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...a sweatshop of moxie

Wednesday, September 28, 2005

Country Music Saves America

(Welcome Volokh readers! N.B.: The question asked by the link-piece was not one I posed, or wish to have inferred that I championed)

Quick. Think of Gulf War I.

Which is the first song which pops to your minds when thinking of it?

Chances are, if you're like millions of Americans who were alive in 1991, you think of Lee Greenwood's:

God Bless the USA

And quick again! Think of Gulf War II, taking place as we speak.

Which is the first song that pops to your minds then, too?

Chances are it's Toby Keith's:

Courtesy Of The Red, White And Blue (The Angry American)

Country music has hit two home runs in the patriotic stakes, of two recent major US wars.

In contrast, the world of allegedly more "popular music" has produced such recent gems as...

The Rolling Stones -- Sweet Neo Con (classical rock)
Green Day -- American Idiot (pop)
Anti-Flag -- debut album will be self-explanatory (punk)

We won't even talk of the dozens, if not hundreds of anti-war songs, which are frankly nothing more than cover for anti-Americanism by another name, no matter how much they try to say it's anti-current administration policies.

It's not.

It's anti-whatever America has done, and stands for, which they believe is more bad than good.

If it weren't, they're'd be a lot more USA-friendly songs by the popular music industry -- and there simply are none.

Think this is a tad exaggerated?

These are the Country Music songs which have a patriotic flavour to them:

America Will Survive - Hank Williams Jr.
American Child - Phil Vassar
American Soldier - Toby Keith
Awful, Beautiful Life - Darryl Worley
Born Country - Alabama
Bumper of My SUV - Chely Wright
Courtesy of the Red White & Blue - Toby Keith
God Bless the USA - Lee Greenwood
Have You Forgotten - Darryl Worley
Letters From Home - John Michael Montgomery
Only In America - Brooks & Dunn
Riding With Private Malone - David Ball
Some Gave All - Billy Ray Cyrus
This Ain't No Rag (It's a Flag) - Charlie Daniels Band
Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly - Aaron Tippin

Now it's your turn.

Name me 15 pop music songs since 1970 which are remotely as patriotic these above.

I'll wait.

But now think of Rock-n-Roll Hall of Fame names like REM, Springsteen, Costello, Bush (quelle ironie!), Kristofferson, Marley, and the twins of the anti-war movements since the late 1960's, Lennon and Baez -- each of them representing their own musical genres.

All of them stressing the bad of America, challengeless by their own industry.

The sad part is, they'd be laughed off the stage by these colleagues if they dared sing anything else, because it's bad form to be sentimental about this country.

And that's just the Anglophone world.

If you count Brazilian Portuguese, French, Italian, German, etc. etc. -- you'd have possibly hundreds of thousands of protest songs in almost 4 decades since the height of the Vietnam War.

That's when the world of pop music changed.

When it went from the maudlin heart-string tugging of Irving Berlin's/Kate Smith's God Bless America (who, it is to be remembered, Franklin Roosevelt -- a proud Democrat, said of her, she's America's living treasure), to the present-day Rolling Stones and these lines:

"It's liberty for all/Democracy's our style/Unless you are against us/Then it's prison without trial."

But don't worry.

In the intervening decades, Country Music has come to America's rescue.

Now, it's no secret that Country Music is hardly the musical genre of choice of the cultural and power elite -- it barely registers one station in all of New York City.

Even in the Deepest South that is Florida, we have only one Country & Western music station as well, the Katrina-mentioned, KISS 99.9 FM.

But in the marrow of America, Country Music fears no ivory towered elites thumbing their noses at the quaint sentimentality of their songs.

Simple songs, which talk about broke-down F-150 trucks, girlfriends who dumped you and boyfriends who broke your child's heart, about trashy women, and redneck boys, about '59 Cadillacs (which ain't never coming back), admitting not knowing the difference between I-raq, and I-ran, not to mention the realities of living life from 6 AM to 6 PM.

