Why I Keep Returning to Country Music as a Theme

Be a hero.

I did not realize how much I’ve written about country music until I sat down to write The Dolly Moment. My professional interest in the genre goes back at least a decade. As I thought about it, I realized that it was around the time I was being socialized into the academic discipline of sociology. No matter what they tell you, sociologists talk about three things and three things only: race and class and gender. You either talk about race, class, and gender explicitly or implicitly, but if you are a sociologist, you are talking about them whether you like it or not. 

When it comes to “race,” professional American sociology mostly talks about people who are marked by race. That is to say, they talk about non-white people as having a racial identity and racial category. White people are considered the default. Now, that has changed a lot over the past 20 years. There are courses in whiteness studies, for example. Despite those changes, the rest of society is much like the majority of sociologists in that both really only think about race as something non-white people have. 

I am fascinated by that. It’s one of the most powerful ideas in the modern world and seemingly no one ever talks about it. That may be why I am interested in what country music is as a cultural phenomenon. It is a genre so aggressively committed to ideas of white identity that it violates the No. 1 rule of the white fight club: Never admit you are white! 

Country music — especially mainstream country music — is all about being white. If you took all the country music lyrics from the past 50 years and dumped them into a database, you could search for how often “blue” and “eyes” are used together. Two recessive genetic traits that appear in only 17 percent of the world’s population would, I bet, be used to describe more than 75 percent of all the identified characters in a country music song. If that’s not talking white, I don’t know what is. 

In many ways, because we lack the sophisticated language to discuss aspects of whiteness, I talk about country music as a way into that conversation. We may refuse to label politics “white” or products “white” or ideas as “white.” But in lowbrow popular culture, we feel safe enough to call whiteness by at least two dozen different names. It is more robust than the language we use to discuss whiteness in any other mainstream media. Like any good sociologist of the people, I go where the people are to do my sociology. When people want to get real white up in here, they go country. So I do too. 

I have been talking a lot about country music of late because the culture’s whitest genre is having its race reckoning. As I mention in the Dolly essay, mainstream country may be white, but its culture is as mixed as this nation’s history. Over the past year, the history of country music has clashed with its mainstream image of itself. 

No one has been more tuned in to those clashes than writer, musician, performer, and producer Rissi Palmer. Rissi visited Roxane Gay and me on our podcast to discuss Black women in country music. When you get sisters together to talk about something as loaded as that, magic happens. In this instance, it is Rissi breaking down how all roads always, always, always lead to … Ronald Reagan: 

One of the great things about country music is that it is one of the few just thoroughly American things. What I mean by thoroughly American is Black people contributed to it. Scottish people contributed to it. English people contributed to it. Irish people. Everybody brought something from their country, that got together here in the United States, and created country music. There're elements of gospel music in it. The banjo is an Africa instrument. So many of the songs that are a part of the country music canon came from Black churches, and where did those songs come from? They came from slaves. Not slaves. Enslaved people. So it's really interesting that it's become this racialized thing, when in the very beginning it was an all-of-us thing. It was one of the few all-of-us things that there was. One of the big things was country music became politicized, and that happened in the late ’70s, early ’80s with Ronald Reagan.

Today’s country music is the official soundtrack for white-identity politics because of a deliberate Republican strategy to brand the GOP as a white-first party with a soundtrack. Reagan was a Hollywood candidate. He understood the political power of stagecraft. And Reagan’s acolytes understood that white voters felt betrayed by the Civil Rights and Women’s Rights movements. Part of the unofficial Ronald Regan cultural project involved courting country music as the sound new conservatism. The sound was sentimental, upbeat and so sonically white that it could not be implicated in America’s march towards diversity:

The GOP and Nashville hitched themselves to each other as far back as the Nixon years, when Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard (both of whom had personal lefty leanings) were invited to perform at the White House. But it was Ronald Reagan, always eager to welcome Western iconography, who embraced the music more wholeheartedly than any previous president. In 1983, he hosted a reception for country singers at the White House in which he said the music was “one of only a very few forms that we can claim as purely American,” and its fans had a “deep-seated love of country, freedom, and God.” (“Country First?” by David Browne in The New Republic)

In case you missed it, “purely American” is doing all of the work there. That is the same work that “hot blonde”, “towheaded”, “country” and “Dolly” does in our discourse. When we use them as a shorthand for white identity politics, we feed it. Whiteness has the power to hide in plain sight. Pointing it out is one way we can all become everyday superheroes.

If you are interested in some of my earlier forays into cultural analysis and country music, you have to start with my read of Hick-Hop. You might also enjoy Charles Hughes’s Country Soul and Rissi’s show on Apple Music, Color Me Country (start with the Darrius Rucker episode). If you want to read more about modern Southern culture and pop music but you are sick to death of country music, you are looking for Regina Bradley’s new book on Outkast. 

Above all else, if you are looking for a playlist that embraces the soul roots of country music without perpetrating any “blue-eyed, blonde-haired” white nonsense? You want my Spotify playlist, Country Rock+Soul

While you are here, be sure to drop a note in the subscribers’ Open Thread for the Dolly essay. I check-in regularly to read your lingering thoughts, questions, and digressions. Also, stay tuned for a chance to register for our very first Open Session, a virtual public class with smart people who talk like humans.