It’s the American way

Country music’s current obsession with flag-waving jingoism, when mixed with a dose of old-fashioned xenophobia, makes for some truly crummy music

Flag-waving country boys: Toby Keith…

Flag-waving country boys: Toby Keith…

The No. 1 country song in America in the past few weeks has been something called “Have You Forgotten?” by Darryl Worley.

Perhaps you’ve heard it.

It begins with the couplet, “Hear people saying we don’t need this war / I say there’s some things worth fighting for.”

Now, you may have noticed a few thousand people walking around holding signs that say stuff like “No War for Oil” and who appear to disagree with that first line, if you pay attention to that sort of thing.

Worley follows with the observation that there are some things worth fighting for. Indeed, there are. What might those be? Worley frames the issue by asking a rhetorical question: “What about our freedom and this piece of ground?” he asks. He doesn’t waste any time in answering: “We didn’t get to keep ’em by backing down.”

Damn straight. None of that pantywaist stuff like you find coming from those cheese-eating surrender monkeys over there in France.

Worley continues: “They say we don’t realize the mess we’re getting in / Before you start preaching / Let me ask you this my friend.”

First, who is this nebulous “they”? Second, who’s doing the preaching here? And, third, the use of “my friend” by someone who has no prior relationship with you usually telegraphs the idea that you’re about to be on the receiving end of a foist, as in, “This vintage, low-mileage Plymouth Duster is a very good deal, my friend. Never mind the sawdust I put in the transmission and the thick blue smoke coming from the tailpipe.”

And here’s what Worley is foisting: “Have you forgotten how it felt that day / To see your homeland under fire / And her people blown away? / Have you forgotten when those towers fell? / We had neighbors still inside / Going through a living hell / And you say we shouldn’t worry ’bout Bin Laden / Have you forgotten?”

and Darryl Worley.

Truth be told, you’d be pretty hard-pressed to find a conscious American who could forget the shocking images of the twin towers of the World Trade Center in flames and then collapsing. They were seared into the retinas of anyone near a television set that day, where they continue to resonate with a dark, emotional pull.

Still, as unforgettable and horrible as we agree those images are, it is in the interpretation of them that people are prone to differ, and therein lies the problem. Although most of us were stunned, even angered, upon seeing them, not everyone agreed that immediate retribution visited upon some hapless plot of sand and humanity in the Middle East was the correct response.

And even of those who invoked the immediate implementation of ancient Babylonian King Hammurabi’s “eye for an eye” code to satiate American outrage, not everyone agreed on who should be on the business end of that payback. Afghanistan may have been a lock because of the Taliban’s connection to Al Qaeda. But after that, why not Saudi Arabia, erstwhile home to Osama bin Laden and 15 of the 19 hijackers, or Egypt, home to the other four? Why not Pakistan, after intelligence reports had tracked bin Laden there and found plenty of Al Qaeda activity?

And why Iraq—a secular republic whose connection with the events of September 11 was tenuous at best? Because Saddam Hussein threatened to kill George W. Bush’s daddy once? Because Iraq is this administration’s villain du jour?

Therein lies the problem. And even though “Have You Forgotten?” may have been written by Worley and Wynn Varble in response to the war in Afghanistan, it was released and promoted to coincide with a looming war in Iraq. And Worley is still playing it now, which makes the song pro-war propaganda.

(The use of the term “your homeland” in a country lyric is rather curious, too. Until the current Bush moved into the White House, most affairs inside the borders of the United States were referred to as “domestic.” And “homeland,” when tacked onto, oh, “security agency,” has an uncomfortable Teutonic connotation: “Daddy’s being interviewed by the Heimatsicherheitshauptamt, and we may not see him until, oh, sometime after the Daytona 500.”)

And that’s just the first verse and chorus. Worley goes on to invoke the “heroes in that Pennsylvania field,” the Pentagon and the soldiers who’ve gone away to war, presumably hot on Saddam Hussein’s tail. “You can bet that they remember just what they’re fighting for,” he sings.

Yes, they do. That quandary may best be illustrated by a parody of a World War II propaganda poster offered for sale at the Web site It depicts George W. Bush as a seaman, peering into a periscope and smirking. “Saddam? Osama?” it asks. “True patriots just split the difference and aim for the towel.”

It is songs like Worley’s “Have You Forgotten?” along with last year’s hit “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” by Toby Keith, that exemplify one of the less attractive trends in country music—naked jingoism.

