Country artists have been repeatedly criticized for steering clear of politics, but a number of acts in the genre are now united behind a single patriotic idea: unification.
Republican Garth Brooks sang “Amazing Grace” after President Joe Biden took the oath of office at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 20, exactly two weeks after domestic terrorists attacked that very building and placed the safety of America’s leaders in doubt.
“This is not a political statement,” Brooks said during a Jan. 18 press conference announcing his participation in the inauguration. “This is a statement of unity.”
That mirrored Biden’s oft-stated mission to bring the nation together, a notion that resonates in the recent efforts of several other country figures:
• Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line’s Tyler Hubbard look to bridge the chasm between left and right in “Undivided” (No. 25, Country Airplay), which they performed during a Jan. 20 multinetwork inaugural special, Celebrating America.
• Independent artist Mitch Rossell recently topped Billboard’s Country Digital Songs Sales chart with the piano ballad “2020,” a prayerful plea for national healing.
• The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recruited Rosanne Cash, Jason Isbell, The War and Treaty and Steve Earle for a remake of Bob Dylan’s “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” due Feb. 5 on Bandcamp and Feb. 8 at digital streaming outlets. The 1964 classic addresses civil rights, warning the voices of hate that they will “sink like a stone” if they swim against the tide of inclusion.
• Rory Feek released his own version of “The Times They Are A-Changin’ ” on Jan. 22, accompanied by a video that addresses the power that online messages have to unite or divide in the current cultural conversation.
• Rodney Atkins issued a cover of Anne Murray’s 1983 single “A Little Good News” on Jan. 9. The song tackles war in the Middle East, economic travails, fires and shootings — all of which remain relevant in 2021.
Though it’s easy as a listener to interpret these songs through a political lens, the artists tend to see them as American statements.
“This song wasn’t written with the intention of being political, nor was it recorded by Tim and I to be political,” says Hubbard of “Undivided.” “It’s all about unity, it’s all about love, and it’s bigger than politics.”
On the surface, a feel-good topic such as communal harmony ought to be a safe subject, but in a divisive culture exacerbated by social media, even that can be a risk. Brooks’ announcement that he would appear at Biden’s ceremony drew sharp rebukes from some fans who swore they were no longer part of his tribe. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Jeff Hanna noted that when Dobro player Jerry Douglas conveyed a desire on social media to assist the nation’s healing, some of his followers hurled insults at one another over their apparent political affiliations.
“It’s toxic,” says Hanna of the online community.
It’s also a distinct change from the last time that the national news had widespread impact on the country genre. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks 20 years ago, Lee Greenwood’s 1984 single “God Bless the U.S.A.” experienced a resurgence, while a number of new songs captured the mood of a nation that was pulling together, including Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning),” Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America,” Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” and Darryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten?”
The enemy in 2001 was clearly foreign. In this era, however, the most extreme Americans view the other party as the threat.
“The bigger they can make that divide, the weaker we get as a people,” suggests Rossell. “I think we have a lot more common than different, and I just hope we can see it before it’s too late.”
That sensibility is shared among all the artists in this wave of songs, triggered in great part by an underlying fear that the nation is being ripped apart. The motivation is less about politics than patriotism, two interwoven concepts that have subtle distinctions.
“Politics is the coming together of ideas and the rubbing of ideas to try to find the best way to move forward,” observes McGraw. “Martin Luther King said, ‘Violence will not beat a good idea. The only thing that beats a good idea is a better idea.’ And that’s what politics is all about to me, is trying to find better ideas to help as many people as you can move forward. Patriotism is, I think, loving your neighbor, which in turn makes your community stronger, which makes your state stronger, which makes your country stronger.”
Singing about those neighborly ideals — as McGraw did in “Humble and Kind” or in the Florida Georgia Line collaboration “May We All” — is generally well accepted. But songs that are more obviously political in nature yield much harsher responses from modern country audiences than they did in the past. Jimmy Dean’s “P.T. 109,” a blatant celebration of then-President John F. Kennedy, was a bona fide hit in 1962. Johnny Cash’s “What Is Truth,” which supported hippie rebellion and Vietnam War protests, likewise charted in the top five in 1970.
But more recent politically charged moments have faced deeper backlashes. Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free” — which embraces interracial and homosexual relationships, climate preservation and religious freedom — was his first single to stall outside the top 10 in 1992. The Chicks were essentially banished from mainstream country radio for criticizing President George W. Bush in 2003 as he led the country into a war that ultimately grew unpopular in a relatively short period.
“When the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album came out in ’72, that was at the height of the Vietnam War,” recalls Hanna. “There was a cultural and generation gap going on, and I thought, ‘Well, this is as divided as I’ll ever see this country.’ For the most part, this country has been unified, but the last couple of decades have gotten pretty polarized. It’s more raw now than it’s ever been. But I’m holding out hope.”