Somewhere along the line, talking about bitches and hos has come to pass for the authenticity of the streets, even though the majority of Americans don't recognise these walkways of life.

It's inevitable that there's a value judgement that comes with the streets, as well. It's a hard, awful world out there, and who can be proud of that America, it questions implicitly?

The response is pre-loaded for failure, and that's where Pop Music takes its cue.

If nothing else, this shows a deep misunderstanding of life and people's motivations...and not the least of which is a simple love of country.

By doing so, the Pop music industry has ceded virtual control to Country Music of all things patriotic -- and this becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The more they are seen as such, the more they will produce that. And, obviously, the more they will be associated with America.

There is such a thing as exploiting a genre, or sentiment, and I daresay that is bad too.

But when that's all you think it is, when you ONLY think it is exploitative, then that's when you have a problem too.

If the US is sea of red, bookended by blue, it's no wonder it is those Red States where country music flourishes most.


These are the two pastimes where the coastal elites have no hand in leading.

And wouldn't you know it, they're the two most patriotic genres we have in modern American society. Just like that.

There, the US flag is not a subject of taunting, it's hand-over-heart loved.

There, the crowd doesn't jeer the National Anthem, it sings it with tears in their eyes.

There, work ethic, tenacity, individualism, respect, courtesy, all these old-fashioned ideas have meaning and tradition.

They're goals to aspire to, not hypocrisies to be ashamed of.

There's nothing relative about these terms. They stand bald-faced and true.

They're as un-PC as you can imagine, because they brook no contradiction unless you care for laziness, cowardice, communalism, disrespect, and rudeness.

Country Music is the soul of America. It doesn't judge her. It doesn't condemn her. Nor does it feel the need to.

And as long as there are simple Americans ready to shoulder a day's hard work, there'll be songs about them, but most especially, for them.

That's what American pop music has left behind long ago -- they forgot who their audiences are. And what they care about.


Get Up, Stand Up - The Story of Pop and Protest.

Airing on PBS Stations around the US today, Wednesday, 28 September 2005. Check your local PBS affiliate here for times.


Songs Sung Red, White, and Blue : The Stories Behind America's Best-Loved Patriotic Songs by Ace Collins

Of Thee I Sing: Lyrics and Music for Americas Most Patriotic Songs by Jerry Silverman


Kate Smith Tribute Site

Listen to:

America the Beautiful
God Bless America
God Bless The U.S.A.
Song of Freedom
Stars and Stripes Forever
This Land is Your Land
When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again
Yankee Doodle
You're A Grand Old Flag


  • It's not called COUNTRY Music for nothing! I love that country music!

    By Blogger Jose Aguirre, at Thu Sep 29, 12:58:00 am GMT-4  

  • It's not called COUNTRY Music for nothing!

    Hey, good one, Jose.

    Trust you to make that obvious point!

    I love that country music!

    There is a whole sub-strata, if you will, of Cuban-Americans who call themselves 'redneck-Cubans'.

    This includes F-150 truck, gun rack, and dog named Pochito in the flatbed.

    They mostly live in Hialeah, which is why I never meet them. :)


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Sep 29, 01:14:00 am GMT-4  

  • That is a SUB-strata for sure!

    I have lived in Miami off and on forever and I still get lost when I venture into Hialeah, la ciudad que progresa!

    Un abrazo, Jose

    By Blogger Jose Aguirre, at Thu Sep 29, 01:19:00 am GMT-4  

  • Hialeah, la ciudad que progresa!


    I'll tell Raul Martinez you said that!

    Of course, it's slightly better than Hialeah Gardens, who I believe their motto is:

    La ciudad donde la alcadesa manda matar su esposo.


