If there's any question that country music speaks to people in times of trouble, one need look no further than the telecast of the Country Music Assn. Awards a few weeks ago. For the first time in public, Alan Jackson performed a new song about the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. "Did you shout out in anger in fear for your neighbor, or did you just sit down and cry?" he sang on "Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)?"
Although the song was not yet released on record, the emotional ballad hit an immediate nerve. Inundated by listener requests, radio stations began playing the audio portion of Jackson's song lifted from his live performance. Now stations are playing the album version, and the song resides in the upper reaches of the Billboard singles chart. (Two versions of the song--the studio cut and the live CMA performance--will be available on Jackson's upcoming CD, "Drive," set for a Jan. 15 release.)
Jackson isn't the only country artist whose music has addressed Sept. 11. Recent patriotic songs have come from Aaron Tippin, Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis. Hank Williams Jr.'s upcoming CD, "The Almeria Club & Other Selected Venues," will include "America Will Survive," a reworking of his previous hit "A Country Boy Can Survive." In certain cases, songs recorded before Sept. 11 that contain a patriotic flavor have also gained an unexpected lift, including Lee Greenwood's early-'80s hit "God Bless the U.S.A.," Brooks & Dunn's "Only in America" and David Ball's "Riding With Private Malone."
The plethora of patriotic country material comes as little surprise. Country music--with its straightforward emphasis on home, family, dislocation and heartache--has a long history of directly addressing hard times. "Country music is kind of like a good, well-built Ford truck," says country historian Charles Wolfe. "It's got a real good structural chassis on it. Some of these other [non-country] songs are more like cardboard cars, they just bounce off things."
Wade Jessen, director of country, Christian and gospel charts at the music trade magazine Billboard, points out that country music has always thrived during periods of economic uncertainty. "Historically, it has always been most commercially successful in times when the economy is a little shaky. People tend to look for a little deeper meaning and get back to basics."
Among the current patriotic hits is Tippin's "Where the Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly," a song the country star had written several years previously.
Moved by television footage of the Statue of Liberty against the smoke rising from the Trade Towers, Tippin recorded the song and donated the single's net proceeds to the American Red Cross disaster relief fund. Tippin points out that his current hit firmly places him in the genre's tradition. "I'm not the first guy to do a patriotic country song," he says. "Just open up any country history book. It's our heritage."
Tippin is right. Since its commercial beginnings in the 1920s, country music has featured a raft of patriotic, political and topical songs.
From Elton Britt's massive World War II hit "There's a Star-Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere" to Merle Haggard's anti-Vietnam-protester epics "Okie From Muskogee" and "The Fightin' Side of Me" to such Iranian hostage crisis anthems as "Take Your Oil and Shove It" and "You're a Meanie, Khomeini," country music has overtly addressed almost every recent American conflict.
"Country songwriters have never shied away from commenting on good times, hard times, national enemies, villains," says historian Ronnie Pugh, author of "Ernest Tubb: The Texas Troubadour." "There's a lot of very explicit commentary any time you get in hard times."
One of the most gifted songwriters among the mainstream artists, country star Clint Black, admits he lost his muse in the days immediately after the attack.
"There was a big sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach that turned into depression and then anger," he recalls. "As a writer, I didn't feel like writing, I didn't feel like singing." Black was so devastated by the events he postponed a concert immediately after Sept. 11.
"We rescheduled it, and I was still wondering, how can we go on and play music?" he says. "I felt like I needed to make some kind of a statement at the beginning of that show that this isn't business as usual, and that's when I wrote 'America.'"
Though he continues to perform his reflective ballad live, the song is still unrecorded. Black considers it a work in progress. He is also deeply conscious of the need to approach the subject with sensitivity. "I felt a responsibility," he says. "I felt I needed to be careful with people's feelings. I needed to balance out the anger with hope. I had to control my own emotions, because I wanted to say some pretty angry things in there."
The most notorious country war song to emerge in the post-Sept. 11 world is Charlie Daniels' jingoistic country-rocker "This Ain't No Rag, It's a Flag," which opens with the lyrical salvo, "This ain't no rag, it's a flag, and we don't wear it on our heads."
The song's allusion to a turban stirred immediate controversy, inciting some angry response from Sikhs. Daniels is adamant that his lyrics are not intended as a sweeping indictment of people of Middle Eastern descent.
"If you didn't bomb the Trade Center, I'm not talking about you," he says. "It means the terrorists, and only them. If the guy wore a cowboy hat, I would've said cowboy hat. If he would've wore a fez or derby, I would've said fez or derby. You can't rhyme [Osama bin Laden's] name with anything. And this guy does wear something on his head. I don't know what it is, it looks like a rag to me."
Although the confrontational song has been embraced by many radio listeners, the song's angry, militaristic stance was not immediately condoned by all. In October, Daniels was scheduled to perform the song on CMT's Country Freedom Concert. But when concert organizers objected to the content, Daniels pulled out altogether.
He has since mended fences with the cable TV channel, but remains unapologetic about his warmongering viewpoint. "We can be politically correct and go right down the drain," he says.
Nor is everyone in the Nashville songwriting community comfortable with the sentiments expressed in Daniels' song. "It just plays to our lowest common denominator of our sensitivity about the issue, about what happened," says Marcus Hummon, one of Music City's top songwriters.
"Some of the finest people I have ever known were and are Arabs, and are Muslim. In my opinion it's just inappropriate, that kind of writing, or that kind of playing upon people's tendency to want to have vengeance and vendetta. Those aren't the best of our angels right there."
A highly respected songsmith who has co-written such Dixie Chicks hits as "Ready to Run" and "Cowboy, Take Me Away," Hummon grew up the son of a State Department official and spent part of his youth in Saudi Arabia. The events of Sept. 11 have left him deeply circumspect about the future of cultural relations.
"It made me a little bit soul-sick--certainly for my country, but for me it was also a reflection of how I feel about Islam and Arabs," he says. "It makes me very, very sad, just because I consider it a culture which is misunderstood by ours, and this has just deepened that. How that ends up working itself out in my own psyche and my writing, I'm not entirely sure yet."
Although artists remain uncertain over how many more war-related songs will dot country charts in months ahead, all agree on one thing: Songwriting will never be quite the same post-Sept. 11.
"I think that everybody who writes a song from here on out will have a little bit older soul, a little bit more depth to 'em," says Clint Black. "For most of us, we had a big hand just reach down in and grab ahold of us in a place that we never had anybody touch us. When that happens, songwriting, any kind of writing, can't help but be affected in some way."
Chris Dickenson is a freelance contributor to the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Co. newspaper.