On 25 August, 1921, in Logan County, West Virginia, the largest labour uprising in American history erupted. The biggest battle on American soil since the Civil War, the Battle of Blair Mountain lasted a week and involved over 13,000 unionised coal miners fighting to their last against 30,000 soldiers, coppers, and mercenaries from the Baldwin-Felts Detective Agency, county and state police forces, and the US Army and Air Corps. While the miners ultimately lost this battle and failed to start a mass uprising against the mine owners — and the capitalist class as a whole — it marked a pivotal moment in the union movement of the Gilded Age. It’s also from this battle that the term ‘redneck’ originates, which despite its modern connotations, came from the unionised, broadly anarchistic, workers tying red bandanas around their necks and the ends of their rifles before charging into battle.
The soundtrack for these rednecks taking up arms consisted of a bunch of old geezers and their comrades with out-of-tune banjos, fiddles and guitars, yodelling righteously about solidarity, hatred of the bourgeoisie, and the martyrs they lost in the struggle. These ‘union hymns’ included such bangers as ‘Solidarity Forever’, ‘Hallelujah, I’m a Bum!’ and ‘Casey Jones (The Union Scab)’, which tells the story of a miner who refuses to go on strike, gets turned on by his fellow workers, and winds up shovelling sulphur in hell instead of coal. These songs, which often stole their melodies from church hymns, united a working generation on picket lines and armed uprisings across the country and the world. This was a radically left-wing music which was notably intersectional compared to the broader background of the racist, sexist and generally-bigoted USA.
By the 50s and 60s, the genre was either largely apolitical (for its time), or maintained its left-wing tradition. Artists like Joan Baez, Bob Dylan and Utah Phillips were highly progressive, although none more so than the self-described ‘singing journalist’, Phil Ochs. His music was either a blunt attack aimed at America, or emotionally vulnerable and self-reflective in a way that conservative artists struggle to achieve. Ochs was unrelenting in his criticisms of American society, with songs like ‘Love Me I’m a Liberal’, which comedically highlights liberal hypocrisies and ‘Here’s to the State of Mississippi’, which features lyrics like “If you drag her muddy river/ Nameless bodies you will find”. This harsh indictment of what Ochs viewed as the worst parts of a deeply flawed country culminates in the songs’ short but potent chorus: “Oh, here’s to the land you’ve torn out the heart of/Mississippi, find yourself another country to be part of.”
With a similar disdain against the powers that be was a subgenre that you may know better than you think: outlaw country. Enter the gunslingin’ Johnny Cash, Willie ‘Shotgun’ Nelson, and the outlaw extraordinaire Merle Haggard. Singing about evading cops, legalising drugs and putting an end to American atrocities in Vietnam, these characters helped define country from the late 50s to the 70s with a strong aversion to authority and injustice.
Fast forward a few decades and mainstream country music has come to represent something very different: the American military-industrial complex in all its jingoistic, gun-toting glory. Songs like Toby Keith’s ‘Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)’ sing the praises of the eagle and Mother Freedom. The song’s poetry is unrivalled: “…you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A/ ’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” This sentiment seems to be what most people associate with country music today. If it’s not militant nationalism, it’s familial love (putting it kindly) or working on the ranch for the lord above. So what was the turning point, when did country become this neoconservative disaster?
That’d be September 11, 2001.
You don’t have to be a historian to know that the falling of the twin towers caused a seismic shift in America and the world. Jingoism swamped the nation, and George W. Bush’s war on terror triggered a wave of xenophobia that inundated American culture. Country artists like Toby Keith and Daryl Worley stoked the fiery nationalism brewing in America, finding great success in supporting the country’s efforts in the Middle East and waving the flag in the faces of any who opposed the mighty US of A. The genre which, a couple of years before, crooned about falling in love with someone while fishing (thanks Tim McGraw), now celebrated imperialism and demanded war (see Daryl Worley’s ‘Have You Forgotten’, the only No.1 hit to ever namedrop Osama Bin Laden). While Richard Nixon and especially Ronald Reagan’s presidencies helped create the cultural environment for this nationalism to fester, 9/11 was the nail in the coffin for this explosion of chauvinism.
Nowadays, although this nationalistic country is by no means extinct, mainstream artists have generally moved away from championing the American military-industrial complex, back towards the wholesome themes of love and trucks. But, more importantly, a new generation of forward-thinking artists and an increasingly diverse listenership are working in tandem to reshape country music’s landscape. Revitalising the outlaw subgenre with a voice like Cash and outfits inspired by country queen Dolly Parton, Orville Peck’s popularity is soaring, celebrating queer narratives in country. Lil Nas X pioneered this in the mainstream with his 2019 country-rap hit ‘Old Town Road’, a remix of which brought back 90s country darling Billy Ray Cyrus. Rhiannon Giddens’ eclectic discography tells stories of the African-American experience in country and folk, which have been sidelined for years.
Further saving country from the Toby Keiths of the world are mainstream pop artists infusing their music and social commentary with the genre. Taylor Swift’s well-known roots are in country music and it continues to influence her sound. The 1975 frontman Matthew Healy cites country as a throughline in the band’s entire discography. Beyoncé’s undeniably country ballad ‘Daddy Lessons’ (controversially rejected for consideration by the 2016 Grammys country committee) saw significant mainstream success, and a remix brought back the most popular all-women country group of the 2000s, The (Dixie) Chicks. It’s infusions like these that both reframe country and expand its insular bubble. Even many strictly country artists are pushing against the genre’s harmful culture, such as Nick Shoulders, with lyrics like “I hope you choke upon that red pill” in ‘The World Needs Sissies, Too’, or the wonderful Chris Acker, who writes about queer love or finding the face of Mother Mary in a toasted sandwich.
Country’s political history is turbulent but profound. Understanding its early identity as a true people’s music, its perversion into nationalism after 9/11, and its nascent renaissance, reveals the genre’s potential as a strong political and social force.
“We can bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old, for the union makes us strong” – Pete Seeger, ‘Solidarity Forever’.