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Sep 29, 01:31:00 am GMT-4  

  • I like country music as well, but I don't think it's fair to compare it to rock in this way. Rock, by its nature, rebels.
    I'm not surprised that you find more protest songs that are in that genre. What makes me sad and frustrated is the idea that protest songs (CCR's "Fortunate Son" for example, although there are many others) are somehow not patriotic. These songs are the very expression of our freedoms and our rights as Americans.
    I would argue "Born in the USA" is a more patriot song than Toby Keith's "Boot Up Your A**". Perhaps it would be helpful for you to define "patriotism".

    By Blogger J, at Thu Sep 29, 08:30:00 am GMT-4  

  • Jill,

    How about this working definition: a patriotic song is one which the songwriter talks about America with optimism, believes this country is fundamentally good, and presents this country as something to be admired rather than condemned.

    By Anonymous Spoons, at Thu Sep 29, 08:43:00 am GMT-4  

  • Spoon,

    I like your definition. I just think it's too narrow. I would also include as a "patriotic song" those songs which hold America accountable to its fundamental values. Otherwise, patriotism can get reduced to nothing more than "my country is the best because it's where I live." "God Bless The USA" is a patriotic song and a good one - I would just include "Born in the USA" and "For What It's Worth" and most of John Mellencamp's songs as well.

    By Blogger J, at Thu Sep 29, 09:36:00 am GMT-4  

  • Sadly, all of the songs you listed suck.

    What's more, plenty of country artists are not knee-jerk jingoists.

    Steve Earle, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson come to mind.

    When Toby Keith is as forgotten as Stephen King, people will still be listening to Steve Earle.

    Sadly, brainless patriotism doesn't age well.

    I also happen to think that artists like Steve Earle, who actually care about making the world a better place and put their asses on the line to do so, deserve a little more respect than Lee Greenwood.

    By Anonymous nate-dogg, at Thu Sep 29, 10:26:00 am GMT-4  

  • I think that you have mistaken populism for patriotism. "Country music" as I understand you to use the term, is an industry and a product. And that industry and product has historically reflected populist values. So if criticism of the government or life in America becomes a predominnant theme in country music -- see for instance "The Little Man," by Alan Jackson -- watch out!

    By Anonymous pete, at Thu Sep 29, 10:32:00 am GMT-4  

  • Fine. Country music is the soul of America.

    Then the rock/pop you deride is the conscience.

    You can't just wave a flag and say everything the U.S.A. does is great. We're not exceptional and not infallible. We make mistakes and it's important to not only celebrate our achievements but to question whether what we're doing is right or wrong, and to question it constantly.

    By Anonymous John Armstrong, at Thu Sep 29, 12:08:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Leave Bruce out of this - The Rising and Born in the USA are better music and more thoughtful than any of the pop-in-a-ten-gallon-hat junk you list.

    You show either your callow youth or lack of taste by leaving out Charlie Daniels "In America", which is actually a decent song.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Sep 29, 01:28:00 pm GMT-4  

  • Since I am getting ready to get out, and only just noticed the Volokh-lanche my post inspired, here are my thoughts on Juan Non-Volokh's link (posted origianlly at the Volokh site) which mentioned something I never did -- that country music is right-wing.

    I rebutted:

    Gratified, and indeed, grateful though I am for my Country Music Saves America blogpost having been linked on Volokh, I have a few comments, as of course, I would, as authoress:

    Juan Non-Volokh writes:

    Is Country Music Right-Wing? Well, if patriotism is
    considered "right-wing" then the
    answer would be yes.

    This is a pre-loaded question, and one, it may be reminded everyone here, I NEVER posed or cared enough to ask.

    But it makes a kind of response to what I said, which Juan N-V did
    mention, that pop music, which in the past gave such an iconically patriotic artist as Kate Smith
    singing God Bless America (whom Philadelphia Flyers fans may remember with special fondness), in a composition written by Irving Berlin.

    A Jewish composer and a WASPy singer joined together at the hip for all time -- without political cares, being proud of their country, in good or bad times.

    Both, by the way, registered Democrats.


    Not whether Country Music is right-wing, but that it is patriotic, and why Pop Music no longer deems itself to be.

