I never thought I would need to defend the honor of country music in The American Spectator, but we live in strange times. Willie Nelson is releasing a song about homosexual cowboys, and though I suspect Willie is being tongue-in-cheek, the subversive subject matter will generate quite a buzz among the cool kids. And now twice in the Spectator‘s pixellated pages, Mark Gauvreau Judge has denigrated country music — most recently as “tacky, cheesy, and feckless.”
Surely an aesthete like Mr. Judge knows that there is a time and place for different things; and surely he would not advocate that Frescobaldi sonatas be piped over a rodeo’s PA system. I’ll grant there’s a lot of really sorry country music out there these days. But there’s a lot of good stuff, too, and it’s not out of place in an ordered life — especially one that doesn’t take itself too seriously.
Then there’s a new book out about the odd politics of country music. I haven’t read Rednecks and Bluenecks, but it claims to show that like most of us, country music singers have somewhat complex political views.
Well, duh. Most fans have heard Willie endorsed Kucinich, Toby is a registered Democrat, and Merle opposes the Iraq war. These people are musicians, and the music industry is full of libertines, dopeheads, anarchists, and communists. For the most part the music industry has Hollywood’s values, just with uglier people.
It’s also full of people who can set a true or moving thought to music. It’s no secret that many of those thoughts in country music are, at the least, pro-family, religious, populist, and patriotic. And often amid the twangy lyrics and sad steel guitars one detects a genuinely conservative sentiment expressed with poetic economy and authentic grace.
I pity the fool who just listens to music for its political content. But it sure is nice to hear these ideas sung proudly and well. So for Mr. Judge and all those scoffing at the red-state affinity for country music, here are fifteen examples of great country songs with great conservative ideas:
15. Ninety Miles an Hour — Hank Snow
It seems strange to start out such a list with a song about cheating, but this song about a doomed affair is one of the best of the bunch for showing the underlying conscience of honky-tonk songs. It’s the plea of a man who realizes that he has lost the ability to control himself. Unlike so much popular music that rhapsodizes unleashed eros, that’s not a source of pride. Infidelity, in country music, is almost always something to feel guilty about — or, at least, it is acknowledged that it is something one ought to be ashamed of.
14. Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue — Toby Keith
There’s the sophisticated academic-in-training part of my brain that thinks this is lowbrow, jingoistic schlock. There’s also the country-music-lover part of my heart that still hasn’t forgiven Toby Keith for “I Wanna Talk About Me.” But then they ring those chimes, and every time, I’m clenching my jaw and fighting back the tears. There’s nothing false about the song. That’s how a lot of us really feel.
Plus, I think it would be the most effective of any song on this list at goading the far left into a frothing snit. Play it proudly at your next local WCW demonstration and see if I’m right.
13. Sink the Bismarck — Johnny Horton
Johnny Horton sang a lot of irresistibly corny songs about American history. “Sink the Bismarck” is instead a tribute to the British sailors on the doomed HMS Hood, sunk by the fearsome German battleship Bismarck in the 1941 Battle of the Denmark Strait. The sailors — and, explicitly invoking Churchill, the British people — give the last full measure of devotion despite being terrifically outgunned by the German navy.
(There was a rumor going around that Horton had recorded some nasty racist songs, but that is pretty well shot down here.)
12. Let’s Roll — The Bellamy Brothers
A moving testament to the heroes of Flight 93, and a better memorial than they’re actually getting at the crash site.
11. (I Don’t Like It But) I Guess Things Happen That Way — Johnny Cash (but covered expertly by the lovely Emmylou Harris as well)
Before the Rolling Stones pointed out that “You Can’t Always Get What You Want,” Johnny Cash offered this resigned plea for strength. It’s a mature reflection on grief, parting, and making the best of an imperfect world that we can never fix.
10. Carryin’ a Torch — Kinky Friedman
The perennial Texas gubernatorial candidate is one of very, very few Jewish country singers. My favorite song of his is this admonishment to someone who’s left the best girl in the world. It’s included because of a patriotic twist which I won’t spoil for you, but it will make you want to go through and listen to all the words again.
9. The Eagle — Waylon Jennings
8. In America — Charlie Daniels
These are thematically similar songs about America’s recovery from post-Vietnam funk. Both are belligerent, raucous anthems to U.S. military power and a hell of a lot of fun.
I give Daniels pride of place here because he was first, by ten years, because of his emphasis on the reunification of America just as the Reagan presidency dawned, and because of that frantic ten-second Hammond organ solo.
