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The Divisive Politics of American Traditional Music

In 2003, Natalie Maines – Country darling and lead singer of the Dixie Chicks – announced on stage that she was ashamed to share a home state with President George W. Bush. The response by the general public was quick and merciless. Dixie Chicks singles were dropped from radio play, their cover of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” fell from the top 10 of Billboard’s Hot 100 to off the charts completely, and copies of their hit record Home found their way into trash cans. In the years following, their career recovered as they shifted their sound toward Rock, unable to find a foothold in the staunchly conservative world of country music. Even when country is not overtly political (and, make no mistake, it often is, delivering such jingoistic zingers as, “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / We’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way” off Toby Keith’s hit single “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue”) it is inseparably paired with Conservative social values and accompanying isms: sexism, patriotism, and Protestantism.

Running parallel to this red world is Mainstream Country’s liberal little brother: Folk, Americana, and everything else under the umbrella of “Alternative-Country.” Nearly identical in origin, sound, and lyrical emphasis on the lives of common people, the two are sharply divided by their perceived values. The schism began in the 1960s and 70s, when cultural upheaval forced those playing traditional American music into two camps: Pro-Peace Folk and Patriotic Country.

Moving forward into the 1980s and 90s, the formal creation of “Alternative-Country” ran alongside the formation of “Alternative” everything else, from music to medicine. The genre became inundated with city-slicker Southern transplants and cool college kids, solidifying the movement’s left-leaning politics as it enjoyed the strange bedfellows of those bringing in hyper-traditional bluegrass sounds and those raised outside of the Southern context entirely.

“The idea of growing up in the South and being a man is an interesting thing; there’s a lot masculinity involved…but at the same time, I grew up really not wanting to hate anybody.”

Another substantial shift in the broader world of Country and traditional music came in late 2001. To many, 9/11 reinvigorated the image of the blue-collar hero that they thought they had been laid to rest in the previous century; the picture of a soot-covered miner was simply replaced with that of an ash-laden firefighter. That image sank deeper into the common consciousness, and this rediscovery of a decidedly white and male version of blue-collar heroism paired neatly with a sense of guilt over the notion that these same workers had been forgotten and ridiculed in the new, postmodern world of technology and globalization. Country music had found a new folk hero, and a new audience to share it with.

That cultural landscape, in many ways, mirrors the one of present day. In the days, weeks, and months since Donald Trump was elected into office, the news has become over-trodden with thinkpiece after thinkpiece on how the White Working Class (read: hicks and hillbillies – nothing like the Good Coastal Whites writing the articles of course) handed Trump the vote. No matter the mythology about the wronged and forgotten coal miner or “Economic Anxiety” or whatever excuse journalists have been giving to deflect responsibility, the numbers don’t lie: it was the White Suburban Petit Bourgeoisie that gave Trump the keys to the kingdom. Not only do these people see themselves as one tax break and a little bit of luck away from Trump-ian wealth, they also identify with the largely fictitious (and very White) blue-collar ideal of what being a “True American” means; unsurprisingly, they are presently Mainstream Country’s key fan base.

“I saw a lot of people around me who struggled with that [hatred], a lot of people who would have been great people if they had been a little more open-minded.”

From the heartland of country music and the pit of Trump County, Jason Isbell has carved out a unique space in the world of traditional American music. His smooth Southern accent, virtuosic dobro and guitar skills, good Christian upbringing, and lyrics about the wonder of the common man is somehow not branded as “Country.” Isbell’s albums are labeled “Rock,” “Alternative,” and plainly “Singer/Songwriter” by iTunes, despite the fact his distinct Northern Alabama sound doesn’t come directly from any of those traditions. Rather it was shaped by the traditional Bluegrass he played with his preacher grandfather as a means of keeping him occupied on weekends and by the Blues Rock albums his father would play – both styles that shaped the wider world of Country far more immediately than the nebulous genres of “Singer/Songwriter” and “Alternative.”

