Episode 119: How the Right Shaped Pop Country Music
Episode 119: How the Right Shaped Pop Country Music
published on By now, it's largely taken for granted that country music is a racialized signifier, interchangeable with…
Intro: This is Citations Needed with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson.
Nima Shirzi: Welcome to Citations Needed, a podcast on the media, power, PR and the history of bullshit. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam Johnson: I’m Adam Johnson.
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Nima: These days, it’s largely taken for granted that country music is a racialized signifier, interchangeable with right-wing politics. And it’s not an unreasonable generalization; after all, the political currents of twanged and drawled patriotic paeans like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA,” Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” and Brooks & Dunn’s “Only In America” leave little to the imagination.
Adam: But how, exactly, did this come to be? After all, country music, a descendant of the blues, folk, Tejano, and other genres, with connections to labor organizations like the Industrial Workers of the World and social justice movements, has historically attracted musicians spanning the political spectrum, and didn’t necessarily emerge from such a staunchly right-wing political tradition.
Nima: Rather, popular conceptions of country music have long been deliberately shaped by a series of broader ideological projects. Throughout the 20th and early 21st centuries, conservative politicians and other right-wing forces have exploited the genre to promote illiberalism, racism, revanchist white grievance identity politics, and runaway anti-intellectualism where not giving a shit about the world beyond one’s own cold beer, pickup truck, old lady and hound dog is not only acceptable, but actively encouraged and flaunted.
Adam: On today’s episode, we’ll examine how the genre of country music has been wielded as a tool of reactionary politics in the United States, from Henry Ford in the 1920s to the Nixon administration’s Southern Strategy in the ’60s and ’70s to the heady Shock’n Y’all days of the Bush years and how a once working-class tradition became a cultural cul de sac of worn-out tropes and boring, middle class, white grievance politics.
Nima: Later on the show, we’ll be joined by Alexander Billet, a writer, artist, and cultural critic living in Los Angeles. Alex is an editor at Locust Review and a frequent contributor to Jacobin. You can follow him on Twitter @UbuPamplemousse and check out his writing at AlexanderBillet.com.
Alexander Billet: The deliberate appeal to consolidate racism and American chauvinism via these appeals to morals and culture, American values, evangelical Christian values, I mean, these are all dog whistles really, a lot of it gets folded into law and order rhetoric and things like that. These are how we should contextualize this very deliberate courting of country music by American conservatives.
Adam: So before we begin, one major caveat, we are obviously in this episode discussing a major sprawling topic, which is the sort of history and political currents of American popular country music so we want to qualify a couple things. Number one, we are speaking about popular country as it’s sort of generally known, we are not talking about alternative country and other forms of country. Now I know you get into a game of kind of ontological whack-a-mole with this kind of thing and this is a discussion where how you define the terms isn’t just semantics, it’s actually pretty important and we’ll get into that, especially with our guest later, we are speaking about the sort of broad popular current of what is defined as country music. And the second qualifier, which is a big qualifier, is we know that we’re going to have a discussion about contemporary country and we’ll give more specifics later, we know that there are people in contemporary pop country who are not necessarily right-wing shitheads, we are speaking in generalities, we are saying that these are the general currents.
Nima: We do know that. We may not talk about it, but we do.
Adam: And there are, of course, exceptions to this rule so for anyone who’s listening to this, who is in the country music business, or is a country musician, who is saying, ‘I’m not one of those people,’ great, this doesn’t apply to you, this applies to the majority of your business.
Nima: Now, of course, there’s really no neat timeline for the cultural and political origins of American country music and the topic has certainly been covered exhaustively elsewhere in books and many documentary series. Ken Burns himself made a multi-part documentary on country music.
Adam: If you haven’t seen the documentary that Ken Burns on country music on PBS last year definitely watch it. It’s worth watching. He addresses the topic from a far more sympathetic and cultural perspective, you know, he kind of does his normal middlebrow Americana thing, but there’s a ton of information there, he does address some of the racial aspects we’ll be touching on, we’re going to be a little less forgiving, as you may imagine.
Nima: Citations Needed: less forgiving of American culture than Ken Burns.
Adam: His documentary suspiciously only goes up to 1996, which is really where this kind of begins, which is to say, where it really does become this very explicitly partisan exercise, and I think that’s notable. So, to begin, we need to trace the origins of what is generally considered to be country music.
Nima: The genre, while still ill defined and quite sprawling, is commonly traced to the Southern United States around the 1920s and understood as a pastiche of blues, Tejano, Appalachian folk music, cowboy songs and other styles. In its infancy, country music had connections to organized labor and social justice struggles, a trait that would resurge most visibly in the 1960s. Now folk and country musician Harry McClintock wrote the song “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” in 1902. He would later identify as a Wobblie, that is a member of the Industrial Workers of the World and some of the lyrics from that song “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” are potentially taken from someone who would later be identified as an IWW member. The song satirized anti-poor moralizing.
[Begin “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” Clip]
Rejoice and be glad for the springtime has come
We can throw down our shovels and go on the bum
Hallelujah! I’m a bum, Hallelujah! Bum again
Hallelujah! Give us a handout to revive us again
The springtime has come and I’m just out of jail
Without any money, without any bail
Hallelujah! I’m a bum, Hallelujah! Bum again
Hallelujah! Give us a handout to revive us again
[End “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” Clip]
Nima: So that’s the recording of Harry McClintock’s “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum” from 1928, he had written a song a couple decades earlier. Now around the same time, Fiddlin’ John Carson, a fiddler and singer from Georgia, credited by some with creating the first country music song with lyrics, was reportedly a regular attendee and performer at KKK rallies and campaign events for segregationist politicians. Now still, in 1933, Carson headlined a benefit concert on Auburn Avenue in Atlanta for the imprisoned black union organizer, Angelo Herndon. This has been documented as Atlanta’s first integrated concert.
Adam: Yeah. Which of course is one of the recurring themes of seeing country music where you’re like, ‘Oh, they do something cool and working class,’ ‘Oh, they’re also horribly racist.’ It of course didn’t take long for powerful reactionary forces to begin to shape and promote country music as a cultural and political force. Perhaps one of the more notorious champions of the early rightward shift was fascist automaker Henry Ford. In the 1920s, Henry Ford began a campaign to promote quote, “old-fashioned” country music as a way to counteract the popularity of jazz, a musical genre in which black and Jewish people were prominent. Ford, of course, he was a huge anti-Semite, wrote the infamous book, The International Jew, held that jazz was a devious creation of Jewish people that would corrupt white Americans, particularly black people, by encouraging them to drink smoke and have sex. Jazz, of course, was invented by black artists in the United States during the late 19th century and early 20th century. Henry Ford on his campaign to promote country music in his 1921 publication, The International Jew wrote:
Many people have wondered whence come the waves upon waves of musical slush that invade decent homes and set the young people of this generation imitating the drivel of morons. Popular music is a Jewish monopoly. Jazz is a Jewish creation. The mush, slush, the sly suggestion, the abandoned sensuousness of sliding notes, are of Jewish origin.
Nima: As a result, Henry Ford opted to fund country-music-centric events and activities with the subtext that these were white Christian antidotes to black and Jewish jazz. Most infamously Ford was a leading proponent of square dancing programs throughout the United States. According to author David L. Lewis, writing for American Heritage magazine in 1972, Ford organized square dances at the Wayside Inn in Massachusetts starting in the early 1920s. Shortly thereafter, he embarked on a crusade to eclipse jazz with country music. In 1926, Ford even published an instruction manual for aspiring square dancing instructors. It was called “Good Morning: After a Sleep of Twenty-Five Years, Old-Fashioned Dancing is Being Revived by Mr. and Mrs. Henry Ford.” Ford funded and opened square dancing clubs across the country where the square dance as we know it today was codified. He also required his auto worker employees to attend square dancing events that he bankrolled. He sponsored fiddle contests and radio broadcasts that promoted “old time dancing music.” Ford assembled an Old Time Dance Orchestra to play at these dances and arrange for the orchestra to play over a nationwide radio network during the public showings of new Ford car models. According to Robyn Pennacchia, Ford also introduced square dancing to the American educational system, from elementary schools all the way to universities, initially appointing his Wayside Inn dance instructor Benjamin Lovett to teach square dancing to kids in his hometown of Dearborn, Michigan. By 1928, nearly half the schools in the United States were teaching square dancing and other forms of old fashioned dance to students. Though the manufactured trend never really replaced, let alone surpassed jazz in terms of its popularity, it quickly garnered institutional backing. Lewis, in the 1972 article, tells us:
Newspapers carried detailed instructions covering an entire page. Thirty-four institutions of higher learning, including Radcliffe College, Stephens College, Temple University, and the universities of Michigan, North Carolina, and Georgia, added early American dancing to their curricula.
Adam: And this was subsidized by a state-level lobbying effort in dozens of states that Henry Ford paid out of pocket, including various front nonprofit groups that promoted square dancing to stop what he believed was the sort of Jewish conspiracy.
Nima: The legacy of Ford’s white supremacist dance lobbying efforts were still evident actually when I was in elementary school in New York City in the 1980s. We sometimes had square dancing lessons instead of gym class and to date, as a result of the lobbying efforts since the 1960s by groups like the National Folk Dance Committee, at least 25 states now name square dancing is their official state folk dance and not just places like Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, Oklahoma and Arkansas, but also Massachusetts, Illinois, Connecticut, Oregon, New Jersey, Idaho and North Dakota. Now incidentally, what Ford likely didn’t know, is that despite its reputation as a white cultural art form, square dancing was largely invented and developed by enslaved black people in the United States much like everything else that white people then later appropriated.
