The singer Kacey Musgraves — who recently played at FloydFest — had some nice things to say about the restaurant Caribbica Soul in downtown Roanoke. She posted on Instagram that the restaurant had “the BEST jerk chicken I’ve ever had.”
Musgraves also had some not-so-nice things to say recently about mass shootings in the United States. About a week later at the Lollapalooza festival in Chicago, she spoke from the stage about the recent slaughters in Texas and Ohio. She thanked the crowd for having “the bravery to show up and come to a large music festival.” She then went on to say, in somewhat colorful language, that “something” should be done. She didn’t say exactly what, just that “Maybe somebody will hear us if we all yell together to say, ‘Somebody [expletive] do something.” The word we’re omitting gives you a sense of just how colorful her language was.
She then launched into what the Taste of Country website called an “emotional” performance of her song “Rainbow”: “When it rains, it pours, but you didn’t even notice it ain’t rainin’ anymore.”
Soon thereafter, Fox News launched into Musgraves. “What is happening to country music?” asked Fox News host Ainsley Earhardt. “First of all, she’s up there preaching about gun control, but how about her language? What happened to wholesome country singers?” Fox radio host Todd Starnes added that Musgraves’ comments would not play well with “the base” of country music fans who value “God, and country, and family and patriotism” And, presumably, unfettered access to large-capacity guns. Starnes went on to advise Musgraves: “Just don’t talk politics. Sing. That’s what we pay good money to hear you do . . . She has been Dixie Chick-ified” — the latter a reference to how the Dixie Chicks got disowned by many country fans after they criticized President George W. Bush.
There’s a lot to unpack there. First, anyone wondering “what happened to wholesome country singers” hasn’t been paying attention for a long, long time. Nashville just did a better job of covering things up back in the day.
That’s not really what we’re interested in today, though. Nor are we interested in Musgraves’ views on guns. There are lots of places you can go to read about guns; this isn’t one of them. Instead, we’re interested in Starnes’ admonition to the singer “don’t talk politics. Sing. That’s what we pay good money to hear you do.”
Here’s why that catches our ear: Starnes seems to have overlooked the fact that country music is the most politically-charged music genre in the land right now. For a country singer to voice an opinion on guns isn’t unusual; what’s unusual is that Musgraves has voiced a liberal one. (Or is it? Stay tuned.)
There’s a distinct strain of cultural politics that runs through country music and it’s almost always in the form of a conservative, blue-collar populism. Guns are such a common theme in country music that the National Rifle Association has even published a Top 10 list of “country songs that celebrate the outdoors lifestyle.” One of them is “This is NRA Country” by Justin Moore. Nobody’s telling him not to sing about politics.
Musgraves would have excited the Fox News hosts in a different way if she’d taken to the stage to urge her fans to start carrying (if they’re not already). Instead, she later took to Twitter to amplify her comments: “Let me be clear — I’m from Texas. I grew up around hunting and guns. There’s a time and place for that and even self-protection in ways..but this is different. The system is majorly flawed and NOBODY NEEDS ANYTHING REMOTELY AUTOMATIC. PERIOD. They’re mass killing machines.”
She and Moore probably won’t be sharing the stage anytime soon.
The Fox News chatters are shocked that a country musician has voiced what seems to be a liberal point of view. They shouldn’t be, though. While country music is a decidedly conservative genre, there’s a very distinct subset of liberal country music. You just won’t hear it on country radio. In fact, it might not even get called country, at all. It’ll be called “Americana” music — perhaps because conservatives won’t claim it and many liberals recoil at the mere thought of something called “country” music. Still, it’s all the same sounds, just with different sensibilities.
Take Steve Earle, for instance. He’s got songs such as “Hillbilly Highway” which is as country a song as you’ll ever find. The lyrics on “Copperhead Road” — about an Appalachian moonshiner turning to growing marijuana instead — are decidedly country, even if the guitar riffs aren’t. He’s got a whole album of bluegrass songs. He’s also an out-and-out socialist. You won’t hear country stations playing his song “The Revolution Starts Now.”
Democrats would be wise to listen to more country music — they’d learn more from contemporary country music about the parts of this country where they’ve been losing than any focus group can tell them. But the Fox News hosts ought to be listening to more country music, too — because the country genre is a lot more diverse than radio playlists suggest.
One of the best songs celebrating rural life in the South is a country song that came out last year — “Sure Feels Good Anyway.” It’s by Amy Ray, half of the Georgia-based Indigo Girls duo. Their work has generally been filed away as “folk rock” but Ray has used her solo career to explore country music, including a lot of religious-infused country music. The Fox News hosts would be shocked to hear “Sure Feels Good Anyway.” It sounds like an upbeat, commercially-oriented country song. It name-checks Jesus, gravel roads, boots, whip-poor-wills, Southern hospitality, sitting on the porch, and “a tall glass of sweet tea.” So far, that sounds like what David Allen Coe once called “the perfect country and western song.” Except that Ray also sings “I’m gonna tell them boys, ‘Don’t be a drag, ain’t ya tired of fightin’ ‘bout the damned ol’ flag?’ / Well it ain’t Southern pride, it’s just Southern hate.” Perhaps we shouldn’t tell Fox News why Ray sings of the South: “I know that you don’t like me / But it sure feels good anyway.” (Hint: She’s a lesbian with decidedly liberal politics. Another of her solo songs is “Who Sold The Gun,” about a mass shooting.)
The point is twofold: Country music is very political, and it’s also more diverse than most people give it credit for. We’re not surprised by Musgraves’ views. Neither should anybody else. We’re also not surprised she liked the jerk chicken at Caribbica Soul, either.