Today we are lucky to have a guest post from Matthew D. Linton, who is a doctoral candidate in history at Brandeis University and research assistant at the Harvard Business School. His dissertation, Understanding the Mighty Empire: China Studies and the Construction of Liberal Consensus, 1928-1980, examines the development of academic China scholarship and the field’s relationship to domestic liberal politics. The following text in italics is Matt’s introduction to his series on country music and intellectual history. After that (once more in Roman type) follows the first installment of that series. – Andy Seal
This is the first of a five-part examination of how country music can inform current historical discussions over class, race, gender, and global history. I will try to release the parts weekly, though it is contingent on dissertation progress.
Background: I have enjoyed country music for the last four or five years. Growing up in New England, a place with only a tenuous connection to the country tradition, I was not exposed to country much as a child and had little interest in it. I was lured to the genre by the usual suspects, Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” and Johnny Cash’s late career work with the producer Rick Rubin, but grew to love the storytelling, humor, and honesty of artists across the genre from pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, and Kitty Wells to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens’ Bakersfield Sound and beyond.
I was always troubled by the politics of classic country music, however.
The lyrics of most country musicians were at odds with my core values. While artists like Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn defended women, misogyny was – and remains – a chronic problem. Racism was also endemic and a constant throughout the genre’s history: Jimmie Rodgers began his career as a blackface minstrel performer, Hank Snow performed at segregationist rallies, and David Allen Coe circulated copies of explicitly racist songs into the 1990s. Country music’s Nashville establishment has been largely unwilling to recognize its troubled past and its continued appropriation of black culture led Steve Earle (a pioneer of the alternative country movement in the 1990s) to call contemporary pop country “hip-hop music for people who hate black people.”
I was still working through these moral quandaries last year when Donald Trump ran on a platform consonant with my misgivings about country, in the process attracting support from some of my favorite artists like Loretta Lynn. Researching and writing these pieces has been therapeutic. It is way of working through my conflicted feelings about the relationship between music I love and politics I despise. It is a way of confronting country’s past, while challenging misconceptions about its provincialism and narrow-mindedness. These essays are designed neither to explain Trump’s election victory nor to understand Appalachia or the “South” (whatever that is). Instead it uses the analytic frameworks of intellectual history to capture country’s diversity and interrogate the choices of some of its artists.
I look forward to any and all feedback.
- Can a Country Girl Still Survive?: Female Country Musicians as Chroniclers of Rural Poverty.
- Good Wives and Honky-Tonk Angels: The Feminisms of Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and Nikki Lane.
- Countrypolitan Nationalism: Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow as Translators of American Empire.
- The Othered Ones: Charley Pride and Country’s Fraught Racial History.
- Country My Ass: Outlaw Country’s Endless Search for Authenticity.
In his article, “’Indie Country’ Takes on the Mainstream with True Tales from Red State America,” The Guardian’s Jonathan Bernstein argues that a cohort of young female country musicians give voice to a rural America ignored by mainstream pop culture. Unlike their pop country contemporaries whose lyrics about parties and pick-up trucks have drawn critical ire and the unflattering appellation “Bro Country,” Bernstein’s indie country rejects pop country escapism for “bleakly honest stories of a struggling middle America” – laid-off, insular, opiate-addicted, and impoverished. While Bernstein avoids oversimplification in saying indie country explains the climate that facilitated Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, he argues that this music is an important starting point for understanding “a part of the country that is largely misunderstood.”
Bernstein is correct in noticing indie country’s (a term for artists signed to non-major labels and largely ignored by mainstream country radio) willingness to explore rural suffering, but he misses the ways indie country both operates within and challenges a legacy of country music’s depictions of rural poverty. For contemporary country artists including Angaleena Presley, Margo Price, and Brandy Clark, poverty is the defining feature of the rural experience. Unlike prior country chroniclers of rural poverty like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, however, poverty was not an ennobling crucible; propelling its (usually child) sufferers to a better life by cultivating an appreciation for thrift, sacrifice, and family. Though sometimes treated humorously, country music’s discussions of contemporary rural poverty portray an unending process of deepening immiseration and sneering cynicism at the prospect that poverty builds character.
Rural poverty has always been central to country music. Country grew as an independent genre during the Great Depression, when Mississippi Delta blues fused with Appalachian folk and bluegrass to form a new sound made famous by Jimmie “The Yodeling Brakeman” Rodgers and his blue yodels. The lyrics were sparse, but, on songs like “Hobo’s Meditation” and “Blue Yodel #8 (The Muleskinner’s Blues),” Rodgers told stories of people down on their luck and looking for work. While they drew inspiration for the rural poverty that surrounded its writer, the songs did not dwell on Depression-era misery and instead focused on the search for and rhythms of rural labor.
Drawing from the pioneering work of Rodgers and others, country musicians made rural poverty a central theme of their work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most were children of the Depression and many grew up in poverty. Women, as country’s guardians of hearth and home, were particularly adept at translating rural poverty for mainstream audiences. For Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, who grew up in rural Tennessee and Kentucky respectively, their childhoods were defined by privation. On her signature 1969 hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lynn sang of how her father and mother worked morning until night to provide for her and her seven siblings. Similarly, Dolly Parton’s 1971 single “Coat of Many Colors” found a young Dolly dressed in rags and the subject of charity. Both songs are nostalgic; adult women reflecting on the simpler times of childhood. They were also huge hits that made their singers into stars and reinvigorated Nashville, which had ossified into a staid affluence in the mid-1960s, by depicting a more “authentic” experience of the difficulty of country life.
