Along the Tracks

Friday, July 12, 2002

Americans can come home to country

I've gotten lots of great comments from my Bryan Times piece last week about country music and patriotism. That column was actually an abbreviated version of the column. So, special for my on-line readers, here it is in full:

Country music wears patriotism on its sleeve

“Where were you when the world stopped turning,
On that September day?”

The question comes instinctively when a major crisis strikes America: “Where were you when ...?” For Baby Boomers, it was the JFK assassination; for Gen Xers, the shuttle Columbia disaster. Now we all share September 11.

While the question attempts to personalize reaction to tragedy, it is also fascinating to note where American culture at large was on September 11. Movie theater seats were packed by the action-comedy sequel Rush Hour 2. On television, Tony Soprano and family were all the talk. Sports was abuzz over the potential return of Michael Jordan to the basketball court.

In popular music, Destiny’s Child and Jennifer Lopez dominated Top 40 radio, Tool and Staind kept the head-bangers happy, and Ja Rule was ruling hip-hop. When the planes hit the twin towers, the Pentagon and a Pennsylvania field, musicians and radio programmers across formats jumped to patriotic mobilization through re-released anthems, new medleys and even a few originals. Songs of hearth and home, compassion and courage took on new meaning and new chart strength.

Meanwhile, over on the country side of the dial, the song already topping playlists when the crisis came was “Only in America.” Such is the deep relationship between country music and the country from which it grew.

At one time, all American popular music had similar patriotic roots. Blues, jazz, swing, folk, bluegrass and traditional country and western danced across a variety of sometimes conventional, sometimes provocative themes, but the floor was a basic belief in the morality and opportunity of America. In war and peace, popular artists crooned for the troops overseas and families at home, offering inspiration (“God Bless America” by Kate Smith), pride touched with humor (“Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” by the Andrews Sisters) and populist patriotism (“This Land Is Your Land” by Woody Guthrie). At first, rock and roll maintained this heritage from its forbearers (Chuck Berry’s “Back in the USA” is but one example). But in the 1960s, revolution came.

The British Invasion changed the nature of popular music in a fundamental way: The performers were no longer all Americans. Our “special relationship” with the UK not withstanding, artists from Great Britain came from a different philosophical and cultural background. Their freedoms were different (and limited). Their relationship with authority was different (less populism, more antagonism). And the American dream - rising from poverty to wealth through hard work - was foreign to them. Yet the energy and experimentation of artists like the Beatles, the Who, and the Rolling Stones was exciting and compelling; their philosophies and methods were devoured by young Americans and imitated by young American artists. The disconnection of the music from its cultural moorings has resulted in rock (and its offspring of pop, dance and hip-hop) drifting into themes of humanistic utopianism, political extremism and personal depravity.

While rock was transformed by British influences, other American musical forms remained largely unshaken. Jazz was already a domain of instrumental and vocal virtuosos. Soul had taken flight from the coupling of the spiritual beauty of black gospel music and the grit of the blues. Folk was (and is) almost defined by its populism. In a similar way, the blues’ focus was, by definition, personal.

Country was the most conservative of genres. The “white man’s blues,” like its brother, was born in old wooden shacks and raised in fields under the hot sun. Its themes were always life’s little joys and personal hardships; for every bit of pleasure, a bit of pain. But from the tales of Marty Robbins to the misery of Hank Williams, there was no doubt these were scenes from America.

And regularly, then and now, that foundation became the focus. Country music, unlike rock, prominently features artists whose subjects and views fall across the political spectrum, but universally stand on pride in America.

“Outlaw country” superstar Waylon Jennings praised racial unity and political forgiveness in “America.” Charlie Daniels exuded righteous anger and machismo with “In America.” Alabama sang a hymn to labor in “40-Hour Week.” In his version of Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans,” Willie Nelson - no conservative - puts the uplifting spirit of the American landscape to music. More recently, Garth Brooks has invoked the language of Martin Luther King Jr. in his ode to economic justice, “We Shall Be Free.”

And of course, the universal, unswerving patriotism of Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA” is an undying crossover success.

Post-‘60s rock and pop are not without their moments (National Review contributor Bruce Bartlett wrote on rock’s patriotic hits in his syndicated works last fall). Neil Diamond’s “America” extols the virtues which draw immigrants to our shores. The bouncy energy of “Philadelphia Freedom” looks upon those virtues from the other side of the fence - or pond, in the case of the British Elton John.

More commonly, the specter of America in rock and pop music is negative, even dangerous. Despite it’s powerful chorus, Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” is no homage; like many of the Boss’s songs, this one looks at the darker side of our society, the refrain mocking the value of citizenship. U2’s “Bullet the Blue Sky” depicts America as a faceless, fearful force tearing through Third World neighborhoods. In rap, America is a blur of crooked cops, racist officials, dilapidated neighborhoods and street justice, exemplified by Public Enemy’s “F___ the Police.”

So, when the attacks came, country music was the genre which had maintained its historical ties to the virtues of America and could most smoothly and convincingly evoke those virtues once again. “Only in America,” the Brooks & Dunn romp mentioned above, was joined, in a matter of weeks, by patriotic numbers which slipped seamlessly into radio playlists and onto albums. Aaron Tippin thumped his chest with “Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagles Fly.” In “Riding with Private Malone,” David Ball paid quiet respect to a fallen member of the armed forces. “American Child” by Phil Vassar wove a tale of struggle and growth to personalize the American experience. Blackhawk’s “Days of America” honored the determination of the American spirit. Toby Keith is providing bravado with “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”

But more than any artist - in country or any other format - Alan Jackson captured the complex cocktail of emotions all were feeling. “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” provides vivid freeze-frames from life in America that day, certain to hit close to home for any listener. Perhaps most impressive, and most compelling, is the refrain, in which Jackson speaks for everyone who felt the sheer enormity of those events was too much to absorb:

“I’m just a singer of a simple song, I’m not a real political man,
I watch CNN, but I don’t think I could tell you,
The difference in Iraq and Iran.”

Jackson then does something which, frankly, one would never hear in a modern pop or rock song. He places it all at the feet of his Maker, and declares it is his faith in God which will carry him - and all of us - through:

“But I know Jesus, and I talk to God,
And I remember this from when I was young,
‘Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us,
But the greatest is love.’”

The statement, a direct quote from Paul’s epistle to the Romans, offers comfort and assurance through religion - a most American theme, although little noted in 21st century pop culture. Jackson’s Everyman persona - like country music’s larger setting - comes to the fore in his simple tributes to ideals with which Americans in “flyover country” can readily identify: Hard work, family and faith.
It is no coincidence country was ready with music to soothe and strengthen American souls when the attacks came. In future moments of triumph or loss, Americans can rest assure their country will be ready for them.

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