Adam: So now back to the 1920s. Meanwhile, multiple radio stations like Atlanta’s WSB were already broadcasting country music by the early and mid-1920s. In 1925, the National Life and Accident Insurance Company launched the station WSM in Nashville to promote their businesses. On Saturdays WSM aired a country music series called “The Barn Dance.” Two years later, “The Barn Dance” was renamed “The Grand Ole Opry,” what is now regarded as one of the most prominent country music venues and concert series. The following decades would see development of country music into a commercial enterprise. Roy Acuff, a country music singer and promoter, played an instrumental role in the incorporation of right-wing politics into country music. This was done primarily through Acuff’s work with the Grand Ole Opry. Acuff joined the Opry as a musician in 1938. He would become a signature figure of the Opry later, integrating himself with Republican presidents. In 1948, Acuff ran for governor of Tennessee on the Republican ticket as a protest candidate against then Governor Prentice Cooper, accusing him of quote “bringing disgrace by rendering Nashville the “hillbilly capital” of the US.
Nima: Now by many accounts, the right-wing appropriation of country music crescendoed between the 1950s and the 1970s via conservative politicians like rabid segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace, and of course President Richard Nixon. In the ’50s, amidst the Red Scare and McCarthyism, Pete Seeger and Lee Hayes of the band the Weavers were hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, and were later blacklisted. Seeger refused to answer many of the questions that were posed to him and was indicted for contempt in 1957 and convicted in ’61 — though his conviction was later overturned the following year. Woody Guthrie, of course, was also blacklisted during this period just as he was beginning to experience the symptoms of Huntington’s disease, he eventually died in 1967.
Adam: This is a useful historical note, because when we talk about cultural forces, let’s say country music goes right-wing or country music would become very close to Richard Nixon, there are other reasons why that is, namely, that those who were left-wing or allied themselves with communism or socialism were blacklisted from the industry and removed from polite society. And this is of course true in Hollywood and other forms of music, it’s not unique to country, but it goes to show you that some of these cultural currents that we consider separate from these political forces are in fact a direct result of that because it doesn’t take more than five seconds in the country music industry before one realizes what attaching oneself to radical left causes will get you so to the extent to which one is permitted to be left it’s in the most sort of safe liberal way possible. And according to writer and musician Parker Ramsay, George Wallace’s 1958 gubernatorial campaign recruited and paid country singer Minnie Pearl to perform at events for Wallace. Relishing the opportunity for publicity Pearl began to appear in Wallace’s campaign rallies donning dresses with the phrase “Win with Wallace.” Minnie Pearl brought additional country singers to Wallace’s campaign including Little Jimmy Dickens and Hank Snow. The same year in 1958, the Country Music Association, a trade organization designed to promote country music to advertisers and consumers was founded in Nashville. The CMA Foundation was motivated, at least in part, by the desire to curtail the popularity of rock and roll — again a genre seen as a Black and Black-influenced art form.
Nima: So in the ’20s you see Henry Ford push square dancing to knock jazz out of the way and then there’s a resurgence of the promotion popularly of country music in the late ’50s, when — God forbid — Bill Haley and the Comets and Little Richard are starting to climb the charts.
Adam: In 1968, George Wallace started a higher profile campaign for president under the far right American Independence Party. Wallace ran against Richard Nixon, a Republican, and Hubert Humphrey, a Democrat. Wallace’s campaign, which characterized the white working and middle classes as victims of persecution amid black activism, was greatly successful in the South and of course, George Wallace won 13.5% of the national vote and would go on to win five states: Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana and Arkansas as well as one district in North Carolina. The Nixon campaign, who was scared shitless of Wallace for reasons I’m sure you could understand, began to kind of mimic his cultural signifiers without making Wallace’s alleged promises of improved living conditions. Harry S. Dent, a former staffer for Strom Thurmond and then Richard Nixon, created a set of ads featuring country music songs to improve Nixon’s polling numbers in the South. Dent is widely considered to be the architect of the quote-unquote “Southern strategy,” a plan to lure white voters in the South by appealing to racism against black people and left-wing activists particularly as a response to the civil rights movement in the 1960s. Of course, just for those who don’t know the whites were generally Democrat in the ’60s up until that time. This strategy championed nominal states’ rights and employed dog whistles like law and order as anti-racist and anti-war protests raged throughout the country. According to academic and writer Jessie Montgomery:
After narrowly defeating Hubert Humphrey and gaining the White House in 1968, the president and his advisers immediately set to work on reelection. The approach they devised came to be known as the ‘Southern Strategy,’ and was essentially an attempt to absorb the lesson of George Wallace… Rather than make commitments to the material betterment of the working-class, the administration would pursue a politics of recognition and celebrate the worker as an ideal. This appeal to the ‘allegedly superior moral backbone and patriotic rectitude’ of the American worker, always defined against the non-productive protesters and freeloaders stereotypical of the left, led Nixon, as it had Wallace, to country music.
Nima: So Nixon’s first term also marked the invention of the term the “Silent Majority,” a phrase used to denote white people who supported the Vietnam War and racist policymaking and opposed their opponents, but unlike Wallace supporters weren’t too loud or overtly racist about it. Now, another proponent of the Southern Strategy, Nixon aide Kevin Phillips, penned an editorial for The Washington Post in 1971, in which he made overtures to the much fetishized white working class, a trope that would be revisited again and again. In this piece in ’71, Phillips contended that country music was a vehicle for solidarity among working class white people, citing the folk music of white European cultures and concluding this quote, “Conceivably, the next American social era could be dominated by these forgotten whites … [who] are tired of hearing about equal justice for blacks.” End quote. As Jessie Montgomery also wrote:
In this right-wing theoretical articulation, country music became a way for conservative operatives to imagine what a pan-ethnic — but always white — working-class coalition might look and feel like.
So we enter the ’70s with not only a Southern Strategy and a Silent Majority, but also with a “blue-collar strategy,” this attempt by the Nixon White House to appeal to organized labor that actually wouldn’t require specific policy proposals; it would just traffic on stereotypes and this idealized working man. Now as part of this strategy, the Nixon administration invited major country music figures to perform at the White House. These included not only Roy Acuff and Glen Campbell but also Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash and declared October country music month throughout his first and second terms. During his visit to the White House in 1970, Johnny Cash played “What is Truth?” his new anti-war, pro-hippie song, which I’m sure Nixon wasn’t even paying attention to enough to get pissed.
Adam: In 1972 Richard Nixon had a country music television ad, the first of its kind, in which he had a country music jingle called “Nixon Now.”
[Begin “Nixon Now” Clip]
To find a way
To make Tomorrow
A brighter day
Making dreams reality
More than ever Nixon Now for you and me
Nixon Now, Nixon Now
He’s made the difference
He’s shown us how
Nixon Now, Nixon Now
More than ever Nixon Now
Listen America, Nixon Now
[End “Nixon Now” Clip]
Adam: In 1973, the Country Music Association, the industry’s trade group, gifted Nixon with the tribute album to thank him and the White House for their embrace of country music. While presenting Nixon with the album, singer Tex Ritter stated:
Country music, Mr. President, like yourself, has always gloried in the hard work that men do. Our country writers and singers have always paid homage, as you have, to the working man. In one of your speeches you said, ‘We must give more respect to the proud men and women who do work that is all too often considered menial.’
Adam: So here you have this kind of cultural signifier that means nothing. Of course, from a labor perspective, the Democrats were more progressive, but he had racial signifiers, and unfortunately, many instances in this country’s history, of course, white identity politics and racism trump class interest. In March of 1974, Richard Nixon became the first US president to make an appearance and perform at the Grand Ole Opry, inaugurating the Opry’s new $15 million venue alongside Roy Acuff, who by then, according to The New York Times, had developed a “distaste for hippies.” Well, who hasn’t.
Nima: Who could have seen that coming?
Adam: Yeah. This was largely done not just as a Southern Strategy tactic, but also as a bit of Watergate damage control. By the time of his appearance, Nixon aides had already been indicted.
Nima: These political schemes of the Nixon administration, appealing to this white working class through the kind of stereotype of country music, and doing things like appearing at the Grand Ole Opry would have a lasting effect not only on the country culturally, but also certainly the Republican Party. During his 1980 presidential campaign, Ronald Reagan, who would codify many of the anti-worker neoliberal changes that followed the Nixon era and accelerated under the Carter administration, like corporate deregulation and the weakening of unions, Reagan appealed to the same audience as Nixon, building on the same cultural signifiers that the Nixon administration’s Southern and blue-collar strategies had already established. During his presidency, Reagan spoke at the 1983 CMA Awards, saying this:
[Begin CMA Clip]
Ronald Reagan: Seriously, since country music is one of only very few art forms that we can claim as purely American, it is a special pleasure to welcome its brightest stars to the White House, and our national home. You belong here. Your music belongs here and I hope you agree it sounds pretty good when it bounces off these historic walls. Someone once said that it’s easier to understand a nation by listening to its music than it is by learning their language… When you listen to country music, you hear the beauty of our wide open spaces, the emotions of a people whose hearts are as big and full as the land they live in. The country sound has become a goodwill ambassador for us all around the world.”
[End CMA Clip]
Adam: Reagan claimed to be a big fan of Merle Haggard, who was of course like the shit in his day, particularly appreciating the song “Okie from Muskogee” because of its anti-hippie and pro Vietnam War stances. Though haggard is sometimes claimed the song is satire. Probably not coincidentally, Reagan pardoned Haggard, who was incarcerated for attempted burglary while Reagan was governor of California. At a Haggard concert in 1982, Nancy Reagan said, ‘’While country and western music is not classical, it’s classically American. It is down-home, down-to-Earth and downright fun. So get your boots ready to stomp and your heart ready to romp and enjoy the music.’’ Again, you see this kind of surface-level white cultural signifier as a replacement for meaningful politics and, you know, unfortunately, it works. Possibly indicating the global reach of right-wing country music’s message an AP article from 1987 reported that “some communist officials criticize [country music] as ‘Ronald Reagan music.’” The headline read, “Country-Western May Be ‘Ronald Reagan Music,’ but the Good Ol’ Poles Like It.’ This is a dispatch from Poland, “Although some Communist officials criticize it as ‘Ronald Reagan Music,’ more than 15,000 Polish good ole’ boys and girls braved rainy skies one weekend last month to swing to Nashville-style music at a rollicking country piknik.” So I don’t know if that’s true or not, but it was associated with the kind of Reaganesque version of America. Reagan also signed a bill temporarily declaring square dancing — again, that was almost entirely contrived by a Nazi sympathizing anti-Semite — as the national pastime the national folk dance of the US from the years 1982 and 1983.