Mainstream Country is so blinded by its Conservative values and its own interpretation of Christianity that it leaves no room for alternate viewpoints in its ranks. It has stained American traditional music with its own hateful rhetoric and pushed out those who otherwise contribute to the continued development of the folk music of America’s rural working class, forcing them to instead join the movement of urban, upper-middle-class liberals experimenting with a “theatre of poverty” when creating their own music inspired by working classic musical traditions.

Left: “Revival” (1996) by Gillian Welch
Right: “Migrant Mother” (1936) by Dorthea Lange

While until very recently the majority of acts within the world of Mainstream Country came from working-class or small town backgrounds, the NPR bourgeoisie faction has always had significant representation in Alt-Country circles. What ethnomusicologist Aaron Fox describes as this “theatre of poverty” became a trend amongst artists raised in upper-middle-class backgrounds such as Gillian Welch, an Americana artist who grew up in LA. Despite her comfortable upbringing, the cover of her 1996 album Revival evoked Depression-era photography – most starkly Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother. Music and class are inherently intertwined; in order to mimic a genre of and by the working class, Welch put on destitution as a costume in – whether consciously or not – an attempt to increase authenticity. Because of his left-leaning sensibilities, Isbell’s work is considered by Mainstream Country institutions to be analogous to Welch’s, despite his heritable connection to the genre and legitimate working class background.

Whatever category distributors put him in, Isbell’s background is inseparable from his work. Small-town tableaus weave their way through Isbell’s oeuvre, from his early songs with the Drive-by Truckers to his most recent album The Nashville Sound – said to be his most political, but Isbell has never hidden his opinions. In an interview with the UK’s The Independent, Isbell tried to wrestle with this divide between his personal politics and his upbringing, “The idea of growing up in the South and being a man is an interesting thing; there’s a lot masculinity involved, with hunting, fishing and playing sports that rural people take pride in, but at the same time I grew up really not wanting to hate anybody.” He continues, “I saw a lot of people around me who struggled with that [hatred], a lot of people who would have been great people if they had been a little more open-minded.”

“The scene can almost only be seen in sepia; a little 15-year-old girl swallowed up by the cornfield, carrying a newborn on her hip, aging before our eyes.”

Perhaps more than any of his other works, Something More Than Free contains an abundance of rich character studies and portraits of rural life. The opening lines to “Speed Trap Town” exemplify Isbell’s ability to capture the beauty in the mundane. Isbell begins this story about a man coming to his hometown to care for his dying father in the middle of the local grocery store, “She said, ‘It’s none of my business but it breaks my heart’ / Dropped a dozen cheap roses in my shopping cart.” The song hits all the highlights of life in the flyover. The image of the narrator drinking himself into a stupor at a high school football game to distract himself from the imminent death of his father might capture it all by itself. It is not presented in a flat or stereotypical way, there is a sort of mythological reverence given to these rural story patterns in his lyrics. This is especially true on the track, “Children of Children,” Isbell’s ode to the four generations of teenage parents before him still alive into his young adulthood. Isbell is far less verbose in this lyric, keeping his lines short though varied in structure, mimicking the repetitive but free nature of a folk song. The one repeated stanza pairs a striking image with a painful thought, “I was riding on my mother’s hip / She was shorter than the corn / All the years I took from her / Just by being born.” The scene can almost only be seen in sepia; a little 15-year-old girl swallowed up by the cornfield, carrying a newborn on her hip, aging before our eyes.

