Country Music, Punk, and the U.S. Election


probably missed country star Darryl Worley’s performance at
the 38th Super Bowl, overshadowed as it was by the headline-grabbing
antics of Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson. 

it’s been a good 12 months or so for the country singer who
went from being just another stetson in the country music firmament
to one of its biggest stars with “Have You Forgotten?”—an
emotive call to arms in which Worley asks: 

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 you say we shouldn’t worry ‘bout Bin Laden 

Have you forgotten? 

to Worley’s record label, Dreamworks, the song scaled the charts
faster last year than any single in recent memory, prompting one
Dreamworks talking head to claim, “Daryl has hit a nerve that
strikes to the core of this country.” “Have You Forgotten?”
helped Worley bag a Best New Male Vocalist nomination at last year’s
annual Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards as well as a hat trick
of nominations at the American Society of Composers, Authors and
Publishers (ASCAP) Country Music Awards. In the event, Worley was
beaten for the Songwriter and Artist of the Year titles by Alan
Jackson, whose more contemplative “Where Were You When the
World Stopped Turning?” (I’m just a singer of simple songs/I’m
not a real political man/I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can
tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran) also helped him to Country
Music Awards Entertainer and Male Vocalist of the Year titles. 

the likes of the Dixie Chicks are only now starting to recover from
the adverse publicity and country radio boycotts caused by very
public anti-Bush comments, some country stars have jumpstarted healthy
if unremarkable music careers thanks to their twangin’ post
9/11 triumphalism. Foremost among these is Toby Keith, who recently
walked off for the second year in a row with the coveted Academy
of Country Music Entertainer of the Year Award. Most famous for
“Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),”
Worley’s Dream- works labelmate scored a massive hit last year
with a finger-wagging song that angrily warned: 

will be served 

And the battle will rage 

This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage 

And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the US of A 

‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass 

It’s the American Way. 

comes as no surprise that President Bush is a card carrying member
of the Toby Keith Appreciation Society. Keith’s unique brand
of angry Americanism wowed them at the Pentagon and on a USO tour
of Bosnia and Kosovo last year. This year Keith undertook an extended
USO tour, which took in Kosovo, Germany, Italy, Afghanistan, and

was a song I was inspired to write because I lost my father six
months before 9/11,” explained Keith at the time. “Nobody
wrote an angry American song and this was one. It was the way everybody
felt when they saw those two buildings fall.” Enjoying what
can only be described as a hot songwriting streak, Keith went on
to pen “The American Soldier” and “The Taliban Song”:

we prayed to Allah with all of our might 

And then those big U.S. jets came flyin one night 

They dropped little bombs all over our holy land 

And man you should have seen em run like rabbits, they ran—the

song helped Keith’s overall album sales touch the 20 million
mark. The name of his latest album is





at a Spirit of America concert at Tampa’s Mac- Dill Airbase
last year, Darryl Worley took time out to tell George W. Bush that
he prayed for him daily. Bush responded by saying “that is
the greatest gift you could ever give a president.” Not to
be outdone, Keith dedicated his Country Music Television 2003 Flameworthy
Video of the Year award to Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks, as
well as “all the people over there [Iraq] putting it down for
us tonight.” Winning the same prize again this year, Keith
told the audience, “I know it’s getting to be old hat
sometimes to be patriotic, but don’t forget our brothers and
sisters overseas making it free for us tonight.” 

course, all of this songwriting service above and beyond the call
of patriotic duty is not without its rewards. Notwithstanding the
obvious financial benefits of hit singles, tie-in DVDs, and prestigious
country music award nominations and prizes, Worley and Keith have
perhaps been the most high profile country music recipients of civic
and military services awards for their public relations services
to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. In January, Keith received
a West Point Saber from the West Point Military Academy for his
tribute to the U.S. soldier. 

Keith hit a bullseye at West Point,” said Bill Yost, director
of West Point’s Eisenhower Hall Theatre. “His tribute
to the American Soldier warmed the hearts and souls of the Cadets
and Soldiers who were in attendance for the concert.” Last
year Worley received a U.S. flag from Lieutenant General Richard
Cody during a concert in Montgomery, Alabama. The flag was presented
to Worley in recognition of his vocal support for U.S. soldiers
and their families’ patriotism. 

is doubtful whether country music has ever enjoyed a higher public
profile, with interest in country music at a premium thanks to country’s
favored sons current willingness to champion the patriotic cause
at the drop of a ten gallon hat. Visitors to
(“lyrics for country music and patriotic songs”) can express
their patriotism by investing in a “Where Were You When the
World Stopped Turning?” collector plate. Certainly, the patriotic
furrow that has been ploughed so relentlessly since September 11
by country music stars has captured the imagination of large swathes
of the U.S. public. However, it’s a peculiarly exclusive sort
of chisel jawed, chest beating patriotism, equally in thrall to
syrupy sentimental notions of some bygone white picket fenced America
as it is to the might of the modern U.S. military complex. 

course, country music has long been a repository for conservative
thinking and a reactionary force for the enshrining of “traditional
American” values. Substitute the hokey comedy factor of Merle
Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” (“We don’t
smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD/We
don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like living
right, and being free”), with the righteous indignation of
current country stalwarts and you’ll find that not much has
changed. Country music’s hijacking of populist blue collar
values has long acted as a cloak to an industry more at home in
the corporate boardroom than on the front porches of the regular
downhome folk it patronizes. 

is the country music industry’s symbiotic relationship to power
and commerce more apparent than at glad-handing awards ceremonies
where corporations like Wal-Mart (scourge of working poor Americans
and small communities alike) pick up baubles like ASCAP’s Partner
in Music Award for their exceptional dedication to promoting and
expanding the reach of country music. Academy of Country Music members
can likewise vote for the Home Depot Humanitarian Award or the Don
Romeo Talent Buyer/Promoter of the Year. 

more curious still than country music’s right-leaning instinct
are forums like Conservative Punk, created “to educate, inform,
and increase the little known demographic of the Conservative Punk”
in the run up to the presidential election. Yes, there really is
a little known conservative punk demographic of punk rockers who
believe in small government, low taxes, and acting when necessary
to defend the country. Promoting itself as a conservative alternative
to liberal Rock the Vote type initiatives, Conservative Punk aims
to give “today’s young people a way to view politics from
a different perspective.” That’ll be the different perspective
offered up by conservative punks like Nation of Suspects who sing: 

‘em till they couldn’t take no more 

blood and teeth splattered on the floor 

on ‘America 2 – Iraq 0 

number of country music fans have decided to challenge the plaid
and gingham-checked conservative country status quo. In Nashville,
disgruntled music industry leaders have banded together to form
the Music Row Democrats in order to recruit and organize Democrats
in the music community. Set up in December 2003, Music Row Democrat
activities include Kerry fundraisers with artists like Emmy- lou
Harris and Allison Moorer performing to raise funds for the Kerry
presidential campaign. 

a few notable country music exceptions aside, most country singers
are loathe to say anything vaguely critical of Bush or the occupation
in Iraq lest they find themselves on the receiving end of a consumer
and Clear Channel type boycott (an allegation still refuted by Clear
Channel who claims that local managers make their own programming
decisions). As one poster to points out, “If
they plan on recruiting all the liberals in country music, they
could hold a concert in a closet….” 

Perle famously said, “If we let our vision of the world go
forth and we embrace it entirely and we don’t try to piece
together clever diplomacy, but just wage total war, our children
will sing great songs about us years from now.” 

in the U.S. owe it to themselves to choose their own soundtrack.

William MacDougall
contributes to a number of publications, including

Outlook India,


Red Pepper