Country music is not known for courting controversy. It is, for the most part, an apolitical music. But when a popular country artist dips their toe in political waters, the move usually turns heads, if only because the feat’s so rare. Country artists shy away from hot-button issues for commercial reasons, for the most part. Just look at what happened to the Dixie Chicks: the once-popular band signed its own death warrant – at least career-wise – when lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out against President Bush and the U.S.-led Iraqi invasion, back in 2003. Country radio black-balled the next Dixie Chicks album, 2006’s Taking The Long Way, which proved to be their last as a group.
Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muscogee,” released in 1969, is still a song that is up for debate. The speaker in the tune represents Nixon’s “silent majority” and stands up for conservative values in the face of ’60s flower power, preferring not to “take his trips on LSD,” and opting for “manly footwear” over “beads and Roman sandals.” Loretta Lynn’s 1975 song “The Pill,” a tune about birth control, got people talking despite being banned on most of country radio. And Toby Keith’s “Courtesy Of The Red, White and Blue” (which originally was intended to be heard only by a military audience) certainly took a political stand in the wake of September 11th, and remains one of the more polarizing songs of any genre during the last decade.
Brad Paisley’s new tune Accidental Racist” (featuring LL Cool J) has triggered a discussion on race, one that has ricocheted far beyond country music’s usual chat rooms. Some critics have praised Paisley for simply addressing the issue, while others drubbed him for what they deemed to be a clumsy handling of an impossibly complex issue, using symbols like “doo rag and red flag,” “gold chains and iron chains,” to make his point.
Though not an overtly political singer, Kacey Musgraves has made quite a splash in country music with her debut album Same Trailer, Different Park. Musgraves’ songs document the pitfalls and trappings of small-town life, and address topics like drug use and homosexuality. She has garnered some far-flung fans in the process, including gossip blogger Perez Hilton, and yet she’ll be opening for Kenny Chesney this summer, playing to stadium-sized arenas all across the country. In our feature story on Musgraves, songwriter Shane McAnally says that his experience working with Kacey was unique in that her first goal was not commercial success, which tells you everything you need to know about the world of pop country.
Ashley Monroe is another alterna-queen of country whose album Like A Rose is one of the year’s best offerings. A member of the group Pistol Annies, Monroe has written and worked with artists across a variety of genres, including Guy Clark, Trent Dabbs and the band Train. Like A Rose is an honest, fun, stripped-down semi-autobiographical record. Released on Warner Nashville, a mainstream country label, Monroe’s album has yet to see any rotation on country radio, but has been widely embraced by Americana and rock circles.
One of the best type of country songs is the duet, which reached glorious heights with George and Tammy, and Conway and Loretta. Our cover subjects for this issue, Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris, make a nice pairing on Old Yellow Moon, an album that has taken them half a lifetime to make. Rodney, who is one of Nashville’s most respected songwriters, got his start playing in Emmy’s Hot Band back in the ‘70s, when Harris launched a solo career after the death of Gram Parsons, the man responsible for turning the former folk singer on to country music. Their album features four new Rodney-penned tracks as well as some older numbers. You can’t distinguish the old songs from the new ones on this album, which is a good thing. In its purest form, country music, like baseball, can exist outside of time.