Nima: But all of that, in a way, is a prologue to the George W. Bush era, the Shock’n Y’all years of overtly politicized, right-wing country music. The Bush presidency itself and of course the aftermath of 9/11 saw a surge in pro-US imperialist messaging through popular country music. During Bush’s 2000 presidential campaign, several artists whose songs were used during campaign rallies, people like Tom Petty, John Cougar Mellencamp, Sting, they all objected to their music being used to promote Bush, but the country label Monument Records offered the song “We the People” to both the Bush and Gore presidential campaigns. Now according to the record label Monument, only the Republicans, then running out of options, accepted. Aptly enough, the song’s lyrics heralded the working class. Stuff like, quote, “We pay the taxes, we pay the bills, so they better pay attention on Capitol Hill.”
Adam: After 9/11 of course, everything went to fucking shit. We had scores of nationalist country songs that were released glorifying the US military, justifying the war on terror, war in Iraq, et cetera, et cetera. A 2008 study by Andrew Boulton published in Popular Music and Society concluded:
Although, on occasion, the sentiments expressed in country music work to disrupt dominant understandings, it is shown that country music has chosen to frame the War on Terror in ways that concur broadly with official (i.e. Bush administration) geopolitical discourse.
In October of 2001, we had “Only in America” by Brooks & Dunn, which was obviously somewhat haphazardly put together, as the bodies were still warm. That reached number one in the United States. December of 2001 we had, through January 2002, we had Alan Jackson’s very exploitative and very sort of sleazy “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” which was very much about 9/11. We’re going to listen to the Alan Jackson song, “Where Were You,” because for those who are too young to remember how horrible this moment in time was. We want, you know, the under-30s to appreciate it.
Nima: Right, you have to be as miserable as we were then and still are. So you have to listen to this.
Adam: I want you to know that Nima and I listened to dozens and dozens of contemporary country to prep for this episode and I want you to know that it was torture.
Nima: It was torture.
Adam: Especially for Nima, who is of course from Manhattan, more torturous for him.
Adam: And I want you to know that’s how much we love you and this is what your Patreon support is doing.
Nima: This is what we do for you.
Adam: It’s torture. It’s hell. It’s bad. Now I secretly like a couple of them, but we’re not going to say which. All right, let’s play it.
[Begin “Where Were You” Clip]
I’m just a singer of simple songs
I’m not a real political man
I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you
The diff’rence in Iraq and Iran
But I know Jesus and I talk to God
And I remember this from when I was young
Faith, hope, and love are some good things He gave us
And the greatest is love
[End “Where Were You” Clip]
Adam: This whole episode is actually an experiment to see how many listeners we can lose.
Nima: Or how many co-hosts.
Adam: This was, of course, the idea that he explicitly says he’s ignorant and doesn’t know the difference between two totally different countries, different ethnicities, different sects, sort of really shows that part of country’s pedigree, which we’ll get into later, is the idea that not knowing things and being stupid is not only permissible, but it’s actually a source of pride. And then of course, there this was followed by Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” that said:
Now the nation that I love has fallen under attack
A mighty sucker punch came flying in from somewhere in the back
Soon as we could see clearly
Through our big black eye
Man, we lit up your world
Like the Fourth of July
Hey Uncle Sam, put your name at the top of the list
And the Statue of Liberty started shakin’ her fist
And the eagle will fly man, it’s gonna be hell
When you hear mother freedom start ringin’ her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
Brought to you courtesy of the red, white and blue
Nima: Yeah. That’s very murderous.
Adam: Making fun of Toby Keith is pretty low hanging fruit, but it is sort of important context to know. We will not rehash tedious Team America bits except to say that this was a definite current in our culture. And then of course, you had the parallel which is that any dissent within country music about Bush’s wars in Iraq and so-called war on terror were met with swift condemnation. So on March 10, 2003, a week before the US invaded Iraq, the Dixie Chicks, who were very popular at the time, were doing a somewhat intimate show in London and UK Dixie Chicks star Natalie Maines criticized George Bush, telling the small crowd, quote, “Just so you know… we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas.” And then we saw Clear Channel radio, which was basically a monopoly, they were the biggest radio station in the country.
Nima: It’s what iHeartRadio is now, it was Clear Channel before.
Adam: They were very aligned with the Bush administration, the CEO was a huge Bush administration campaign donor and starting in 2001, according to historian and journalist Christopher Mark:
Clear Channel began to tighten their grip over what was and wasn’t acceptable to be heard by the general public in a post 9/11 world. Shortly after the attack on the World Trade Center, a list was circulated among Clear Channel owned radio stations containing more than 150 popular music songs which were now deemed ‘inappropriate’ for airplay. Not only were they concerned over songs that might offend a grieving audience, but also programming which might paint the President or U.S. foreign policy in a negative light. In October 2001, a DJ in San Francisco was fired for airing clips of a speech made by Congresswoman Barbara Lee opposing the war in Afghanistan and in 2004 Howard Stern was removed from six major markets following disparaging remarks he made about the President.
A large proportion of the radio stations which removed the Dixie Chicks were Clear Channel owned, and several pro-war/anti-Chicks rallies were organised and sponsored by Clear Channel and radio stations owned by them.
This would obviously send a chilling effect through the music industry, again, you see the signals of it’s just much safer to either not be political, which of course is itself a form of conservatism, or to latch oneself on to the Republican or conservative brand. To the extent one is permitted to be liberal. It’s very kind of wishy-washy Al Gore/Obama kind of campaign of fundraisers, not really any kind of subversive activism.
Nima: Well, yeah and so you then have, you know, politicians obviously, still playing along with this ‘I’m pro-country music’ trope. You have Ted Cruz, Texas politician, of course, in 2015, in preparation for the 2016 presidential election Cruz telling Rolling Stone that 9/11 inspired him to start listening to country music saying this, quote:
My music tastes changed on 9/11. I actually intellectually find this very curious, but on 9/11, I didn’t like how rock music responded. And country music — collectively — the way they responded, it resonated with me. And I have to say just at a gut level, I had an emotional reaction that says, ‘These are my people.’ And ever since 2001, I listen to country music.
Adam: Okay, Ted Cruz is from Canada, which probably explains why he’s overdoing it a little bit here. So a few things, we’re going to discuss some tropes of contemporary country now we’ve kind of shifted to the contemporary. This is the part that Ken Burns didn’t want to talk about.
Nima: And the part that we forced ourselves to listen to.
Adam: In preparation for this so we’re not bashing a straw man, we listened to the majority of the present top 40 country songs and looked at lists of top country songs in the last 15, 20 years. And of course in our normal course of living we’ve also listened to country, we want to be super clear that we are making generalizations, we are not doing this from a total place of ignorance. If you are a country fan, we are trying to accurately represent the genre, if at any point you feel like we’re not, let us know, if you are a right-wing country fan, we really don’t care what you think. So feel free to direct your anger at Nima on Twitter. Actually I probably shouldn’t sic racists on you. Sorry, Nima.
Nima: I thought it was funny.
Adam: Come to me.
Adam: So there’s kind of this is again, a very big generalization, but there’s three general categories of contemporary country song, there’s the love song, then there’s the kind of fun ironic party song, all of which have to do with excessive alcohol drinking, which is fine enough, that’s pretty much happy music anyway and then there’s songs about faith, family and country. There is a blending of these genres but that’s kind of the general framing.
Nima: Yeah, so throughout all of these songs, there are some very common themes that surface time and again. So obviously, there’s faith, the Jesus signaling is very important and it’s ubiquitous in love songs especially, but also songs that have to do with having a good time, also, hanging out with your family. These songs are rife with heteronormative notions of family and children. There’s a lot of, you know, talk about wives and husbands. And then of course, there is this trope that drips with nostalgia, this idea of appreciating the simple things, the small things in life, being grateful for your lot, for working hard and partying hard, these are tropes that kind of continue throughout all of these songs. In a way it’s this never ending first verse of Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’,” except with a lot more beer. It’s like this constant litany of down-home stuff that you’re supposed to like if you’re a real American, as if you check off enough of these boxes then you actually belong here. So for instance, you have very popular songs that are out right now like Luke Combs’ “Lovin’ On You” and Florida Georgia Line’s “I Love My Country.”
[Begin “Lovin’ On You” and “I Love My County” Clips]
Don’t get me wrong, I like a bobber on the water
Hookin’ ’em and reelin’ ’em in
I like a Friday night slow ride, Brooks & Dunn, B-side
Hit rewind, spin it again
I like a strong shot of whiskey, the way a Marlboro hits me
Some broken-in cowboy boots
But I’m in love and lovin’ on you
Out here, ain’t nothin’ but woods and water
Drop a deer from a stand, catch a fish with a bobber
Drink a beer out the can, liquor out the bottle
How the good Lord intended it, yes he did
I love my country, I love my country
Six strings and fiddles, whiskey from Kentucky
We keep it funky, we like how it sounds
Monday to Sunday, yeah, I love my country
[End “Lovin’ On You” and “I Love My Country” Clips]
Adam: All right, now we’ve officially lost all our listeners. Okay, so a couple things in this, which is that this is sort of just a way of kind of culturally signifying, you know, all the things in isolation are perfectly fine —
Nima: Especially fishing with bobbers, which was incidentally mentioned in both of those songs, right in the first verse.
Adam: Yes. I’m here to be the redneck whisperer, Nima you’re patronizing my people.
