NOVEMBER 1, 2018
THE MOST DRAMATIC MOMENT of the 2016 Republican National Convention came seconds before the country singer Chris Janson was scheduled to perform. Janson, a new artist from southern Missouri, had the unenviable task of following Ted Cruz, who had just made Janson’s job even more difficult by refusing to offer an explicit endorsement of primary winner Donald Trump. The arena was stirring, and at first, Janson’s music added to the confusion: “Got Lil’ Wayne pumpin’ on my iPod / Pumpin’ on the subs in the back of my crew cab.” It was the first line of “Truck Yeah” by Nashville Democrat Tim McGraw, except that when Janson reached the chorus, he began to substitute every appearance of the word “Truck” with the name “Trump.” Trump, yeah! The strange, rap-rock ode to country music and four-wheel drive had become an even stranger jock-jam dedicated to the man who would soon become president. Convention saved.
Today, the connection between country music and conservatism is considered common sense, a rare point of agreement between the boosters inside Trump’s convention and the protesters outside of it. Yet country music has never been quite so monolithic, either politically or musically. The genre has been elastic enough to soundtrack the lives of both striking miners in Appalachia and the Klansmen who sought to terrorize them. And today, Nashville’s politics — both behind the scenes and on the radio — remain in the shadow of the Dixie Chicks’ protest against George W. Bush and the invasion of Iraq. The Honky Tonk on the Left, a new collection of essays published by the University of Massachusetts Press, charts a full century of such “progressive” moments in country music history, from the Great Depression to the Great Recession. While it’s unclear if any of the contributing professors have earned what country singer Aaron Tippin has called the “Working Man’s Ph.D.,” their essays “pull their weight” by adding a necessary perspective on the country tradition all the same.
Mark Allan Jackson, the book’s editor, explains the need for such a collection in his introduction. “For too long,” he writes, “the conservative end of country music’s political spectrum has gotten the lion’s share of the ink, leaving the progressive spirit in country underrepresented in general or ignored completely in some cases.” (For him, the word progressive means “the correction of social injustice” and “the push for fair change.”)
The Honky Tonk on the Left succeeds where earlier books on the subject come up short, exploring how country has related to, even become entangled with, things like queerness and utopian socialism. It’s filled with deep research and great, forgotten songs. And yet, despite these successes, the book does not totally escape the more binary “Rednecks and Bluenecks” framework popularized by the writer Chris Willman. Jackson’s emphasis on “progressive” country occasionally leads contributors toward the taxonomic black hole that once engulfed Willman. Isolating “progressive” moments in country history does provide for an interesting counternarrative, but it can also lead to simplifications, particularly when writers value the integrity of the category over the complexities — or messy contradictions — of the music and its history.
This is the case from the start. The book’s story begins in the early 1930s, with a chapter that charts country’s relationship to the New Deal. The author, Gregory N. Reish, produces an impressive list of songs, including the Light Crust Doughboys’ “On to Victory, Mr. Roosevelt,” the Allen Brothers’ “New Deal Blues,” Milton Brown’s “Fall in Line with the NRA” (the title referring not to the National Rifle Association but to the National Recovery Act). Then there’s Fiddlin’ John Carson’s “The Farmer Is the Man Who Feeds Them All” and “The Honest Farmer,” which was rerecorded in 1934 with a new chorus voicing support for the aforementioned Mr. Roosevelt. This edit would put the tunes under the left’s jurisdiction, but Carson’s biography complicates the issue: two years earlier, Carson had campaigned for the segregationist governor Eugene Talmadge, and soon after, he would be rewarded a sinecure to run the elevator in the Georgia state house.
One approach would be to decouple, at least partially, the song from the singer — to suggest that the record opened possibilities that exceed the wretchedness of Carson’s commitments. The singer Bobby Bare did something like this when he recorded a new version of “The Farmer Is the Man Who Feeds Them All” (rewritten by Ry Cooder) on Hard Time Hungrys, a remarkable 1975 LP that weaves songs about working people with brief interviews that Bare conducted with working people themselves.
Reish, instead, tries to have it both ways, attempting to resolve the contradiction between song and singer by periodizing Carson’s career into an early stage of “New Deal progressivism” and a later stage of “hard-line conservatism.” Yet Carson’s early career is just as messy. Consider his actions in 1914: Carson began the year as an employee of the Fulton Bag and Cotton Mills, and that spring he joined his fellow workers in a strike that cost them not just their income but their company-owned homes. He used music to support his family during the action — clearly a point for the left-leaning interpretation of Carson’s story. However, Carson’s most popular originals that year were topical songs like “Little Mary Phagan,” a record that contributed to the antisemitic furor building against Leo Frank, a factory superintendent falsely accused of — and later lynched for — the murder of the 13-year-old girl named in Carson’s title.
