Opinion: Vince Gill on the meaning of ‘Okie’

Vince Gill's new album, "Okie," reclaims a derogatory label that was used to shame Dust Bowl migrants.
(John Shearer)

I’ve spent the past couple of years working on a new album on my experiences over the last 62 years, from childhood to the trials of adult life in marriage and parenthood.

After the components of an album come together the lyrics, music, production, sometimes even the artwork — you still need a title. Record companies often encourage you to use a song title, maybe a phrase. But that didn’t work here. How do you sum up a work that tries to capture who you are?

As I was mulling this over, I started screening an early copy of Ken Burns’ upcoming documentary series, “Country Music.” Ken and his filmmaking partners Dayton Duncan and Julie Dunfey had asked me to serve as a consultant on the documentary, which will air on PBS beginning Sunday. I had read Dayton’s script and had hesitantly offered some advice along the way. After going into that deeper history, I decided to call my album “Okie.”

I don’t know if people appreciate just how derogatory the label “Okie” was back in the 1930s and ‘40s, or even when I was a kid growing up in Oklahoma in the ‘50s and ‘60s. It was a term loaded with derision, suggesting a lack of education, poor manners, someone who made his or her living from the dirt. During the Dust Bowl migration, Oklahomans moved west to try to find work, creating a caravan of migrants who were disdained by many because of their class, place of origin and how they lived.


Over the years, I shied away from the term, even though it is so rooted in our country’s and my personal history. I’ve observed the great damage we do to each other when we operate from a place of fear and prejudice. Country music has often been seen the same way, suffering from preconceived notions of its origins and its meaning. Okies were kin to the “hillbillies,” another term that meant one thing to the public at large and another to the people who were comfortable referring to themselves that way. We were posed on bales of hay for album covers and on television shows well into my career in the 1980s.

After watching the documentary — and learning the origins of this music, from people of all backgrounds and races — I appreciated that Okies aren’t that different from other groups who were scorned and stereotyped. They were hardworking people who were willing to do whatever it took to survive during one of our country’s most challenging times. The people I grew up with were fair-minded and grounded by common sense. They have given me the values and traits I’ve carried — and they have inspired and created some of the best music I have ever heard.

The African American influence on country music is perhaps the most important part of the Burns series, a reminder that our music was created out of our diversity — not in opposition to it. The opposition often comes later.

Lesley Riddle, an African American street musician, searched the hills for new songs to record alongside A.P. Carter; Blues musician Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne was a mentor to Hank Williams; Jimmie Rodgers was heavily influenced by the singing of Mississippi field workers. Sometimes it is easy to label people racist, especially when they are “hillbillies” and “Okies.” But sometimes it is important to recognize that it is not always true. At its best, music levels the playing field, and what breaks through is the collaboration — the sharing of musical thoughts and ideas. I wrote “The Price of Regret,” a song on my album, because we all have, or should have, regrets. We’ve judged when we shouldn’t have. We’ve all made mistakes and we’ve got to be cognizant of that.

I’ve never wanted music to impress me. I’ve always wanted music to move me. That’s why I’m drawn to the melancholy and the angst in country music — that’s been the core of the genre since its inception. It rises out of hard times, as Burns’ film makes abundantly clear. And it only resonates when it remains true to our shared, human experiences — and that’s one Okie’s opinion.

Vince Gill is a musician and songwriter. His latest album is “Okie.”