Adam: They like to fish. It’s just the thing they do. My old man fished all the time. So there’s a current in this that I think is very common in contemporary country music, which is a runaway anti-intellectualism, which is a very, very prominent feature in contemporary country music, which is again, not only do you not know something or not care to learn something or are not educated, but this is a proxy for virtue, which is a tenant of right-wing ideology, and to some extent fascism. Not that we’re calling country music fascist necessarily, but it is a pillar of fascism, as is by the way nostalgia, which we’ll touch on a little later. So we picked a song that was in the top 40, again, to not look like we’re cherry picking this is Kenny Chesney’s “Happy Does” and this is a section from that:
Hummin’ along, schoolin’ ya on the songs on his station
He could be another one cussin’ the government, no, but he smiles
Got hundred reasons not to, but he’s the poster child for
Happy is as happy does
Grab a six-string, find a rope swing
Hang a palm tree in your truck
Drink a beer just because
Steal a slow dance in a rainstorm
And a kiss from who you love
Laugh and live with a half-full cup
Yeah, happy is as happy does
Some find it in the scripture or a Polaroid picture
Or flip a coin, heads, you’re goin’ to Tucson, Arizona
But it damn sure ain’t in the lookin’ back on the stuff you never did
Sometimes you’re gonna feel that, but life is better when
So again, we are not, at least hopefully not, building an entire thesis around one goddamn country song, this is a thing you hear over and over and over again, which is the idea to be complacent with one’s simple life, to not be too complicated or have too many intellectual pursuits and that to appreciate that which you have. Now, theoretically, being grateful for what one has is probably important.
Nima: Yeah, that’s not at all bad, but it’s that the lives are deliberately uncomplicated by things like, say, injustice. It is purposefully nostalgic in the same wholesome and wholly shared white heritage way that signifies the same thing as, say, a slogan like, “Make America Great Again.” All of these songs do that same thing.
Adam: And there was a very popular song by Drake White called “The Simple Life.”
I ain’t no movie star
Oh, I ain’t no politician
I ain’t no suit and tie
Lord, I wasn’t cut out for that type of livin’
Some folks choose that
And I reckon that’s all right
But I’m a fan of the simple life
I said I’m a fan of beer ice cold
Wavin’ at my neighbor when I meet him on the road
Kissin’ on my woman in the moonlight
Yeah, I’m a fan of the simple life
Tim McGraw has a whole song about well, this is pretty much every Tim McGraw song. but he has a song that was a pretty big hit a few years ago about Mama’s ranch.
[Begin “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” Clip]
Running round in this new truck
Bank lets me borrow from month to month
Running out of credit and find a little cash on the radio
Standing still they’re blowing past
Numbers on cars going NASCAR fast
What I wouldn’t give for a slow down, don’t you know
’Cause where I come from, only the horses run
When the day is done, we take it easy
Meanwhile back at Mama’s
The porch lights on, come on in if you wanna
Suppers on the stove, and beer’s in the fridge
Red sun sinking out low on the ridge
Games on the tube and daddy smoked cigarettes
Whiskey keeps his whistle wet
Funny the things you thought you’d never miss
In a world gone crazy as this
[End “Meanwhile Back at Mama’s” Clip]
Adam: Want to be clear, we are a little worried that we’re going to come off smug. I am smug, don’t get me wrong, but this is an instance where we’re trying to show that the anti-intellectualism and the fetishization of provincialism is in fact a specific political current that may not have an entirely organic constituency. So there was the remnants that sort of bastard version of Lynyrd Skynyrd rebranded as a country band —
Nima: By the way, about 75 percent of popular country songs mention Lynyrd Skynyrd in them. This is something I’ve learned in the past month.
Adam: Which is of course racial signaling, so Lynyrd Skynyrd rebranded as explicitly a country band, they’re always sort of country rock, but then their their new version, their present day version of quote-unquote Lynyrd Skynyrd basically every one of their songs is a version, is a kind of updated version of their song “Simple Man,” which is a very anti-intellectual song. And now we have the 2010 song “Simple Life,” which I think is hilariously generic in it’s appeal to nostalgia, and simpler times, and again, this sort of undefined make America great era.
[Begin “The Simple Life” Clip]
Lynyrd Skynyrd: Hey, when is the last time you just stopped and helped somebody out?
I bet you can’t remember
Well a lot of people are sayin’
“We’re changing for the better”
Well that don’t interest me
I like the simple life
The way it used to be
We left our doors wide open
We didn’t need no key
I’ve been around the world
Seen all there is to see
I’d trade all those memories for one more day
How it used to be
[End “The Simple Life” Clip]
Adam: Okay, so this is, again, there’s a million versions of this. So there’s this time where we didn’t lock our doors, of course, all violent crimes are down about 50 percent in the last 25 years, that’s neither here nor there. This, of course, came out a year after Obama was elected. There’s this really weird appeal constantly in a lot of these songs to this great golden era. And, of course, this was parlayed into this sort of concept — again, a kind of quasi fascist concept of nostalgia, this sort of great time, presumably, of white dominance — was the campaign slogan of Donald Trump Make America Great Again. There was some time when we were great, we won’t define it because that’ll pin us down to sort of ideological commitments to racism and white supremacy so we’ll remain vague. This is a defining feature of contemporary country and of course, it’s always sort of been in country, right? The Grand Ole Opry, this sort of idea of old-timey music, these were simple song for simple folks, et cetera, et cetera, but then at some point, it turned into this legitimately working class way of ameliorating one’s circumstances to a bourgeois affect for a white population that had migrated to mostly a middle class existence. And there’s one example of anti-intellectualism and a music video interlude from the band, Florida Georgia Line, there’s this song they have called “Dirt” that’s basically about dirt and it’s actually a somewhat clever conceit basically, that dirt is a sort of integral part of our lives and it’s how we build our foundation. I think it’s a very insightful song because there’s a part of the song where — can we play the clip? — where they’re giving a eulogy to a dead grandmother and it’s supposed to be romantic but I want to play it for you real quick.
[Begin “Dirt” Clip]
You circled up on
And when it rains you get stuck on
Drift a cloud back behind county roads
That you run up
The mud on her jeans that she peeled off
And hung up
Her blue-eyed summertime smile
Looks so good that it hurts
Makes you wanna build
A 10 percent down
White picket fence house on this dirt
I asked Rosie one time if she wanted to travel and see the world
And ‘No,’ she said, ‘the world comes right to my window every day’
‘Even if it is broken’
[End “Dirt” Clip]
Adam: Okay, what is that? Okay. So he asked his wife who is dead, he’s sort of an old man, he’s like, ‘I asked my wife, do you want to see the world?’ And she says, ‘No, the world comes to me every day,’ which is a sort of, again, a very sort of sweet sentiment, but holy shit, was she kidnapped? Was she held against her will? Again, this is in isolation is perfectly innocent, but it’s like every single fucking single theme in every single country song reinforces this idea of whatever you do, do not look beyond that hill. It is complicated. It’s liberal.
Nima: Which actually gets back to the way that cultural signifiers like, say, the Wizard of Oz, were changed by Hollywood from the original story by L. Frank Baum, where the thing at the end of the Wizard of Oz where Dorothy says, “If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire, I won’t look any further than my own backyard, because if it isn’t there, I never really lost it to begin with.” And so this is the same kind of, you know, don’t go anywhere, don’t look outside of the tiny world that you know conceit and obviously, we’re not going to comment on larger themes, like, say, the yellow brick road standing in for capitalism, that is going to be done away with because in the popular conception of these things, it has to do with this nostalgia with this anti-intellectualism, with this, don’t see the world because the world is really right by your fingertips and it’s just in the people that you love, which again, is a lovely sentiment, but there are political implications here that are actually deliberate in the way that they are infused in this entire genre of popular music.
Adam: So the Trump era has been a little different with regards to country music’s relationship with the President. Obviously, he’s very popular amongst white people relative to previous Republicans. Jon Bernstein at The Guardian noted in an article he wrote in 2017, that in 2016, more country music singers kind of began to sit out, that Trump was seen as being so toxic, it sort of wasn’t worth putting their lot behind him. Now, there are major exceptions to this. There was an informal survey put on by a trade publication of the country music industry, that showed 46 percent of the music industry supported Trump, 41 percent supported Clinton and 13 percent supported Gary Johnson. So you have a majority not supporting Clinton, which is not no surprise. At Trump’s inauguration country stars Toby Keith, Randy Rogers Band, Lee Greenwood, Alabama, Big & Rich of “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” pretty sure that was their one big song, Justin Moore and Jimmy Wayne all performed. Other pro-Trump stars included Chris Janson, Kenny Rogers, Oak Ridge Boys, Charlie Daniels and Ronnie Dunn, many of whom were very vocal supporters of Trump. Now we’d be very remiss if we didn’t mention that there are several prominent country musicians who’ve bucked Trump or Trumpism. Jennifer Nettles and Maren Morris have spoken out on gun control, which is kind of a bourgeois milquetoast issue but still takes a lot of courage I think in country music.
Adam: They certainly love their guns. Last August music star Kacey Musgraves said President Trump supporters are committing acts of violence against the gay and lesbian and LGBT community, that Trump supporters were committing acts of violence against those communities if they voted for Trump. And Jason Isbell has taken shots at Trump as has Meghan Linsey, and others who have expressed support for Black Lives Matter. So we just want to qualify that that it is not a uniform thing, but the industry is overwhelmingly conservative, overwhelmingly steeped in right-wing tropes and that wasn’t always the case and I think that there’s a curious question as to what extent and we discussed this in our episode about Christian film, this is kind of the spiritual successor to that, which is where does the culture take over politics and where does the politics take over culture? And of course, this is the sort of the great kind of dorm-room Media Studies question, right? Which is: which informs which? It’s obviously a feedback loop.
