“You can see why ‘Make America Great Again’ resonated. It’s basically a lyric in a country song.” – Kurt Bardella, creator of The Morning Hangover Tipsheet, a newsletter about country music.
Quite so. The music of rural America is “country music.” Go for a long drive in America and get away from the cities, and you’re struck by the number of country music stations filling up your FM dial. Listen closely, and you’ll notice that the lyrics of country songs are often explicitly political, perhaps moreso than most other genres.
The argument of this piece is as follows: if mainstream, modern country music has a political worldview, it is closer to “Trumpian” than to either movement conservatism or progressivism, and one can trace that worldview in the lyrics of many popular songs. Where Trump has differed from the line of the traditional Republicans of yore, country music has often been there ahead of the political curve, going back to when those voters were more likely to be Democrats (say, the 1980s). The culture and the politics aligned with the election of Trump and his overwhelming popularity in rural America.
Before diving into this argument, there are a few disclaimers worth publishing. First, just because one likes country music, it does not necessarily follow that one is a tacit Trump supporter; the type of music you prefer need not be a moral or political statement. (I know these songs not because I conducted serious anthropological research on an alien culture, but because I’ve heard them all either on Pandora or on the radio.) Second, that a work of art carries a political message does not necessarily mean that one must endorse the message to enjoy or appreciate the art. And third, not all country songs are as explicitly or implicitly political as the songs I have used for examples, or endorse the particular worldview of the songs selected below.
Below are some examples of “Trumpian” themes and places where they show up in country music.
Justice, Law, and Order
Trump emphasized law and order in his campaign, and how American cities had grown increasingly lawless. In his acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention, he thundered,
America was shocked to its core when our police officers in Dallas were brutally executed. In the days after Dallas, we have seen continued threats and violence against our law enforcement officials. Law officers have been shot or killed in recent days in Georgia, Missouri, Wisconsin, Kansas, Michigan and Tennessee.
On Sunday, more police were gunned down in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. Three were killed, and four were badly injured. An attack on law enforcement is an attack on all Americans. I have a message to every last person threatening the peace on our streets and the safety of our police: when I take the oath of office next year, I will restore law and order our country.
I will work with, and appoint, the best prosecutors and law enforcement officials in the country to get the job done. In this race for the White House, I am the Law And Order candidate. The irresponsible rhetoric of our President, who has used the pulpit of the presidency to divide us by race and color, has made America a more dangerous environment for everyone.
One hears a bit of Hank Williams, Jr. in this speech. From his controversial “If the South Woulda Won” from 1988:
I’d make my Supreme Court down in Texas
And we wouldn’t have no killers getting off free
If they were proven guilty, then they would swing quickly
Instead of writin’ books and smilin’ on TV
Here we have a strong endorsement of the death penalty and “law and order.” More broadly, though, is the sort of layman’s frustration about the bad guy getting away with murder. There is a question of decorum here that is being utterly violated, according to Mr. Williams. Not only did you beat the law, but you have the temerity to try to exploit it for personal gain. A real man would retreat into exile, quietly living the rest of his days in obscurity and thanking God for the second chance. Williams is disgusted.
Toby Keith and Willie Nelson visit these same themes in 2003’s “Beer for My Horses.”
Grandpappy told my pappy, back in my day, son
A man had to answer for the wicked that he done
Take all the rope in Texas find a tall oak tree,
Round up all them bad boys hang them high in the street
For all the people to see
That justice is the one thing you should always find
You got to saddle up your boys, you got to draw a hard line
When the gun smoke settles we’ll sing a victory tune
And we’ll all meet back at the local saloon
We’ll raise up our glasses against evil forces singing
Whiskey for my men, beer for my horses
Much coverage of Trump’s opposition to immigration has focused on the nativism underlying it, but Trump often ties it explicitly to drug use. In his RNC speech, he declared:
We are going to build a great border wall to stop illegal immigration, to stop the gangs and the violence, and to stop the drugs from pouring into our communities. I have been honored to receive the endorsement of America’s Border Patrol Agents, and will work directly with them to protect the integrity of our lawful immigration system.
Again, from “If the South Woulda Won,” Williams is disgusted by drugs:
We’d put Florida on the right track, ’cause we’d take Miami back
And throw all them pushers in the slammer
In this couplet, we have an endorsement of a hard-line position in the War on Drugs. It’s frankly the type of thing we hear from Trump’s Attorney General, Jeff Sessions. Country music has emphasized this approach to justice for decades.
