Liberal Country Music - The Life and Thoughts of Zach
Jan. 26th, 2011
09:12 pm - Liberal Country Music
xymboulos just tipped me to these tweets, thinking I might be able to help with an answer:
@thedpshow tweets "Are there any country songs that push a liberal agenda?"
@robhines tweets "So @thedpshow asked me if there are any country/western songs that push a liberal agenda. I said no ... but now I'm wondering. Anyone got 1?"
This got me to thinking about how much I want to start blogging again. What better excuse to do a little research and post some findings!
I'll start out with the ones I definitely know about and then go into the ones I had to look up.
I don't really believe there is such a thing as a single unified liberal agenda. There are a whole lot of progressive and liberal political causes and most people who are left of center support some combination of them, but often not all of them, and often not with the same policy proposals.
Honestly, I think the same is true of conservatives. Although I think the Republican party has done a better job of unifying disparate semi-compatible conservative or libertarian ideas into their platform, than the Democratic party as done with liberal or progressive ideas, I don't think that there is one single "conservative agenda".
So I'm going to take the spirit of the tweets to be asking about country music that contains liberal/left/progressive leaning themes. This blog post may say more about my own politics and interpretations than about any "liberal agenda".
Songs vs. Artists
The tweets ask about songs specifically, so I'll try to give examples of songs. But I'm also interested in the overall political persuasions of the artists. Because the thing is, a song doesn't have to be political propaganda to be influenced by an artist's personal philosophy. If an artist is progressive, that may seep into the symbolism used in their more abstract songs that seem to be about non-political topics.
Country and Western
How do you define this? Where are the lines between bluegrass and folk and country? The country music sound has been developing since the 1920s, the names "country" and "country and western" have been in use since the 1940s. Over time the genre has included a huge range of sounds including folk, bluegrass, gospel, blues, ballads, honkey tonk, western swing, hillbilly boogie, outlaw country, country pop, neocountry disco, country rock, country soul, rockabilly, and plenty more.
I'm going to take the definition of country music to be slightly more broad than "what plays on contemporary pop-country radio stations" but a lot more narrow than "what has ever been called country in the history of American music". I'll try to aim for what I think most people would agree to classify as country music. I'm also only going to talk about fairly mainstream musicians that I think most people would recognize. There's probably plenty of independent obscure bands that have a country sound and liberal politics, but if they are so obscure that most country music fans wouldn't have heard of them, I'll leave them unmentioned.
This is the very first name that springs to mind when I think of "Liberal Country Artist". I'm a huge fan of his songwriting. I've got a lot to say about Steve Earle, because what I love most about his politics are much he leaves up to the listener and how well he weaves his views into the genre tropes of country music (truck driving, drinking, hard times, family, poverty, personal honor, independence). He doesn't have to preach, he simply tells compelling stories about humanity.
In 2002, Earle released the album Jerusalem. The song "John Walker Blues" was one of the first I heard by Steve Earle and tipped me off that his politics were not like the pop country mainstream. This song dared in 2002 to humanize an American kid captured as an enemy combatant in Afghanistan. It doesn't actually push any kind of liberal agenda at all. It simply expresses a view that the kid is human. It doesn't forgive any of his actions or even criticize his capture and imprisonment but just laments the situation he ended up in.
"For some reason when I saw him on TV, I related it to my son. That skinny and that age, exactly. I thought, he's got parents somewhere, and they must be sick."You don't have to be a liberal to have feelings like that. But it was very telling to see the amount of flack Earle got from commentators in the country music industry for this song simply because it contained some Arabic language and recordings of Islamic prayers.
On the same album, "Amerika 6.0" is a scathing criticism of the current mainstream of American politics. In this song he criticizes the way that health care is run, the mediocrity of "compassionate conservativism", rampant consumerism, ignorance of global warming, the war on drugs, and corporate power. It's about how the "everyone for themselves" mentality yields mediocre social results. He doesn't offer a solution, just a critique. Is that liberal? I suspect a number of conservatives are dissatisfied with some of the same outcomes. But it certainly seems to come from a liberal perspective.
Other songs on the album offer critiques with a similar subtle liberal/progressive slant. He touches on race relations in Conspiracy Theory, immigration and free trade in "What's a Simple Man to Do?", prison conditions in "The Truth", and he dreams of peace in Israel/Palestine in "Jerusalem".
None of this marks him as a liberal. It just marks him as "different from the conservative media mainstream". These are not topics that conservative pundits or conservative musicians talk about, even if they may be issues that regular Americans of all political persuasions think about.
