Country music prides itself on being the voice of red-state America.So it's hardly surprising that, in the years immediately followingSeptember 11, country music artists came out loud and proud with avariety of fightin'-mad anthems. From Clint Black's "Iraq and Roll"to Darryl Worley's "Have You Forgotten?" to Toby Keith's infamous"Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),"aggressive, defiant flag-waving made perfect cultural (not tomention economic) sense. It also jibed neatly with blue-staters'sniffy view of country fans as blindly patriotic, ass-backwardrednecks. (Indeed, Keith's 2002 megahit, with shit-kicking lyricslike, "You'll be sorry that you messed with the US of A / 'Causewe'll put a boot in your ass / It's the American Way," was sojingoistic it put off even some of his country compatriots.) By thetime of the Dixie Chicks "incident," in which an anti-Bushutterance by lead singer Natalie Maines while in England led to thegroup's ex-communication from the country fold, there was littledoubt that, when it came to Iraq, Nashville had the president'sback.
There were, of course, exceptions. On Christmas Day 2003, WillieNelson penned an antiwar ditty called "What Ever Happened to Peaceon Earth" that he performed nine days later at a campaign rally forDemocratic presidential gadfly Dennis Kucinich. Fellow outlaw MerleHaggard has been making even bigger waves of late. Back in the1970s, Haggard thrilled conservatives with anti- antiwar tunes like"The Fightin' Side of Me" and "Okie From Muskogee." Now, he'stweaking those same folks with songs like "That's The News" (less aprotest song than a swipe at the media's uneven war coverage),"Rebuild America First," and, most provocatively, "Hillary." ("Thiscountry needs to be honest / Changes need to be large / Somethinglike a big switch of gender / Let's put a woman in charge.") Lessfamously, "alternative country" artists like Rodney Crowell,Allison Moorer, and Steve Earle have long been putting theirliberal politics into their work. Still, while alt-country artistsand cranky old bulls like Nelson and Haggard were expressing theirfed-uppedness, the vast majority of big-money, big-audience countryserved as a cheering section for the administration's foreignpolicy.
But a funny thing happened on the way to the surge. Sometime around2004, the in-your-face calls to arms faded, and the war-themedofferings coming out of Nashville started taking on a more sombertone. In 2004, for instance, both girl-group SheDaisy and JohnMichael Montgomery produced hit singles focused on the pain ofseparation felt by soldiers and their loved ones. The former, "ComeHome Soon," climbed the country charts to number 14; the latter,"Letters from Home," all the way to number two. As SheDaisylaments,
And I sleep alone
I cry alone
And it's so hard livin' here on my own
So please, come home soon
Come home soon.
With his 2005 tearjerker, "If I Don't Make It Back," multi-platinumstar Tracy Lawrence took the theme of loss still further. The songbegins with a soon-to-ship-out soldier instructing his buddies whatto do if he doesn't return from battle:
Have a beer for me
Don't waste no tears on me
On Friday night sit on the visitors side
And cheer for the home team ...
And find someone good enough for Amy
Who will love her like I would have ...
and ends, heartbreakingly, with the group trying to fulfill thefinal wish of its fallen friend:
And I introduced Amy to a friend of mine from Monroe
He's a good ol' boy
But you know, she just ain't ready.
Even Darryl Worley seems to be mellowing. Worley's 2003 "Have YouForgotten?" is often held up alongside Keith's "Courtesy of the Red,White and Blue," as evidence of country's deep-seated, reflexivepatriotism. ("Some say this country's just out looking for a fight/ Well after 9/11 man I'd have to say that's right.") But his 2006hit, "I Just Came Back from a War," is more ambivalent. The storyis told from the perspective of a recently returned vet sitting ina bar, trying to explain to his buddies why he seems different:
I just came back from a place where they hated me and everything Istand for
A land where our brothers are dying for others who don't even careany more
Chances are I never will be the same, I really don't know any more
I just came back from a war.
This progression from chest-thumping jingoism to mournfulintrospection is not new to the genre. In Country Music Goes toWar, co-editor Charles K. Wolfe examines a similar evolution duringWorld War II. "As Americans suffered defeat after defeat in theearly days of 1942 and began to realize the war might be a long,costly affair," Wolfe writes, "the smug self-confidence andsimplistic optimism of the early songs gave way to more somber andselfreflective works." Much as we're seeing today, thesesecond-generation songs--"Each Night at Nine, " "White Cross onOkinawa," "Soldier's Last Letter"--dealt with the war on a personallevel by reflecting the anguish of families separating andsuffering loss on a firsthand basis. Similarly wistful andconflicted offerings emerged from the Korean war as well. In "FuzzyWuzzy Teddy Bear," for instance, a father mourns the loss of hisson with the dead soldier's favorite childhood toy: "Old fuzzywuzzy teddy bear sits all alone ... and seems to face the bittertruth so brave."
Not that country music is about to go all Country Joe & the Fish onus. This is not "protest music" by any definition, and mostmainstream country folks still wouldn't dream of doing anythingthat could be construed as making common cause with the antiwarcrowd. (It's worth noting, though, that Toby Keith, of all people,never supported the Iraq war--"Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue"was inspired by Afghanistan--and favors a timeline for troopwithdrawal.) But, as Iraq drags on and the body count rises, themost flag-waving segments of the country are struggling to come toterms with the human cost. Even a stiff-upper- lip tribute likeTrace Adkins's 2005 "Arlington," in which a soldier tells of hispride in making the ultimate sacrifice for his country and of histhankfulness to be among the "chosen ones" who "made it toArlington," is nonetheless a doleful ballad about a dead boy coming"home" to the country's most famous cemetery.
There is a delicate balance at play in these songs, of pride andsorrow, perseverance and uncertainty. It is impossible to hear themwithout thinking about the tragedy of war--about all those lostloves and shattered futures shipped home from Iraq each week inflag-draped caskets. Country music may never turn its back onBush's disastrous Middle East adventure. But war weariness isquietly creeping into even the reddest of red-state culture.