Nima: So to discuss this and more, we’re now going to be joined by Alexander Billet, a writer, artist, and cultural critic living in Los Angeles. Alex is an editor at Locust Review and frequent contributor to Jacobin magazine. He’ll join us in just a moment. Stay with us.
Nima: We are joined now by Alexander Billet, writer, artists, cultural critic living in Los Angeles. Alex, thank you so much for joining us today on Citations Needed.
Alexander Billet: Oh, an absolute pleasure, thank you very much for having me.
Adam: Thanks so much for your piece. We loved it a lot. So I want to begin sort of by defining terms here. Now, we are obviously talking about kind of mainstream FM radio country music but there’s always been alternative country or the kind of suspiciously bifurcated folk music. How would you define the scope of our inquiry here and how do we make sure we’re not engaging in a kind of tautology bashing pop country, where all pop peoples, all pop socks, that’s not normal, by definition, but it’s something sort of more broad than that, something more pervasive around the edges of what we consider creative or alternative versions of it as well. I want to sort of walk through the general terms in the kind of rightward shift in mainline country over the past few decades, and how it is sort of worse than the baseline, and that it’s not just sort of like, ‘Oh, kids these days aren’t as creative as back in my day when the Beatles, you know, said, hey, hey hey’ that kind of old man gripe.
Alexander Billet: Right, right. Well, I mean, first thing to kick off here is that even the category of country music is somewhat suspect from the beginning. I think, you know, differences in genre always partly reflect a sort of divergence and experience across time and geography. That’s absolutely true. There’s no denying that. But they can and do frequently reflect efforts to better define something, so that the something they’re defining can be better marketed, better sold. It’s always bothered me that country music is thought of as primarily white people music, for example, when in fact, so much of what we think of as a country sound in its earliest iterations, was just as much reliant on early Delta Blues and Tejano as it was on, say, Scottish or English folk or things like that. By the 1920s, just as an example, to show the sort of the way in which those racial divisions can be blurred very easily, by the 1920s, you had a boom in a sound within country music, it was referred to as Western swing and as the name suggests, it’s a mixture of country western music with elements that we understand as part of jazz, as big band music, artists like, you know, Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, Hank Thompson, Tex Williams. So the idea that country is kind of sectioned off from outside influence, including outside, quote, “outside” racial influence, that it’s somehow racially homogenous is just fundamentally incorrect.
If we want to trace how country music becomes associated so fiercely with conservatism, this is a related question I think. We also have to ask questions about segregation first. In particular, when country western folk comes to be labeled hillbilly music in the 1920s as a way to distinguish it from what they called “race records,” you know, blues, jazz gospel, i.e. coded as music the black people listen to. Hillbilly music was, of course, the music of poor white people and both were sort of distinguished from the more quote-unquote “respectable” parlor music that was for sort of middle class, urban folks. And importantly, this is right around the time that you can say, there’s anything like what we would consider a modern recording industry. So that’s important right off the bat. So country music’s political trajectory is rooted in segregation on one hand and commodification on the other and how the two sort of lean in on each other. Now to get more particularly to your question about conservatism’s relationship to country music, after World War Two is when Nashville and the Grand Ole Opry, becoming sort of primary pillars of the country music industry, and it’s difficult to discern sort of a coherent politics of the post World War Two up through the 1970s era. The 1950s, you get very diverse outputs from some of country’s best and most iconic artists, you know, Johnny Cash, Charley Pride, Loretta Lynn, none of whom could be designated capital ‘C’ Conservative, and often outwardly adopted liberal, progressive, even leftist positions on some issues. And it’s interesting to me that the alignment of country music with American conservatism coincides with this sort of general realignment in American politics, that included a redefinition of American conservatism itself. So by the end of the 1960s, you had this severe fracturing in what was left of the New Deal coalition brought about partly by Lyndon Johnson’s support for the Vietnam War on one end, and the rise of the new left vis-a-vis civil rights black power, the anti-war movement on the other, rural and southern poor white people who had historically voted Democrat were kind of cut adrift in the mix of all of this and this is why Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy is as important as it is. The deliberate appeal to consolidate racism and American chauvinism via these appeals to like morals and culture and American values, evangelical Christian values and I mean, these are all dog whistles really, a lot of it gets folded into law and order rhetoric and things like that. This is how we should contextualize this sort of very deliberate courting of country music by American conservatives. So, you have Richard Nixon winning the 1968 election, and his administration made a very conscious and concerted effort to reach out to the country music establishment. 1970, Nixon declares October to be Country Music Month, and Tex Ritter, who’s the head of the Country Music Association, he responds in kind by sending Nixon this custom-made LP called “Thank you, Mr. President,” in which the liner notes seek to cement this relationship and this perception. Ritter writes the country’s character, specifically as a working and poor person genre is precisely what made it the music of Nixon’s “Silent Majority,” as he called it.
Not long after this, you have Nixon sort of making visits to and attending performances at the Grand Ole Opry and this has the effect of consolidating this diffuse or latent conservative strands within country. I find actually the case of Merle Haggard particularly informative. There’s a lot of debate, for example, the song “Okie from Muskogee” has a lot of debate around it. People are like, ‘Is it a conservative song? Is it a parody?’ It’s kind of both. It was written very tongue in cheek, when actually Haggard and his band were all on the tour bus getting high, you know, smoking dope, and they cross over into Muskogee and they’re saying, ‘I bet they don’t smoke weed in Muskogee’ all that. So there’s very much this tongue in cheek ambiguity underneath it but it becomes an anthem as conservative listeners adopted it as one and after that, not long after that, you have Haggard writing “The Fightin’ Side of Me,” which is a pro-war, pro-Vietnam War song, and performing it for Nixon at the White House. So sort of the definition of “Okie from Muskogee” gets kind of retroactively redefined and its ambiguity gets deliberately buried. And so because you have this political project happening, it becomes easier sort of through this twisted hindsight to redefine so many of the tropes that make up country as inherently conservative and there’s a problem there, which is that no artistic gesture is inherently one thing or the other. I think there’s another factor here that doesn’t get talked about as much and has very much to do with the process of delineating what country is and isn’t and that’s during the 1950s many of the quote “folk artists” who exhibited kind of the fluidity between what we understand as folk and what we understand as country, a lot of those same artists were blacklisted and isolated by the FBI, Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, Sis Cunningham, Leadbelly, they weren’t just looked at as “folk artists,” you know, Leadbelly was also a blues artist. Woody Guthrie, arguably was just as much a country artist as he was a folky. And those who survived this process of blacklisting, this process of isolating them away from sort of the American mainstream, you know, the ones were able to survive that, some of them named names to the House Un-American Activities Committee like Burl Ives, others like Seeger —
Nima: Yeah, like Pete Seeger’s, if you like, either listen to or read the transcript of him in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee it’s pretty remarkable that he’s basically like, ‘Go fuck yourself.’ (Chuckles.)
Alexander Billet: Yeah, no, he absolutely just goes down their throat and rightly so. He stuck to his guns and good on him for it, I mean, it’s part of the reason why Seeger was/is such a legend, but, you know, he was blacklisted and he had to sort of wait it out and reemerge some years later with the Weavers who play this relatively sanitized, narrower version of folk that lends itself to a distinct definition of folk as separate from country, as sort of these these two distinct entities that have fundamentally different values guiding them. So it’s not just the process of happenstance. To a degree there’s a confluence of factors that gets country labeled capital ‘C’ Conservative, but it’s ultimately a concerted process and it’s this process that continues through subsequent Republican presidencies, like George Bush Sr., he attends the Country Music Awards in 1991. He’s the first sitting president to do so. You have Toby Keith right after 9/11 just outing himself as just this, you know, virulent pro-war, just a hawk through and through and like unrepentant, repentantly so. He gets very much sort of protected meanwhile, the Dixie Chicks, or now I suppose they’re just the Chicks.
Nima: The Chicks. Right, exactly.
Alexander Billet: They changed the name and I don’t know how I feel about that, whether this is necessarily much better, but that’s a different question. (Laughs.)
Nima: Well, everything you’re saying, Alex, I think actually, you know, kind of leads to something that I want to ask you about, which is yeah, so Woody Guthrie’s guitar was the machine that killed fascism, right? Pete Seeger’s banjo surrounded hate and forced it to surrender and as you note in your writing, the sanitization of country music’s radical origins, is so much, as you’ve been saying, the same story of the sanitization of rural white radicalism, more broadly, this pedigree of unionism, and you know, itinerant anarchism of the IWW even just straight up communism and obviously, there’s always been a reactionary foundation to white settler colonialism. We don’t want to be too romantic about what we mean by turn of the century white Western quote-unquote “culture,” but can you talk a little bit about how the white rural labor and radicalism of that time and of the origins also of country music — as we’ve been saying, especially like Woody Guthrie, Lead Belly, Pete Seeger, et cetera — have really just fallen into a memory hole and maybe part of that has to do with like, yeah, then you’re like, well, this is folk over here, or this is Appalachian over here and country winds up being this thing that gets to be held up as a certain kind of political, that now is right-wing, completely divorced from, I think, origins that were expressly left-wing.
