Think Politics Is Gone From Country Music? Listen Closer

Mar 20, 2018
Originally published on March 20, 2018 4:13 pm

Recall the collective cringing when bloggers discovered Brad Paisley's LL Cool J-assisted song "Accidental Racist" in April 2013. Paisley had made an admirable attempt to speak across racial and regional divides, but badly fumbled both the message and the execution. Though the cartoonish track was merely an album cut, not a single, it went viral, making Paisley the target of popular and critical ridicule and biting, primetime TV satire that cast him as clueless. There was little recognition of the fact that he, of all the country stars of his generation, was the most invested in facilitating long term dialogue between his audience and broader culture — that he'd spent years alternating between genially modeling openness toward difference and change and reaffirming the core country value of stability.

That was a cautionary tale, an example of what's at stake when country acts try to speak to their fans about matters of social or political significance, opening themselves up to broader scrutiny in the process. Outside interpretations of country songs have long been clouded by class-based perceptions that dismiss working-class sentiments as trivial expressions of resentment and don't quite know what to make of the genre's drift toward suburban respectability and popular taste since the '60s.

Country performers are also haunted by another notorious episode: country radio's blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks over the group's refusal to make penance for singer Natalie Maines's offhand criticism of the second President Bush during a U.K. concert. That was one of the ugliest episodes in the modern history of country music, and demonstrated the dangers of tangling with polarized national discourse in a genre whose listenership is expansive, but whose most powerful promotional tool remains a conservative radio format.

Country-pop became a site of striking paradoxes earlier this decade when its stylistic malleability reached new extremes, with bro country's liberal borrowing of sounds, swagger and flow from R&B, rap and dance music, while its themes and interests narrowed to a focus on playing out youthful, masculine urges against rural backdrops. It felt lopsided, not only because the viewpoints of country women were grossly underrepresented, but also because the guys were often focused on party anthems to the exclusion of other classically country, adult concerns, like the emotional and relational costs of making and breaking commitments. When some of country's smooth young guns began adopting more gentlemanly postures in their music, close observers took notice, but that was just one of the ways that the genre course-corrected.

Country music, including its audience and the industry and institutions around it, is in continual conversation with itself. At pivotal moments over the last six months, powerful insiders have spoken out in language meaningful to the country world. Paisley tweeted a courteous challenge to the Country Music Association, nudging the organization to reconsider the restriction it had imposed on reporters covering its awards show last fall, once the mass shooting at the Route 91 Harvest country music festival intensified the scrutiny on all sides of the gun-control debate. And after it was announced that former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee had been named to the board of the CMA's philanthropic arm, artist manager and label exec Jason Owen, who helps steer the careers of Kacey Musgraves, Little Big Town and others, penned an open letter. He vowed to withdraw support from the organization, since it had invited the participation of a political pundit vocally opposed to families like Owens' own: parented by spouses or partners of the same sex. Huckabee resigned the very same day.

The musical responses have been more muted, and easier to miss. Much like country's stylistic evolution (examined at length in the accompanying essay), a few voices emerged at the margins, gently testing limits and reconsidering previously unexamined attitudes, then veteran performers on more solid, centralized footing began placing renewed emphasis on conscientiousness. Their songs have all been carefully calibrated for country listeners, and many don't seem to have much of social or political significance to say until you consider their place in the dialogue about country's moral footing.

Here's an annotated timeline of country singles released over the last half-decade that have served as subtle appeals to conscience:

"Follow Your Arrow"
(Oct. 2013)

Kacey Musgraves was hardly the first country artist to sing a song that took a live-and-let-stance or rejected the double standards of feminine propriety, but the new arrival's third single, "Follow Your Arrow," felt like a low-key intervention in countrified attitudes, particularly because there was no indignation to her performance. She shrugged off judgmental perceptions of a person's sex life, choice of partner and drinking and smoking habits as though they were nothing to get worked up about. And that casual permissiveness toward same-sex romance and other fading taboos was what made the song seem radical. It was also a big part of what put off country radio programmers. Musgraves' overall demeanor wasn't nearly agreeable enough to placate the format's gatekeepers, who expected earnest displays of fealty, from female artists most of all. When "Follow Your Arrow" won Song of the Year at the 2014 CMA Awards, it highlighted a rift between the cautious conservatism of country radio and the Nashville music industry's desire for a manageable pace of change.


