Merle Haggard’s ‘Cherokee Maiden’, which hit #1 in 1976. Considering that song was a cover of a Bob Wills tune from 1941 and that it was sung in a deliberately outdated western swing style, in an attempt to capitalize on the decade’s fad for all things nostalgic, it signaled quite clearly that the times were changing. The exotic yet ‘innocent’ nature of the multiethnic country love song was becoming as outmoded as back issues of the National Geographic.
By no means, though, did this signal some kind of racial awakening within the industry. Quite the opposite. In the wake of the assassination and subsequent canonization of Martin Luther King, country music began to incorporate much more ham-fisted, anti-racist ‘messages’ into several of its songs. I would venture to guess that no one has heard the name Henson Cargill today. Yet in 1968, he recorded ‘Skip a Rope’, a song about children repeating things they have inadvertently learned from their parents – one of those things being:
Never mind the rule just play to win
And hate your neighbor for the shade of his skin15
Similar Sesame Street-level sociological insights are offered throughout the song. Depressingly, however, it resonated. It hit #1 for five weeks and would go on to become the biggest country hit of its year. That same year, Kenny Rogers’s career would begin in earnest with the release of ‘Reuben James’, about a simple black man who cares for an abandoned white woman and her daughter and is reviled by a spiteful town for doing so. The ‘preachy-keen’ sound had arrived in Nashville.
In keeping with this new sound, the ethnic makeup of the genre also began to markedly diversify. Charley Pride, country music’s first high-profile black singer, picked up the CMA’s Entertainer of the Year award in 1971 and was a dominating force on the charts for the rest of the decade and well into the 1980s. Ironically, his output of music is noticeably absent of content hostile to kinism. Certainly, his single ‘You’re My Jamaica’, a tropical-tinged Jimmy Buffett-type number, sounds far less ridiculous coming from him than it would from a white singer. The success of Hispanic singers Freddy Fender and Johnny Rodriguez in this decade would also inspire a mini-flurry of Spanish-language country songs. Fender’s ‘Before the Next Teardrop Falls’ contained a stanza entirely in Spanish, and songs entitled ‘Eres Tu’, ‘Vaya Con Dios’, ‘Lo Que Sea’, and ‘A Mi Esposa Con Amor’ (the last sung by white singer Sonny James) would also make chart appearances. Not surprisingly, the 1970s would also witness the debut performances of professional joke Kinky Friedman, who would be widely touted as the first Jew ever to perform solo on the Grand Ole Opry.
Thus, the era was ripe for twangy pleas for fraudulent racial harmony. Tragically, such songs never entirely went out of vogue on country radio. To conclude this section, a brief selection of such songs in chronological order might provide illustration. Johnny Russell’s 1972 single ‘Catfish John’ begins as a child’s recollection of his mother telling him to stay away from the title character, a bum living on the banks of an unnamed Southern river. The last stanza of the song, obviously meant to be a surprise twist, lets us know just why Mama didn’t like the saintly John:
Born a slave in the town of Vicksburg
Traded for a chestnut mare
But still he never spo-oke in anger
Though his load was hard to bear16
The ‘outlaw’ movement of the 1970s, popularized by Waylon Jennings, was one of the genre’s definite high points. But in the uber-patriotic year of 1984, in his single ‘America’, his tone became noticeably more mainstream – not to mention entitled:
And my brothers are all black and white, yellow too
And the red man is right, to expect a little from you
Promise and then follow through, America17
Garth Brooks began his career as a promising balladeer of rodeo life, but after the release of his 1992 single ‘We Shall Be Free’, he began to cast himself in the mold of a more adult-contemporary artist, more at home on Oprah’s soundstage than at the Calgary Stampede. Years later, it would be featured during one of Barack Obama’s inauguration ceremonies:
When the last thing we notice is the color of skin
And the first thing we look for is the beauty within
When the skies and the oceans are clean again
Then we shall be free
…When we’re free to love anyone we choose
When this world’s big enough for all different views
When we all can worship from our own kind of pew
Then we shall be free18
Finally, our old friend Brad Paisley, to commemorate Obama’s inauguration in 2009, gave the world the #2 single ‘Welcome to the Future’, a song about ‘progress’. It would also mark a milestone in country music history as being one of the first major songs to reference relations between a black male and a white female:
I had a friend in school
Running back on a football team
They burned a cross in his front yard
For asking out the home coming queen
I thought about him today
And everybody who’s seen what he’s seen
From a woman on a bus
To a man with a dream
Hey, wake up Martin Luther
Welcome to the future19
Not coincidentally, 2009 would also mark the year that Darius Rucker – a black man married to a white woman – would begin to be recognized as a country music superstar. Welcome to the future, indeed.
