No matter what is going on in our country—from the magnitude of presidential elections and impending war, to the circus that is our nation’s media—everyone seems to have something to say. Country stars are no different. By using their songs as platforms, country music fans always know just what their favorite stars are thinking, whether we want to or not. Ironically, we hold their relatable stories of love, loss and Friday nights on a pedestal but when it comes down to something we see on the news, many fans suddenly prefer that these innate songwriters turn a blind eye. Country stars have boldly confronted national issues for years; some have been applauded for their honest portrayal of national concerns, while others pay for speaking out with their careers.
"The Angry American"
An artist that has always been able to pack a punch lyrically is none other than Toby Keith. Back in 2001, after the tragic events of September 11th, Nashville started cranking out song after song in support of the country. Keith was no different. His single, “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” certainly stirred up emotions throughout the country music community. With lyrics like, “Justice will be served, and the battle will rage. This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage. And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A.’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way,” Keith was literally and lyrically threatening the forces that “sucker punched” our country on that fateful day. Because of its sentimental value, Keith had originally decided to only perform this song when touring for troops, but after Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, James L. Jones, told Keith it was his American responsibility to record the song and lift the morale of the troops, Keith could not keep this rabble-rousing song to himself. However, after the release of this single, reviews were mixed on Keith’s in-your-face, vengeful lyrics. Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, came forward against the song, saying she felt it was “ignorant, and it makes country music sound ignorant,” fueling a long and tiresome feud between the two. The opposition didn’t stop there. When Keith was asked to perform on a patriotic special on ABC, host Peter Jennings requested that he tone down the aggressive lyrics in this song. Keith refused and did not play in the special. But, in a 2003 interview, Keith responded to all the heavy opinions of the single with this, “It wasn’t written for everybody. And when you write something from your heart—I had a dad that was a veteran, [who] taught me how precious our freedom is—I was so angry when we were attacked here on American soil that it leaked out of me.”
On the other end of the lyrical spectrum, Brad Paisley wrote a progressive and historically-relevant single with his “Welcome to the Future.” In it, Paisley references the many ways in which our country has evolved, from technology to the growth in equal rights through the years. He sings about a black friend of his from high school who had a cross burned in his front yard because he asked out the Homecoming Queen, and how he wished he could see how far we’ve come. He calls “Wake up, Martin Luther. Welcome to the future!” When Paisley was invited to play at the White House for President Obama and family, he recalls choking up as he sang the lyrics. Obama says of the song, and country music; “It’s captured our restlessness and resilience, and told so much of our story in the process.” Usually a comical lyricist, Paisley’s song is subtle, poignant and graceful as it delicately exhibits his hope for continuing growth in our country.
Single appeared on Brad's "American Saturday Night" album
For Natalie Maines and the Dixie Chicks, a song was born after a media fire storm no one could have ignored. In March of 2003, Maines made comments at a London concert regarding the band’s views on the impending Iraq War, the President and their shared Texan roots. To be specific, she declared to the crowd, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence. And we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” But, after the doctored, “Just so you know…we’re ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas” hit the American media outlets, all hell broke loose for the trio. After country music radio stations boycotted the threesome’s music, and protests sprouted throughout the country, it seemed as though the Chicks’ career was over.
Mag Cover to address the Chicks' controversy
The group’s songs were no-where to be heard in the country community, who felt that disrespecting the President on foreign soil was nothing less than an unpatriotic sin. However, with hard work just as resilient as Natalie’s unforgettable words, the Dixie Chick’s determination and talent could not be quelled. In 2006, the women came back with their seventh album, Taking the Long Way, with their first single being “Not Ready to Make Nice.” The single frankly addresses the public reactions and disturbing events that followed their defiant stand against the war and the President. While they aimed for a universal interpretation, and not a literal one, there are lines in the song that cannot be translated otherwise. In reference to a particularly rattling death threat Maines received, lyrics question “And how in the world can the words that I said, send somebody so over the edge that they’d write me a letter, saying that I better ‘Shut up and sing’ or my life will be over?” The Chicks also filmed a rockumentary appropriately named “Shut Up and Sing,” chronicling their ordeal post comment-heard-round-the-world. Both the film and comeback album did shockingly well, Taking the Long Way earning five Grammy Awards in 2007.
As country music fans, we are rooted in the honesty and integrity of our favorite songs on the radio. We love that these are real stories that we can relate to and believe in. But, when a song is written that has such a strong message that it can either polarize or unite their fans, paradoxically, we must accept this rarity as the most raw form of art and songwriting. Appreciation for these frank testimonials of American life must be a priority for country fans, or all we will be left with are empty verses leaving us cold and needing more from our favorite artists.