Country Music’s Hour of Reckoning
By Dale Geist, Publisher
Now we know that the white, male country artist who has been holding down the #1 spot for nearly all of 2021 is a racist.
This is not an accident. Let me connect a few dots.
There was an election. The truth is that Joe Biden won and Donald Trump lost.
Trump claimed that he won. He claimed that millions of votes in predominantly Black areas were fraudulent. This was proven to be a lie. Either you stood up and said that he was lying, or you stepped aside and let it spread.
There was an insurrection. The people who stormed the Capitol carried Confederate flags, Nazi flags, and Trump flags. They believed the lie. And people died.
Either you stood up and said that Trump was lying, or you carry those flags alongside the insurrectionists.
White Supremacy vs. Democracy
Either Black lives matter or they don’t. Either Brown lives matter or they don’t. Either women’s lives, trans lives, queer lives, Muslim, Jewish, immigrant lives matter – or they don’t. Either there is liberty and justice for all – or there is not.
Donald Trump never uttered the words “Black lives matter”. He showed, in word and deed, repeatedly, that he does not believe that Black lives, women’s lives, marginalized lives – our lives – matter.
Either you stand up and say that they matter or you do not. If you do not, I’m here to tell you that what we are hearing is that you think our lives don’t matter.
There are two competing narratives in America. One of them goes, roughly: society ought to be a hierarchy with white, straight, cis, “Christian” men at the top; this is the way it’s always been, this is the way it should be, and any movement toward true equality is a threat which must be rebuffed at any cost. Let’s call this narrative, for short, white supremacy.
The other narrative goes, roughly: all people are created equal and endowed with certain unalienable rights; we should all receive equal treatment before the law; we must all be allowed to participate in creating a society that is ever more equal and just. Let’s call this narrative, for short, democracy.
Either you believe one narrative or you believe the other. Either you believe that Joe Biden won the election or you do not. Either you condemn the lie that led to the insurrection or you do not.
On one side: truth and democracy; liberty and justice for all. On the other side: lies and brutal repression. If you are calling for unity between both sides, I am telling you that what we are hearing is that you don’t have our backs. You don’t think our lives matter. You are happy to allow us to be brutalized and shut out from our rightful say in governing ourselves. You are happy to allow our voices to be marginalized.
Because there was a white supremacist insurrection, because there was a violent attempt to overturn a free and fair election, because people died in this attempt, America faces a moment of crisis.
White Supremacy and Country Music
This is peculiarly a crisis for country music. Why? Let me connect some more dots.
Country music has long enjoyed a profitable run marketing itself as the music of “regular folks” – that is, white working people. The institutions of country music – country radio, the CMA, The Grand Ole Opry, CMT, a few others – have been careful to sustain an essentially reactionary image for country music, one predicated on a vision of “traditional” America: the joys and sorrows of family, rural life, hometown, the South. (And yes, football, tailgates, red Solo cups, and girls in cutoff jeans.)
There is an extremely high correlation between the economic base that country music has cultivated for a full century, and the culture of white supremacy.
The truth is that country music reaps its immense profits by catering to a largely white supremacist audience. (They generally don’t identify as white supremacists, but if it quacks like a Klansman…) Like so much of corporate America, country music has managed to maintain its profits by papering over the widening chasm between truth and democracy, on one hand, and white supremacy on the other.
This does real damage to the marginalized people who actually live in those real-world places. Eryn Brothers relived it in their experience of the insurrection, recounted in last week’s piece “White Supremacy, Southern Shame, and the Queer Country Revolution.” Adeem the Artist revealed it in their late-January single, “Wish You Would’ve Been a Cowboy,” a personal account of the pain that Toby Keith’s songs left in their wake. Holly G explored it in “To Be Black, Queer, and Country”. Multiple women journalists have reported bodily threats from white male defenders of the country music orthodoxy. These are just a few of the countless stories of the real toll that country music’s culture has taken.
Unity Is Death
More dots: Morgan Wallen partied without a face mask, well after doing so had become a statement of white supremacist solidarity. Jason Aldean’s wife, Brittany, posted the lie that antifa was responsible for the insurrection. Brittney Kelley, wife of Florida Georgia Line’s Brian Kelley, posted a message of support for the insurrectionists during the insurrection.
And how did country music respond?
When country legend Garth Brooks announced that he’d be singing at Joe Biden’s inauguration, he made it clear that it was “for unity,” that it was “not political.” At the event itself, a mere week after the white supremacist insurrection, superstar Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard sang “Undivided”, a Hubbard composition whose verses nodded to the suffering of marginalized people in America but whose unequivocal message (brought home in an embarrassingly lame chorus) was “it’s time to come together”. And Luke Combs and Billy Strings just released another plea for unity called “The Great Divide.”
What traits do Brian Kelley, Jason Aldean, Morgan Wallen, Garth Brooks, Tim McGraw, Tyler Hubbard, Luke Combs, and Billy Strings have in common? The very ones that ease the path to success in country music: they are white, straight, cis, “Christian” men.
Calling for unity.
Again: when you say “unity,” I hear “your suffering does not matter.” We cannot, we will not, unify with a belief system that is literally killing us. Unity is death.
The Hour Is Upon Us
Just in the past 24 hours, there have been signs that the wall may be cracking. Wallen has been dropped by CMT, Cumulus radio, and his record company. In a meaningful act of solidarity, Eric Church has announced that he will be joining Black soul star Jazmine Sullivan in singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl this weekend. T.J. Osborne, of the massively popular Brothers Osborne, came out as gay today in Time magazine, to general institutional approval.
The truth is that actual country music, as is amply demonstrated in these pages and in hundreds of other places, is being made by – and for – folks of all colors, genders, religions; the entire spectrum of America.
But if country music were to stand up and declare that marginalized lives – our lives – matter; that Confederate flags and Trump flags are symbols of white supremacy; that Joe Biden is our legitimate president; that Black, female, LGBTQ+ artists are making great country music…if country music was to stand up and tell the truth, it would risk losing a lot of money.
Money. Or truth?
This hour has been coming for a long time. The chasm can no longer be papered over. Just as sure as the hour of reckoning has arrived for all of America – a time to declare which side you’re on – this hour has arrived for country music. It can no longer be avoided.
So, country music: this is the moment. What’s it gonna be? Money, or truth?
If this message hits home, please consider following some of the people whose work underpins it: Rissi Palmer, Karen Pittelman, Dr. Jada Watson, Marissa Moss, Hunter Kelly, Dean (Nadine) Hubbs, Lorie Liebig, Charles Hughes, Peter La Chapelle, Andrea Williams, Amanda Martinez, and the Women of Music Action Network.