NPR and Abraham Foxman can thus claim country music is ‘racist’ to their heart’s content without much of a basis in reality. However, another notorious theme of the genre, more well-known to the general public, is one that kinists can also comfortably deride: jingoistic, statist patriotism.
Themes of Red-State Patriotism and Military-Worship
Lee Greenwood would have been just another half-forgotten footnote in country music history had it not been for his 1984 single ‘God Bless the USA’. While it only reached #7 on the charts during its initial release, it coincided with the year’s two big patriotic events: the summer Olympics in Los Angeles and Ronald Reagan’s re-election in the fall. Seeming to be the perfect soundtrack to the continuing march of American Exceptionalism, the song would help Greenwood earn 1984’s Male Vocalist of the Year CMA award. It would be re-issued during the first Gulf War and after the 9/11 attacks, cementing its place as a popular, albeit much-derided, unofficial national anthem. In 2008, George W. Bush would appoint Greenwood to the National Arts Council.20 It pays to please one’s overseers.
The flag-waving aspects of the country music industry are perhaps too well-known to cover in minute detail. From the kinist perspective, though, the more pertinent question might be: why is it so many Southern-born singers feel compelled to laud the state that trampled their ancestors underfoot? Filthy lucre is the answer, of course, but sometimes it pays to be rhetorical.
Odes to the natural beauty of the South abound in the genre, but regional cultural pride always takes a backseat to, or at least must always be placed on an equal footing with, ‘national unity’. Thus, in 1945’s ‘Stars and Stripes on Iwo Jima’, recorded by both Bob Wills and the Sons of the Pioneers, we hear the line:
Bless the heart of each Yankee there on Iwo Jima Isle
Resting ‘neath a blanket of blue.
High on the hill Suribachi flies Old Glory and she always will21
While in Charlie Daniels’s 1980 single ‘In America’, the canard goes:
And we may have done a little bit of fighting amongst ourselves
But you outside people best leave us alone
‘Cause we’ll all stick together and you can take that to the bank
That’s the cowboys and the hippies and the rebels and the yanks22
(Incidentally, like ‘God Bless the USA’, the above song also saw a resurgence in popularity after 9/11.)
So we’re all one, big, happy family, then. Fine. What, then, is the ideal mindset to engage in glorifying the Republic? Ideally, it is one of simple, faithful, provinciality – a condition our ancestors would have termed ‘idiocy’ in a less refined time. Witness Bobby Bare in his 1969 song ‘God Bless America Again’:
I don’t understand everything I read and hear
About what’s wrong with America.
When you don’t have a lot of book learnin’
There’s many things you don’t understand
But I know this much, she’s like a mother to me
And I love her with all my heart
And let me tell you this Sir, everything I am
Or ever hope to be, I owe to her.23
Rural Romans kept their pagan deities in their homes long after Christianity became the religion of the empire. According to Bare, rural Americans must do the same thing.
Such a mindset, of course, encourages total fidelity to the American state and the brave, stalwart presidents who ‘run’ it. Such a misguided faith often takes on the tone of a harangue, making it doubly nauseating. Thus, we see Jimmy Dean extolling the bravery of John F. Kennedy in 1963’s ‘PT 109’. Johnny’s brother Tommy Cash eulogizes JFK, Robert Kennedy, and Martin Luther King in 1969’s ‘Six White Horses’. Later on, he would lament that that America’s racial problems were making Dishonest Abe cry in ‘The Tears on Lincoln’s Face’. Merle Haggard’s ‘Here Comes the Freedom Train’, released in the bicentennial year of 1976, lists Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and MLK among those who fought to preserve our ‘freedom’. ‘Skip a Rope’ reminds us that cheating on your taxes is evil, and in her song ‘U.S. of A’, Donna Fargo states that she is proud to pay her taxes to live in the greatest country in the world. And so on and so forth.
