Updated: December 9, 2013 at 8:34 pm
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Country music megastar Brad Paisley debuted the title track to his 2011 album “This is Country Music” to a standing ovation at the 44th annual Country Music Association Awards in Nashville, Tenn., in November 2010. The song, instantly popular among Country fans the world over, drew its inspiration from decades of Country music history and lyrics from legends like Johnny Paycheck, George Jones, Conway Twitty, Tammy Wynette and Johnny Cash, among others.
“You’re not supposed to say the word ‘cancer,’ in a song,” the track begins. “And tellin’ folks Jesus is the answer, can rub ‘em wrong/It ain’t hip to sing about tractors, trucks, little towns, or mama, yeah that might be true/But this is Country music and we do.”
Ultimately a reminiscent memorial to Country music’s past, the song also served to identify in the popular mind what Country music was and is. It also, perhaps, identified what many Country fans — largely stereotyped as conservative, red-state, Bible-belt dwelling rednecks — do not consider Country music, or, at least, the kinds of topics that should remain unspoken and hidden. For all the song’s good-feeling, heart-warming lyrics, there was no mention of Country’s more progressive and, even, LGBT-friendly legacy left by hit artists like Garth Brooks, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson and others.
Progressive? Queer friendly? In Country music? Believe it or not, the three aren’t mutually exclusive. Even in the nearly rock-solidly-sealed closet of Nashville, progressive and LGBT Country music fans can find plenty of artists and songs to suit their more liberal tastes.
A land of contradiction
Today’s Country music is the undoubted heir of centuries of American folk music, fueled by the traditional tunes immigrants brought to the South from Europe and Africa. Like the fusion in Country music — the banjo, for example, a traditional African instrument, is a mainstay in American folk and Bluegrass — the South itself is a land of unique complexity, cultural integration and, at times, contradiction.
The same region that fused the Irish fiddle, German dulcimer, Italian mandolin, Spanish guitar and African banjo is the same land that became the stronghold of slavery, Jim Crow and strict racial segregation. The same land where millions of African slaves lived and died under bondage is the same land, especially in North Carolina, where fusion Populist politics gave rise to popularly-elected black leaders and where, later, white supremacist leaders ousted those legitimately-elected black officials. In that same region where “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” became a rallying cry for radical racists during the 1960s, one of the most far-reaching, inspiring and powerful social justice and civil rights movements the world has ever seen was birthed and came to fruition.
Some say politics and music shouldn’t mix. Conservative commentator Laura Ingraham said as much in her 2003 book, “Shut Up & Sing: How Elites from Hollywood, Politics, and the UN Are Subverting America.” It was a sentiment one angry Dixie Chicks fan echoed when he wrote a death threat to the Chicks’ lead singer Natalie Maines, outlining when and where she would be shot unless she “shut up and sang.” Artists like Maines and the other members of the Dixie Chicks, who brazenly crossed the political-music divide, have often been boycotted by conservative fans, Country music radio and other Country music establishments. Yet, it is this highly contradictory, complex southern land upon which Country music draws its historic roots and to which it plays today. As the music itself attests, it’s nearly impossible to separate politics and history from the inspiration that gives rise to the lyrics Country musicians choose to include in their works.
The South that once boasted a strong yet oppressively-racist, landed aristocracy gave way to poverty and stymied economic development in the years following the Civil War. “New South” boosters, mostly racist southern Democrats, began rebuilding the South at the turn of the 20th century. Yet, poverty and infrastructure problems proved a continued obstacle in much of rural southern life. The 1890s’ Populist Movement was national in its scope, but, in the South, focused on important agrarian, “common man” reforms. In North Carolina, Populist reformers created a unique fusion between white and black farmers and elected nearly 1,000 African-American leaders across the state.
The Populists didn’t change all that much in American society, at least not initially. Their movement died out almost as quickly as it began, but their ideas and proposals, meant to embolden and protect the working class, lived on throughout the Progressive Era. Anti-trust laws, a progressive federal income tax, the National Weather Service and rural postal service, the direct election of U.S. senators and several states’ adoption of referendum processes can all trace their roots to the Populists.
It’s this history that still lives on in Country music, decades after the first defiantly-independent, working-class “hillbilly music” singers made their first foray into the national music scene.
Groups like Alabama have profited greatly on populist ideals, harkening back to an era when common folk — both white and black — came together to fight an economic society where the rich only got richer while the poor continued to suffer in poverty.
“Cotton on the roadside, cotton in the ditch/We all picked the cotton but we never got rich,” the lyrics to the band’s 1988 “Song of the South” reads. “Daddy was a veteran, a southern Democrat/They oughta get a rich man to vote like that.”
The song goes on to praise the New Deal reforms of the 1930s, bemoaning the fall of Wall St., the short cotton and tall weeds. “Mr. Roosevelt’s a gonna save us all,” the band sings, explaining the county’s takeover of the family’s farm, the father’s new job with the Tennessee Valley Authority and their resulting stability.
