NASHVILLE SKYLINE: When Country Music Marches Off to War

New Book Looks at the History of Country in Uniform

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

Just like soldiers, songs go to war. And country music has a very long and rich history of its songs marching off to war for many decades. Country’s first gold record was Elton Britt’s “There’s a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere” during World War II, which was the last popular war in which this country was engaged. There were plenty of war songs before that, and there have been plenty more since.

There are war songs and there are patriotic songs. Sometimes they’re one and the same. In any event, they look to be a long-term growth industry.

The future looks very rosy for patriotic songs now that we seem plunged into perpetual war. One Nashville record label is so optimistic about the prospects of such songs that it’s going to issue country music’s first all-military themed album. It would actually be the second, if we count Staff Sgt. Barry Sadler’s 1966 album Ballads of the Green Berets, which was not strictly a country album. Johnny Cash’s 1991 Patriot was made up of patriotic songs and recitations. And Waylon Jennings’ 1978 White Mansions is a storybook about the Civil War.

The upcoming CD is by a decorated Army veteran, albeit one who is 35 and has been out of the Army and working as a country singer for several years. Keni Thomas’ CD, Flags of Our Fathers: A Soldier’s Story, is due Tuesday (Jan. 25) from the Moraine Music Group. Moraine is headed by Brent Maher, a savvy producer best known for his work with the Judds. The Flags CD will have guest appearances by Vince Gill, Emmylou Harris, Michael McDonald, Shawn Mullins and Kenny Rogers.

At the same time, the first scholarly history of the subject is being published Friday (Jan 21). Country Music Goes to War, edited by Charles K. Wolfe and James E. Akenson, is being issued by the University of Kentucky Press. It’s a fascinating beginning history of a topic that will be the subject of scholarship and popular writing for years to come.

Country Music Goes to War, in its 14 chapters, covers a great deal of ground, including Australia and Northern Ireland. Domestically, its authors look at the Civil War, the early years in commercial country music (from 1923 on), several examinations of the impact of World War II , Korea, the Cold War, the threat of the atom bomb on country music, the Toby Keith-Dixie Chicks era of Gulf War II, and 9/11 and its impact on country music. The Vietnam War, a fertile battleground of war songs, is not examined here and deserves its own book (as the authors note in their introduction).

The most surprising thing I learned from the book was that Hollywood wanted to punish cowboy singing star and actor Gene Autry for joining the military and serving in World War II. The head of his movie studio, Herbert Yates of Republic Pictures, threatened to “break” Autry and to promote Roy Rogers (who had a deferment as a father) over Autry if he refused Yates’ offer to have Republic engineer a deferment for Autry — as Yates had done for John Wayne. Republic Pictures felt that the studio’s success was more important than the war effort. Autry became a pilot in the Army Air Corps, and Yates did everything in his power for years to scuttle Autry’s career.

Autry, who would ultimately return to acting for Columbia Pictures after legal wrangles with Republic, recorded sporadically while in the Army, and one of his two No. 1 country singles was 1945’s war song “At Mail Call Today.” (His other No. 1, as you probably know, was “Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”)

Interestingly, by any name, many patriotic, war and military songs ultimately become songs to kill by. Although that’s not talked about too much.

When I was in the Navy during the Vietnam War, we cruised to music by Jimi Hendrix, Cream, the Rolling Stones and the Doors. Their darker, more violent sounds were the soundtrack to our war. As an unpopular war, Vietnam had no sterling musical appeals to patriotism, no Gene Autry or Darryl Worley or a true soldier like Craig Morgan writing calls to arms. Instead we were offered — and rejected — Barry Sadler’s jingoistic war whoops and the draft dodger John Wayne’s propagandistic movie on the Green Berets.

Today the battle soundtrack comes from Toby Keith’s boot in the ass and hip-hop and OutKast’s “Bombs Over Baghdad.” And God knows what else.

I’m reminded of one of the more haunting songs from World War I. Its title was “After the War Is Over, Will There Be Any Home Sweet Home?”

What could any of us possibly add to that?