Not surprisingly, country music singers have long had a symbiotic relationship with the world of politics. Their performances at conventions and inaugurations, both Republican and Democratic, are commonplace. Randy Travis’s 1991 single ‘Point of Light‘, a #3 hit, was commissioned by George H.W. Bush to promote his ‘Thousand Points of Light’ program, one of those high-falutin’ community building programs that fundamentally changed America for the better (snicker). Loretta Lynn received the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2013 – the state’s highest civilian honor.
U.S. military personnel are routinely presented as paragons of unblemished virtue and courage and their wars as the noblest fights imaginable. The Vietnam War produced a multitude of country songs on the subject, and almost all of them tout the canard that ‘fighting them over there means we don’t have to fight them over here’. Even Johnny Cash, never known as an especially jingoistic singer, saw fit to equate the flag with an idol of worship due to the number of battle scars it received in his 1974 single ‘Ragged Old Flag’.
Speaking of idols: more than a few country songs venerate all things American to a degree that could easily be considered sacrilegious. Gene Autry’s ‘Old Soldiers Never Die’, from 1951, uses Douglas MacArthur’s ‘I shall return’ speech to equate him with Christ. More graphic references can be found in Johnny Sea’s 1966 single ‘Day for Decision’, a song written in answer to Barry McGuire’s ‘Eve of Destruction’. Presented in the form of a speech, with mournful music in the background, we find these passages:
This is the age of the American cynic. The year of the unbeliever. The day of doubt.
We’ve killed all the sacred cows and destroyed all the images. And there’s nothing left to respect.
Old fashioned love of God, country, and family is passe. . . .
Patriotism. When you tear away the fancy phrases and crepe paper, it’s plain and simple pride.
It’s a new car-prettier girl-bigger house sort of pride in country.
Somewhere along the way we’ve lost that pride.
Our form of government is the same. We still say America stands for the same things.
But next time you’re at a party, ask someone to sing “America the Beautiful,” and see what happens.24
Hence, the tonic for societal ills is a civic religion, with ‘America the Beautiful’ substituting for Psalm 23. Appalling.
Of course, the most notorious example of such patriotic country fervor occurred after 9/11. With everyone in Nashville accepting Bush and Cheney’s fabricated account of the event at face value, we witnessed an onrush of songs advocating firing up the B-52s and teaching those damn Islams what fer. Many of these songs demonstrated country’s increasing propensity towards crassness masquerading as earthiness, as well. The outstanding example would be Toby Keith’s ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue’, a #1 hit for him in 2002:
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 way25
Sean Hannity loved these lyrics so much that he used them as a musical interlude for his radio show for years. If that doesn’t scream ‘quality’, I don’t know what does. The success of this song and Alan Jackson’s more laid-back but no less grotesque ‘Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)’ would lead to a flurry of flag-waving hymnals – notably Darryl Worley’s ‘Have You Forgotten’ in 2003, a song that openly advocated an invasion of Iraq because the towers fell and stuff. Such sentiments have largely continued in the genre up to the present time.
