Country music today often strikes people as a set of recycled songs about beer, nationalism, blue jeans and, on occasion, a good pair of cowboy boots. This makes sense, given a lot of the songs that get played on radio stations tend to center on these topics. Country music wasn’t always this patriotic and derivative, however, and so the genre has the potential to return to its roots.
Country music is a uniquely American genre born out of folk and blues traditions, specifically, the folk music that was carried to America by poor Scottish and Irish immigrants and the blues that was sung by African Americans after the Civil War. Both of these groups endured a lot of hardship, and this was reflected in their music. Often, the themes of folk and blues music involve the singer living despite the harsh world around them. These were songs about discrimination, loss, poor working conditions and the orchestrated misfortunes these people faced. When country music started to emerge in the 1920s, these topics were reflected more within it. It was, in every sense, a genre that belonged to the working-class people of the American South.
Jumping to what is considered the “fourth generation” of country music in the 1970s and the 1980s, America saw two major movements emerge: pop country and outlaw country. In pop country music, featuring well-known artists like John Denver and Dolly Parton, themes tended to center around love, heartbreak and hometowns. Outlaw country, on the other hand, had an attitude to it. Most commonly associated with Willie Nelson, it was more angry at mainstream American culture at the time and used imagery from the Old West to encourage listeners to buck norms. Still, there was none of the patriotism that is currently the defining characteristic of modern country.
When did that change? The short answer is 9/11. Now, it is important to understand that, yes, country has always been a quintessentially American sound. After 9/11, though, love of the USA came to the forefront of the genre. Suddenly, a series of songs came out condemning the attack, from “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” by Toby Keith, to “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” by Charlie Daniels, both of which promised to avenge the attacks. These songs were just a small example of the surge of nationalism felt by the American public, but they brought country music back into the spotlight under the context of patriotism. Soon, country artists would discover just how profitable that patriotism was.
Today, what some might refer to as “stadium” or “bro” country is full of American pride, even when it doesn’t seem to mesh with the rest of the song. It almost feels like singers need to reassure listeners that they’re all for the flag. For example, there is an infamous monologue about how Americans need to support the troops sandwiched into “Chicken Fried” by the Zac Brown Band, a song that is — as implied by the title — otherwise about fried chicken.
All this being said, even for those who don’t like their music with a side of red, white and blue, there is still hope in the country music genre. Artists like Orville Peck are expanding the audience of country music, especially to marginalized groups like the queer community, for the first time in years. Folk music, which has always been the more progressive twin to the more conservative politics of post-9/11 country music, has also fought to create safer spaces for sidelined Americans, with artists like Willi Carlisle writing songs about queer experiences (“Life on the Fence”), or being poor in today’s America (“Vanlife”). All in all, the scourge of nationalism in country music may dominate understanding of the genre today, but that doesn’t mean that this overbearing pride needs to stay.