    The inference made by the
    commenters on this thread, led by
    the introductory question, is
    however revealing.

    No one here challenges the opening
    salvo that to be right-wing is to be patriotic, and vice-versa.

    Why is that?

    That is what I want you to think
    about, because as I say in my
    blogpiece, the Vietnam War changed

    That is when popular music became
    inextricably tied to the

    Anti-War Protest Movement, and Country Music, hardly the bastion of Republicans until that time, didn't follow as easily or as well that self-same path.

    I cannot believe some of the
    arguments mentioned, that this or
    that country singer is a Democrat, or that he smoked marijuana in the White House, etc., all pointing to a political gauchisme of some kind.

    As if one negated the other by definition.

    Surely people cannot be this

    The argument thread then becomes Country Music = Right-Wing = Morality = Personal Politics, sinking ever more into points I
    never made, nor did I want people
    to associate in their minds with.

    Again, let me restate:

    Somewhere along the line, the music of country people -- people, it must be reminded everyone, who don't wear Brooks Brothers suits, who don't hang around gentlemens' clubs or country clubs, people who do not particularly have a degree on their walls from upper-level educational facilities, people who don't earn corporate-level
    salaries...you know, just folks...have assigned to them
    RIGHT-WING status simply because
    they are PATRIOTIC.

    This is nonsense.

    But you can well ask why is that, that in modern-day society, being patriotic is ONLY considered RIGHT-WING?

    Because my point is that it
    shouldn't be.

    Not even a little bit.

    Country Music does not EXCLUDE the traditional value of simple love of country.

    On the contrary, many of their songs tout that value.

    And because of that, they are considered Conservative in modern-day political parlance.

    There is something very wrong with people's personal ideologies, when they think that logic should stand.

    Patriotism is not the preserve of Republicans.

    Country Music understands that being patriotic is American, red-white-and-blue, without the red-and-blue state dynamic needed or desired.

    (More commentary later)


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Thu Sep 29, 02:17:00 pm GMT-4  

  • I would add Clint Black's forgettable "Iraq and Roll" and Tim McGraw's beautiful "Comfort Me".

    Yes, some of it is a little cruddy, BUT: I'd add the fact that the pop response to 9/11 was a re-recording of Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On.' It's essentially anti-war.

    Toby Keith and Charlie Daniels were the only ones who were expressing the anger than Americans felt about 9/11. I would also add Neil Young's 'Let's Roll' to that list. Clearly a difference between red state and blue state attitudes towards war and foreign policy and the military.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Thu Sep 29, 03:46:00 pm GMT-4  

  • "Steve Earle, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson come to mind.

    "When Toby Keith is as forgotten as Stephen King, people will still be listening to Steve Earle."

    Well, Haggard's famous protest song "Okie from Muskogee" still plays on country radio from time to time.

    Does anyone still play Steve Earle? I've listened to country for years and the only song of his I can remember hearing in the last decade was Copperhead Road, and you don't hear it very often. Not exactly immortality. And I'm still missing how celebrating being from a long line of criminals is a way to "actually care about making the world a better place".

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at Fri Sep 30, 12:30:00 am GMT-4  

  • Victoria,

    I think the problem here is that you mix up two different things: patriotism and pure, blind rightwing populism. A true patriot is not afraid to give the country he/she loves critique it deserves, how ever harsh. Springsteens Born in the USA is a great example of this. Sometimes you have to
    give hars feedback in order to make your counrty a better place.

    You think that patriotism is about accepting and praising anything done in the name of good ole US of A. That is just twisted and in the face of democracy. You evidently don't understand that in order to improve things, there needs to be rebelling against the old.

    I checked out some of the lyrics of the songs you mentioned, because it will be a cold day in hell before I listen to that country c***. They were quite terribly naive, I would excpect these people to happily let the military do whatever they wanted, with no control, in the name of the flag.

