On August 25, 1921, in Logan County, West Virginia, the largest labor uprising in American history broke out. The largest battle on American soil since the Civil War, the Battle of Blair Mountain lasted a week and involved more than 13,000 unionized coal miners who fought to the bitter end against 30,000 soldiers, cops and mercenaries from Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, County and State Police. armed forces and the US Army and Air Corps. While the miners ultimately lost that battle and failed to ignite a mass uprising against the mine owners – and the capitalist class as a whole – it marked a pivotal moment in the age-old labor movement. ‘gold. It is also from this battle that the term “redneck” originated, which despite its modern connotations, comes from the unionized, largely anarchist workers, tying red bandanas around their necks and to the ends of their guns before charging into battle.
The soundtrack of these rednecks taking up arms consisted of a bunch of old fellows and their comrades with banjos, fiddles and guitars out of tune, yodeling aptly about solidarity, hatred of the bourgeoisie and the martyrs they have lost in the fight. These “union anthems” included firecrackers such as “Solidarity Forever”, “Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!”. and “Casey Jones (The Union Scab),” which tells the story of a miner who refuses to go on strike, gets fired up by his co-workers, and ends up shoveling sulfur into hell instead of coal. These songs, which often stole their melodies from church hymns, united a working generation in picket lines and armed uprisings across the country and the world. It was radically left-wing music that was notably intersectional to the larger context of the racist, sexist, and generally bigoted United States.
In the 1950s and 60s, the genre was either largely apolitical (for the time) or maintained its leftist tradition. Artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Utah Phillips were very progressive, but neither was self-proclaimed “singing journalist” Phil Ochs. His music was either a brutal attack on America or emotionally vulnerable and self-reflective in a way that conservative artists struggle to achieve. Ochs was relentless in his criticism of American society, with songs like “Love Me I’m a Liberal,” which comically highlights liberal hypocrisies, and “Here’s to the State of Mississippi,” which features lyrics like “If you drag his muddy river / Nameless bodies you will find”. This harsh indictment of what Ochs saw as the worst aspects of a deeply flawed country culminates in the songs’ short but powerful chorus: “Oh, here’s the country you tore your heart out of / Mississippi, find yourself another country to be a part of.”
With a similar disregard for the powers that be, there was a subgenre you might know better than you think: outlaw country. Enter sniper Johnny Cash, Willie “Shotgun” Nelson and outlaw extraordinaire Merle Haggard. Singing about escaping the cops, legalizing drugs, and ending American atrocities in Vietnam, these characters helped define the country from the late 1950s to the 1970s with a strong aversion to authority and power. injustice.
Fast forward a few decades and mainstream country music has come to represent something very different: the American military-industrial complex in all its jingoistic, armed glory. Songs like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” sing the praises of the eagle and Mother Freedom. The poetry of the song is unparalleled: “…You will regret having played with the United States of A/ Because we will put a boot in your ass, it’s American style.” This feeling seems to be what most people associate with country music today. If it’s not militant nationalism, it’s family love (to put it mildly) or ranch work for the lord above. So what was the turning point, when did the country become this neocon disaster?
It would be September 11, 2001.
You don’t have to be a historian to know that the fall of the Twin Towers caused seismic change in America and the world. Jingoism overwhelmed the nation, and George W. Bush’s War on Terror sparked a wave of xenophobia that flooded American culture. Country artists like Toby Keith and Daryl Worley fueled the fiery nationalism simmering in America, finding great success supporting the country’s efforts in the Middle East and waving the flag in the face of all who opposed the powerful. United States of A. The kind that a few years ago hummed about falling in love while fishing (thanks Tim McGraw), now celebrated imperialism and called for war (see Daryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten,” the only number 1 hit to ever name Osama Bin Laden). While the presidencies of Richard Nixon and especially Ronald Reagan helped create the cultural environment for this nationalism to fester, 9/11 was the nail in the coffin of this explosion of chauvinism.
These days, while this nationalistic country is by no means extinct, mainstream artists have generally strayed away from defending America’s military-industrial complex and returning to wholesome themes of love and trucks. But, more importantly, a new generation of forward-thinking artists and an increasingly diverse audience are working in tandem to reshape the country music landscape. Revitalizing the outlaw subgenre with a voice like Cash and outfits inspired by country queen Dolly Parton, Orville Peck’s popularity is soaring, celebrating queer narratives in country. Lil Nas X pioneered the mainstream with his 2019 country-rap hit “Old Town Road,” a remix of which brought back ’90s country darling Billy Ray Cyrus. Rhiannon Giddens’ eclectic discography tells stories of the African-American experience in country and folk that have been sidelined for years.
In addition to saving the country of the Toby Keiths from the world, mainstream pop artists are infusing their music and social commentary with the genre. Taylor Swift’s well-known roots are in country music and it continues to influence her sound. 1975 frontman Matthew Healy cites country as a guideline throughout the band’s discography. Beyoncé’s undeniably country ballad “Daddy Lessons” (controversially rejected for consideration by the 2016 National Grammys committee) achieved significant mainstream success, and a remix brought back the most popular all-female country band of the 2000s, The (Dixie) Chicks. It’s infusions like these that both reframe the country and expand its island bubble. Even many strictly country artists are pushing against the harmful culture of the genre, like Nick Shoulders, with lyrics like “I hope you choke on that red pill” in ‘The World Needs Sissies, Too’, or the wonderful Chris Acker, who writes about queer love or finding Mother Mary’s face in a toasted sandwich.
The country’s political history is turbulent but profound. Understanding its early identity as true popular music, its perversion into post-9/11 nationalism, and its burgeoning renaissance, reveals the genre’s potential as a powerful political and social force.
“We can raise a new world from the ashes of the old, because unity makes us strong” – Pete Seeger, ‘Solidarity Forever’.