Hope, with its eye toward the future, is a key concept in this wave, and Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free,” co-written with Stephanie Davis, illustrates it. It was inspired in part by racially charged riots in Los Angeles in 1992 after four white police officers were acquitted in the beating of Rodney King. Though the song’s chart performance was subpar for Brooks in that era, peaking at No. 12, his core supporters have fiercely embraced it, and it has been used for some high-profile moments, including a 2009 inaugural event for then-President Barack Obama.
“That song is more relevant today than it was decades ago,” Brooks said during his Jan. 18 press conference. “‘We Shall Be Free’ talks about injustices. It talks about righting wrongs. It looks like this is something that we’re going to do for the rest of our existence.”
“We Shall Be Free” is also a point of inspiration for next-generation artists who want to address sociopolitical concerns.
“That song helped pave the way for folks like me to even be able to write a song like ‘2020’ and present it to the platform,” says Rossell, who calls the tune “way ahead of its time.”
Rossell wrote “2020” on Dec. 21 with Phil O’Donnell and Dave Turnbull, weaving political and patriotic colors into an assessment of a year marked by racial tension, an untamed plague and repeated lies about the election: “Let’s take the red, take the blue, wave the white, call a truce/Build a bridge across the line drawn through this country/Before hindsight’s 2020.” Rossell teased a piano/vocal version on TikTok the next day and released it Dec. 29. It topped the Country Digital Song Sales chart dated Jan. 16, and remains at No. 13 on the Jan. 30 list. “2020” has also earned airplay on at least a dozen stations, including WUSY Chattanooga and WIVK Knoxville, Tenn.; KCYE Las Vegas; and KUPL Portland, Ore., a notable accomplishment for an indie country artist.
Rossell hopes the patriotic message supersedes party lines.
“The last thing I want this song to be is political because that’s not the heart of it,” he says. “I don’t care who you want in office. I don’t care who you vote for. I don’t care what your beliefs are politically. None of these politicians, no president, no anything dictates how we treat each other.”
That view is common in this wave of music.
“Racism, there’s no place in our society [for that],” says McGraw. “There’s no place for sexual-orientation bias in our society. There’s no place for those things.”
That kind of discrimination, however, has been on the rise since 2016, with prejudice running through violent demonstrations and murders in Charlottesville, Va.; Pittsburgh; El Paso, Texas; Kenosha, Wis.; and the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Fla. It is also part of the story in the 2020 deaths of several Black citizens at the hands of current or former police officers: George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and Rayshard Brooks.
Empire recording artist Willie Jones addressed the issue in the persuasive “American Dream,” released on Martin Luther King Day. “When you’re livin’ as a Black man,” he surmises at the close of the chorus, “it’s a different kinda ‘merican dream.”
It works as a companion piece for Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me,” which is currently nominated for a Grammy.
Some of America’s worst attributes have been heightened by the nation’s inability to get a handle on COVID-19. With high unemployment and forced separation, many people have massive amounts of time on their hands. When they scroll for information on the internet, their search histories trigger algorithms that often take them down increasingly extreme paths. It’s one method that helped the false QAnon conspiracy theory gather momentum, affixing itself to people who were vulnerable to its sometimes outlandish falsehoods. The internet is also part of the way that racist factions of the population have been emboldened, finding one another through dark corridors and coded social posts. In a video for “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” Feek addresses the dangers that the web poses to people seeking the truth.
“I don’t think humans are created to be isolated,” says Hubbard. “I think we’re created for community. And I think idle hands also are the devil’s playground at times. Boredom can sometimes lead to unhealthy habits, whatever that may look like.”
Based on the rhetoric, it often looks like division, finger-pointing and name-calling. The drama leads to provocative headlines, but it doesn’t necessarily provide the unity that we claim we want.
“I think it’s healthy for us to have political diversity until it jumps the fence into hatred and bigotry,” says Hanna. “Everybody’s got a tag: libtard, communist, socialist; that stuff. When we start using clichés about the other side, that’s where it gets really screwed up.”
In the end, country artists are hoping the future looks different from 2020, and they seem to see the shift from Donald Trump’s coarse, divisive rhetoric to Biden’s more inclusive messaging as a good time to weigh in on our commonalities. The current calls for unity — at the inaugural podium and in country songs — are a step toward healing. But for it to work, both sides of the aisle need to participate, and on a continuing basis. Since country artists have generally been off the road for most of the last 11 months, a lot of them have had time to contemplate that very thing.
“There’s going to be a lot of siblings of [“Undivided”],” predicts Hubbard, “and there probably already are cousins and aunts and uncles and everything else. We’ve all lived through this time in history, and we use real-life experiences to inspire our writing. And we all desire to see this world come together.”
This article first appeared in the weekly Billboard Country Update newsletter. Click here to subscribe for free.