September 11, 2001 shook every American to their core, but in the music world, it looked like it affected country artists the most. From Alan Jackson’s tender “Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning” to Toby Keith’s antagonistic “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” to Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten?,” it was more rare in the months following 9/11 for a country artist to NOT make a patriotic song about America.
Those songs were merely following in the country music tradition of songs like Johnny Cash’s “The Ballad of Ira Hayes,” Billy Ray Cyrus’ “Some Gave All,” and Charlie Daniels Band’s “In America,” among many others. (Never thought I’d mention Billy Ray and Johnny Cash in the same sentence, but there you have it.)
And who could forget the crown jewel of them all, Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.”?
Needless to say, country music as a genre has a long history of being very patriotic and pro-America, even in the country’s worst times.
This past week, as I do every Fourth of July, I watched a fireworks show. It was accompanied by a band doing “God Bless America,” “The Star-Spangled Banner,” “My Country ‘Tis of Thee,” the typical standards. What struck me as odd, especially for Texas, was that there were no current patriotic country songs being played.
I tried to jog my memory for the last completely patriotic country song I heard. All I could come up with was “All-American Kid,” off of Garth Brooks’ latest. After some more research, I found three more: Dierks Bentley’s “Home,” Tim McGraw’s “If You’re Reading This” and Keith Urban’s “For You,” from the “Act of Valor” soundtrack. (A film about SEALs, played by actual SEALs, set to country music? ‘Murica.)
Four songs since 2007. Compared to the influx of pro-America songs right after 9/11, it’s a stark difference. But since the start of the War on Terror, there have been a few protest songs as well.
That trend began in 2006, when outlaw Merle Haggard released “Rebuild America First,” calling for the US to get out of Iraq. Following the financial crisis of 2008, John Rich of Big and Rich penned “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” about out-of-work Detroit factory workers.
Country music then became less about how star-spangled awesome it was to be an American and more about the plight of the working man.
The always popular drinking song subgenre made a comeback during that time as well. In fact, Toby Keith made a second career out of singing about beer following his patriotic apex with “Shock’n Y’all” in 2003. (“Get Drunk and Be Somebody,” “Red Solo Cup,” “I Like Girls that Drink Beer,” “Beers Ago,” “Drunk Americans.” If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.)
But just because country music became less pro-America as a whole didn’t mean country artists weren’t proud of where they came from. The songs just focused on a smaller part of America.
It could be argued that songs like “Kiss my Country Ass,”“How Bout You,”“Fly-Over States,” “Small Town USA” and the like became the new patriotic songs for country fans who were proud of where they were from, but didn’t identify with the way the country was leaning as a whole.
The above songs extol the Protestant work ethic, shun big city living and promote good old-fashioned family values. They’re less proud of the country they’re from than they are of the certain sect that they call home. Hip-hop music (country music told more explicitly) is the same way— Compton, Inglewood, Brooklyn, Bed-Stuy, Atlanta and other communities all played a bigger part in forging those artists’ identities than being an American did.
Now, as I’ve mentioned before, the song climate is about memories of those small towns.
The truth is, the political climate has changed a lot since 9/11. If an artist were to craft something as openly antagonizing as Keith’s “Red, White and Blue” today, I don’t think the reaction would be the same. And I definitely don’t see that happening any time soon, especially with the current crop of younger artists who want nothing more than to sing about booze and painted-on jeans. And to be fair, a lot of the post-9/11 songs were crafted in reaction to a tragedy that I hope we never have to endure again as a country. If, God forbid, something like that were to happen again, I don’t know how this generation of country singers and fans would react.
I’m not sure if that’s a good or a bad thing. Maybe it’s just different.
So I guess I’ll just spend the rest of my Fourth of Julys listening to Toby Keith sing about sticking a proverbial boot up a terrorist’s ass.
It’s the American way.