Volatile country

When Chris Willman was writing about the Dixie Chicks for Entertainment Weekly—the May 3, 2003, issue that depicted the country-pop trio nude on the magazine’s cover, with such epithets as “free speech,” “traitors” and “Saddam’s angels” tattooed on their skin by the magazine’s art department—it probably occurred to him that here might be a subject for a decent book on American culture wars. The ensuing firestorm ignited by Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines at an appearance in London, where she deigned to utter an offhand remark that the Chicks were embarrassed to hail from the same state as George W. Bush, kicked off a nasty spate of radio-instigated CD-trashing promotions in the hinterlands. That conflict is where Willman’s new book, Rednecks & Bluenecks, begins.

Bush’s 21st-century wartime America is a volatile place, and country music is one arena where those animosities are playing out. On one side can be found the Dixie Chicks, along with a number of left-leaning alternative-country acts—Rodney Crowell, Nanci Griffith and Steve Earle, for example, many of whom were onetime Nashville A-list stars. Their counterparts on the right include Toby Keith, whose 2002 hit “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” contained lines like “We’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way,” and Darryl Worley, whose 2003 hit “Have You Forgotten?” espoused a similar form of militant jingoism.

But amid the seeming polarities, the truth Willman found lies somewhere in the middle. Keith and Worley, for example, are descended from a long tradition of tough-talking country-singer personae that date back at least as far as Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, the two icons that stand at the logical point where Willman ends his book. Both wrote or popularized big-stick redneck anthems; Haggard, for example, may have penned “Okie From Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me,” but he also wrote songs in the Woody Guthrie tradition, like “They’re Tearin’ the Labor Camps Down.” Along similar lines, Keith is a registered Democrat who has palled around and recorded with Willie Nelson, country music’s very own Bob Marley figure.

Although the genre often gets accused of trading in simplistic, bumper-sticker sentiments (and one certainly could cite any number of trite examples to buttress that argument), its focus on storytelling and its embrace of topical material lends itself to complex as well as prosaic material. In the 1960s, Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill” addressed the progressive subjects of birth control and women’s emancipation, and Haggard’s “Irma Jackson” sketched out an interracial love affair.

Of course, things have changed mightily in country music’s mainstream arena. One subject Willman touches on, but doesn’t directly address, is how radio conglomerates—many of which are dominated by political and cultural conservatives—act as gatekeepers, ensuring that country-radio listeners won’t be shocked out of their patriotic reveries by anything that Rush Limbaugh might find too objectionable. But Willman does write about Nashville’s Republican side, and he gives enough space to ardent Bush supporters like Sara Evans and Lee Ann Womack to humanize them.

And that brings up one problem I had with Rednecks & Bluenecks: Much of the book consists of long interview transcripts strung together. Though that’s great for getting inside a person’s head—and Willman did interview a lot of artists, songwriters, label executives and observers—it can make a narrative lose focus. A writer should analyze a subject and provide context; where Willman does that, a chapter on country music’s history of topical and political material, is among the book’s better passages.

That’s a minor quibble, however. Rednecks & Bluenecks is one of the more illuminating books to come down the pike in a while, and it should be required reading for country fans and the political operatives who seek to understand them.