    If I were american, I'd be a lot prouder of The Boss singing "Born in the USA", because that song proves that there is good in the country. It is not blind to the facts flag waving, but an attempt to make the country better.



    By Anonymous Jussi, at Fri Sep 30, 10:27:00 am GMT-4  

  • Victoria,
    I would be remiss if I didn't mention I think this is an amazing blog. How you manage to go through a residency and still produce such a vast output of erudite, interesting writing is a mystery.

    Anyhow, I don't think the left has given up on patriotism, but when the right gets to define it, we're inevitably branded "unpatriotic". Seriously. And I wish it was just Ann Coulter, but Instapundit is just as quick to label.

    If blind, unthinking, "my country right or wrong" is patriotism, then the Germans in the 1930's were a shining example, no?

    Anonymous, look up what Haggard's been saying about Bush and in particular Ashcroft since the 2000 elections. You won't like it.

    Furthermore, country radio has got to be the most insular format on the dial. It puts rock radio to shame (and that's saying something). Lack of radio play is hardly a strike against an artist. It's almost a badge of honor.

    I judge Earle by the people who want to work with him (Lucina Williams, Emmy Lou Harris, the list is way too long to go here) and the influence he's had on country and roots rock.

    As for Copperhead Road, maybe it's mythologizing crimminal behavior, maybe it's a character study. I don't know. But surely the outlaw vibe runs strong through country music.

    By Anonymous nate-dogg, at Fri Sep 30, 01:24:00 pm GMT-4  

  • I can't believe you ignored S.O.D.'s classic Speak English or Die! or Skrewdriver's version of Tomorrow Belongs To Me. (Ha! Skinheads watching a Liza Manneli movie!)
    Great nationalistic anthems are in all musical genres. Yehaw.

    By Anonymous James, at Fri Sep 30, 01:37:00 pm GMT-4  

  • I think the problem here is that you mix up two different things: patriotism and pure, blind rightwing populism.

    Jussi, thanks for coming to my blog and saying this. I appreciate your comments, even though I may not necessarily agree with them. :)

    Just to let you know, patriotism to me is a gratuitous public affection for one's country, with no strings attached.

    It's the kind of love you have for your father or mother, warts and all.

    I guess if people don't share that definition, they can never agree about what patriotism is there for.

    OTOH, I have news for you.

    Most Country & Western music stars are registered Democrats.

    Toby Keith, composer/singer of "Courtesy of the Red White and Blue", is one certainly.

    And that is a very important point, Jussi.

    In fact, that is my only real point in this thread, if you read it carefully.


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Sat Oct 01, 12:52:00 am GMT-4  

  • Tomorrow Belongs To Me

    The only time I heard that song was in the Liza Minelli-inspired film, Cabaret, of the 1970s!

    Cool. Didn't know, James.

    Victoria (Money makes the World Go around, the world around!)

    By Blogger vbspurs, at Sat Oct 01, 12:54:00 am GMT-4  

  • Victoria,
    I would be remiss if I didn't mention I think this is an amazing blog. How you manage to go through a residency and still produce such a vast output of erudite, interesting writing is a mystery.

    Nate-Dogg! If you're the chap I remember from RSS years ago, heya. :)

    (If not, heya anyway!)

    Thanks for your lovely and comprehensive reply.

    Unfortunately, however, you ignored my "medical residency roadbumped" profile tagline to the right of the blog.

    I am on sabbatical from Med School, as I deal with some things in my private life.

    When I start it anew, God knows if and when I shall have time to blog.

    I tend to be very disciplined when focused though, so maybe!


    By Blogger vbspurs, at Sat Oct 01, 12:57:00 am GMT-4  

  • Just curious how you'd view the late great Johnny Cash singing The Ballad of Ira Hayes.
    I mean, let's face it - Alan Jackson, Billy Ray Cyrus, & Lee Greenwood will never have anything to match the body of work or influence on country music like Mr. Cash.

    By Blogger om, at Sat Oct 01, 12:25:00 pm GMT-4  

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