Carson would join the revived Ku Klux Klan about a decade later, around the same time he recorded his first versions of “The Honest Farmer” and “The Farmer is the Man Who Feeds Them All,” a song that Jackson also cites favorably in Honky Tonk on the Left’s introduction. He regularly performed at Klan functions and Klan-sponsored fiddle contests. And yet, strangest of all, this didn’t stop him from performing, in 1933, at an integrated rally in support of the black communist organizer Angelo Herndon, who had been found guilty of “attempting to incite an insurrection against the state of Georgia.” The event was sponsored by the International Labor Defense, the Popular Front legal organization most famous for defending the Scottsboro Boys. It was even written up in the Daily Worker, where Carson was described as “a famous white Georgia mountain fiddler.”
When I try to imagine this scenario 85 years later, I imagine Carson at the center of the recent “record scratch, freeze frame” meme. But how did he end up there? How could a fiddler associated with the anti-black, anticommunist Ku Klux Klan come to play a benefit for one of most famous black communists in the South? And how did country music, or what was then called hillbilly music, function politically in this space? These questions can’t be answered by tallying Carson’s “progressive” points and disavowing the rest, and the answers may not fit cleanly into the narrative of a left-wing country counter-history. Nevertheless, I suspect that they would give us a richer picture of how country — the musical backdrop of both ILD rallies and KKK fiddle contests — fit into the political landscape of the Depression-era South.
Honky Tonk’s second chapter, written by Peter La Chapelle, moves in this direction, resurrecting the story of Glen H. Taylor, a cowboy singer from Oregon who advocated utopian socialism inspired by King Camp Gillette and campaigned for senator riding on horseback, trailed by a Western band. La Chapelle’s most exciting source is a panicked opinion piece from the syndicated columnist Marquis Childs. For Childs, writing in the late 1940s, Taylor’s country roots and socialist politics were inextricably linked. Taylor, he claimed, was “a type not uncommon in the west,” a place where the “soulless Interests in Wall Street” were regularly denounced.
Taylor continued to denounce the soulless Wall Street Interests when he campaigned for vice presidency as Henry Wallace’s running mate on the Progressive Party ticket in 1948. The combination of country roots and socialist politics remained potent, but nevertheless Wallace was trounced. The duo earned only 2.37 percent of the vote, losing not just to the major party candidates Harry Truman and Dewey but to the third-party Dixiecrat Strom Thurmond.
This defeat would reshape the left — and in his book The Cultural Front, historian Michael Denning uses it to mark the end of the Popular Front. It would have similar, though subtler, ramifications on the development of country music. In the context of genre’s long arc, Wallace’s campaign promised not just a socialist cowboy singer in White House but the reunification of the splitting traditions of “country” and “folk.” People’s Songs, an organization founded by a group that included Pete Seeger and Alan Lomax, had been hired to provide music on the campaign trail, and a Life magazine photojournalist even captured Taylor and Seeger singing together at an event organized by the CIO.
For Denning, the 1948 election was a key defeat in a larger, longer battle of ideas: Wallace’s internationalist “Century of the Common Man” losing to Time editor Henry Luce’s imperialist notion of the “American Century.” This opposition — working-class solidarity versus reactionary nationalism — would shape the politics of country music for the rest of the century. Some artists, like Stoney Edwards, whose “Poor Folks Stick Together” Nadine Hubbs cites later in The Honky Tonk on the Left, and Steve Young, the subject of an entire chapter, have firmly picked sides. More often, singers go back and forth, or even try to reconcile the two positions into some sort of false unity.
Throughout the The Honky Tonk on the Left the authors emphasize that country doesn’t just mirror the political shifts and discourses that happen outside the genre. The music can be a site where those politics are contested and developed. Whereas earlier chapters, discussed above, connect music to elections and popular movements, the ones that follow tend to look elsewhere, examining things like coded messages in country’s lyrics, the genre’s connection to subaltern communities, and the music’s capacity to create spaces where alternative practices and ways of thinking may develop.