The proof of Earle's liberal character really shines out much more explicitly in his 2004 album The Revolution Starts Now. The title song isn't as explicitly radical as you might thing. It isn't about any specific kind of revolution. It is about hope. You can tell from his previous album's songs that Earle believes that hope is a fundamental element missing from modern American society. This is followed by several anti-war songs. Home to Houston is about as country as a song gets in terms of music and theme. It's a truck driver's lament, but it's about a truck driver who went to work in Iraq because he thought he was apathetic, and now that his life is in danger he's praying to get home safely. Rich Man's War explores the motivations of poor folks who join the military and end up fighting in "rich men's wars" because they have no other place to go. It has an interesting final verse that gives the same sympathetic treatment to a Palestinian fighter as it does to American fighters. "Warrior" speaks to the horrors of modern warfare and the dishonor of modern foreign policy. "The Gringo's Tale" is about a son of soldiers, now hiding out in Latin America, who joined the military but found himself fighting wars of treachery and eventually recruited for secret black ops, only to later be threatened with assassination. To round it out, "F the CC" is an ode to free speech.
The rest of the songs on Revolution aren't explicitly political, but they all speak of hope in a time of despair. Given the despair in the anti-war songs, and the release of the album in a presidential election year (2004), you could read these songs as calls for political change. In the liner notes from the album he makes a call to action to vote, calling Bush vs. Kerry "the most important presidential election of our lifetime". But he doesn't explicitly endorse a candidate.
Steve Earle also has a history of being publicly opposed to the death penalty. He has written several songs about this (including "Ellis Unit One", about a death row prison guard, which was featured on the sound track for Dead Man Walking). "Billy Austin", which calls out the disproportionate number of poor people of color on death row, was released in 1990, so this position isn't new in his music.
Although I discovered Steve Earle's politics in his more recent albums, it turns out he's had liberal themes in his music since at least his third album in 1988, Copperhead Road. It particularly criticizes the War on Drugs and Ronald Reagan and touches on issues of poverty and Vietnam war vets.
Alright, I'd better pick up the pace, or I'll never get around to posting this! Less examples and more pointers!
Don't think she's country? Have you heard Absolute Torch and Twang? Her early work was definitely country. And she is definitely liberal: a vegetarian, and an animal rights, gay rights and Tibetan human rights activist. But, I'm not familiar enough with her songs to know if any of her country songs had a liberal political leaning to them.
Willie is probably the most clearly and explicitly left-wing/progressive/liberal activist of all ultra-famous country musicians. He's pro-environment, pro-pot, pro-peace,
You must remember the gay cowbow song, Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly Fond of Each Other. He didn't write it but he recorded it.
Although he isn't known for recording many political songs, "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth" is definitely anti-war.
I didn't expect him to be on this list! But get a load of 1992's "We Shall Be Free". It talks about ending poverty and racism, cleaning up the environment, democracy and free speech, and gay marriage.
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 free We shall be free
We all know about the controvery over Natalie Maines' statement:
"Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.". That was in introduction to their cover of the song Travelin' Soldier. Again, this song isn't explicitly liberal, it's just about the terrible sadness of death in war and the living people it affects. Their song, Not Ready to Make Nice, following the controversy strongly asserts their lack of regrets about the statement and the importance of free speech:
And how in the world can the words that I said Send somebody so over the edge That they'd write me a letter Saying that I better shut up and sing or my life will be over?!
These aren't "liberal songs", but again, I find it really telling to see just how strong the backlash towards country musicians can be, these days, when they don't toe a certain conservative or apolitical line. I have a lot of respect for those musicians who push the boundaries in both big and small ways.
I'm getting sleepy, so I think I'll stop my research and writing for now. Here's some other names that popped to mind that I wanted to research. I'm certain all of these folks have written some liberal-leaning country songs, but I couldn't tell you right off hand what they are.
- Kris Kristofferson
- Merle Haggard
- Emmylou Harris
- Johnny Cash
- Kinky Friedman
- Waylon Jennings
I only just now learned about Bitter Tears: Ballads of the American Indian, an album by Johnny Cash from 1964. Apparently it is a concept album full of songs about the history and problems of Native Americans. I'd like to listen to it!
Here's someone else's blog post with a list of 50 liberal country songs. I just found it now after I wrote all that, it looks like it's got some great pointers to songs I didn't get around to mentioning!
- Man in Black - Johnny Cash - A liberal manifesto, laced with light irony
- The Pill - Loretta Lynn - about the joys of sexual liberation
- 9 to 5 - Dolly Parton - about class struggle in the workplace
- We Shall be Free - Garth Brooks - about equality and diversity
- Harper Valley PTA - Jeannie Riley (and others) - ballad about small town sexual hypocrisy
- Take this Job and Shove It - Johnny Paycheck - another class struggle tune
- Devil's Right Hand - Steve Earle - Anti-gun.
- Sixteen Tons - Tennessee Earnest Ford - borderline as a "classic folk song." When does a song officially become a folk song anyway?
