I Reckon: Country music returns to its progressive roots

(Lauren Schatzman | Daily Trojan Horse)

Over the summer, I went to the first Palomino festival in Brookside near the Rose Bowl, and I brought only my best boots, my good fringe western shirt, and the thickest sunglasses I had. . I left with more credit card debt, a lot of merch and a little frazzled, because I met Noah Centineo, but I didn’t think it was really him, because I thought the guy I saw was far too small to be Noah Centineo. Turns out it was really him.

I also left with vertigo. Dizzy because Palomino was originally just a stage for new talent to perform at Stagecoach. I was also giddy because, for the price of the ticket, the lineup was downright wicked, including the likes of Orville Peck, Charley Crockett, Kacey Musgraves, Jason Isbell, and Sierra Ferrell. It marks a revival of country music, in a good way. After what seemed like years of country-pop which is more or less the mainstay of country music now, there is new blood in the genre. Their origins, unique sounds, and lyrics are reminiscent of old country and western, yet they’ve shaped the genre to encompass today’s issues and realities.

A new blood that is making waves is Tyler Childers. Prior to the release of his half-gospel, half-funky album, “Can I Take My Hounds to Heaven,” Childers wore a Charles Booker shirt for the U.S. Senate to one of his shows in Kentucky. Booker is a Democrat running to unseat Rand Paul in the Senate. The reaction was instantaneous, but it wasn’t Childer’s first encounter with a country music establishment or a fan base that has taken the “shut up and sing” stance so ardently. In fact, those who are bold enough to step out of the apolitical box that has been silently erected around them have always been released.

Political movements in country music are by no means new. Before Willie Nelson rushed to Beto O’Rourke in Texas, he smoked weed on the roof of the White House with Jimmy Carter’s son, supported many liberal politicians and stood up against discrimination LGBTQIA. Fans have always threatened to boycott his shows for his beliefs, and yet he’s still top billing and, all things considered, an outlaw still seen as a brother-in-law in the music establishment. country. And even before Willie, there were people with pretty progressive songs like Loretta Lynn.

The day after I presented this piece, Lynn passed away. Morbid coincidence, sure, but when the queen of old country music passes by, it kinda makes you come to Jesus. There are probably a ton of you who have never heard of Loretta Lynn, which is fair. For country music, Loretta’s death was like losing an old version of Dolly Parton. But beyond her physical self, when Loretta passed away, I think country music lost a bit of its soul. With it went much of the combative side of the genre, the side that was unapologetic and, for lack of a better word, progressive.

When Lynn released “The Pill” in 1975, a song about a new reality with birth control, the backlash from the conservative country music industry was instantaneous. It was banned on many radio stations, and to this day, “The Pill” rarely airs. And while Loretta Lynn is by no means a bleeding-heart Democrat (quite the contrary, she was a Trump supporter), “The Pill” and other anthems like it were objectively ahead of their time. “The Pill,” in particular, would have been more effective in educating low-income women about birth control than health care literature. Politically daring messages swept through country music at the time, and it hardly sounded like any of the songs on country music radio these days: none of that fake twang, chicken fried shit (I’m looking at you, Zac Brown).

We are fortunate to have front row tickets to country music that goes back to its roots. The country and western genre began as an amalgamation of influences from those living in the Southeast, including enslaved blacks and European immigrants, singing tall tales of the trials and tribulations of the working class, or dark tales of heartbreak and broken families. In many ways, the songs of today’s progressive country artists reflect the sound and messages of country music roots more than the country songs rehearsed on the radio, and I, for one, am here for that.

Quynh Anh Nguyen is a junior student writing about the implications of current political events in the South. His column, “I Reckon,” airs every other Tuesday.


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