Country Music Struggles to Meet the Moment. Again.


Scornful and indignant, Eric Church — the most accessible of country music’s contemporary heretics — begins his new single, “Stick That in Your Country Song,” with an image of a decayed America:

Take me on up to Detroit city
Jails are full, the factories empty
Mommas crying, young boys dying
Under that red, white and blue still flying

Church never explicitly refers to race, but it’s clear the nation he’s singing about contains multitudes, and it’s failing; the song’s lyrics are a far cry from the benign bliss that suffuses the rest of the genre, even at this very pointed moment. By the time Church arrives at the chorus, he’s taunting his ideologically vacuous peers: “Stick that in your country song/Take that one to No. 1,” he sneers, knowing full well they never would.

There’s similar pique in “March March,” the latest single from “Gaslighter,” the comeback album by the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks), the country music pariahs. The lyrics decry climate change, laws that seek to control a woman’s body and gun violence: “Standing with Emma and our sons and daughters/Watching our youth have to solve our problems/I’ll follow them, so who’s coming with me.”

The video amplifies the song’s lyrical provocations, collecting protest footage from the early 20th century to the present, spanning various causes but heavily addressing the Black Lives Matter movement, concluding with an onscreen roll call of names of Black victims of police violence.

“Stick That in Your Country Song” and “March March” aren’t directly about the current political moment — both were written before the recent protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd — but they’re about a nation that was already in turmoil, and has been for decades. Viewed through that lens, they are perfectly timed.

But that the two most prominent quasi-protest songs to come from the extended country music ecosystem are from artists who, in very different ways, have made a point of cutting against its orthodoxy only underscores how ill-prepared country music — the genre and the industry — is for the current conversations about racial justice.

This isn’t a surprise. For most of the last decade, mainstream country music has been distilling down to the dimmest version of itself, overindexing on breezy flirtation and lol-shrug rural tropes. Even the brawny, quasi-militaristic chest-puffing of the early 2000s — exemplified by Toby Keith, Trace Adkins and so on — has been all but excised. Luke Bryan is singing about drinking, Morgan Wallen is singing sweet nothings, Justin Moore is singing about drinking, Chris Janson is singing sweet nothings: More than at almost any time in its history, country music is a pool party.

Out in the rest of the world, industries that have long cruised with blinders on have been upended. The parts of the music industry that operate out of New York and Los Angeles have begun to take steps to redress decades of injustice, or at least have given lip service to the idea.

Nashville, though, has been caught flat-footed, an outcome that was essentially preordained, given that the country music business has always been woefully insufficient in how it addresses race — sidelining the Black music that was essential in its formation, overlooking the ways the genre still intersects with contemporary Black music and consistently giving Black performers short shrift. Building an identity premised upon Black erasure leaves the world of country music fumbling when it should be reckoning.

Nowhere has this been more evident than in the case of Lady Antebellum, which finally arrived at the realization that the name it’s been using for a decade and a half carries unwelcome slavery-era connotations. The band announced that it was rebranding as Lady A, a nickname it has long used (and a trademark it owns), only to discover that a Seattle blues singer — a Black woman — also performs under that same name.

What began as an overdue attempt at a good-faith act has devolved into a comedy of errors. After negotiations between the two parties — which included the prospect of a collaborative song — broke down, Lady A the blues singer asked for a payment of $10 million, half of which would be donated to charity. In response, Lady A the band filed a lawsuit to assert its right to use the name. Whether or not a judge offers the band relief, it has already been deeply damaged in the court of public opinion — blind to the associations its original name held, and equally blind to the implications of attempting to steamroll a Black artist on its path to attempted redemption.

This is what happens when racial awareness is an afterthought. But while it’s easy to malign the group for its stumbling, it is by no means alone. And the case of the former Dixie Chicks is instructive here. In 2003, the group was effectively exiled from the genre when Natalie Maines expressed her displeasure with President Bush. This was country music’s most jingoistic era, and its most overtly politically conservative one. But even as liberal outcasts, the trio did not take steps to address the implications of its name. Even when it released a defiant comeback album in 2006, it still went by the Dixie Chicks. Only now has the group rebranded.

It’s important to remember that harmful language can be perpetuated by cruel intent, and also by deaf ears. Country music has largely aligned itself with contemporary conservative values and has consistently sidelined the contributions and concerns of nonwhite and nonmale performers. In this climate, it can be jolting to hear even the faintest allusion to dissent, like on “How They Remember You,” the most recent single from the denuded balladeer trio Rascal Flatts, which features this benign ponderable: “Did you stand, or did you fall?/Build a bridge, or build a wall?”

Often, the genre finds itself dead center in the culture wars, as happened in June when the singer Chase Rice performed a concert in Tennessee at which fans were unmasked and not practicing social distancing, earning widespread ire, including from some of his peers. (More promisingly, the country superstars Garth Brooks, Brad Paisley and Alan Jackson have all recently done versions of drive-in concerts.)

But there are indications of changes in sentiment and in the ways country stars are willing to be outspoken. The Mississippi natives Faith Hill and Charlie Worsham spoke out in favor of removing Confederate iconography from the Mississippi state flag. In the wake of the killing of George Floyd, Lorie Liebig, a country music publicist and journalist, assembled a spreadsheet detailing how dozens of country musicians had (or hadn’t) been addressing the protests — though many were silent, a not insignificant number were actively engaging with the topic.

One easy way to make the genre less cloistered would be to simply pay more attention to its Black performers, who remain heavily marginalized, with the very notable exceptions of Darius Rucker and Kane Brown.

The singer and songwriter Jimmie Allen just released a promising EP, “Bettie James,” that features his smooth voice and pop instincts. Next week, the singer Rissi Palmer will debut a podcast, Color Me Country, devoted to the stories of Black and brown women country performers. And last month, Mickey Guyton, a singer who’s been knocking at the door of Nashville’s mainstream for years, released a new song, “Black Like Me,” which explicitly links the casually blinkered stories country music tells about America to the feebleness of its allyship:

It’s a hard life on easy street
Just white painted picket fences far as you can see
If you think we live in the land of the free
You should try to be Black like me

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