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Another country music is possible

This article is over 20 years, 5 months old
If you thought country music was just for rednecks, think again, says Mark Dolan
Issue 1885

Country music icon Willie Nelson has just written a protest song against the war in Iraq. He hopes it will stir the passions in those who hear it.

The song, ‘Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth?’, begins:

There’s so many things going on in the world
Babies dying Mothers crying
How much oil is one human life worth?
And whatever happened to peace on earth?

This is the second protest song Nelson has ever written. The other, the Vietnam-era protest song ‘Jimmy’s Road’, was sung by Nelson at peace rallies during the Gulf War.

When asked if his new song might cause a backlash with country music fans, Nelson said, ‘I sure hope so. I don’t care if people say, ‘Who the hell does he think he is?’ I know who I am.’

I’m sure many readers of Socialist Worker associate country music with conservative, redneck right wing politics. Of course there is a large strand of country music that fits this stereotype, but there are a large number of country musicians creating innovative and radical music.

For instance there is Steve Earle. He describes himself as ‘a borderline Marxist’ and as someone who ‘utterly resists the American capitalist ethic that if you are not entrepreneurial you deserve to starve’.

On his last album, Jerusalem, there is a song titled ‘The John Walker Blues’. It explains why a young white American boy fought on the side of the Taliban in Afghanistan.

The album sent the media into a frenzy. The New York Post headline review screamed ‘Twisted Ballad Honours Tali-Rat’. Some radio stations even burned copies of the record!

Then there are the Dixie Chicks, whose latest album has sold over 25 million copies. During their tour of Britain last year, one of the band’s singers, Natalie Maines, told the audience, ‘Just so you know, we’re ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas.’

Once again the right wing propaganda machine went into overdrive. Cumulus Media Corporation ordered all of its 42 country stations to stop playing the group’s music. And in Louisiana pro-war protesters used a tractor to crush the band’s CDs.

The list goes on – James Blundell, Australia’s biggest country singer, released a single opposed to the war. Rock-orientated singer John Cougar Mellencamp has attacked Bush.

It is not just the political radicalisation that makes country music exciting, the music is also going through a renaissance.

This generation of country artists are looking back to earlier traditions. They are rediscovering older music forms like bluegrass, blues and the music of Woody Guthrie, Hank Williams and Johnny Cash.

As with any music the term country covers a wide range of styles – with some artists performing music heavily influenced by rock, blues, gospel and jazz.

There should be no surprise that country music is political. After all it reflects the hopes, aspirations and dreams of many white working class Americans – many of whom oppose Bush’s war aims and his home agenda.

Bush and Blair’s warmongering looks like it is going to keep pushing a layer of country musicians to the left.

As Steve Earle said, ‘I’m just a songwriter who has never excluded politics from what I do, and I find it hard to write about anything else right now.’

Mark Dolan is CWU union area delivery rep for north/north west London


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