IN MARCH 2003 the Dixie Chicks discovered just how unforgiving the world of country music could be. Introducing “Travelin’ Soldier”—a song about a young man sent to fight in Vietnam who never comes home—Natalie Maines, the lead singer, shared her feelings about the looming war with Iraq with an audience in London. “We do not want this war, this violence,” Ms Maines said, “and we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.” Her words were written up in a review of the show; within days, a huge swathe of the band’s American fanbase was boycotting its music. For years some DJs refused to play their songs on air.
The story of the Dixie Chicks became a cautionary tale in Nashville, the capital of country music. It served as a warning to respect the music’s conservative values: if folk was the music of protest, then country was the music for those who fly the flag. Many of the protagonists of commercial country radio drink beer, drive a pick-up, go to church, and support the troops and the second amendment.
Yet in recent years prominent artists have started to challenge some of the genre’s conservative shibboleths. Shifting attitudes towards gender have been evident in songs dealing with domestic violence and abuse. In the wake of #MeToo, a number of male musicians have been looking to prove themselves champions of women. In “Female”, released in November 2017, soon after the sexual misconduct allegations against Harvey Weinstein were reported, Keith Urban referred to the prevalence of harassment and assault. “When somebody laughs and implies that she asked for it / Just ‘cause she was wearing a skirt,” he sings, “Oh is that how it works?” In December that year Chris Janson, a singer-songwriter, released “Drunk Girl”. The song called for men not to prey on inebriated women but to take them home, “let her sleep all alone / Leave her keys on the counter, your number by the phone”. It reached the top ten of the American country charts.
LGBT themes are also cropping up. Shane McAnally and Brandy Clark, both gay, are two of the most influential songwriters on the circuit, creating hits for everyone from Kelly Clarkson to Kenny Chesney and Lady Antebellum. They co-wrote “Follow Your Arrow” (2013), the song that made Kacey Musgraves (pictured) both a country star and—thanks to its reference to kissing girls—a new queer idol. She has performed at venues across Alabama, Texas and Tennessee, states with some of the most retrograde laws on discrimination. On February 10th her album “Golden Hour” won Best Country Album and Album Of The Year at the Grammys.
It was clear that something was changing when Luke Bryan, a hit performer known as “the father of bro-country” for his songs about fishing, hunting, boots and tractors, released “Most People Are Good” (2018). An upbeat response to the angry divisions of America, the song delivered a roll call of traditional values—kids should climb trees, people should work hard, mothers should be revered—but its chorus included a line that made Mr Bryan’s pro-LGBT stance clear. “I believe you love who you love,” he croons. “Ain’t nothing you should ever be ashamed of”. The accompanying music video featured gay couples and same-sex parents, and has been watched more than 5.3m times on YouTube.
This is bold stuff in a field where the wisdom was once to keep your head down and your fanbase happy. But country-music entertainers are rarely as conservative as their following, and a new wave of “Americana” artists—whose alt-country sounds and liberal views are reaching metropolitan audiences in Atlanta and Austin—have shown that speaking up need not come at a commercial or critical cost. Sturgill Simpson had just won a Grammy for Best Country Album when he busked on the pavement outside the Country Music Awards in 2017, ostensibly to raise money for the ACLU (he made $13) but mostly to give vent to his strong feelings about President Donald Trump. The same year, Jason Isbell received his first Country Music Association Awards nomination for an album that included his own response to the election in 2016: “I’m a white man living in a white man’s nation, I think the man upstairs must have took a vacation / I still have faith, but I don’t know why / Maybe it’s the fire in my little girl’s eyes.”
Most surprising is that the subject of gun violence, arguably the most dangerous of topics for a country musician to touch, is being broached. In the aftermath of the mass shooting at the Route 91 music festival in Las Vegas, the deadliest in American history, Vince Gill, a Nashville legend, duetted with Maren Morris on “Dear Hate”, a song that Ms Morris had written two years before in response to the massacre at a church in Charleston, South Carolina. Carrie Underwood’s recent hit “Love Wins” starts with “a stray bullet and a momma cries”. Faith Hill and Tim McGraw—“the first couple of country”—have made a public call for “common sense” gun-control laws, even though they are gun owners themselves.
Their outspokenness has had no discernible effect on their popularity—perhaps the “Dixie Chicks effect” and the blackballing of musicians is more difficult when many listeners can find their music online. All that may encourage other performers to deviate from traditional values. If country music is not woke yet, it might just be that it is waking up.