Poverty was not the subject of these songs, however, but instead was the vehicle for Christian lessons about thrift, humility, suffering, and family. Lynn and Parton’s depictions of rural poverty were essentially romantic. Lynn’s song is a paean to her coal miner father’s sense of obligation and willingness to put family first as well as her mother’s religious devotion and self-abnegation. Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” begins as a story of Christian charity (receiving the colorful rags) becomes a lesson in thrift and self-reliance (Dolly’s mother making a dress out of the rags), and ends as a tale of familial love (despite the other children making fun of Dolly’s dress of rags, Dolly realizes its value comes not from its materials but from her mother’s love embodied in the dress’ labor). For both women, their impoverished childhoods were important in shaping their character; making them better people by instilling in them Christian values. For Dolly Parton, it has become the center of an international brand including a charity, films, and even a theme park, Dollywood. Dolly has become so synonymous with 20th century Tennessee hill country that an entire course at the University of Tennessee uses her life and work as a lens to examine Appalachian life and interrogate stereotypes about the region and its people.
Contemporary indie country is indebted to and takes inspiration from Lynn and Parton. Loretta Lynn has been covered by artists like Nikki Lane and Margo Price’s 2016 album “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” is a direct reference to Lynn’s earlier album (this will be treated in greater depth in a subsequent post on feminism and country music). Parton’s voice remains the genre’s gold standard and her charitable work in rural Tennessee has been widely acclaimed. Her tolerance has also been admired by more liberal indie country musicians and her “Coat of Many Colors” has become a symbol of tolerance and diversity in a genre known for neither.
While Lynn and Parton are widely admired, their descendants have presented a divergent picture of American rural poverty. Poverty does not instill Christian values, but, instead, corrupts good people by forcing them to make bad decisions. Angaleena Presley’s song “Pain Pills” (2014), for example, describes the crimes and dishonesty wrought on a small Kentucky town by the opioid epidemic. Lying ministers, nephews stealing from cancer-stricken relatives, and junkies dying on a bathroom floor are Presley’s protagonists. “Pain pills, pain pills, a little bit of hurt is surely gonna kill a lot of good people in these here hills/Lord won’t you save us from these old pain pills?” she asks. Similarly, on her 2016 single “Broke,” Brandy Clark chronicles the everyday miseries of living in poverty: a truck that won’t start, settling for low quality food, and even hoping an aged relative will die to avoid paying for their needs. Clark’s characters are struggling too much just to make ends meet to aspire to virtue. Even Margo Price’s “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” which is most directly indebted to Lynn and more in the barroom brawling outlaw tradition, recounts the painful loss of the family farm and trying to meet ends meet on the single “Hands of Time”. Unlike Presley and Clark, Price dreams to turn back the hands of time and vows “that’s the last time I let them take what should be his” in reference to her father’s lost farm.
The political ramifications of these songs are uneven. These artists can be reactionary. Presley’s “American Middle Class” (2014), toes the line between criticizing the narrowmindedness of her poor neighbors clinging to their middle class status despite their obvious poverty and lashing out at “welfare families” gobbling up undeserved food and scholarships. Still the overall feel is not resentment, but hopelessness; individuals trapped in spiraling poverty with no way out. While it is possible to see Trump’s rise here, it is just as easy to see Bernie Sanders or any other antiestablishment figure promising change. Instead of advocating a specific political philosophy, contemporary country documents the banality of every day suffering outside major media markets. Its artists tell painful stories and have no easy answers or avenues for escape. As Angaleena Presley said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, “I am really nice and passive, and I don’t have the courage to be an outlaw. But I have the courage to tell the truth.” If Hank Williams Jr.’s “country boy” could survive economic recession by withdrawing from modern society, indie country’s songwriters show how deeply modern problems – drug addiction, debt, and anomie – have devoured parts of rural America. If Bruce Springsteen’s generation was born to run from the darkness at the edge of town, today’s indie country artists ask: but what if there is only more darkness?
 Even for male musicians, experience and anxieties about poverty were often viewed through women. Merle Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes” (1968), for example, examines poverty in a California work camp and the desperation of a father trying to provide for his family through the desperate, unsatisfied eyes of his wife (the singer’s mother). Freedom from employment and familial responsibilities were also intertwined, particularly for outlaw country musicians. Johnny Paycheck can only tell his employer to “take this job and shove-it” after his “woman” leaves him taking with her the reason for continuing to work at a dysfunctional factory.
 I specify rural poverty not only because it was more often discussed than its urban counterpart, but also because urban poverty is not portrayed as redemptive. Dolly Parton’s cover of Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” (1969) tells a story of generational poverty without escape or reason. Urban poverty also seems coded as “black” for country musicians, whereas rural poverty is interpreted as white. Significantly, while “In the Ghetto” was recorded by Presley and written by a white songwriter, it was initially pitched to Sammy Davis Jr. and its recording was supervised by Rev. Jesse Jackson. The difference between rural and urban poverty was not only a feature of Appalachian country music either. Buck Owens, pioneer of California’s Bakersfield Sound, recorded “I Wouldn’t Live in New York City” in 1970. Like Presley and Parton, he portrayed New York as dirty, immoral, and overcrowded.
 I wouldn’t take this passive claim at face value. The chorus of one of her most recent songs (“Bless My Heart” (2017)) is “If you bless my heart/I’ll slap your face” after all.