One more, from Hank: his protagonist fantasizes about avenging his friend, who was mugged and killed on the mean streets of New York in 1982’s “A Country Boy Can Survive”:
… he was killed by a man with a switchblade knife
For 43 dollars my friend lost his life
I’d love to spit some beechnut in that dude’s eyes
And shoot him with my old 45
‘Cause a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive
In the country music worldview, mercy is good, but the world is dangerous and full of bad people, and it’s the responsibility of society to bring those people to justice. And if the powers that be won’t, somebody must. God will sort it out afterwards.
Alan Jackson’s “Little Man” is a lament from the nation’s economic peak in 1998 about the decline of small-town America. It’s a bit of an elegy, and somewhat out of place with the rah-rah patriotism that we see in some other more politically-charged country songs. (It’s also the best song on this list, with its unsettling use of C# major.)
We start with a distant memory of the past from the late 1950s or early 1960s:
I remember walking ‘round the court square sidewalk
Lookin’ in windows at things I couldn’t want
There’s Johnson’s Hardware and Morgan’s Jewelry
And the ol’ Lee King’s Apothecary
They were the little man
The little man
Thirty-five years later, Jackson revisits his hometown:
I go back now and the stores are all empty
Except for an old Coke sign from 1950
Boarded up like they never existed
Or renovated and called historic districts
There goes the little man
There goes the little man
It’s a snapshot in time: small-town America was full of small businesses, run by townsfolk. It was a certain way in the 1960s; you look back in the 1990s, and all of those stores were gone. What were they replaced by? Strip malls, and big box stores.
Now the stores are lined up in a concrete strip
You can buy the whole world with just one trip
You save a penny ’cause it’s jumbo size
They don’t even realize they’re killin the little man
Oh the little man
Jackson’s refrain summarizes it well: downtown has been hollowed out by the “big money” businesses from out of the area. Everything’s a little cheaper and a lot worse.
Now the court square’s just a set of streets
That the people go round but they seldom think
About the little man that built this town
Before the big money shut ’em down
And killed the little man
Oh the little man
The second verse is even sadder: it laments the decline of the personalized service that you’d get in the small town, as well as the death of businesses that refused to make money in vice.
He pumped your gas and he cleaned your glass
And one cold rainy night he fixed your flat
The new stores came where you do it yourself
You buy a lotto ticket and food off the shelf
Forget about the little man
Forget about that little man
He hung on there for a few more years
But he couldn’t sell slurpees
And he wouldn’t sell beer
The song is particularly remarkable because it came out at the peak of the dot com boom, and a time of broad economic prosperity. But Jackson picked up on the social dynamic that would come crashing through the American consciousness with the 2016 election: that rural America had been hollowed out. This feels like a portrait out of Robert Putnam’s Our Kids, and this sort of nostalgia ultimately lay at the heart of the appeal of “Make America Great Again.”
Travis Tritt’s “Lord Have Mercy on the Working Man” from 1992 speaks less of small-town America than of neglected laborers, but the two themes are related. These are not “traditional” Republican priorities, but the themes resonate in Trump’s campaign:
Won’t you tell me if you can
‘Cause life’s so hard to understand
Why’s the rich man busy dancing
While the poor man pays the band
Oh, they’re billing me for killing me
Lord, have mercy on the working man.
The music video even starts with the sarcastic use of a clip of Ronald Reagan bemoaning negativity about the economy.
The song also offers a stellar example of how anti-big business and anti-tax protests can align:
Uncle Sam’s got his hands in my pockets
And he helps himself each time he needs a dime
Them politicians treat me like a mushroom
‘Cause they feed me bull and keep me in the blind.
One can imagine Trump saying these exact words. Indeed, he did say so, in remarks in Iowa in December 2015:
They know these politicians are all talk, no action, it is all bullshit, right?
In addition to a focus on labor, country music has also veered more explicitly into economic nationalism. Hank Williams Jr.’s “If the South Woulda Won” is the prototype:
I’d have all the cars made in the Carolinas
And I’d ban all the ones made in China
The South voted overwhelmingly for George W. Bush, an avowed free trader. But Williams is singing here about enthusiasm for trade restrictions. It’s the type of approach to economics you’re more likely to find on a bumper sticker than in a textbook, but certainly, there is a gut-level appeal–and a certain logic–to restrictionism: build our own products, buy our own products. Everyone works, everyone gets paid. What’s not to like? Trump, of course, is broadly in favor of this sort of economic nationalism, which he laid out most clearly in a blistering speech against free trade in Monessen, Pennsylvania, in June 2016:
The city of Pittsburgh, and the State of Pennsylvania, have lost one-third of their manufacturing jobs since the Clintons put China into the WTO. Fifty thousand factories across America have shut their doors in that time. Almost half of our entire manufacturing trade deficit in goods with the world is the result of trade with China.
