American country music is about a lot more than pick-up trucks and Confederate flags

The Dixie Chicks may have hailed from Texas, but their music was as progressive as any Yankee’s.
The Dixie Chicks may have hailed from Texas, but their music was as progressive as any Yankee’s.
Image: AP Photo/Dima Gavrysh
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In the United States, country music is historically and culturally positioned as the music of rural, white Southerners; given over to lyrically celebrating home-cooked meals, trucks, and/or the Confederate flag. But while that strain of country music does exist, there’s also a country music tradition of what might be called anti-country music, in which singers deliberately distance themselves from the region and demographics they’re supposed to represent.

A perfect example of this is Ashley Monroe’s “Dixie.” The song, released as a preview to her album The Blade, out July 24, is not a paean to country music’s home region. It’s a desperate prayer to escape it.

Monroe declares, “If I ever get out of Tennessee, out of this dust and dirt/ gonna live my life like a high and mighty/ gonna get what I deserve.” She adds, “I don’t hate the weather/ I don’t hate the land/ but if I had it my way I’d never see this place again.” The sentiment may seem jarring, and destined to alienate its audience. Who tunes into country radio to hear that the South is awful?

But Monroe is only the latest in a long line of singers who have expressed skepticism about the region country music loves to love. Dolly Parton’s 1969 “In the Good Old Days (When Times Were Bad)” is a great example. Parton, one of country music’s living legends, sings about how her dad’s hands used to “break open and bleed” from his work, and how her family was so poor they couldn’t afford a doctor. Rural work and hardship, Parton insists, is neither romantic nor fun.

Roy Clark’s 1970 hit “I Never Picked Cotton” is another example—a jauntily bitter tune about a man who turns to robbery to escape his family’s poverty and a life of hard labor. “I made myself a promise/ when I was old enough to run/ I’d never stay a single day in that Oklahoma sun,” Clark sings.

The country, in Clark’s telling, is not about home-cooked meals, but about poverty and limited opportunities. Like Monroe, he wants to get away, if not from the South entirely, then at least from the rural portion of it where his family has worked and died.

Even contemporary, mainstream country radio can sometimes be caught in a moment of revolt from a narrowly defined Southern white working class identity. Florida Georgia Line has been massively successful in borrowing from hip hop, both musically and thematically.

Their collaboration with southern rapper Nelly, complete with heaping hunks of autotune, seems almost desperate in its effort to show country as modern. They may be cruising along back roads, but the Chevy they’re riding in, as they say repeatedly, is “brand new.” They’re a little more wary about admitting it, perhaps, but Florida Georgia Line doesn’t seem to want to be stuck in Bible Belt traditions any more than Ashley Monroe does.

One could argue that Florida Georgia Line harkens back to the first bona fide country star—and, not coincidentally, to the first bona fide anti-country star. Often billed as “the Father of Country Music,” Jimmie Rodgers certainly sang about Texas, Tennessee, and mule skinners.

But Rodgers also sang about hopping freight trains—and he refused to be bound by the segregated vision of Southern identity that has so often defined country, then and now. His music was based in the blues, and he collaborated with Louis Armstrong and African American guitarist Clifford Gibson.

There are certainly country artists who have embraced nostalgia, in various ways. But the music has also always included this tension between loving home and wanting to get the hell away from home. “No amount of money could take from me the memories I have of then,” Dolly Parton sings, but “no amount of money could make me go back and live through it again.”

Monroe, an alumna of Miranda Lambert’s trio the Pistol Annies, is less lyrically ambivalent, but she’s still part of that tradition of both embracing and pushing away her past. “When I cross that line/ I’ll sing a brand new song,” she sings, and the music is traditional country twang, complete with lonesome back mountain fiddle She may want to get out of Dixie, but the music roots her there.

In a recent piece for Slate, Carl Wilson argued that the critical success of the gay-friendly, autotune-free Kacey Musgraves is due to elite discomfort with white, Southern, working-class identity. He somewhat snarkily dubs Musgraves “the queen of Country for People Who Don’t Like Country.”

But this argument sidesteps the long tradition of white, Southern, working-class music that describes discomfort with the kind of white Southern identity hawked by Confederate flag enthusiasts. As Monroe surely knows, for better and worse, there’s nothing more rooted in Dixie than wanting to get out of Dixie.