"Girl In a Country Song"
(July 2014)

The same year that the bro country template of flirtatious, hip-hop-echoing, hyper-masculinity exerted its peak influence, the unknown, teenaged duo Maddie & Tae held a mirror up to its methods with the piquant, playful response "Girl In a Country Song." The two injected an important bit of self-awareness into a popular trend insulated from country's preoccupations with the consequences of people's actions, but were also careful to strike a conciliatory tone. In interviews, they insisted that they genuinely loved the songs and artists they were spoofing. The music video showed Madison Marlow and Taylor Dye ticking off a list of downhome pin-up fantasies that seemingly every bro country jam applied to its female quarry, but, crucially, the track opened with a jokey-authoritative male voice reassuring, "No country music was harmed in the making of this song."


"Humble and Kind"
(Jan. 2016)

It wasn't at all unheard of for a country song to wax sentimental about parenting, but the timing of "Humble and Kind" greatly amplified its impact. Here was Tim McGraw, roughly a quarter-century into his career, dispensing tender advice about living well ("When you get where you're going, don't forget turn back around / And help the next one in line") — penned by songwriter Lori McKenna for her own New England brood—following the format's years-long preference for youthful over-indulgence. McGraw's performance on the CMAs made use of a video montage of diverse, benevolent faces and a crowd of candle-clutching kids.The song helped to revive country's interest in honorable values, and debuted a new role for veteran acts like McGraw: the genre's upstanding voice of experience. (Later that year, he played the part in a collaboration with Florida Georgia Line.)


"Different for Girls"
(June 2016)

Right out of the gate, "Different For Girls" garnered some criticism for essentializing gender traits, something Shane McAnally, one of its authors, said wasn't the intention. But due to the intersection of its subject matter and coed performing partners and the conceptual underpinnings of the album it appeared on, it was significant for being the first in a string of country songs examining gender disparities. Dierks Bentley, one of the format's leading, male hit-makers, decided to record the song as a duet and deliberately chose tough, tatted, pop-rock wild woman Elle King — known for her campy inversions of masculinity — to be his vocal foil, which lent the track self-awareness. It was the second single from an album that took its title from Bentley's wife's maiden name, spotlighted several female co-writers and featured songs whose story lines explored the agency of female protagonists.


"Kill a Word"
(Aug. 2016)

As a self-styled outsider and introspective roughneck who largely avoided bro country postures in favor of adult-aimed arena rock bombast, Eric Church had taken his fiercest stances against attitudes that denigrated the meaning and autonomy of small-town, blue-collar lives. But with "Kill a Word," he took aim at hatefulness in general, deploying violent imagery as a rhetorical device. There was a clenched-fist determination to Church's delivery that made it feel like he was delivering a protest song, an impression reinforced by the presence of one of Americana's most elegant, socially conscious voices, Rhiannon Giddens. Later, the two of them wound up performing it together, alongside R&B and gospel luminaries, on a televised concert promoting racial reconciliation, a context that more clearly framed the song as a rebuke of social ills.


"We Should Be Friends"
(Dec. 2016)

"We Should Be Friends" might have felt like a lighthearted and lightweight confection alongside the intense self-reflection on Miranda Lambert's 2016 double album, particularly when she released it between far broodier singles, but the song also bore a wryly down-to-earth, resolutely nonjudgmental message, and it had a companion piece in the deep album cut "For the Birds," whose lyrics made a mischievous show of taking stances that were the opposite of divisive. Both songs were explicitly apolitical, but their sanguine outlook on coexistence and empathy was squarely grounded in country sensibilities, extended a thread present in Lambert's earlier work and mattered at a moment when ideological differences had become national fault lines.


"Happy People"
(Feb. 2017)

Little Big Town had achieved something greater than a commercial breakthrough with the ballad "Girl Crush" — a hit whose emotional complexity and teasing simulation of same-sex desire sparked conversations within and beyond the format and established the quartet as forward-thinking cultural ambassadors for country-pop. A couple of years later, they scraped the bottom of the country charts with "Happy People," whose chipper maxims drew a connection between tolerance and contentment. At the end of each chorus, the brittle, breezy beat dropped out and singer Karen Fairchild offered a blanket benediction: "Here's to whatever puts a smile on your face / Whatever makes you happy, people." In interviews around that time, the four group members studiously avoided making polarizing political statements, instead personifying diplomacy and broad-mindedness, conscious of their status as some of Nashville's model citizens.