The 1985 “40 Hour Week” is another example of the band’s populist appeal.
“There are people in this country who work hard every day/Not for fame or fortune do they strive,” the band sings. “But the fruits of their labor are worth more than their pay/And it’s time a few of them were recognized.”
The song goes on to praise the work of Detroit auto workers, Pittsburgh steel mill workers, Kansas farmers, West Virginia coal miners and a whole slew of blue-collar, often-low-paid workers like waitresses, mechanics, police officers and others.
Country music is replete with other examples of songs attesting to the struggles of and celebrating the empowering individualism of the working class. Johnny Paycheck’s “Take this Job and Shove it” is, perhaps, among the most famous, even for those who claim no Country fandom. Other iconic examples include John Conlee’s 1983 “Common Man” and Alan Jackson’s 1999 “Little Man.”
Living in harmony
Most people think of white rednecks when they hear Country music. It might be a deservedly-earned reputation. Black Country singers with mainstream acceptance are few and far between, though Charley Pride and, more recently, Darius Rucker seem to have broken through the glass ceiling. (The first black Grand Ole Opry member, Country and Blues singer Deford Bailey, was inducted in June 1983, nearly one year after his death at age 82 in July 1982.)
Yet, despite the near-complete whiteness of Country, plenty of stars have paid tribute to desires for a more equal, tolerant and respectful world. Garth Brooks, who rose to his greatest popularity in the 1990s, is unabashedly liberal and not afraid to admit it. As a part of the Millennium March on Washington, he performed for a special Human Rights Campaign “Equality Rocks” concert attended by more than 45,000 people.
Brooks’ life experiences — he has a lesbian sister — no doubt played a crucial role in his views, which permeate several of his songs. The most moving, his 1992 “We Shall be Free,” won a GLAAD Media Award for its inclusion of what many perceived as the forward-thinking, LGBT-friendly lyric, “When we’re free to love anyone we choose.”
But, the song was much more than an ode to the equality of gay love. It strove for the perfection of a disharmonious world — the dream of working toward a world where “the last child cries for a crust of bread” or “when the last man dies for just words that he said,” where everyone has shelter, no one notices skin color and “the skies and oceans are clean again.”
When all that comes to be, Brooks sang, then “we shall be free.”
Other popular Country stars have made their gay-friendliness known, too. Dolly Parton comes immediately to mind, putting her famous brand behind her support with her 2005 “Travelin’ Thru,” a song written and sung for the transgender-themed film “Transamerica.”
The same year, Willie Nelson and Emmylou Harris recorded songs for the breakthrough hit movie “Brokeback Mountain.” Nelson also released “Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other)” that year, a song originally written in 1981 by the Texas-born Ned Sublette. Nelson said at the time that the song had “been in the closet for 20 years.”
“The timing’s right for it to come out,” Nelson said in a statement at the time of the song’s release on Valentine’s Day 2005. “I’m just opening the door.”
Though you might not readily see it, gay-friendliness is increasing in Nashville. Country star Toby Keith — famous for his spat with the Dixie Chicks — said in 2011 that he had no problem with marriage for same-sex couples or openly gay members of the Armed Services.
“Somebody’s sexual preference is, like, who cares,” he told “CMT Insider.”
Yet, even in a world where conservative Toby Keith comes out in favor of LGBT equality, there remain few openly gay Country stars. k.d. lang is an obvious example, but she left Country and turned to Pop not long after her debut. Chely Wright, whose hit “Single White Female” placed number one on the Country charts in 1999, became the first major Country music performer to come out as gay in May 2010.
It remains to be seen whether a major Country artist will come out during the peak of their popularity, though it’s more likely a question of “when” than “if.” And, recent tides in Country point, perhaps, to a brighter, less stereotypically-conservative genre.
Brad Paisley, with all his nostalgic the-South-is-so-wonderful sentimentality, has at least been consistent with his progressive ideals. Despite calls for boycotts from some Tea-party-crazed conservatives, Paisley’s success continues to grow as fans devour his liberally-enthused lyrics in songs like “American Saturday Night” and “Southern Comfort Zone,” each anthems calling the South, and America as a whole, to progressivism, multiculturalism and inclusion.
A southern booster, for sure, Paisley isn’t blind or deaf to the past. His 2009 “Welcome to the Future” was supposedly inspired the night then-U.S. Sen. Barack Obama won the 2008 election. In it, Paisley paid tribute to that painfully complex southern history that, even after nearly 150 years since the end of the Civil War, saturates nearly every corner of southern politics, religion and culture.
“I had a friend in school/Running back on a football team/They burned a cross in his front yard/For asking out the homecoming queen,” the song’s last verse states. “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 future/Hey, glory, glory, hallelujah/Welcome to the future.” : :
more: Stay tuned to goqnotes.com for more special online extras next week, including explorations of feminism and other LGBT topics in Country music.
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About the author: Matt Comer was the editor of QNotes, first hired to serve in the role in October 2007, with his tenure ending August 23, 2015.