What’s different is that in the past, such fast-buck jingo records were typically the province of fly-by-night Nashville independent labels, which would press up a few thousand copies of the latest jeremiad against Ayatollah Khomeini—remember him?—and fling them at country radio, hoping to hit some kind of jackpot. Ironically, both Worley and Keith are signed to the Nashville arm of DreamWorks Records, the film and record company launched by noted Hollywood liberals Steven Spielberg, Jeffrey Katzenberg and David Geffen.

Unlikely dissidents: the Dixie Chicks.

Cheap-shot jingoist ditties such as these give country music a bad name. For example, nothing says “ignorant redneck” like Keith’s tune. Witness these lyrics: “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.”

What kind of message does that send? And with those apparent diplomatic skills, should we be surprised when Keith gets appointed by the Bush administration as ambassador to one of the newly liberated “Ayrab” countries?

It’s too bad, really, because country music is not the exclusive province of testosterone-poisoned yahoos who ride around looking for someone wearing a towel on his head so they can administer some Keith-style justice. The genre has given us plenty of great music, from the early days of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers through Hank Williams, Johnny Cash, Lefty Frizzell, Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn. California gave us Buck Owens, Merle Haggard and Dwight Yoakam, and Texas gave us George Jones, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and way too many more to mention—Texas, you see, is the center of the real country-music universe, not Nashville. Even today, such acts as Alan Jackson, Emmylou Harris, Alison Krauss, the Dixie Chicks and even newcomers like Joe Nichols keep moving the music forward.

Country music itself is steeped in the Anglo-Celtic folk traditions nurtured in America by descendents from those countries; it is, by nature, a working-class phenomenon. But because it developed in the Southern regions of the United States—Appalachia, the gulf states and Texas—country absorbed some of the homegrown political conservatism of the region.

And though there have been plenty of conservative Republican artists making country music, most of them maintain a certain level of decorum, which is to say they leave references to “ragheads” on the cutting-room floor. Yes, Charlie Daniels, for example, has been known for the occasional—well, make that frequent—wingnut screed, and Hank Williams Jr. has been known to get kinda out there on occasion. A more typical expression is that of Sacramento native Lee Greenwood, whose treacly but earnestly mainstream song “God Bless the U.S.A.” has become somewhat of an unofficial national anthem.

It’s one thing to express love for your country and another to exhort your listeners to aim for the towel. And when that xenophobia comes wrapped in an American flag, it is an ugly thing indeed.

And that brings us to one of country music’s brightest modern acts, the Dixie Chicks. While touring Europe last month, singer Natalie Maines remarked from a London stage that she was embarrassed that President Bush, technically a Connecticut native, hails from her home state of Texas.

After a firestorm erupted in the United States, fueled no doubt by the same corporate-radio tools who program Worley and Keith songs on their country stations, Maines attempted to explain what prompted her to disrespect our president and commander in chief during—oh, the blasphemy!—wartime. As Maines put it, she and her bandmates had been getting a nonstop earful from the Europeans, who were alarmed at the saber-rattling behavior of a certain bellicose chief executive of the world’s only remaining superpower. So, Maines’ outburst from the stage, in context, was a clumsy quip—with, unfortunately, a long shelf life.

Overnight, country radio stations dumped the Dixie Chicks from their playlists. A few of the more opportunistic ones staged demonstrations in which patriotic listeners could dump their Dixie Chicks CDs and swag, so it could be destroyed the way Pentecostal youth ministers dispatched Beatles albums in the 1960s after John Lennon made that remark about his band being more popular than Jesus.

At least one fan went that extra mile. The gate of a ranch, owned by Dixie Chick Emily Robison, was rammed in, presumably by some liquored-up Jethro out to send a message: Yee-haw, little lady, here comes Kristallnacht in a pickup truck.

It’s hard to say whether the Dixie Chicks’ career will survive. Even though Maines apologized, she and her band have been branded as honorary Frenchwomen. Meanwhile, Worley and Keith were seen recently opening for Bush at a rally at MacDill Air Force Base in Tampa, Fla.

And so, another dissenter is hooted into silence, while a couple of opportunists who have wrapped themselves in Old Glory are providing the soundtrack to a new and dark chapter in American history. Too bad. Country music is too valuable and intrinsic to the American character to be abandoned to people with room-temperature IQs. But isn’t that where it’s going? And in the wake of Worley’s and Keith’s successes, it will be interesting to see who else jumps on this particular bandwagon.

May heaven, or whatever deity watches over us, help us all.