The Conscience of Country

In country, Americana and roots-music history, pushing back against injustice has been as essential as Jack Daniel’s, pickup trucks and mama. 

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Image: Johnny Cash in 1972. Credit: Michael Putland/Getty.

There’s a line in the third verse of Jason Isbell’s song “What’ve I Done to Help?” that captures the essence of privilege in America in 2020. Isbell’s early verses amount to a tortured confession — his realization that he hasn’t cared enough about the plight of the disadvantaged, and that he hasn’t been sympathetic enough to the sort of hardships that have mushroomed into emergencies during the pandemic.

Then he sings this: “The world’s on fire, and we just climb higher/Till we’re no longer bothered by the smoke and sound.”

There it is, laid out like common knowledge: the classic escape move of the fortunate, his use of the inclusive “we” making the broadest possible indictment. That’s followed by another general observation: “Good people suffer and the heart gets tougher/Nothing given, nothing found.”

If Isbell’s unburdening resonates right now, credit the timing. The full-length album the song kicks off, Reunions, arrived in May of this year of cascading miseries, when much of the U.S. was in lockdown. It’s an “I Saw the Light” moment, one of many that have been poured into song recently. It works because he’s not excusing his behavior or the way he used to think. Haunted by what he’s not done, he avoids feel-good slogans to share what sounds like a reckoning.

Maybe, just maybe, Isbell’s also haunted by history. When his song ends, after many somber repetitions of the title question, you almost wonder if he’s being so hard on himself because he’s looking over his shoulder, at the countless country and roots artists who wrote so indelibly about injustice and suffering — day in and day out, for decades, when it was even more perilous given the political winds.

You know them: the Carter Family, Woody Guthrie, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton and on and on. What they did — holding up that deep dark truthful mirror to the crookedness of American capitalism and the craven manipulations of the political class, while memorializing the victims of both — is foundational to all of country music. The lessons they left apply to Americana-listening Prius liberals and bro-country-loving pickup-truckers alike. The causes they took up remain vital to both the Music Row establishment that just wants pretty girls to sing sweet love songs and to the snarly alt-country types who have no use for that business model.

Country music orbits around basic, foundational golden-rule “values” — ideas about compassion and understanding first encountered on the playground or in Sunday school. Even when it’s the soundtrack for a romp on a Saturday night, country situates itself in the public square; it’s about people. When it’s compelling, it shares the idle chatter and deepest fears of ordinary folks, bringing us into the (possibly now exotic) experience of community. It’s a kind of empathy engine, with narratives that invite us to get outside of our news bubble long enough to understand what another living soul is going through. Country and roots music are, inherently, socially aware traditions.

Margo Price performs at Farm Aid 2019 in Wisconsin. Credit: Gary Miller/Getty Images.

Consider Margo Price’s “All American Made,” which is one of many songs she’s written or co-written that examine the real-world human repercussions of political acts. When she sings, “I wonder if the president gets much sleep at night/And if the folks on welfare are making it all right,” she’s certainly exasperated by the leadership. But her focus is on those who have to live with the policies, or survive in spite of them. In that way, Price’s work aligns with that of Cash, Loretta Lynn, Tom T. Hall (particularly “America the Ugly”) and others. Their songs, rich in detail, operated on several levels at once: They were poignant human dramas and allegories designed to raise awareness, and also rants powered by an outraged sense of injustice.

Country explains what happens when shared values slide, when priorities shift and the trickle-down doesn’t quite reach — when, in Marty Stuart’s famous formulation, there’s “Too Much Month (At the End of the Money).” It’s perhaps the best pop-culture lens through which to view the mountain of abstraction filed under the heading “income inequality.”

The songwriters in country-and-western and its cousin folk music in the 1950s and ’60s did not set out to be educators, but they wound up illustrating, in ways far more vivid than any textbook, the fragile interconnections of the market economy. Jean Ritchie’s 1965 song “The L&N Don’t Stop Here Anymore” is, on its face, about a railroad cutting back service. But it’s set in coal country, and it chronicles what happens when a mine is shuttered, and how the loss of those jobs impacted the town, the railroad system, the people.

Many other songwriters have followed similar dominos as they fall; see Merle Haggard’s classic “Hungry Eyes,” released in 1969, for a treatise on the ways economic hardship can impact a family. More recently, in the wake of the recession of 2008, John Rich (of Big & Rich fame) offered a disgusted anthem called “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” that neatly juxtaposes the concerns of the working poor against those of the decision-making elites: “’Cause in the real world they’re shuttin’ Detroit down/While the boss man takes his bonus pay and jets on out of town.”

It’s telling that so-called progressive ideas have come from across the country-music spectrum throughout the genre’s history. Want some perspective on the ways technology is replacing the work of humans? Cue up any of the gazillion versions of “The Ballad of John Henry,” which tells of a Black American folk hero who outworks a drilling machine during the construction of a tunnel in the South in the late 19th century, only to die of exhaustion in the end. Cash sings it as a story; Gillian Welch makes it more of a lament.

In the way of anti-war sentiments, John Prine’s “Sam Stone” and James McMurtry’s “We Can’t Make It Here” describe how veterans struggle, often unsuccessfully, to win peace for themselves after they return home.

Arguments for social and political change have long filtered into hits by legends like Hank Williams (“Mansion on the Hill”) and Dolly Parton (the enduringly inspirational “Coat of Many Colors”); megastars like Reba McEntire (“Fancy,” her 1990 cover of a triumph-over-adversity story made famous by Bobbie Gentry, who wrote it) and the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks, whose recent “March March” is expectedly bold); rockers like Steve Earle (“Copperhead Road”); and tradition-minded scholars like Rhiannon Giddens (“Factory Girl”).

Rhiannon Giddens performs in London in 2019. Credit: Lorne Thomson/Redferns. 

The country- and roots-music reckoning with another of 2020’s hot-button issues, race, is in some ways not so far along. Giddens, who is Black, has dismantled long-entrenched myths about race and culture in Appalachia. The region had an incredibly fertile musical tradition before the Great Migration began in the early 20th century; Giddens notes that 20 percent of the population was Black at the time, and, crucially, shared omnipresent musical roots. “Everybody played a common Southern repertoire,” she told the TV program Articulate several years ago. “Everybody played ‘Leather Britches’; everybody played these songs. They weren’t colorized.”

At the other end of the spectrum is Mickey Guyton, a Texas newcomer who is on the runway to stardom. Guyton writes sharp, self-referential songs about race — the most moving is called “What Are You Gonna Tell Her?” — and delivers them with a belting, mainstream-country-power-ballad brand of conviction.

Thing is, songs that aspire to commonality, fairness and humanity rather than pointed differences might not get much traction in today’s poisonous, topsy-turvy climate. At a time when Republicans who used to be alarmed when Russia sneezed are OK with its intervention in U.S. elections, and powerless immigrants are treated like criminals at the border, a woman with a stone-cold-classic country voice like Margo Price is shunned by country radio.

In these incomprehensible moments, you’d hope that music speaking to a shared lineage and common purpose would help dial the noise down to a level where conversation, if not empathy, is at least possible.

That may be a faint hope. As Johnny Cash sang so presciently decades ago: “There’s so much hate, yet there is so much need.”

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