It was also Hillary Clinton, as Secretary of State, who shoved us into a job-killing deal with South Korea in 2012. As reported by the Economic Policy Institute in May, this deal doubled our trade deficit with South Korea and destroyed nearly 100,000 American jobs. As Bernie Sanders said, Hillary Clinton “Voted for virtually every trade agreement that has cost the workers of this country millions of jobs.”
Trade reform, and the negotiation of great trade deals, is the quickest way to bring our jobs back.
In retrospect, a coalition between free-trading businessmen and the “Buy American” working class could never have a ton of staying power, particularly in the absence of a unifying existential threat and in an era of largely stagnant growth. Trump, of course, has made a second career out of criticizing trade deals as selling out the American worker and promoting high tariffs as a way to bring back jobs; it’s perhaps the only political area where he has a well-formed–if wrongheaded–ideology.
What Trump figured out–or what he lucked into–was that the economic decline of rural America had created a situation where they simply did not care about what urban and suburban America cared about. They just wanted someone who paid attention to their interests and concerns. Hillary Clinton was doubly bad: not only did she largely ignore those parts of the country in her campaign, she was an avatar of the decline, having been part of the institutional status quo throughout the down years. In contrast, Trump held his rallies in economically-struggling areas and spoke directly to those voters.
Cultural Pride and Disdain
One of the constant, recurring themes in country music is the divide between the cosmopolitan cities and small-town or rural America. Perhaps this is nowhere more evident than in Jason Aldean’s “Flyover States” from 2010. He first depicts a conversation between two elites on a cross-country flight:
A couple guys in first class on a flight
From New York to Los Angeles,
Kinda making small talk killing time,
Flirting with the flight attendants,
Thirty thousand feet above, could be Oklahoma,
Just a bunch of square cornfields and wheat farms,
Man it all looks the same,
Miles and miles of back roads and highways,
Connecting little towns with funny names,
Who’d want to live down there in the middle of nowhere
In response: Aldean defends the honor of middle America:
They’ve never drove through Indiana,
Met the men who plowed that earth,
Planted that seed, busted his ass for you and me,
Or caught a harvest moon in Kansas,
They’d understand why God made those flyover states,
I bet that mile long Santa Fe freight train engineer’s seen it all
Just like that flatbed cowboy stacking US steel on a 3-day haul
Roads and rails under their feet
Yeah that sounds like a first class seat
On the plains of Oklahoma
Where they windshield sunset in your eyes
Like a watercolor painted sky
You’d think heaven’s doors have opened
You’ll understand why God made
Those flyover states
In some ways, this is a rewrite of Hank Williams Jr.’s “A Country Boy Can Survive.” Williams starts by celebrating the rugged self-sufficiency of country folk:
I live back in the woods, you see
A woman and the kids, and the dogs, and me
I got a shotgun, a rifle, and a 4-wheel drive
And a country boy can survive
Country folks can survive
I can plow a field all day long
I can catch catfish from dusk ’til dawn
We make our own whiskey and our own smoke, too
Ain’t too many things these ol’ boys can’t do
We grow good ol’ tomatoes and homemade wine
But one feels that there is an idea that cosmopolitan America resents the small town Southern man. Williams, again:
I had a good friend in New York City
He never called me by my name, just hillbilly
… we say grace and we say Ma’am
And if you ain’t into that we don’t give a damn
Even the more celebratory country songs offer a similar line. Tim McGraw’s fun “Down on the Farm” from 1994 draws a contrast between leisure and celebration in the country and the city.
Well you can come as you are, there ain’t no dress code
Just some rural route rules that you need to know
Don’t mess with the bull he can get real mean
Don’t forget to shut the gate stay out of the green
If it starts to raining we’ll just head to the barn
Where country boys and girls are getting down on the farm
You can have a lot of fun in a New York minute
But there’s some things you can do outside those city limits
Ain’t no closing time, ain’t no cover charge
Just country boys and girls getting down on the farm
In short: you can have the bright lights of New York, we love it here.
Alan Jackson offers a more downbeat take on “country” in 2007’s “Small Town Southern Man,” where his protagonist is a laborer who sacrifices his health to provide for his family:
Calloused hands told the story for this small town Southern man
He gave it all to keep it all together and keep his family on his land
Like his daddy years wore out his body made it hard just to walk and stand
You can break the back but you can’t break the spirit of a small town Southern man
The underlying theme is a sort of intrinsic dignity to the laborer who sacrifices for his family. One might even extend it to suggest that this is a more noble way to provide for one’s family than the stereotypical white-collar path of cosmopolitan America. (Jackson isn’t explicit on this point, but it’s in the subtext.) He also speaks up for “country” priorities in general:
And he bowed his head to Jesus
And he stood for Uncle Sam
And he only loved one woman
He was always proud of what he had
He said his greatest contribution
Is the ones you leave behind
Raised on the ways and gentle kindness
Of a small town Southern man
So, how does Trump, a New Yorker himself, fit in with all of this? For one, Trump is an “outer-borough” guy, so he’s never been fully at home in the Manhattan-centric New York culture. But Trump saw the neglect, and brought it all together with a perfect encapsulation in his RNC speech:
My message is that things have to change – and they have to change right now. Every day I wake up determined to deliver for the people I have met all across this nation that have been neglected, ignored, and abandoned.