7. If Ten Percent Is Good Enough For Jesus, It Ought To Be Enough For Uncle Sam — Ray Stevens
There’s little to add to a title like that. Stevens is a very clever satirist who made the mistake of mixing canned laughter into his songs. This one transcends the dated sound with a heartfelt plea for tax relief.
6. Whatever Happened to Randolph Scott? — The Statler Brothers
A cute little comment in four-part harmony on the state of Hollywood. In the second verse, basso profundo Harold “Foghorn” Reid belts out:
Everybody’s trying to make a comment about our doubts and fears
True Grit‘s the only movie I’ve really understood in years
You’ve gotta take your analyst along to see if it’s fit to see
Whatever happened to Randolph Scott has happened to the industry.
It’s a good thing the Statlers have retired; one shudders to think what they have to say about Brokeback Mountain.
5. You Gotta Stand For Something (Or You’ll Fall For Anything) — Aaron Tippin
There are a lot of songs about standing up for what’s right, which is not exclusively a conservative virtue. What is interesting — and conservative — about Tippin’s song is its awareness of the consequences of important choices on one’s family. The singer grows up poorer because of his father’s integrity. But the father also knows that by standing up for what’s right, he protects his family’s good name, which is the most valuable asset he holds.
4. Three-way Merle Haggard tie: The Fightin’ Side of Me, Okie From Muskogee, and Rainbow Stew.
Merle would take over the entire list if I’d let him. In 1996 in the Weekly Standard John Berlau wrote a thorough essay on the debate over Haggard’s politics. Here’s a taste:
In this way, if in no other, Haggard fits perfectly the definition of a conservative offered in Russell Kirk’s Enemies of the Permanent Things: “He neither denounces convention and conformity indiscriminately, nor defends every popular fashion of the evanescent hour. What he respects is a sound conformity to abiding principle and a healthy convention which keeps the knife from our throats.”
These are three of Haggard’s best. The Fightin’ Side of Me is a robust disagreement with — well, not so much with the Vietnam-era anti-war movement itself, but with the anti-war movement’s apparently bottomless contempt for America. Okie From Muskogee celebrates small-town values. Rainbow Stew is a wonderfully skeptical look at utopian politics. The chorus describes how, when all the politicians’ promises come to fruition, “We’ll all be drinking that free Bubble-up, and eating that rainbow stew.” I always thought “free Bubble-up” referred to free beer, but I recently learned it was just an off-brand Seven-Up. When the revolution comes, comrades, we will celebrate with — free Sierra Mist all around!
3. Stand By Your Man — Tammy Wynette
Ah, here’s a trip down memory lane:
“I’m not sitting here as some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette,” Mrs. Clinton said.
Wynette demanded an apology, saying Mrs. Clinton had “offended every true country music fan and every person who has made it on their own with no one to take them to a White House.”
The junior Senator from New York is still feeling that one, especially since the lovely, late, lamented Ms. Wynette’s ode to fidelity and the traditional family went on to be named the number one song in country music history by CMT in 2003.
2. Are the Good Times Really Over — Merle Haggard
Few people become conservatives because we read books about it. Instead, we observe a decline in the traditions and institutions we hold dear, and resolve to preserve and restore them. In doing so, many of us go through a meditation that sounds something like this. It would be a pretty gloomy song if it weren’t for the exhortation in the last verse to shake off our malaise, build cars that last, and take control of our destiny.
1. Smoke on the Water — Bob Wills
Topping the country charts for thirteen weeks of World War II was a fine example of patriotic Western Swing. Red Foley’s 1944 hit described the approaching reckoning with “the foes of all mankind”: Mussolini, Hirohito, and Hitler.
Unfortunately Foley’s version included a grim second verse that anticipated “nothing left but vultures” to inhabit Japan. Though those lines may have accurately captured America’s fury at Japanese atrocities, it’s not a sentiment to boast about. Or dance to.
So when Western Swing master Bob Wills recorded Foley’s hit in 1945, he dropped the flawed second verse and topped the country charts again. The Texas Playboys’ big-band boogie sounds even better, and the streamlined lyrics in Wills’ version emphasize America’s role in toppling tyrants:
Everybody who must fear them
Will rejoice on that Great Day
When the powers of dictators
Shall be taken all away
Even without the second verse the song is jarringly politically incorrect. (The chorus speaks of “smoke on the mountain, where the heathen gods stay”.) If you ever set out to find out just what it would take to get yourself excommunicated from the Unitarians, I bet playing this song while you did it would help.
Still, what a boisterous, two-stepping tribute to our fighting men and their mission this is. What a joyous anthem to freedom.
Someone needs to record it again.