By Elizabeth Barfoot Christian
Some argue the sound of country music has become nearly indistinguishable from today’s pop---that it has lost in soul what it has gained in fan base over the last quarter-century. And that may be true when you listen to crossover country artists like Taylor Swift and Lady Antebellum (as well as rockers like Bret Michaels and Bon Jovi’s recent countrified-rock albums). Like many boundaries in postmodern culture, the lines between popular musical genres have been fading for quite some time.
But boundaries are a funny thing. Just when you think we’ve gotten past the need for labels… just when you think it’s OK to be a little bit country and a little bit rock ‘n roll, someone strikes a chord so offensive that lines must be drawn.
That boundary was recast in steel by country music following the world-altering events of Sept. 11, 2001.
As the molten metal of the Twin Towers melted, many hearts in the U.S. hardened. A new, angrier country was born. And from it emerged a new, angrier brand of country music as well.
Perhaps in hindsight “angry” is not a fair term to describe the artists who put to lyrics the pained, raw emotions that millions of Americans were feeling immediately after 9/11. Toby Keith, already branded a country outlaw, reportedly penned his No. 1 hit “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)” in about 20 minutes as his response to the 9/11 attacks on America. Keith’s father, a U.S. military veteran who taught him the importance of patriotism, had died unexpectedly just six months before the terrorist attack, and Keith took out his anger at both events in song. One for honor, the other, ire.
Keith was not alone. Country music saw a huge and almost immediate economic windfall following 9 /11. County Music Television sponsored the first Freedom Concert one month after the attack and raised $5 million for victims. Keith and Alan Jackson, who wrote and recorded “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning”), both achieved worldwide recognition for their patriotic ballads.
Jackson and Keith, already two of the more traditional country artists, were instrumental in returning country to its more populist, working-class roots. The sound of many of today’s popular country artists may not carry the same twang it did back in the day of Haggard and Jones, but 10 years post-9/11 the message is as political and patriotic as ever—and more Americans than ever are listening.
And while the musical qualities between country and mainstream pop many have merged somewhat, the message couldn’t be more distinguishable in post-9/11 America. If you don’t believe me, just ask Natalie Maines, whose career as darling of country radio took a drastic downhill slide with one poisonous political remark. While the Dixie Chicks—whose name you dare not speak in Lubbock, Texas—will forever be outcasts to true country fans, the group has experienced a rebirth in a more mainstream market with a much more liberal-thinking fan base.
Country has definitely come to town, and people who had never listened to it are listening to and loving it on both crossover and pop radio stations in growing abundance. Country stars have swarmed the Grammys. The last two entertainers of the year have been country singers. Both top finalists in this year’s American Idol were country singers, and the quasi-partnership with Fox News, the most popular cable news channel, which continues to host annual Freedom Concerts nationwide, isn’t hurting things either. Many of Fox News’ commentary programs regularly feature country artists singing and oftentimes offering personal political opinion.
The Hollywood left entered the political arena decades ago. The “Mom and apple pie” patriotic crew is catching up through the medium of country music and conservative cable news.
Elizabeth Barfoot Christian is assistant professor of journalism at Louisiana Tech University and the editor of Rock Brands: Selling Sound in a Media Saturated Culture.
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