I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.
I AM YOUR VOICE.
Superficially, this line in his speech is an economic appeal, but “forgotten man” is a more overarching argument: it’s about the promise of a return to prominence of a previously dominant worldview and culture. This was ultimately what Trump’s focus on “say[ing] Merry Christmas” was all about: we are going to bring back a “better” age. When Trump attracted elite scorn for his uncouth approach and his seemingly-ridiculous policy proposals, rural voters seemed to rally to him: if he’s taking that much flak, he must be over the target. Country music demonstrated the lines; Trump positioned himself, implicitly and explicitly, on the side against the cosmopolitan elites, moreso even than George W. Bush.
A Muscular Foreign Policy
The official justification for the Iraq War often changed between a couple of explanations. Sometimes, it was about preemptively preventing Saddam Hussein from acquiring weapons of mass destruction; other times, it was about spreading democracy and bringing regional peace through an aggressive reorganization of Middle Eastern politics. But the subtext was clear: the US was never going to allow another surprise attack on its soil, and it was going to leverage its military might in an effort to get to that goal. Country music simply made the subtext into text. Here’s Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten?”, released in 2003 in the lead-up to the Iraq War in response to antiwar protesters:
They took all the footage off my TV
Said it’s too disturbing for you and me
It’ll just breed anger is what the experts say
If it was up to me I’d show it every day
Some say this country’s just out lookin’ for a fight
Well after 9-11 man I’d have to say that’s right
Have you forgotten how it felt that day
To see your homeland under fire
And her people blown away
Have you forgotten when those towers fell
We had neighbors still inside going through a living hell
And we vow to get the ones behind Bin Laden
Have you forgotten?
“Have You Forgotten” offers no sops to democracy or Wilsonian idealism. This is pure Jacksonianism: we will come at you with everything we have. Toby Keith’s response to 9/11 was the martial “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue,” which was even more direct about the cause and effect:
Now this nation that I love has fallen under attack
A mighty sucker punch came flyin’ in from somewhere in the back
Soon as we could see clearly
Through our big black eye
Man, we lit up your world
Like the fourth of July
Hey Uncle Sam, put your name at the top of his list
And the Statue of Liberty started shakin’ her fist
And the eagle will fly man, it’s gonna be hell
When you hear mother freedom start ringin’ her bell
And it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you
Brought to you courtesy of the red white and blue
The US responded to the “sucker punch” with the war in Afghanistan. That’s how it works: hit us, we hit you 10 times harder. Trump’s rhetoric of strength resonates in this context:
Not only have our citizens endured domestic disaster, but they have lived through one international humiliation after another. We all remember the images of our sailors being forced to their knees by their Iranian captors at gunpoint.
This was just prior to the signing of the Iran deal, which gave back to Iran $150 billion and gave us nothing – it will go down in history as one of the worst deals ever made. Another humiliation came when president Obama drew a red line in Syria – and the whole world knew it meant nothing.
In Libya, our consulate – the symbol of American prestige around the globe – was brought down in flames. America is far less safe – and the world is far less stable – than when Obama made the decision to put Hillary Clinton in charge of America’s foreign policy.
In the “country music” worldview, retaliation is the obvious, responsible course of action. But in response to these affronts, America did not hit back 10 times harder. It… barely hit back at all. The risk of “blowback” isn’t really a concern: if the US is in the conflict, it must hit back harder to deter anyone from trying anything again. Trump understood this instinct; most other candidates demand more subtlety in making their foreign policy pitch.
Modern country music did not anticipate Trump, per se, and doesn’t fully map onto his campaign, but the politics underlying many of those songs showed up very explicitly in his campaign. That Trumpism would appeal broadly in rural America might have been easier to predict, if we’d thought about it: these songs are commercially successful, in part, because they reflect the values of a substantial number of their listeners. The variations on movement conservatism preached by Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, and Marco Rubio had their appeal, but they were simply less potent among this particular demographic than Trumpism.
The staying power of these attitudes also implies that Trumpian nationalism is a force that will not go away. (The songs featured in this article cover three decades.) Movement conservatives, reform conservatives, Evangelicals, and labor Democrats can try to co-opt it, as they all have attempted to do at times, but we should expect it remain a force in American politics for the foreseeable future.
Image by Lunchbox LP