Why country singers are the chroniclers of our age
A new generation of female singers are rejecting patriotic tub-thumping and documenting the dark heart of rural America.
This article is a preview from the Spring 2017 edition of New Humanist. You can find out more and subscribe here.
Country is usually thought of as a conservative genre – politically, if not musically. Its most successful performers this century have been all-American, right-leaning patriots such as Toby Keith, one of the few high-profile artists to perform at an inauguration concert for Donald Trump in January. But even that was an unusual move: perhaps mindful of the way in which the Dixie Chicks’ on-stage criticism of George W Bush in 2003 torpedoed their career, the past year has seen the industry’s biggest names keep their lips firmly zipped on party political matters.
But country has always had a radical streak on social issues, from Loretta Lynn’s 1975 ode to birth control “The Pill” to the defiant sex worker who narrates her life on Bobbie Gentry’s 1970 hit “Fancy” – and this decade has seen the rise of a loosely linked cohort of songwriters who have revived the truth-to-power storytelling flame. Among them are Kacey Musgraves, a Texan whose 2013 breakthrough courted liberal audiences by sneering at small-town hypocrisy while embracing gay marriage and casual joints of weed; Brandy Clark, the backroom songwriter who found herself in the spotlight when her songs were deemed too risky for established artists to take on; and Angaleena Presley, the daughter of a Kentucky coal miner, whose solo debut found her standing up for trade unions while railing against Big Pharma.
Inevitably, they’ve been tagged as a new feminist wave of country talent by the music press. Musgraves in particular has ploughed a crossover-friendly furrow, full of tolerant liberalism and exhortations to keep out of other people’s business. And Clark’s sexuality – like her regular songwriting partner Shane McAnally, she is gay – marks her out as a rarity in the Nashville scene. But to cast this new generation simply as rebels against conservatism is to miss half the story: their wider project is not to tear down the world that made them, but to document it honestly – a strung-out rural America that’s already been torn down.
The first ripples were set off by Miranda Lambert, whose accounts of troubles from domestic violence to the beauty myth not only sent her to stardom – presently, she’s country music’s equivalent of Beyoncé – but set a bold, raging archetype for women performers. On her debut single, 2005’s “Kerosene”, she threatened to take a match to prim and proper high society; two years later, a shotgun awaited an abusive partner on “Gunpowder and Lead”. Lambert also promoted other young female singers, an expression of solidarity in an era when country radio is dominated by male voices. Musgraves and Clark both garnered their first major writing credits on her records, while in 2011 Lambert formed Pistol Annies, a country girl group comprising herself and two then unknown singers: Presley and Ashley Monroe.
Their debut, Hell on Heels, was superficially slight but revealed itself to be one of that era’s finest recession albums. The theme of rural poverty pervades every song, and even the album shifts in mood: the optimistic, folksy whistling of “Lemon Drop” can’t disguise brittleness as the singers reel off a list of everything they can’t afford. The despairing narrator of “Housewife’s Prayer” turns defiant on “Takin’ Pills” as she numbs her pain.
On Clark’s 2013 debut, 12 Stories, she tells the story of a ground-down mother who smokes weed late at night – it unfolds as comedy at first, but the ennui cuts through the jokes. The hook of Musgraves’s breakthrough hit “Merry Go Round” turns on a family’s multiple addictions: a son’s to “Mary Jane”, a mother’s to Mary Kate beauty products, and an adulterous father’s to “Mary two doors down”. These sadnesses are personal: characters stuck in a rut, bound by the strictures of rural society into loveless marriages and trudging routines. But other songs take wider aim: Clark’s elegiac ballad “Take a Little Pill” and Presley’s sour, snapping “Pain Pills” – which she calls “an all-out anthem against what doctors and drug companies are doing to small-town America” – describe with unflinching detail how addiction can eat an entire town from the inside out.
Presley’s voice is probably the most politicially angry in the scene, and the title track of her 2014 debut American Middle Class is a tour de force. Her politics collapse traditional notions of left and right: she boasts that her coal miner father never crossed a picket line, then a few lines later bemoans that his hard work went not towards his own pension but on “feeding welfare families”. But while Presley’s chorus sounds anthemic, her words are ambivalent. “Tear this poor house down – when you know how to build it back,” she exhorts, and it’s unclear whether she’s addressing the government or her people. “Hammer a nail between your heart and your home town, so you can carry this country on your back,” runs the next line, encapsulating the cannibalistic nature of the American Dream: in order to provide prosperity for others, small-town America has had to sacrifice itself.
American Middle Class is, at its heart, a musical document of white rural America. But Presley punches up: as she put it in a 2014 interview, “I’m judging the companies and the corporations and the government and the mines and the money and the corruption.” (She was also a rare country singer to have taken a firm stand against Donald Trump, tweeting a picture of herself holding a “Southern Women for Civil Rights” placard at a Women’s March in January 2017.)
On her second album, Big Day in a Small Town, Clark covers similar territory – notably on the heartbreaking final song “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven”, which starts with a personal tragedy and pans out verse by verse until it becomes a community tragedy. The narrator’s father’s death becomes superimposed onto the death of the town itself: “The banks are taking over, half the town is in foreclosure”. Clark is a former journalism student whose artistic mission is to tell the stories of ordinary people who don’t get to tell their own. She pairs generous sympathy with an ability to see through the lies people tell themselves. As “Since You’ve Gone to Heaven” turns into a lament for the “Norman Rockwell days”, nostalgia for the sentimentalised America painted by Rockwell collides with the knowledge that it was always a rose-tinted view.
The portraits of America painted by these singers – and by others like Kira Isabella, whose “Quarterback”, an account of rape and online humiliation inspired by the Steubenville scandal, stands as one of country’s most chilling songs – are about as far away from Rockwell as it’s possible to get. Often they use an idealised image as a starting point, but it’s never long before stones are turned over and dark secrets unearthed. Politically, they are more like historians or journalists than protestors – but the ambivalence at the heart of their work is what gives their documentation of rural America’s decline such power.