NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Willie and the War

Country Legend Asks "Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth"?

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Politics and music are not easy bedmates. Country music and politics are especially uneasy bedfellows. Then, when you drag war into the equation, things get really riotous. Country music and war, though, are usually great love makers together.

And it’s not a mystery as to the reasons why. Traditionally, poor young men were the ones who were sent off to war. Those poor young men were proud to serve, and their families were traditionally patriotic. And a great many of them were from the country music audience, which has been the working class audience. That’s why for generations country songs have propelled the war machines. Just consider some of the song titles from across the years: “There’s a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere,” “Cowards Over Pearl Harbor,” Jimmy Dickens’ “Thank God for Victory in Korea,” Hank Williams’ (as his alter ego Luke the Drifter’s) “No No Joe” about Russian dictator Joseph Stalin, Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” Johnny Wright’s “Hello Vietnam,” Ernest Tubb’s “It’s America: Love It or Leave It” and Hank Williams Jr.’s “Don’t Give Us a Reason.” And many, many others.

But when you get to the antiwar department, the song drawers are fairly empty. Johnny Cash, to be sure, lost his network TV show partly because he allowed the antiwar protest singers Pete Seeger and Joan Baez on the show. Cash also sang his “Singing in Viet Nam Talking Blues” on the show and once joked that, “I may not be a hawk. … But maybe I’m a dove with claws.”

Loretta Lynn’s forgotten “Dear Uncle Sam” from the Vietnam era urged the government to give her man back to her because she needed him more. George Jones’ “50,000 Names” is an eloquently emotional tribute to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Merle Haggard’s recent “That’s the News” explores the perverse modern-day symbiosis of the media machine and the wars it loves — and this last war (Iraq) in particular.

Willie looked at the human tragedy of the Vietnam War with his song “Jimmy’s Road.” It was a simple song about the simple costs of war on simple lives. And it was revived when the Gulf War kicked off in 1991, although it was overpowered by such war rally anthems as “God Bless the USA.” Patriotism in the time of war demands rallying songs, not songs of introspection and reflection.

Now, Willie has returned with another simple, yet powerful look at the human effects of war. Not the star-spangled, F-16 fly-over proud rallies of war, but what happens to the human element when it’s caught up in the war machine. The opening lines of “What Ever Happened to Peace on Earth” tell you much:

There’s so many things going on in the world
Babies dying
Mothers crying
How much oil is one human life worth
And what ever happened to peace on earth.

Nelson also looks at the administration’s spin on the war:

We believe everything that they tell us
They’re gonna’ kill us
So we gotta’ kill them first
But I remember a commandment
Thou shall not kill
How much is that soldier’s life worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth.

Willie seems pretty harsh on Bush, but I’ll leave it to you to judge from his words:

And the bewildered herd is still believing
Everything we’ve been told from our birth
Hell they won’t lie to me
Not on my own damn TV
But how much is a liar’s word worth
And whatever happened to peace on earth.

As he concludes in the song, this will not be a radio single: Now you probably won’t hear this on your radio/Probably not on your local TV/But if there’s a time, and if you’re ever so inclined/You can always hear it from me.

Some acquaintances and friends who recall that I was fairly stern with Natalie Maines at the time of her verbal accident ask me, “Well, what’s the difference between Natalie and Willie? Aren’t they doing the same thing?” Well, no, they’re not. Not at all. Willie’s song is the expression of a true artist and that is what true artists do. They confront reality with art. Look at Picasso’s “Guernica” and think of an artist confronting a horrible reality. Willie and Kris and Cash and Waylon may have been as close as country music’s ever going to come to a Picasso. They painted our musical realities.

Nelson very clearly felt something deeply about this war’s aftermath and made a lasting, creative and heartfelt statement about it, a statement that has already touched many hearts and minds. Unlike Natalie Maines, he did not get up on stage in a foreign country at a time when the U.S. was mobilizing for war and toss off a wiseass, adolescent remark. A remark made in the only foreign country — England — that was our ally at the time in this campaign. It was a remark that Maines first tried to ignore, then apologized for, then said was a joke and then — when it appeared she was saddled with it and was flogged by country radio and many fans — tried to spin into a noble martyrdom.

With Willie Nelson, you know what he stands for, and you know that he has the moral fiber and the guts to stand for it. It was with that same spirit that Johnny Cash could fervently oppose the Vietnam War but still personally go to Vietnam to support the troops. Natalie and the Chicks kept saying during their controversy that they support the troops. So, you have to ask: what have they done to demonstrate that support for the troops?

Personally, many readers have asked me for my credentials in all of this business. Well, I’m a native Texan, I love country music, I’m a Navy veteran, I’m a liberal, I inhaled, I believe that war is sometimes necessary, I voted against Bush (and his father) and I opposed the war in Iraq. I have since come to feel that ousting Hussein has probably been worth the price that has been paid and is being paid. I know several liberals who feel the same way. It’s not an easy position to take, especially when it seems to be a given that managing the post-war is such a mess. But, now, me — I’ll just shut up and sing. And I’ll sing along with Willie’s “Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth.”