Have there been no songs depicting the Confederate cause in a positive light, then? A few have sprouted up…but in an incredibly tepid fashion. Pro-Confederate songs might make one or two favorable references to Robert E. Lee or Stonewall Jackson and then applaud the valor of Southern soldiers while dancing around the topic of what made their cause worthwhile. Certainly, you will never find any hint of an aggressive Northern invasion present. In the case of a song like Johnny Horton’s ‘Johnny Reb’, Abraham Lincoln is depicted as a grandfatherly figure who would honor the bravery of his Southern children – a laughable revisionist flaw, and one that is present even in the movie ‘Birth of a Nation’! Southern ‘tribute’ songs always are very careful to let their listeners know where the true source of power resides. Alabama’s ‘Song of the South’ praises FDR and his public works programs, notably the Tennessee Valley Authority. Hank Williams, Jr., sings about running for the Confederate presidency in ‘If the South Woulda Won’. His platform? Throwing the pushers in Miami in jail and instituting national holidays to commemorate the deaths of Elvis, Hank Williams, and members of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Yeah, that sounds like theonomy to me, all right. Anticipating the bicentennial, sixteen-year old Tanya Tucker released ‘I Believe the South Is Gonna Rise Again’ in 1975. Those hoping for a musical tribute to the righteous rebellion were treated to the following lyrics:
But I believe the south is gonna rise again
But not the way we thought it would back then
I mean everybody hand in hand
I believe the south is gonna rise again
I see wooded parks and big skyscrapers
Where dirty rundown shack stood once before
I see sons and daughters and sharecroppers
But they’re not pickin’ cotton anymore
But more important I see human kindness
As we forget the bad and keep the good
A brand new breeze is blowing cross the southland
And I see a brand new kind of brotherhood26
Wow! It’s Jimmy Carter’s new, inclusive South, and it’s really, really…acceptable! Tucker would later team up with her boyfriend Glen Campbell to sing the national anthem at the Republican National Convention in 1980. The party of Lincoln loved the performance. Oh sweet, sweet irony.
To conclude this section, though, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention one notable exception to this trend – ‘Sunday in the South’, a #1 hit for the band Shenandoah in 1989. This song is a simple elegy to a pastoral South and is everything a country song should be. It also contains the following lyric:
A ragged rebel flag flies high above it all
Poppin’ in the wind like an angry cannon ball
The holes of history are cold and still
But they smell the powder burnin’ and they probably always will27
Yep, a rebel flag. No Stars and Stripes, no G.I. Joes, no Lincoln, nothing like that. A pity the genre couldn’t live up to standards like this.
Themes of Oddball Theology
Any white folk music worthy of the name will incorporate Christian themes into its lyrics, and in the increasingly secularized postwar U.S., Nashville made sure that its burgeoning industry retained that tradition. Nary a country singer has passed by that hasn’t recorded at least one ‘worship’ song. Acts such as the Oak Ridge Boys began their careers in gospel before making the transition over to country, and continued to retain their early influences. And, of course, the music’s demographic consists of the most avid churchgoers in the nation, if not the world. Even the most worldly-wise record producer would have to realize that eliminating Christianity from the genre altogether would be insanely counterproductive.
The problem, however, is this: the music’s demographic consists of the most avid churchgoers in the nation, if not the world.
In anything related to popular culture, expecting in-depth theological sermons or allegories is obviously unrealistic. Simple, straightforward songs of faith, free of complications that could easily morph into heresy, are more than sufficient. Songs like ‘Family Bible’, written by Willie Nelson, would be good examples of this.
Country music has always had a tendency to take such simplicity to absurd levels, however. Take, for instance, the song ‘Deck of Cards’, first recorded in 1948 by T. Texas Tyler. It tells the story of a young G.I. who uses a deck of cards for a Bible because the ace reminds him of the Father; the deuce of the Old and New Testaments; the trey of the Trinity, the 52 cards, 4 suits, 13 tricks, etc. of various notations on the calendar; and so on. All of which are meant to serve as ‘reminders’, and nothing more substantial.28 This song was a resounding success, being covered by artists ranging from Hank Williams to Tex Ritter to Red Sovine to Bill Anderson to game show host Wink Martindale (!). Listening to it, one question is foremost in my mind: has Rupert Murdoch’s Zondervan bought out Bicycle yet?
Far more serious, though, has been the influence of Arminianism upon the genre as a whole. This was perhaps inevitable, given the Baptist, Methodist, or Pentecostal backgrounds of many country stars and their fan base. Beginning in the late 1960s, however, this influence led to a very odious trend of depicting Christ as the singer’s ‘pal’ who was always on hand to get him out of trouble, which happened often as the singer is just a good-hearted ol’ sinner, after all. Such songs come off as being in exceptionally poor taste at best. The title of one such single by Bobby Bare, 1976’s ‘Dropkick Me, Jesus (Through the Goalposts of Life)’ says it all and requires no further comment. In 1984, Dan Seals assured us that ‘God Must Be a Cowboy’. Interesting that he’d know that, considering he was a practitioner of Baha’i all his life.