This effort begins, ironically, with an essay on Webb Pierce, the country singer who gave Nashville its first push toward the another Wallace: George, that is, the segregationist Alabama governor. The chapter focuses not on Pierce’s endorsements but instead on his singing voice, a tenor that, in the words of author Stephanie Vander Wel, “rendered dramatic and weeping tales of heartache to the wail of the electric steel guitar and later to the pedal steel guitar, reshaping the masculine pathos of loss and desire.” Vander Wel’s claim that Pierce presented “Southern blue-collar masculinity as a dazzling spectacle” can be confirmed by anyone who has seen the singer’s “Silver Dollar Convertible” — a 1962 Pontiac Bonneville lined with 1,000 silver dollars — on display at the Country Hall of Fame. The car, like Pierce’s famous “Nudie suits,” were designed by Jewish tailor Nudie Cohn, who dressed male country singers in the style of “flashy looking women” and believed “every man has an aspect of woman in his personality that he longs to be expressed.” For Vander Wel, Pierce’s weeping belongs to a queer country tradition that includes both the “womanless weddings” popular in the 19th century and the scene in the 1935 Western film Tumbling Tumbleweeds, where two men accuse Gene Autry of being a “lavender cowboy.”
Nadine Hubbs, in her contribution to The Honky Tonk on the Left, takes this story into the 1970s with an essay on country songs that conjure an “expansive alliance of white working-class people with members of multiple marginalized groups — African Americans, Mexican Americans, and the incarcerated, as well as queers.” For the latter, she returns to David Allan Coe’s “Fuck Aneta Bryant,” a self-released cut Hubbs previously examined in her book Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music (2014). “Fuck Aneta Bryant” condemns conservative activist Anita Bryant and praises “them god-damn homosexuals,” particularly those the singer has met in jail. (According to Coe, homosexuals will do everything from play chess with you to “help you drain your hose”).
Widening the scope of progressivism to include artists like Coe results in revealing insights — but also a kind of scholarly myopia. Hubbs, for example, uses such songs to argue that radical, working-class solidarity wasn’t abandoned when much of mainstream country moved right in the ’50s and ’60s. Rather, that solidarity went underground, remaining alive — even essential for survival — in places like prisons, lesbian bars, and truck stops. This is an important argument, backed by some great songs. Still, as much as I enjoyed Hubbs’s detailed dissection of this one David Allan Coe tune, I also found myself wondering how her “expansive alliance” would change if she reckoned with some of Coe’s other recorded work. Coe’s underground, self-released albums include the song “Rails,” which advocates segregation, the Ku Klux Klan, and lynching blacks. Another track, with a title not worth printing, describes wanting to throw up at the thought of interracial sex.
“Rails” has made Coe a favorite of white nationalists, listeners who associate Coe less with gay liberation than with the Louisiana Klansman Johnny Rebel, a singer whose own underground country records were sold in the same magazines as Coe’s and included titles like For Segregationists Only and Klassic Klan Kompositions. Their audiences overlap so much that David Allan Coe, on his official website, promotes a third-party store where fans can buy a box set that combines the “best” of both artists.
The essays in Honky Tonk on the Left are mostly complementary, covering different periods and often different approaches. When they disagree, they tend to do so on the question of audience. Who constitutes the country audience, and how do their politics relate to the politics of the music?
For Hubbs, progressive country reveals the progressivism native to its audience but ignored by the middle class. Stephanie Shonekan, who contributes an enthusiastic piece on Garth Brooks, goes in the other direction. For Shonekan, Brooks qualifies as “left” because the country audience is so reactionary that lyrics like “People loving people / that’s the enemy of everything that’s evil” make him a “radical revolutionary” and “provocateur extraordinaire.” “What separates Brooks from other country music artists,” writes Shonekan, “is that he has also successfully flirted with progressive ideology, which certainly could have put him at odds with the undeniably conservative majority country music audience.”
In truth, “People Loving People,” doesn’t say much, but its way of not saying much has proved influential. This sort of love-each-other, we-are-all-one plea has become Nashville’s primary way of engaging with the Trump-era world. Since Trump announced that he would run for president, country stars like Little Big Town, Luke Bryan, Carrie Underwood, and Kenny Chesney have all released similarly apolitical singles. The message is consistent: “Don’t judge or hold a grudge, don’t criticize” (Little Big Town); don’t “pick a side” (Underwood); and just “get along” with one another (Chesney); because, in the end, “most people are good” (Bryan); and “love wins” (Underwood).
Though too recent to make The Honky Tonk on the Left, these songs have all been trumpeted, in outlets like NPR, as a new wave of “conscientious” country. This sentiment mirrors the wishful thinking sometimes on display in Honky Tonk, whereby the desire to excavate something wholly progressive leads a writer to tell only part of the story.