All of these more sensitive musings on rural life are dwarfed by the Southern Man’s Manifesto that is the Drive-by Trucker’s “Outfit,” penned by Jason Isbell. Written when he was a much younger man, the song’s brash candor resonated with his listeners so much that Isbell renamed first solo tour the “Stop Fucking Around and Play ‘Outfit’ Tour” in honor of an audience outburst. Isbell sings the song from the perspective of his father which becomes clear from the first line, “You want to grow up to paint houses like me?” In the chorus, the elder Isbell lays out his philosophy, “Don’t call what you’re wearing an outfit / Don’t ever say your car is broke / Don’t worry about losing your accent / A Southern Man tells better jokes / Have fun, stay clear of the needle / Call home on your sister’s birthday / Don’t tell them you’re bigger than Jesus, don’t give it away.” The last line is in direct response to something John Lennon said in the mid-60s, but the rest articulates a set of values around Southern masculinity, the very thing Isbell struggles to find his place in with respect to what he sees as its connection to aggression and hate. The song’s final verse rectifies this disconnect; Isbell sings as his father, “So don’t let ’em take who you are boy / And don’t try to be who you ain’t / And don’t let me catch you in Kendale / With a bucket of wealthy man’s paint.” On the most literal level, the elder Isbell is telling his son to be his own man, not to follow in his footsteps and paint houses like he had to, but in its phrasing the line illustrates the two-sided struggle of preserving a sense of tradition and identity in the face of elitist norms from the outside world while also maintaining a set of values that don’t necessarily agree with communal mores. Isbell’s struggle is two-fold: as a Southerner from a working-class background in Leftist circles and as a man with Liberal values in the South, not quite fitting into either world. Isbell comes from the kind of small-town, simple, Southern upbringing that Country music used to celebrate (and still pretends to), but contemporary Mainstream Country worships a fictional “Common Man” more as a means of creating an Us and Them than genuinely expressing love for the working-class.

“Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.”

This superficial division in traditional American music is indicative of a wider cultural shift. In the 60s and 70s, people used to theorize that the “Culture Wars” would fade after the influence of the church began to wane, but it seems like just the opposite. America is more secular than ever and the Liberal/Conservative split seems to be at its most unbridgeable. Though religiosity is commonly associated with more restrictive opinions on Women’s and LGBT rights, it instills accepting and altruistic ideals in its adherents that polls have found make those who attend religious services more accepting of immigrants and people of color than their non-church-going neighbors. The increasing secularism of the US has given birth to plenty of white Southerners who like to sleep in on Sundays but still check the “Christian” box when asked. Non-church-goers who identify with this cultural idea of Evangelicalism, but don’t actually sit in the pews every Sunday to get their weekly dose of peace and love have formed this malcontent beast prone to projecting its struggles on those with more melanin. In a study that surprised no one, the American National Election Studies (ANES) Pilot Study found “Trump does best among evangelicals with one key trait: They don’t really go to church.” Donald Trump and Mainstream Country have tapped into this same trend in the zeitgeist.

Isbell’s most recent effort, The Nashville Sound, is an anthem for this post-Trump America. “White Man’s World” serves as a guitar-fueled call-out to every single “one of the guys / Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke,” as Isbell sings on the track, while “Hope the High Road” is a call to action. The South in “White Man’s World” is not the idyllic picture he usually paints; this time he sings about highways built over Native American burial grounds and cotton fields that stand like graves in their own right. It was a song written in frustration at the cruelty people were capable of in voting for Trump; this complete lack of empathy for People of Color came as a surprise to many White Liberal voters, Isbell included. That track’s complement, “Hope the High Road,” is a shout into the wind for decency in a world where a man who is openly antagonistic to women, the disabled, religious minorities, and People of Color was elected into office. However, Isbell is ever hopeful, insisting “There can’t be more of them than us,” and I certainly hope he’s right.

When you assign political labels to core tenets of human decency that people such as Isbell possess, you simply push people with shared values farther and farther apart in a debate that boils down to tribalism and semantics. As Isbell himself said in a midday tweet a few months back, “Remember, when they call your beliefs ‘politics,’ they are trying to make them smaller and easier to ignore.”

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Sophomore at NYU Tisch studying Dramatic Writing Writer for the stage, screen, and my twitter: @RuthGeye

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