By Christian Cullen, Staff Writer
Country music creates a variety of distinct imagery: long country roads, cold beer, trucks, the idealized “America” and countless other staples of the songs that make up the genre. In mid-July, one of country music’s biggest stars, Jason Aldean – notably not from a small town, having grown up in Macon, GA – released the music video for his song “Try That In A Small Town.”
The song is a mess. It is filled with racist dog whistles and a wish for vigilante violence, the music video contains imagery of a courthouse with a long past of racial injustice and the song itself seems to be talking about a sundown town. The firestorm the song created seemed indicative of what country music has become: a stomping ground for right-wing ideals and music devoid of deep lyricism; artistically uninventive and mass-produced music that panders to racism and bigotry.
About a week after Aldean’s video began to make the rounds, Tyler Childers released his new song, “In Your Love” and an accompanying music video. It is a love song focused on savoring time with each other before an untimely death, and the music video features a gay love story of two Appalachian coal miners before one dies of black lung. Childers has become an increasingly vocal ally, both with his recent video and the album “Long Violent History” which featured a track supporting the Black Lives Matter movement. These two songs form a dichotomy that is twofold: style and politics, both of which are changing in country music.
There is an important piece of history to acknowledge. While most would assume that the roots of country music share the politics of country musicians today, there is a deep history of left-wing ideas in the genre represented by artists like Woody Guthrie in the 1930s and the famous picture of his guitar with the words “This Machine Kills Fascists,” or Johnny Cash as the “Man in Black,” who wore dark clothing to support the poor and hungry or performed in prisons. What is now known as “outlawcountry” used to be the entirety of the genre. Country music has not always been the right-wing political monster it has become, and artists today seem to forget where the roots of the music stem from.
However, most people associate country music with right-wing politics. There are a few reasons for this: country music is most popular in the south, which tends to lean and vote Republican. Many of the artists in the genre are politically on the right. There is also the issue of bigotry within country music. Morgan Wallen may have become one of the most successful and certainly one of the biggest names in the genre as of late, but history will likely remember him for saying a racial slur while drunk in 2020. Aldean is well-known for his support of former president Donald Trump. These are simply two examples of a deep issue within country music.
For most of my life, country music has been more similar to Aldean’s brand: pop country determined by the people in Nashville (the center of country music) for radio. Songs like “Big Green Tractor,” “Cruise” or more recently, “Last Night,” by Morgan Wallen are all popular songs that stem from this part of country music. This is what country music has become known for. Some people have taken to calling this type of music “bro country,” which is a fair moniker. It is the type of music you can imagine being played on a boat. Lyrically, these songs struggle. They are very plain, more focused on being catchy so that they can become successful on the radio. And this brand of country music has been dominant. Like I said, this is what people know country music for, but I most certainly wish this was not the case, as there is so much more to country music.
In spite of the dominance of both this pop country sound and right-wing ideals, subsections of country music have begun to thrive. In recent years, there has been a new movement in country music. It has a variety of names, such as folk country, y’allternative music or the technical term of neo-traditional. Striking against the simplistic music coming out of Nashville, these songs and songwriters focus more on poetic lyrics with deep meanings. Ballads and rich stories are making a return to country music, and people are liking it a lot. Obviously with the success of Wallen’s most recent album, the pop country brand is still strong. But recent success of artists such as Zach Bryan, Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, Jason Isbell and Colter Wall indicate that country music is returning to its more outlaw roots. Simpson sings about metaphysics, Wall about life on the plains, Childers about the difficulties of life in Appalachia and there are many more artists of this type. Similarly to the style of country shifting, politically it slowly is as well. We have already touched on Tyler Childers, but there are others like Simpson, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, or Jason Isbell. I sincerely hope in the battle for the soul of country that the y’allternative genre and those that are the current faces of it win out.