Alexander Billet: Absolutely. I think that’s just completely, again, it comes down to the political project. I mean, every political project like this has sort of a cultural logic to it also and it’s interesting how specifically when it comes from the right, or when it’s a top down political project, it does come with that eraser of history, right? It comes down with deliberately severing us from a political tradition and a lineage that is, as you said, is just a lot more complex, and can often very easily lend itself to radicalism. I think about Harry McClintock. Harry McClintock played cowboy country western music, he lived from about the 1880s, I believe, up through the late ’50s. He recorded mostly during the 1920s, he was a country western recording artist, he was also a Wobblie, he was a member of the Industrial Workers of the World, lifetime card carrying member, some credit him as the first person to perform Joe Hill’s “The Preacher and the Slave” in public and so many of his songs, if you listen to his best known songs are “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum,” and “The Big Rock Candy Mountain,” both of which have this wonderful, playful rejection of work, this very sort of organic politics of leisure. It’s very sort of like, it’s always sung when you hear it sung with this sort of impish smile behind it. These are right-to-be-lazy songs is probably the best way to think about them and I think you’re right that we don’t want to romanticize it too much, but I do think we want to look at sort of the way in which these politics of work, or these politics of the rejection of work more precisely, sit very uncomfortably with racial capitalism, in some ways, the settler colonialism that gives rise to it. And part of that, I think, is also you look at what say McClintock’s music, a lot of cowboy songs, a lot of the, you know, Delta Blues songs, a lot of this, the songs that come from this kind of early 20th-century constellation, where they’re all in conversation with each other. One of the things all of them have in common is this attempt to come to grips with work, with being exploited, with being hyper exploited. You hear it in country, folk, blues, gospel, spirituals, not only do they all sort of take a cue from one another, which has its own political charge because there is a crossing of racial boundaries with them, but they find that crossing of racial boundaries very frequently when they are trying to navigate questions of labor, of leisure, of exploitation, the relationship of criminality, in prisons, to labor and leisure and exploitation.
Nima: Well, right I mean, because didn’t all this stuff really start with songs about Billy the Kid?
Alexander Billet: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. Glorification. I mean, Woody Guthrie, his songs about Pretty Boy Floyd, all those outlaw songs about modern day Robin Hoods, of the Great Depression era, now again, you don’t want to romanticize that too much. I’m very skeptical about the degree to which some of those folks like Dillinger from the Public Enemy era were actually Robin Hoods, but there is something to it, right?
Adam: Yeah. It’s at least somewhat subversive, which I think leads to my next question, which is, fast forward to today, so there’s one of the things that we found fascinating, we listened to a lot of pop country in preparation for this, I am from Texas so I sort of grew up with it anyway, I kind of know a lot of it, I daresay I enjoy some of it, I have to self-cancel for that, there’s this sort of runaway anti-intellectualism to it that is not comparable to anything else I’ve seen outside of AM radio, where there’s a sort of glorification of simplicity, and overt hostility to intellectual pursuits but that kind of goes beyond just basic faith and family stuff, which I think is perfectly fine and it kind of descends into a kind of peacocking, or an advertising of one’s own incuriosity, and lyrics that are inherently hostile to academia, multiculturalism, anything that sort of seems like liberal, highfalutin. Now obviously, again, age-old question of cultural analysis of chicken and the egg, politics versus culture, which informs which, you’ve actually done, I think, a pretty good job laying out that in many ways, it is somewhat politically contrived, but there is a shift that happens where we go from romanticizing the “working man” as it were, to a sort of working man aesthetic. It’s almost like Mike Rowe. We did a whole episode on Mike Rowe, where it’s this sort of working man aesthetic, but it’s all just sort of a love letter to sort of petty bourgeois, right-wing, anti-labor consumerism. When did that sort of shift happen in your mind? I know it’s not a finite thing.
Nima: You mean from ‘I’ve Got To Know’ to ‘Buy Me A Boat?’
Adam: Yeah, but it’s again, it’s a sort of, a flouting of anti-intellectualism and inferred hostility to anything that may reek of anything beyond your sort of immediate consumer needs, is considered liberal and sort of anathema to kind of a country aesthetic. But in a more aggressive way.
Alexander Billet: I mean, I don’t know if there’s any one moment that you can say it starts to cross over, I do think that it goes hand in hand with the process that I mentioned earlier in the late ’60s and early ’70s. But again, because that was part of an agenda that had to do with smashing the left, smashing unions, which also took away physical space through which working people could share ideas, could engage in intellectual inquiry, and things like that. Alan Sears calls it sort of the infrastructures of dissent, that is really about the physical spaces that any kind of insurgent movement needs in order to flourish, in order for its ideas to gestate and evolve, and also for artistic creation to come about. You look at Woody Guthrie again, here’s a guy who was just a very prodigious writer, and also a voracious reader and there’s literally hundreds of notebooks by him in the archives.
Nima: And another “Okie from Muskogee.”
Alexander Billet: Exactly, yeah. Yeah, he’s a dude from Oklahoma, from the Dust Bowl. And these notebooks are filled, he had just an absolutely insatiable curiosity. There’s experiments of poetry, prose, song lyrics and I think a lot of that also has, he read Marx’s Capital from cover to cover, again, taking notes along the way. And I think a lot of that has to do with sort of, you can’t really credit any one thing for that curiosity but it’s worth asking whether he would have had such a breadth of creativity had he not come into the orbit of the Communist Party, which, you know, created the space in the form of workshops, fundraisers, gigs, and shows, space for experimentation. So when that gets smashed, during the turn towards neoliberalism in the 1970s, you literally have, I mean, I think anti-intellectualism sort of necessarily follows from that, because there’s also an assault on whenever you have those attacks on the left, you also have assault on educational and cultural institutions of the working class generally, not just among the left, not just among unions, you know, you have attacks on art education in schools, education generally. So I think this kind of knee jerk anti-intellectualism, of course, it’s going to just sort of organically come from that if you ask me, you know, this doesn’t have to do with necessarily just with country music, but it does run parallel to how all those sort of, like Adam, you were talking about, it’s sort of, I think, in some ways the sort of signifiers around country music start to get emptied of any meaning, and reinjected with new meaning, you know, like cold beer. pickup trucks, all the rest, show up in just about every single song and it’s very much part of the process with which working class actually gets subsumed under, it presents itself as working class but in its actual content, in the actual social relation it represents, it’s very much middle class.
Adam: Yeah, that’s the thing because I mean, I grew up in Texas, in San Antonio, and you had the sort of suburban cowboy which was very common, sort of reasonably McMansion, probably made about $150k a year, $200k a year, definitely not poor, not even really middle class, but they’d have the affect because that’s sort of, you know, maybe what their fathers did, or it’s associated with a certain culture and that’s the maybe the question, right? It’s like with Italian immigrants, it’s like, you know, they’re all anarchists and, and there’s this huge left-wing pedigree, and they were being even discriminated against, because everyone assumed they’re anarchists, and then they all became Republican shitheads and cops, it’s like, is it just that white people got too much fucking money and then they sold out? Or is that like, you know, maybe that’s a bit reductionist, but there was this sort of, again, you move to an affect, it goes from a sort of legitimate working culture and that’s not to say, of course, that there aren’t working-class white people who, you know, obviously, there is, you know, people who work at, you know, retail jobs or work as auto mechanics who aren’t rich by any means. So maybe that doesn’t totally explain it but it does become entirely about a certain affect of working class.
Alexander Billet: Absolutely, absolutely.
Adam: Which if it’s about drinking beer and watching football, I don’t necessarily mind it. I think those things are kind of apolitical, it veers into hostility to liberalism, and multiculturalism, which is to say, the kind of anti-blackness and a sort of embrace of the suburbs.
Alexander Billet: Yeah, I do think that there is absolutely a question of whiteness, and white settler colonialism, what racial capitalism is able to, how it’s able to shape the experience of whiteness, the way into something unique and distinct from the experience of blackness or being an immigrant, or being brown, things like that.
Adam: Yeah, because it’s a proxy for white culture, if you will.
Alexander Billet: Exactly and the interesting thing is sort of it’s even in the stereotype of when you say “working class” how many people the first thing, the first person that pops into their head is a white dude, who’s probably wearing overalls and that was never actually the complexion of most of the working class in the United States. And so I think when you do that, then it becomes very easy to turn, as you said, Adam, working class into an affect and when you can do that, then it becomes sort of, it can run interception for a very upper middle class or upper class agenda. The idea of you look at some of these people who I think it’s very much sort of parallel with some of these folks who were storming state capitals back in the spring and these anti-lockdown protests. They were talking about, ‘We want to put America back to work.’ Well, no, you don’t, you want to play golf again.
Nima: You want other people to go back to work so that —
Alexander Billet: Yeah. You want other people to go back to work.
Nima: For you.
Alexander Billet: So hard-working gets folded into or made synonymous with those who have more.
Adam: Yeah, it’s Mike Rowe-ism. Right. It’s sort of an affect.
Alexander Billet: It’s Mike Rowe-ism. And I think the, the incuriosity, the anti-intellectualism, this goes to show the anti-intellectualism and incuriosity I think when when social movements intervene in events, they often get exposed as being incurious or anti-intellectual isn’t just something that happens on its own. It’s primarily a question of ideology, and the ideology that emerges out of that and when social movements expose that as such, you have these really amazing contradictions come out. I mean, the fact that there are country music fans willing to write off Dolly Parton right now, who is one of the most universally loved and respected, she’s practically synonymous with country music. I don’t think that’s an exaggeration to say that, I mean, when you think of country music, she’s probably one of the first five artists that pop into most people’s heads and the fact that people are willing to write her off, because she spoken in support of Black Lives Matter to make her into, quote, “not real country,” I mean, that’s a stretch and it really says about sort of how thin this anti-intellectualism is, which isn’t surprising and yet, intellectualism is not internally coherent, right? It never is.
Adam: I’m not totally sure how much intellectual or rather how much genetic material was even left of Dolly Parton in contemporary music without necessarily getting into the weeds of the aesthetics of it.
Alexander Billet: No, yeah, yeah.
Adam: When I get off the plane in San Antonio, there is someone who greets you with the introduction area, there’s a little introduction area. Now San Antonio is 65 percent Hispanic, it’s less than 25 percent white and every single time that person who greets you as sort of the official San Antonio mascot, it’s an old white haired person with a cowboy hat.
Alexander Billet: Oh, yeah.
Adam: You will never ever, ever, ever see — please correct me if I’m wrong people in San Antonio, I travel there a lot — you never see a Latino ever in that position. It is the official mascot and the sign says ‘Howdy y’all! Welcome to Texas,” right? And it’s like this sort of assertion of whiteness that is completely incongruent with San Antonio. Now, that’s not to say there are parts of —
Nima: Except for the Alamo.