A particularly egregious example comes from Tom T. Hall, a songwriter who certainly did not shy away from composing multicultural lyrics every chance he got. In his 1972 single ‘Me and Jesus’, he spells out his theological underpinnings for us, backed up by an ebullient black choir, naturally:
I know a man who once was a sinner
I know a man that once was a drunk
I know a man who once was a loser
But he went out one day and made an alter out of a stump
Me and Jesus got our own thing goin’
Me and Jesus got it all worked out
Me and Jesus got our own thing goin’
We don’t need anybody to tell us what it’s all about29
TES-tify your hubris, brother! Incidentally, in 1977, Hall would release the single ‘May the Force Be With You Always’ in which the ‘Force’ from Star Wars is likened unto the Holy Spirit. No doubt he’d introduce Pelagianism into country if given half the chance, but let’s not get into that.
Like multiculturalism and patriotism, Arminianism has only worsened its hold on country up to the present time – which, technically, makes it a ‘conservative’ genre, I suppose. Recently, in 2012 we have witnessed newcomer Thomas Rhett release a single called ‘Beer With Jesus’:
If I could have a beer with Jesus
Heaven knows I’d sip it nice and slow
I’d try to pick a place that ain’t too crowded
Or gladly go wherever he wants to go
You can bet I’d order up a couple tall ones
Tell the waitress put ’em on my tab
I’d be sure to let him do the talkin’
Careful when I got the chance to ask30
Substitute a Coke or a juice box for the beer, and no doubt this song would have been huge on the Contemporary Christian music chart, too.
These are just a few of the themes that document mainstream country music’s hostility to kinism. Several other themes exist which space limitations prevent me from exploring in depth. While several country songs address the soul-crushing effects of adultery and fornication, others, from Floyd Tillman’s ‘Slipping Around’ to Barbara Mandrell’s ‘If Loving You Is Wrong (I Don’t Want To Be Right)’ positively revel in licentiousness. The 1960s ushered in a wave of feminist country songs that has continued unabated, ranging from Loretta Lynn’s 1975 ode to birth control, ‘The Pill’, to the peppy, upbeat ‘grrl power!!!’ singers of the 1990s, such as Mary Chapin-Carpenter and Shania Twain, to especially vile ‘let’s kill all the male scum’ songs such as Martina McBride’s ‘Independence Day’, the Dixie Chicks’ ‘Goodbye Earl’, Taylor Swift’s ‘Mean’, and Carrie Underwood’s ‘Blown Away’. Conway Twitty’s lewdly-titled ‘You’ve Never Been This Far Before’ ushered in an era of more explicit ‘porno country’ in the 1970s, a genre to which he would contribute again with songs titled ‘I Can’t Believe She Gives It All To Me’, I’d Love To Lay You Down’, ‘Rest Your Love on Me’, and so on. Playboy would capitalize on this trend by establishing a record label in the 1970s, which would be briefly successful thanks to its top recording star, Mickey Gilley. On and on it goes.
The only conclusion one can draw is that despite the occasional good song, the country music genre as a whole is no respecter of our heritage. Those among us who look to any facet of popular culture to provide spiritual sustenance will be let down. Hard. And deservedly so.
Blogger Edward Waverley has summed up the genre’s defects very succinctly:
As in other streams of popular culture from Hollywood and Madison Avenue, only the least offensive (to Alienists) externals of Southern culture are permitted to surface in Approved Country Music. All aspects of Antebellum, Confederate, Dixiecrat, or Christian normalcy are thoroughly expunged. The result is what could be called Hick Humanism, music so slick and catchy, and so mercifully free of any trace of European racial consciousness, that even Egyptian Mohammedans are comfortable singing along!31
Hey, current flash-in-the-pan sensation Luke Bryan: would you care to respond to these charges?
