NASHVILLE SKYLINE: A Christmastime Look at War and Peace

Butch Hancock Rethinks Country Music's War Songs

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

In this season traditionally devoted to peace on earth and good will toward men, when we have neither right now, I submit that we could all do worse than listen to Butch Hancock’s new album, War and Peace.

This veteran West Texas song wrangler and member of the Flatlanders has written and recorded a collection of songs dealing with war and peace. The fact that it’s his first solo album in some nine years indicates a level of motivation he obviously did not feel before.

Where most recent country war songs have leaned toward a militant and powerfully patriotic feel, Hancock steps back and takes a more philosophical look at the situation. Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” was perhaps the quintessential country war song: big and boasting and smug. “Have You Forgotten,” Darryl Worley’s lament about 9/11, was written about the war in Afghanistan but was appropriated by the Iraq War cheerleaders. Most recently, with “I Just Got Home From a War,” Worley is taking a more thoughtful stance about the whole doubtful venture.

But Hancock steps outside the fray to attempt to put the whole thing into some kind of perspective. This is a quirky, typically Hancockesque leap of faith that invokes both Bob Dylan and Woody Guthrie in the lyrics. Musically, it invokes traditional West Texas flat-ahead rocking country as well as traditional folk. In other words, it’s what you would expect from Butch. And it’s going to take me several more listenings to sort it all out.

Hancock plays all instruments on this CD, apart from Flatlander guitarist Rob Gjersoe joining in. Flatlanders Joe Ely and Jimmie Dale Gilmore add harmony singing on “The Master Game” and “Cast the Devils Out.” The latter song has me pondering the questions Hancock is raising. When he sings, “Along came a man with oil in his heart/And he tried to cast the devils out/He couldn’t do it/He threw a few out of the White House but left some room for doubt/Who is he to cast the devils out,” you kind of think you know what he is talking about, but are you sure?

The opening and closing songs here similarly invoke questions. “Give Them Water,” the opener, is a lament for the whole sorry mess that is Iraq. The closing song, “That Great Election Day,” is a rousing anthem, saying, “Who’s gonna be the master and who’s gonna be the slave/On that day, on that great election day/Now who’s gonna vote their conscience/And who’s gonna count the votes.”

As he sings in “Brother Won’t You Shake My Hand”: “If your religion lets you kill/You’ll have lots of graves to fill/There’s writing on the walls in every land.”

Peter Blackstock writes in the current issue of No Depression magazine that War and Peace has had a profound effect on his father, prompting the elder Mr. Blackstock to send Hancock a note, reading, in part (and I quote from Peter’s editor’s note in the current issue): “I’ve been waiting and waiting and waiting for us to get to the stage in the Iraq war reached in the Vietnam war when Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary and all the others raised their choruses in protest. Thank God, you’ve done what you’ve done. I hope it’s the beginning of a flood.”

Merry Christmas. Peace on earth. Good will toward men. Keep on the sunny side.