Adam: Well, the Alamo is a love letter to white settler colonialism. It’s a separate topic. But like it’s almost like the sort of cowboy aesthetic that it becomes a sort of assertion of white identity and doesn’t actually have much else there. It’s kind of just a cultural signifier of saying, it’s basically socially acceptable white pride, for lack of a better term.
Alexander Billet: Never mind the fact that a huge percentage of cowboys, the people who actually, you know, whose job it was to drive the cattle, a huge percentage of them were Chicano, Latino.
Adam: Right. Yeah. The rancheros are very common and half the cowboy hats in San Antonio are worn by rancheros, it’s a common thing. It’s North Mexico. So I’d be remiss if we sort of didn’t note, I think, what we sort of view as the kind of failures of liberal institutions here. Now, obviously, there’s racist backlash to civil rights. I think that’s the primary animating factor, but one of the things that our previous guest Thomas Frank noted on Episode 42 on populism was that sort of beginning in the ’70s and ’80s, the liberal political institutions were basically taken over by consultants, lawyers and kind of media hanger ons that had very little, if not zero, attachment to organized labor. Now, obviously, this coincided with the reduction of labor more broadly separate from that, but this was largely a kind of bipartisan purging of labor from the ranks with the new Democrats, Clinton, et cetera and reflected in the kind of go-to Bush insult in the ’90s, which was sort of he’s a dumbass, he’s sort of a religious nut, there was a kind of cultural elitism that became a proxy for politics that I think kind of seeded maybe some of the white working class votes in a way that was maybe good for the consulting class, but not necessarily good for the Democratic Party in the long term. And again, I do not want to underestimate the value or the import of racism in this, but I do think there’s a deliberate effort to kind of make it more of a business party. To what extent do you think the sort of concession of white labor, as it were, by the Democrats to the Republicans because of things like racism, but also things like kind of cultural signifiers, do you think that kind of plays into this rightward shift of country music?
Alexander Billet: Oh, absolutely and I would go even further, I’d say that it’s not just that the Democrats abandoned their base, it’s what did they abandon it for? They made themselves central to the neoliberal project, Clinton and Obama both have been very key players and architects in neoliberal reforms, welfare reform, in particular ending welfare as we know it, that was Bill Clinton’s project. At the same time, I think it’s interesting that if we look at white working class support for Republicans, this gets back to what we were just talking about, I always tend to take it with a grain of salt when pundits talk in those terms, because I think a lot of the times they are defining working class in very much sort of the terms that we were just talking about, in cultural terms, rather than in terms of social power in social relations. A person isn’t working class just because they dress in camo or own a rifle or go hunting or things like that but a lot of the time that can be used as a way to sort of obfuscate the actual social relations of it. But nonetheless, yes, the way in which the Democrats have abandoned their base, have sort of allowed the sort of the remnants of the New Deal coalition to go down the tubes, not only turning their back on the new left, but going after the new left. Again, you route this in that same turn, the neoliberal turn, in the late ’60s and early ’70s. I think there’s no question that Democrats have played a very detrimental role in getting us to where we are right now just generally, and I think that shows in the way that country music is talked about.
Nima: I’d love to talk about maybe some of the ways that those of us who don’t actually listen to much country music, at least contemporary country music, like say, myself, are also missing what else is going on there, and to be less vague than that, there are exceptions to this kind of Garth Brooks-ification of country music. So for example, an African American country star Mickey Guyton, who is not necessarily a newcomer, I think signed to a popular Nashville label a decade ago, recently had a Black Lives Matter anthem of sorts called “Black Like Me” that has gotten pretty decent airtime on pop country stations. So do you think, Alex, is this just a post-George Floyd anomaly, this moment, you know, that station directors and DJs are like, ‘Well, yeah, I guess I guess we’re doing this too,’ and record labels are pushing it to be sort of faux woke or does it maybe say something about an untapped market for more different kind of political content that we may see more of in the future or that, you know, changes the way that we perceive, we can perceive what country music is currently, and maybe in the future?
Alexander Billet: I think there absolutely is room for that. I don’t think it’s an anomaly per se, or at least as much of one as we might otherwise think. There have always been anti-racist country artists, there have always been non white country artists that aren’t Charley Pride, who I think can be sort of tokenized in these types of conversations. But yeah, you have Mickey Guyton, you have Kane Brown, you have Brittany Howard and the Alabama Shakes, who I’m a big fan of. They’ve always been there. But also I want to be very clear about this, the fact that “Black Like Me” got so much airplay is absolutely impressive and very significant. I don’t think we can understate that. So while I don’t think it’s an anomaly per se, it does represent the way in which things are breaking and the way in which things are opening and that’s everything to do with the massive sea change that’s taking place in the United States because of Black Lives Matter. At the same time, I worry about how the legacies of commodity and segregation are going to play out as things continue to develop and evolve. I’m not necessarily talking about right-wing artists pushing back, I think it’s always going to be the case, I’m more talking about how, say record labels or more opportunistic artists might seek out to sort of cynically take advantage of this, like I’m thinking in particular about this whole Lady Antebellum fall out. I mean, first of all, just to say there’s nothing about the whole saga that didn’t make me just angry as hell, just absolutely fuming. You have this Grammy-winning country trio called Lady Antebellum, which is problematic enough right out of the gate, right? You’re naming your band after the slavery, the glorification of the slavery era in the South. So sort of following the lead actually of many acts who decided to take out problematic parts of their act name, anything that had might have a potential connotation of racism, of the legacy of slavery, or say, ‘we’re going to act in solidarity, or we’re just going to, you know, sort of realize that the times are changing, and we’re going to change our name.’ This is what the Dixie Chicks did or now The Chicks like I said, and I think their motivations behind it were pretty sincere. Lady Antebellum, what they did, they said they were going to change their name from Lady Antebellum to just Lady A.
Nima: Lady A.
Alexander Billet: Yeah. And so first of all, that just comes across as a little lazy from the outset but also what makes it especially lazy as they didn’t look into the fact that there was a black blues artist who’s been performing under the name Lady A for decades, not only did they not look into that, when they found out about it, they tried to sue her, to sue her to use her name, so that they could use her name. I mean it basically says to me that they never cared about black lives, or black artists, they cared about optics. That’s what my opinion is on all of this. That’s what my analysis is on this, they cared about optics, which is one of the reasons I’m sort of wary of framing this in terms of sort of a market for political content, like social space. Yes, it’s absolutely there and it absolutely needs to be grown and fostered and nurtured but whenever you start to view an art form or anything, really, as both of you guys know, whenever you start to view anything as a commodity, then I would argue you cut it off from sort of the lion’s share of its possibility. The case of Lady Antebellum absolutely sort of points in that direction. It’s very sort of, it’s commodified wokeness without a doubt, and I think it’s exposed the way in which the record industry really never looks at these types of movements and these types of moments when things start to sea change, it never looks at them with sincerity, you know, it always looks at them in terms of a ways, now, that’s not to say there aren’t artists out there who are trying to reckon with and reflect on what this new moment means for their music. I think there can be amazing music that comes out of this and sort of new, even new constellations and configurations of what might country be. Let’s not forget that during the height of the protests after George Floyd, there were large protests also in very small rural towns.
Adam: Yes there was.
Alexander Billet: Yeah, in many cases, primarily carried out by crowds were like 99 percent white. This is an amazing thing and I think it’s very easy to forget about that, given that things have gone in a very sour direction right now post Kyle Rittenhouse and post-Kenosha and with Trump just really, really ratcheting up the racism but that doesn’t take away from the fact that there is a sea change in consciousness happening right now and it makes you wonder how many of these people in these small towns if they’re country fans, and many of them, I would reckon are, how many of them are also using this opportunity to go back and look at the history of the young patriots organization in the 1960s? You know white, rural kids, white young people from Appalachia who moved to big cities like Chicago, and ended up, because they’re being harassed by the cops and being pushed into substandard housing, they end up allying themselves as proud hillbillies, if you will, with the Black Panthers, with the Brown Berets, with the Young Lords that they were part of the initial Rainbow Coalition that Fred Hampton put together. What is it going to take to revive this history or uncover and really remind people of this history of rural radicalism? It may not be that far away. It really may not. And what does that mean for arts and culture? What does that mean for country music? Hard to tell.
Adam: To what extent is it maybe just a category error? To what extent is it just everything that’s mediocre corporate, right-wing schlock is country and then anything that isn’t that we just define as something else? I mean, are we sort of maybe doing a little bit of, you know, when you’re a kid, and you act like you eat your vegetables, you just sort of move them around to make it look like, to what extent are we just sort of displacing definitions here and then really, it’s an ontological question, or do you think there really is a sort of static country idea that’s been moved right?
Alexander Billet: No, I don’t think it’s static, I think that whenever you start talking about musical genres, you are by definition trying to make the imprecise precise and that comes with a sort of a natural amount of guesswork. So, you know, you use the best term you have, until a better one comes along, right? But yes, these borders of country music, ultimately have always been porous. There have always been, it’s not just Dolly Parton who undermines this notion of capital ‘C’ Conservative country, it’s some other a lot of very, very influential and seminal fundamental artists to the genre have undermined that conservative notion.
Adam: Let’s say I’m an upcoming country artist, I’m in Nashville.
Alexander Billet: Okay.
Adam: And I have this pop song that’s about how much I dislike my boss, and how much I like having worker solidarity with my black colleagues who work at Walmart. And let’s just say it’s a banger, it’s just the hokiest fucking song you’ve ever heard. Would that song get anywhere?
Alexander Billet: Yeah, sure. I mean, the question is, I don’t see any reason why it couldn’t go anywhere. The question really then becomes who’s going to step in and say, ‘No, it’s not. No, it’s not going to.’ And I think you’ll find a lot of those gatekeepers, a lot of those people.
