On Pop

Uncool country

Country music has a frontline place in the culture wars, says Sarah Ditum

This article is taken from the March 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.

What’s the defining quality of country music? The thing that tells you a particular twangy, fiddly, steel-guitar-y song with nasal-white-person singing about chickens or pickups or being drunk is not folk, or Americana, or bluegrass, or roots-rock — this is country. I will tell you. The one cast-iron quality of country music, the thing by which you will know it, is this: country music is not cool.

Maybe you want to remonstrate with me here: but Sarah, was Johnny Cash not cool? And I will answer you: would an actually cool person have recorded “A Boy Named Sue”, a comedy song where the incessantly repeated punchline is that a man with a girl’s name is a pretty funny prospect? And, to be fair, it’s a pretty funny song. But it’s not cool. So Johnny Cash could glower however he liked in his shirtsleeves and quiff, but he stays country and country stays uncool.

This revelation about the essence of country came to me while I was watching Joe Biden’s inauguration. First Lady Gaga came out to sing “The Star Spangled Banger” in a shocking pink skirt with a train as long as a person and heels so high she needed a military escort down the stairs. Then Jennifer Lopez did “This Land is Your Land”, looking immaculately glossy in white.

And then the country singer Garth Brooks arrived, in a plain black suit, belt buckle the size of a dinner plate, physique of a man who doesn’t care what anyone thinks and does care about mealtimes. (His wife Trisha Yearwood, also a country singer, hosts Trisha’s Southern Kitchen on the Food Network: her recipe for “Garth’s
Breakfast bowl” layers hash browns, sausage, bacon, tortellini, eggs and cheese, and however long I look at that list I cannot get my brain to accept the inclusion of tortellini.)

The genre’s heart belongs to the working class, which means songs about the Devil, heartbreak and salvation as well as trucks

He looked as if he belonged to a different world from Gaga and J-Lo, and he sang like it too. His performance of “Amazing Grace” was tender, gentle, low-key: no belted notes, no tricky phrasing, just a sweet hymn from the redeemed. At one point he tried to get the crowd to join in, which seemed like a bad idea in an airborne pandemic, but also heartfelt: Garth Brooks was there to bring everyone together. And, even though his was the least showy part of the inauguration, it was the most significant.

This wasn’t Brooks’s first time singing for presidents. He’s done numerous private performances, he participated in Obama’s first inauguration, and though he didn’t participate in Trump’s, he was careful to make clear that this was down to scheduling rather than ideology. Brooks, like most country singers and most country fans, is a Republican, although a socially liberal one with a record of supporting gay rights. But what in 2009 was an expected gesture of bipartisanship felt in 2021 like a radical act of unity.

Country has a frontline place in the culture wars. When Nixon wanted to stick it to the hippies in 1970, he used his presidential powers to declare October country music month: “[Country music’s] warmth is the warmth of the hearth and the heart. Its simplicity expresses the candor, the humor, the love and the pain of country people,” says the proclamation, which sounds nauseating to me, but if you were sick of watching rich kids play at revolution maybe it hit a note of recognition.

“Country people” was, of course, a euphemism for “white people”. Not that there are no black people in rural America, and not that country doesn’t have its origins tangled up with the blues; but country is white, white, white. In 2019, rapper Lil Nas X briefly topped the country charts with “Old Town Road” (lyrical content: a horse, a tractor, “cowboy hat from Gucci”, guest vocal on the remix from Billy Ray Cyrus) before Billboard disqualified it. Was the problem that Lil Nas X is black? Billboard said no.

Less ambiguous and more dispiriting is the boost experienced by country singer Morgan Wallen: after he was filmed using the n-word in February, radio stations and his record label cut him loose, but his fans rallied and sales tripled. Garth Brooks had to defend himself to Trump-supporting fans who felt betrayed by his inauguration appearance. “It’s reaching across, loving one another because that’s what’s going to get us through probably the most divided times that we have,” he said.

Brooks wasn’t just there to represent his audience

Country was never the homely thing Nixon imagined it to be, even though recent incarnations (including Brooks) often have a tendency to blandness. The genre’s heart belongs to the working class, which means songs about the Devil, heartbreak and salvation as well as trucks. It’s home to grown-up emotions like regret and reconciliation, and Brooks wasn’t just there to represent his audience. Gaga and Lopez are cool. They’re ambassadors for the American dream. Brooks stands for what it has to be hoped is the American truth: music that knows you can hit rock bottom and come back from it together.

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