ABC News’ reported decision to disinvite Toby Keith and his supposedly too-patriotic current song from a televised Fourth of July patriotic rally brings up some interesting points. The most immediate is what in the world the show’s producers thought they were doing when — after dumping Keith — they invited Hank Williams Jr. to be on the show. The show is called In Search of America, after all. If they thought they were toning the show down, they might have another thought coming from Hank Jr., who is as outspoken, or more so, than Keith. And both have had a lot to say about America.
Beyond the disinvite, though, is the matter of what’s considered “too patriotic.” Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” is a tough-talking song, invoking images of destruction raining down on the enemy, culminating in the phrase: “We’ll put a boot in your ass/’Cause it’s the American way.” Obviously, given the reception Keith’s song has received, a great many Americans agree with him. When does patriotism become xenophobia? Or is an expression of national self-defense being considered too extreme from some quarters? Or too politically incorrect?
Historically, as working class music, country has a tradition of being fiercely patriotic. The 9/11 atrocities re-invigorated country’s defense of the red-white-and-blue, but the songs have always been there, ranging from World War II’s “There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” to Lee Greenwood’s often-revived-in-time-of-national-crisis “God Bless the USA.” In his new book, Don’t Get Above Your Raisin’: Country Music And The Southern Working Class (University of Illinois Press), prominent country music historian Bill Malone concludes that his studies reveal that a majority of war-oriented country songs throughout the genre’s history are not jingoistic songs but rather messages that “deal with the context and consequences of war — the reality facing all families …” In that context, Alan Jackson ’s 9/11 song, “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” fits the country music pattern of dealing with the realities and impact of mass destruction rather than calling for revenge.
Malone finds that theme throughout country music history, citing, for example, the Bobby Bare/Billy Joe Shaver song “Christian Soldier,” which depicts a Christian soldier’s dilemma in fighting a war he doubts, the Vietnam War.
Now and then country artists have removed themselves from the political fray: for example, Johnny Cash — whose anthem “Ragged Old Flag” is an unwavering salute to America — refused the Nixon administration’s request to perform both Merle Haggard’s fighting anthem “Okie From Muskogee” and the trailer trash tune “Welfare Cadillac” at the White House. Most country artists are simply too busy touring and recording to take part in political or topical arguments. But those who do are obviously deeply dedicated.
9/11, of course, introduced a new kind of conflict, a war with no precedents and no musical guidelines. And no identifiable enemy or geographical theater of war. There can be no “Over There” war song — as when Europe was the identifiable theater of war and the Axis was the visible enemy — in fighting an invisible terrorist army that is at once everywhere and nowhere. So, country’s new war balladeers face an uphill battle. Some, like Keith, feel an urgent need to strike back and — in a word – kickass. Hank Jr., on the other hand, revised his anti-New York City, anti-liberal diatribe “A Country Boy Can Survive” into a call for national unity as “America Will Survive.”
For those who feel the need to kick some serious butt, I’d like to propose a super-patriots country kickass tour: Put together Toby, Hank Jr. with perhaps his anti-Saddam Hussein song “Don’t Give Us a Reason,” Charlie Daniels and his “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” and “The Last Fallen Hero” and maybe David Allan Coe with his immortal tune “I’d Like to Kick the Sh– Out of You.”
Kick off the tour at Daytona, out in the blazing midday sun of the racetrack’s infield, invite the most fervent country fans, summon some bikers, a bunch of NFL players and NASCAR drivers and crews, bring in a few tanker trucks full of cold beer and crank up the amplifiers. Arrange for a Blue Angels flyover. And some babe-alicious Dallas Cowboys cheerleaders. Osama bin Laden would certainly hear that show and get that message loud and clear, wherever he’s hiding out.
Nashville Skyline is a column by CMT/CMT.com Editorial Director Chet Flippo