- Rainbow Stew - Merle Haggard - lyrics a bit vague, but conjures up liberal imagery
- Trouble in the Fields - Nancy Griffith - About the near extinction of the family farmer
- Abraham, Martin, and John (It's a Hard Life) - Emmy Lou Harris - Lamentation about the harsher aspects of American life
- They Ain't Makin Jews like Jesus Anymore - Kinky Friedman - about
- San Quentin - Johnny Cash - an anti "law and order"approach song
- America - Waylon Jennings - about diversity, anti-war
- Heartland - Willie Nelson - about foreclosures and the death of the American dream for some
- Jesus, the Missing Years - John Prine - irreverent with counter-cultural themes
- Okie from Muskogee - Merle Haggard - Few people on either side of the political spectrum seem to realize this was satire.
- Conversations with the Devil - Ray Wylie Hubbard - sort of a modern liberal version of Dante's Inferno
- Travelin' Soldier - Dixie Chicks - anti-war
- 40 hour week - Alabama - recognition of working class contributions
- My Uncle - Flying Burrito Brothers - Song of empathy for Vietnam war draft dodgers
- Coal Miner's Daughter - Loretta Lynn - Underpaid working class heroism
- Ballad for a soldier - Leon Russell, aka Hank Wilson - antiwar
- Fishing - Richard Shindell - Solidarity values of an illegal immigrant
- I Washed my Face in the Morning Dew - Tom T. Hall - about the stigmatization of poverty
- One Hundred Children - Tom T. Hall - liberal message for children
- Aragon Mill - Dry Branch Fire Squads - all about the consequences of the "restructuring" of the American economy
- Workin Band - Nitty Gritty Dirt Band - about unemployment
- Right or Left at Oak Street - Roy Clark - presents a less than ideal image of suburban living and the purported American dream
- Two Story House - Tammy Wynette - about suburban airs and hypocrisy, covered up by calculated appearances of affluence.
- Church - Lyle Lovett - irreverent, or to quote an old leftist friend - "transgressive and counter-hegemonic"
- Devil Take the Farmer - Dry Branch Fire Squads - about the death of the family farm
- Blame it on the Stones - Kris Kristofferson - all about middle class provincialism
- Skip a Rope - Henson Cargill - kind of a country version of Give Peace a Chance applied to sexual and racial relationships
- That's the News - Merle Haggard - probably the only song of any genre to address the lame media coverage of the Iraq war
- A Week in Country Jail - Tom T. Hall - about the pettiness of small town law enforcement
- Common Man - John Conlee - Working class pride expressed as independence of wealth
- Kids of the Baby Boom - The Bellamy Brothers - reflection on the banalities of American culture in post-WWII affluence.
- Mississipi on my Mind - Jesse Winchester written, Jerry Jeff Walker performance - Winchester's personal reflections on Mississippi from his haven in Canada while evading the Vietnam war.
- Hank Williams Said It Best - Guy Clark - anthem for tolerance and acknowledgment of moral nuance - often referred to by the opposition as "moral relativity."
- Billy B. Damned - Billy Joe Shaver - ironic comment on law and power
- Don't you think this outlaw bit's done got out of hand?- Waylon Jennings - Jennings comments on overzealous literacy challenged decency brigades who don't get irony.
- Lights went out in Georgia - Reba McEntire - About southern justice.
- Peace on Earth - Willie Nelson - Duh.
- High Cotton - Alabama - another class piece
- Why can't we all just get a long neck? - Hank Williams - His version of Imagine
- White House Blues - Vassar Clements - a very political anthem
- Saginaw, Michigan - Lefty Frizzell - Ballad of a working class hero using his noggin to overcome class bias
- Copperhead Road - Steve Earle - About post traumatic stress syndrome due to the Vietnam war (Left out Ellis Unit One because a friend told me the song was written after Earle's "fall from grace" in Nashville, and because it was incorporated into the soundtrack for Dead Man Walking).
- Hobo's Meditation - Dolly Parton - sympathy for the homeless, whether "truly needy" or not.
And I also found an interesting article exploring the populist and liberal early decades of country music (30s and 40s). It makes the astute observation that while much populist country music is in some sense "patriotic", one doesn't have to be conservative to be patriotic.
And does anyone remember the controversy about the song Independence Day? It's a song by Gretchen Peters and recorded by Martina McBride. The song is about a woman escaping from domestic violence. In 2008, Sarah Palin attempted to use it, completely out of context, as a patriotic anthem in her campaign. In response to this, Gretchen Peters decided to donate all her royalties from the song to Planned Parenthood. The song has also been Sean Hannity's theme song, for which Peter's donated to the ACLU, PFLAG, and MoveOn.org.
"They are co-opting the song, completely overlooking the context and message and using it to promote a candidate who would set women's rights back decades. I've decided to donate the royalties from 'Independence Day' during this election cycle to Planned Parenthood, in Sarah Palin's name. I hope with the additional income provided by the McCain/Palin campaign, Planned Parenthood will be able to help many more women in need."