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