Voices

Country music's culture war

Celebrations of sin stand next to exaltations of grace on the record charts

Issue: "History speaks," April 1, 2006

Last year's American Idol winner, Carrie Underwood, has a record out that has been dominating the country music charts for weeks: "Jesus, Take the Wheel." It tells the story of a young woman's desperate prayer during a car crash, leading to a reflection on her own life. The song ends with a prayer for Jesus to "save me from this road I'm on."

Finally knocking off "Jesus, Take the Wheel" as the No. 1 record was Brad Paisley's "When I Get Where I'm Going." Where he is going is heaven, where he yearns to see his loved ones. At the climax of the song, with Dolly Parton singing descant "Hallelujahs," he looks forward to when he sheds his sins and struggles, "And I see my Maker's face. I'll stay forever in the light of His amazing grace."

Then again, other tunes contending for the top slots during those same weeks included Trace Adkins' "Honky Tonk Badonkadonk," an insufferably vulgar bar song. Also Kenny Chesney's "Living in Fast Forward" about a "hillbilly rock star out of control."

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Country music is currently enjoying a surge in popularity. The traditional sound is back in vogue, but-at the very same time-so are strange hybrids of country with hard rock and even rap. Traditional values find strong expression, but so do hedonism and moral rebellion. The music embodies both what is good and what is bad in contemporary American culture.

Perhaps the hottest new act is Big and Rich. John Rich is a clean-cut cowboy in a Stetson. Big Kenny has the long hair, shades, and top hat of a rock guitarist. Together, this undoubtedly talented duo combines the sounds associated with their looks, mostly in songs about getting drunk, getting high, and having sex with cowgirls.

Big and Rich helped discover the Country Music Association's female vocalist of the year, Gretchen Wilson. Her "Redneck Woman" showed a feisty-though profane-defiance of the middle class. "All Jacked Up" celebrates getting drunk on Jack Daniels whiskey.

But the culture wars are also playing themselves out not just in new performers but in the old standbys. Alan Jackson's new album, Precious Memories, debuted at No. 1 on the country album chart. It consists wholly of affecting renditions of classic American hymns: "Blessed Assurance," "I Love to Tell the Story," "'Tis So Sweet to Trust in Jesus," "Leaning on the Everlasting Arms."

On the other hand, Willie Nelson, not content with contributing to the soundtrack of Brokeback Mountain with the inoffensive "He Was a Friend of Mine," has come out with "Cowboys Are Frequently, Secretly (Fond of Each Other)." This take on homosexuality claims that "inside every cowboy there's a lady who'd love to slip out." Similarly, Dolly Parton wrote the Oscar-nominated song "Travelin' Thru" for the movie Transamerica, about a man getting a sex-change operation.

The culture war in country music is not just moral but political. Themes of patriotism and support for American troops in the war on terror abound. In "Bumper of My SUV," Chely Wright sings about getting an obscene gesture from a lady in a minivan for the Marine Corps sticker on her bumper, a tribute to her brother serving in Iraq. Meanwhile, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill are lambasting the Bush administration for the Hurricane Katrina fiasco. And the Dixie Chicks, blackballed by many fans for their anti-war, anti-Bush rants, have an unrepentant new single, "Not Ready to Make Nice."

Country music has always been about both honky tonks and church, cheatin' and family values. It is a window into the lives and culture of ordinary Americans. Moral license and cultural decay are indeed afflicting America's heartland, as evident in the unwed pregnancies, divorce, substance abuse, and despair that are chronicled both in government statistics and in country music songs. But at least some of these red-state sinners know where to turn for forgiveness, grace, and a new life.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith

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