The bend of a guitar string, the gentle fall of a fiddle bow and the twangy vibrato of a homegrown voice: country music is the language of rural America. Once the anthem of the working class, it has evolved into the calling card of conservative America.
The genre emerged out of Appalachia on the tails of bluegrass and folk music. In the late 19th century, as immigrants from all over the world found a home in the U.S., they brought with them their own unique folk traditions. In the South, those musical styles blended with rural white, Black and Indigenous traditions to create the blueprints of what we know as country music today.
Songwriter Harlan Howard once infamously defined country music as “three chords and the truth.” A simplistic musical style that, between melodies, is charged with candor. Cape Cod-born and Nashville-based country artist Morgan Johnston can attest to that.
“Country music has a special way of connecting with the insides of people's lives [and] the ways that they tell stories,” she said in an interview with The Daily Tar Heel.
Despite country music’s relatable roots, time has weathered new meaning into the genre. Folk artists during the Cold War, many of which sang from the working class perspective, were accused of sedition at a time when proletarian revolution and the Red Scare dictated foreign policy. These folk singers rebranded as “country” to avoid persecution. By the 1990s, there were more country music radio stations than any other genre.
But no historical event had such a lasting impact on the genre than the terrorist attacks of 9/11. While the political landscape of the country saw unprecedented changes, country music became a place for these shifts to manifest.
A country, jarred by extremism and the threat of foreign attacks, rallied behind its core principles, to the extent that any hint of disloyalty was met with social and legal consequences.
The political climate after 9/11 discouraged dissent of all kinds, even at the risk of silencing valid critiques of the U.S. and its wartime efforts against Iraq. 9/11 streamlined country music as a vessel for patriotism, but it also punished protest at the same time.
Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Chicks, the country girl group then known as the Dixie Chicks, said in a 2002 interview with the Los Angeles Daily News that Toby Keith’s song, “Courtesy Of the Red, White & Blue,” was dangerous and under-informed.
“I hate it. It’s ignorant and it makes country music sound ignorant," she said in the interview. "It targets an entire culture … and not just the bad people who did bad things. You’ve got to have some tact.”
Keith retaliated by displaying a doctored image of Maines cuddling up with Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq at the time, on his tour's jumbotron. Keith’s reaction exemplified the perceived link between dissent and treason that arose in post-9/11 America.
The Chicks infamously began to don “F.U.T.K.” shirts, facetiously standing for “friends united together in kindness” or “freedom, understanding, truth and knowledge.” However, Maines later admitted that the acronym stood for “F--- you Toby Keith.”
At a 2003 London concert, Maines said that she was “ashamed the president of the United States [was] from Texas.” Her opposition to President Bush’s handling of the Iraq War practically ended the Chicks’ career. With just a few words, the Chicks fell from grace — from diamond-certified albums to being blacklisted from country radio.
The Chicks became the first instance of internet “cancellation,” with both their reputations and careers suffering. A wave of conservatism that had embraced the country after 2001 seeped into the industry itself, and created new rules for who could be a country star.
These rules punished vocally progressive women like the Chicks. Women would not reemerge into mainstream country until the early 2010s, with artists like Kacey Musgraves and Brandi Carlile.
Morgan Johnston says she has felt supported by men and other women in the industry who recognize the longstanding barriers women have had to their success in modern country music. Throughout the last five years, Johnston says she has seen a resurgence of advocacy for women in the industry.
However, the increasing presence of women in country has not meant any less variety in the political affiliations of the genre’s performers.
The murder of George Floyd prompted a slew of progressive name changes, including the Chicks — erasing their connections to “Dixie” — and Lady A — erasing their connections to pre-civil war America, not considering the scandal that would later arise with the pre-existing Black singer Lady A.
Several, but not all, country musicians and audiences still hold racist and sexist prejudices. Following Morgan Wallen’s February scandal, in which he was filmed drunkenly saying racial slurs, Wallen became more popular than before. Instead of facing retribution, his new album skyrocketed on the charts and arguably performed better than initially expected.
Compare Wallen’s treatment, in the wake of political controversy, to that of the Chicks nearly two decades earlier.
Ian McConnell, another Nashville artist whose style leans towards pop and rock, notes how the country music industry is not ripe for change. The genre, McConnell explains, has a very focused demographic.
In the last two decades, that demographic is increasingly conservative America. Music and artists have bent to the desires of this audience, even if it means barring people of color and women from the historically diverse genre.
“I think that there is wonderful discourse going on about race in music and misogyny in the industry,” McConnell said. "I think the more that gets talked about, the more the target audience will shift."
Women have once again found a prominent voice in the genre, but Black country artists like Darius Rucker still face criticism for openly supporting the Black Lives Matter movement.
Like many in the industry today, we have hopes that country music will return to its diverse roots, serving not only a white, conservative middle class but the diverse ethnic and racial traditions of working-class America.
In the meantime, the genre that has been bent toward pop, rock and blues now too often bends toward the right.
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