"Speak to a Girl"
(March 2017)

In the process of reasserting themselves as a seasoned, superstar performing couple, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill took on the roles of enlightened elders in their single "Speak To a Girl." Hill took the first verse, laying out the emotional investment that women want from their partners and how off-putting they find masculine displays of egotism. The video showed McGraw listening lovingly, giving her his full, rapt attention before joining in agreement with what she was saying. The ballad was both grandly sentimental and gently instructive in tone, offering a corrective to the format's drift from prioritizing women's feelings. In the wake of the mass shooting at a Vegas country festival, the pair also articulated a level-headed perspective on gun control, an especially fraught topic in a genre where a cultural affinity for hunting, with which McGraw aligned himself, had gradually become conflated with the militant advocacy of the gun lobby.


"Dear Hate"
(Oct. 2017)

The billowy charity single "Dear Hate" was released in direct response to the tragedy in Vegas, although Maren Morris had written it a couple of years before, prompted by the massacre of African-American church-goers in Charleston, S.C. She framed the song as an aggrieved address to the human depravity that begets distressing violence, and its central refrain was a sweeping statement of hope and optimism: "Love's gonna conquer all." Morris's choice of duet partner was Vince Gill, known throughout the industry as one of the most sensitive souls of his generation. (During a recent showcase for country radio brass, he aligned himself with #metoo testimonies by playing a wrenching song inspired in part by sexual abuse he endured in his youth.) They spoke to the moment more affectingly than a Grammy tribute to the Vegas victims, for which Morris was recruited; for that performance, Morris covered Eric Clapton's "Tears in Heaven," rather than a song with country roots, alongside Eric Church and Brothers Osborne. Comfortable in the role of savvy contemporary country spokeswoman, Morris also penned an essay for the feminist pop culture blog the Lenny Letter that proclaimed her deep affection for the country music industry, while taking on its constricting rules for acceptable female expression.


"Female"
(Nov. 2017)

It was timing that made Keith Urban's debut performance of "Female" feel like an event. Women who'd pinned their hopes on Hillary Clinton had been stewing on the crushing implications of her loss for a year. The post-Weinstein parade of revelations about powerful male abusers had begun just weeks before. And a veteran country star, better known for suave, elastic musicianship (and his marriage to Nicole Kidman) than social statement-making, used his nationally televised award show slot to sing a reverent slow-burner addressed to women. The chorus's jumble of clashing metaphors and confused imagery inspired parody, not unlike "Accidental Racist" had years before it, but there was meat to verses that considered the psychological and emotional impact that sexist sayings, slut-shaming, religious doctrine and lack of political representation had on women. Besides contributing to the revival of country's moral heft, the song — another that McAnally had a hand in writing — also engaged with conversations outside the format.


"Drunk Girl"
(Nov. 2017)

Some people have mistakenly lumped Chris Janson in with the country bros because of his relatively young age (31-years-old) and the boozy, backwoods throwdowns featured in his repertoire. In reality, he's equal parts ebullient, Hank Jr.-style showman and proudly traditional family man. Rarely does he play a show without shimmying across the stage, harmonica pressed to his lips, or professing his devotion to his wife, kids and Christian faith. It's not all that surprising, then, that an artist who reminds his audience he's striving to live an honorable life would record a reproach to opportunistic male behavior in hookup culture. The black-and-white music video accentuated the song's intended gravitas. Janson solemnly sat down at a grand piano, removed his ballcap, began playing simple chords and, with his eyes closed, played out a late-night scenario in which a guy gets a woman home safely without trying to get in her bed. Though the lyrics tacitly scolded the tipsy woman for her reckless behavior ("In and out of every bar on a whim just like the wind blows/She's either a bachelorette or coming off a breakup"), Janson's primary goal was advocating for more chivalrous, considerate treatment of women. "That's how you know the difference in a boy and a man," he admonished at the end of the chorus.


"Most People Are Good"
(Jan. 2018)

Identifying with the cultural markers of countryness championed in country songs has always acted as the genre's great unifier. When people staked their claims to resilience and authenticity and aligned against elitism, other facets of identity receded to the background. Differences were minimized. But Luke Bryan's current single, the temperate, loping number "Most People Are Good," is a clear indication that notions of country identity are growing more malleable. The chorus has the feel of a creed, and the list of family-centric, small-town values that he affirms includes a line that can only be read as a reference to marriage equality: "I believe you love who you love / Ain't nothing you should ever be ashamed of." As I wrote last year, lyrics like that land very differently coming from "a country centrist who studiously avoids controversy and strives to be relatable to broad swaths of listeners" than "Follow Your Arrow" did coming from an insurgent like Musgraves half a decade before. I suggested that he's "trying to make it feel safe for his fans to occupy a middle ground where preservation and slow evolution can coexist." It's not advocacy or protest--he's depicting an outlook already being embraced.

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