Songs like “People Loving People” may include lyrics about making the world a better place, but none of them gesture toward such a world. Rather, these songs suggest a form of nostalgia that’s fundamentally conservative: not a nostalgia for some old, rugged West, as is the country stereotype, but a much more mundane nostalgia that longs for a moment when new bubbles were pushing the American economy steadily upward and the violence of things like policing and deportation rarely made the evening news. If these songs invoke, however euphemistically, some of the current world’s antagonisms, they do so primarily to bury them. They insist that choosing a side will make listeners part of the problem.
This is a convenient position for artists who fear getting “Dixie Chicked,” as they still say in Nashville, risking a costly backlash by fans, sponsors, and media outlets. For all its faults, The Honky Tonk on the Left does a great service simply by insisting on another approach, by showing that in criticism — like in art — one shouldn’t be afraid to take a side. Still, its essays can be unsatisfying when they overemphasize the taxonomy of these sides, as if political analysis is a sort of sieve and the goal is to shake the object of study until something “progressive” is cleared of debris. These categories don’t just fail to contain strange, old stars at the margins, like Carson and Coe; they also limit our ability to understand contemporary centrists like Brooks & Dunn, whose 2001 hit “Only in America” has become a campaign staple for candidates representing both major parties, its feel-good narrative of American exceptionalism utterly compatible with conservatism and progressivism alike.
In fact, a particularly striking critique of this use of progressivism as standard for country music comes within the pages of The Honky Tonk on the Left, from the singer Steve Young. “Using the word ‘progressive’ in relation to mainstream country music is meaningless because the country music industry has always reverted to commercialism,” Young tells interviewer Ted Olsen. “The industry always treats music like a commodity — like making and selling watches.”
Yet when we look at country history, we can occasionally see traces of the future that it promises and moments of tension where something else could have emerged. Sometimes, it is as simple and as complicated as the sound of Webb Pierce’s voice. Other times, it is the emergence of a new scene or subculture within the music.
For Travis D. Stimeling, the birth of alt-country was such a movement. Stimeling, in a chapter filled with careful musicological analysis, situates alt-country in the context of the deindustrialization along the Rust Belt’s I-55 Corridor between St. Louis and Chicago. “Embraced by young people who encountered dismal employment opportunities […] in the wake of factory closures and industrial divestment, alternative country music proved to be a viable vehicle […] to express their anxieties about the slow withering away of their communities,” Stimeling writes. He examines in detail how the sound of the music “function[ed] discursively to express these place-based concerns,” but more than that, he explains how alt-country remade these very places. In his word, bands like Uncle Tupelo and Son Volt attempted to “re-capture [their communities’] rich histories and to fill them with the voices of the people who called those factories, warehouses, and modest abodes home during the twentieth century.”
But Stimeling is forced to end his essay with a paradox. Alt-country provided, in his view, a new mode of “engagement with marginalized working people.” At the same time, he must admit, it had “little effect on mainstream discourses.” The same cannot be said of hick-hop, a rural, Southern oddity that became a prominent sound in country music in less than a decade. If alt-country scores a 9.5 on the NPR Scale of Bourgeois Respectability, hick-hop is too vulgar to even chart — which is sort of the point. In a fantastic essay on the subject, Tressie McMillan Cottom finds its roots in the same deindustrialization described by Stimeling. She argues that the genre’s rise reflects “structural changes in the labor market that re-placed good-paying skilled jobs with low-wage service work have hit poor whites hard.” These conditions coincide not just with those that begat alt-country in the Rust Belt, but those that begat rap in the South Bronx: “Because the peculiarity of whiteness demands it never be racialized in the ways that blacks are always racialized,” she writes, “it is easy to forget that white people are living among social, economic, and political processes similar to those that gave rise to hip-hop.”
Hick-hop, for Cottom, offers a way for “poor rural whites” to insert this new economic reality into the mainstream discourse that once marked alt-country’s limit, “to contest their cultural representations even in country, the supposedly purest of all American white cultural products.” This is a remarkable achievement, even if it’s not done in the name of progressivism — or even by artists who consider themselves progressives in the first place. Nevertheless, Cottom’s analysis carefully tracks how structural changes are reflected, dramatized, and resisted through “the beautiful ugly culture people make as they try to construct their ideal selves under less than ideal conditions.”
The Honky Tonk on the Left succeeds most when it lends this depth of context and color to the politics of country. The collection makes clear that country music has always exemplified the nation’s cultural, political, and economic struggles. Through song, it has laid those conditions bare and made them livable, while also, at its best, helping listeners imagine something better.