Adam: Yeah, that’s kind of what I, yeah, I feel like there’s a sort of, oh, people wouldn’t like that.
Nima: Right. It’s the labels and it’s the A&R, and it’s the DJs. Right?
Alexander Billet: Absolutely and I think these are also the same people, these gatekeepers, record label executives really, who also have something to gain from this idea of this will succeed, this will excel, these loans, and also this effort to build this kind of fence around what constitutes real country music or not. I mean, we just lost, back in April, we lost John Prine.
Alexander Billet: Who, in my estimation, was one of the greatest songwriters in country music history. More recently, just a few weeks ago, we lost Justin Townes Earle, son of Steve Earle, who’s, you know, Steve Earle is without a doubt a comrade, probably the best known socialist in contemporary country and you see this thing come back with both Prine and the older and younger Earle about saying, yeah, they’re country, but they’re not really country. Says who?
Nima: Definitely not racist enough to be really country. That’s all that means, right?
Alexander Billet: Yeah, it’s like, who made the rules? More importantly, who benefits from these being the rules? It’s not the artists. It’s not the fans. It really just benefits the same people who benefit from segregation generally, or inequality generally. There’s always a danger of being a little bit too Manichean and saying one equals the other but I think in the case of segregation in the music industry, it absolutely is rooted in the long history in America of political and social and economic segregation. There’s no doubt about that. And the thing that’s tragic, songwriters like Prine, or Justin Townes Earle or Steve Earle, they have had this really amazing talent of sort of sitting with the very ambiguous parts of human life. Those parts of human life that you aren’t really quite sure if words give full volume to and can only be explored through the gentleness of a guitar riff or the expansive space that will be created when you have a full band behind you. They were really, really masterful at looking at the places where the limits to our freedom start to force us to raise more existential questions. So really, we’re not just talking about political diversity within country, we’re talking about the musical diversity within country too. I mean, you know, I grew up punk rock and so a lot of my first exposure to country music that I actually gave a damn about, you know, there wasn’t the Garth Brooks suburban cowboy bullshit. It was through acts like the Mekons or Hank Williams III, the whole sort of gothic country sub genre like Slim Cessna’s Auto Club or Those Poor Bastards. They are hybridic genres but why does being hybridic, why does that make it any less pure country? This sort of notion that country’s purity is something that can be diluted, again, I think it takes on these very, very troubling racial overtones, when you start to think about it in a particular light, in the light that we’ve sort of laid out, of a political project.
Nima: Well, especially because the purity that is assumed is something that’s so much more recent than how it started, right? So it got pure when it got mainstream and white. That’s now purity and so everything before it can be dismissed and everything after it can be seen as diluting even though that is manufactured in itself, because it has no relation actually, to what actually the origin of that genre is.
Alexander Billet: I take it in a slightly different light. I think you’re right, Nima, but there’s also a way in which all of the evolution up until this point in country music was valid. Any evolution past this point is invalid. And so it’s the difference between looking at music as an intervention into history and history that is still unfolding and looking at music as just a piece in a museum under airtight glass, that somehow this type of music is the most pure way to do it, that this way of doing it is this genre’s pinnacle.
Adam: Because it doesn’t seem like it has aesthetically changed much in the pop, right? Which again, you want to be careful not to do the whole, you know, ‘I don’t understand something, therefore, it all sounds the same,’ because that’s what sort of everyone says about things they don’t know about.
Nima: With the hipping and the hopping. (Chuckles.)
Adam: All the hip hop sounds the same, all jazz sounds the same, but like it does seem like there’s a drastic lack of innovation from a superficial layman perspective that I think may stem from the fact that it’s a political project as much as it’s a creative one, which necessarily stifles creativity.
Alexander Billet: Yeah, I think that’s that’s absolutely true too. I mean, one of the most interesting things to happen in country music recently, that brought all of these questions to the surface was a Lil Nas X, you know, “Old Town Road.” That’s a really good song. But again, all of these questions like, ‘Oh, this is hip-hop country, which means it’s not real country.’ And, again, raising all of these types of questions about what is pure country, what is, and but also, that’s innovation, you’re doing something that hasn’t been done before with genre, and I’m sorry, I refuse to count the LL Cool J, Brad Paisley song from several years ago, that was just an absolute embarrassment. I refuse to admit that as —
Adam: Oh, I thought, yeah, I remember that was the sort of like, ‘Why can’t we all just get along’ like Fox News?
Alexander Billet: Yeah, it was just, I am sorry. If anything, that set back the relationship between hip-hop and country if you ask me.
Adam: Yeah, that was an abomination.
Alexander Billet: Yeah. So, I do think that when you start to open up the political room for more diverse content to come in, then you open up other doors for other conventions to be questioned about what constitutes country music, what constitutes good country music, or real country music, all of those types of things, those who say that, you know, that it sort of dilutes the purity, I mean, really, it’s very much a knee jerk kind of defense and it’s a defense of material interest. It’s a defense of a formula that has made a lot of people very rich.
Nima: This has been great. Before we let you go though, Alex, we’d love to hear what you are up to these days. What can we look forward to that you have going on? Let’s move that needle there.
Alexander Billet: Sure. Sure. Sure. So yeah, I am currently working on a book on the subject of the role of music and urban rebellion. So I’m working on that, shopping it around, seeing where that goes, it will be coming out, however, also Locust Review, the socialist arts publication that I’m on the editorial board of, is going to be launching a podcast coming up soon that’s on the subject of the radical weird in art and artistic expression. So that’s going to be coming out soon. I have several articles that are going to be coming out in Jacobin soon. I’m going to have some articles coming out in the Common Reader out of St. Louis, Salvage out of Britain, and much more.
Nima: Well, that is all amazing. We’ve been speaking with Alexander Billet, writer, artist, and cultural critic from the fair city of Los Angeles, editor at Locust Review, frequent contributor to Jacobin and many other publications. You can follow Alex on Twitter @UbuPamplemousse and check out his writing at AlexanderBillet.com. Alex, it has been fantastic speaking with you today on Citations Needed.
Alexander Billet: Of course, it’s been an absolute pleasure. Thank you so much for having me once again.
Adam: Yeah, I think the most interesting aspect of it is that there’s this constant nostalgia, this constant appeal to more simple times, that it’s kind of two things, right? It’s one bad, one sort of benign or kind of not as bad. The bad part is obviously these kinds of simplistic nostalgic appeals are a reference to some time in which white people were dominant, right? Or that white culture was dominant and that we sort of missed those glory days. The kind of more benign read of it is also like, life expectancy amongst white people in a lot of these places is down quite a bit. You have the opioid epidemic, there’s a reason why that kind of simplicity would be fetishized or valued and then you have the idea of the provincial valuing the provincial and taking pride in the small town and the sort of lack of complexity or the kind of simplicity. On the one hand, you can understand that, you know, there are people who can’t afford to leave, are never going to be able to leave or don’t have the luxury of becoming smug liberal podcasters in New York, and then on the other hand, you have from a top-down perspective it’s quite sinister, because it’s basically saying, ‘Be happy with your lot in life. Don’t ask questions, don’t unionize, don’t agitate. Don’t think beyond the kind of scope that you’ve been given.’ And this is one of the tensions within country music where I feel like there is an incentive to always promote that. There’s market incentives, cultural incentives, to reemphasize the more reactionary and less kind of romantic elements of that mentality, that this is not a product necessarily of purely organic happenstance or organic needs, but is in fact something that’s part of the DNA of the business model, which again, is very aligned with conservative interests.
Nima: Well, right because it also sells consistently the idea of rugged individualism, there’s very little collectivity, except for maybe, you know, in a song like Brad Paisley’s “No I In Beer,” where it’s like drinking is a team sport and we should all do that together but beyond that, there’s no class solidarity. For all the working man tropes, there’s no pro-working class messaging. It’s not about, as you said Adam, like there’s no pro-union kind of force throughout this music, which, when we look back at the earlier areas of this kind of music, of where it came from, whether it’s Johnny Cash, whether it’s Woody Guthrie, whether it’s Harry McClintock, all of that was there to begin with that the kind of working class music, folk music that led to this, led to this Nashville sound eventually is just not there. It’s completely bereft of what it came from and I think deliberately so.
Adam: Yeah, I think so. And I guess that raises the question of like, how do you invent or how do you reinvent a genre which is by its very nature about kind of white traditional cultures’ relationship with the other, that it’s maybe by definition always going to be conservative because that’s what it is.
Nima: Right. Or you just get the song “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley and LL Cool J.
Adam: Which we cannot play, this episode’s way too long, we do not have time to play it.
Nima: But do us a favor, don’t ever listen to that song, because holy shit. (Laughs.)
Adam: We were going to play it, I want it noted for the record those who remember the 2013 controversy around “Accidental Racist,” that we were very tempted to play it and dunk on it, but we decided it was a bit of a straw man because it is kind of an outlier but if you really want a good laugh, listen to it. It’s a fucking train wreck, especially in light of recent events. Generally speaking, Brad Paisley, do not try to write social justice songs.
Nima: Yeah, and that really is, I guess, the lesson of this episode but that will do it for this time around on Citations Needed. Thank you, everyone, for listening. As always, of course, you can follow the show on Twitter @CitationsPod, Facebook Citations Needed, become a supporter of our work through Patreon.com/CitationsNeededPodcast with Nima Shirazi and Adam Johnson. And of course, an extra special shout-out goes to our critical level supporters on Patreon. I am Nima Shirazi.
Adam: I’m Adam Johnson.
Nima: Citations Needed is produced by Florence Barrau-Adams. Associate producer is Julianne Tveten. Production assistant is Trendel Lightburn. Newsletter by Marco Cartolano. Transcriptions are by Morgan McAslan. Music is by Grandaddy. Thanks again, everyone, for listening. We’ll catch you next time.
This episode of Citations Needed was released on Wednesday, September 23, 2020.
Transcription by Morgan McAslan.