Might sit down on my diamond plate tailgate
Put in my country ride hip-hop mixtape
Little Conway, a little T-Pain, might just make it rain32
Now THAT’S country!
- Paisley, Brad; Lovelace, Kelly; and DuBois, Chris, writers. Album: Wheelhouse. (Arista Nashville, 2012) ↩
- Musgraves, Kacey; Clark, Brandy; and McAnally, Shane, writers. Album: Same Trailer Different Park. (Mercury Nashville, 2013) ↩
- Mark Humphrey, ‘What is Old-Time Music?‘ ↩
- Myron Tassin and Jerry Henderson, Fifty Years at the Grand Ole Opry, Pelican, 1975, p.90. ↩
- John Rumble, ‘Fred Rose – Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee‘. For some odd reason, the author also feels compelled to tell us that Rose was a convert to Christian Science later in life. ↩
- Ronnie Pugh, ‘Paul Cohen – Country Music Hall of Fame Inductee‘. ↩
- All information on chart performances come from Joel Whitburn, ‘The Billboard Book of Top 40 Country Hits 1944-1996.’ ↩
- Cox, Billy and Van Ness, Clarke, writers. Album: The Ernest Tubb Story. (Decca, 1959) ↩
- Lawton, Williams, writer. Album: Foreign Love. (RCA Victor, 1958) ↩
- Walker, Cindy, writer. Album: Abilene. (RCA Victor, 1963) ↩
- Morris, Bob and Morris, Faye, writers. Album: In the Palm of Your Hand. (Capitol Records, 1972) ↩
- Smith, George Camden and Smith, Lillian, writers. Album: Most of All. (Capitol Records, 1960) ↩
- ‘Late Kitty Wells Was Part of Native American-Country Music Tradition‘. July, 8, 2012. ↩
- Torok, Mitchell, writer. Album: Mexican Joe in the Caribbean. (Abbott Records, 1960) ↩
- Moran, Jack and Tubb, Glenn D., writers. Album: Skip a Rope. (Monument, 1967) ↩
- McDill, Bob and Reynolds, Alan, writers. Album: Catfish John/Chained. (RCA, 1972) ↩
- Johns, Sammy, writer. Album: Waylon’s Greatest Hits, Vol. 2. (RCA, 1984) ↩
- Brooks, Garth and Davis, Stephanie, writers. Album: The Chase. (Liberty, 1992) ↩
- Paisley, Brad and DuBois, Chris, writers. Album: American Saturday Night. (Arista Nashville, 2009) ↩
- Mike Boehm, ‘Bush appoints Lee Greenwood to National Arts Council‘. Nov. 3, 2008. ↩
- Wills, Bob and Johnsen, Cliff, writers. ↩
- Daniels, Charlie; Carine, Tom; DiGregorio, ‘Taz’; Edwards, Fred; Marshall, James W.; and Hayward, Charles, writers. Album: Full Moon. (Epic, 1980) ↩
- Bare, Bobby and Hawkins, Boyce, writers. ↩
- Peltier, Alan N., writer. Album: Day for Decision. (Warner Bros. Records, 1966) ↩
- Keith, Toby, writer. Album: Unleashed. (DreamWorks Nashville, 2002) ↩
- Braddock, Bobby, writer. Album: Would You Lay With Me (in a Field of Stone). (Columbia Records, 1973) ↩
- Booker, Jay, writer. Album: The Road Not Taken. (Columbia, 1989) ↩
- Tyler, T. Texas, writer. ↩
- Hall, Tom T., writer. Album: We All Got Together and… (Mercury, 1972) ↩
- Rhett, Thomas; Miller, Lance; and Huckaby, Rick; writers. Album: It Goes Like This. (Valory Music Group, 2013) ↩
- Waverley, Edwards. ‘Whit(h)er Country Music?‘ Sept. 24, 2013. ↩
- Davidson, Dallas; DeStefano, Chris; and Gorley, Ashley, writers. Album: Crash My Party. (Capitol Nashville, 2013) ↩