Country musicians have never been shy about their political views, especially during times of war. Way back in 1945, Red Foley had a hit with a song called "Smoke on the Water," in which he crooned that "There'll be nothin' left but vultures to inhabit all that land / When our modern ships and bombers made a graveyard of Japan."
Fast-forward 58 years. America is on the verge of war (though this time with an opponent that has given us far less reason to attack than Japan did), and once again the country music world is weighing in. A few months ago, Toby Keith was hollering in his "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)" about sticking his boot up somebody's (presumably a Muslim's) ass, and more recently Charlie Daniels spewed vitriol at Sean Penn and the ultimate soft target: Barbra Streisand.
"You bunch of pitiful, hypocritical, idiotic, spoiled mugwumps," the redneck fiddlin' man posted on his Web site. "Get your head out of the sand and smell the Trade Towers burning You people are some of the most disgusting examples of a waste of protoplasm I've ever had the displeasure to hear about." For good measure, Daniels added that he will be boycotting all cinematic work from this twosome in the future. (Alas, no more Yentl for Charlie!)
One guy who can still smell the Twin Towers burning is DreamWorks honky-tonker Daryl Worley, whose new single "Have You Forgotten" seems to suggest that leveling Baghdad will even the score for the horrors of 9/11. It doesn't mention Saddam or Iraq by name, but it takes people who are opposed to "this war" by asking them if they've "forgotten how it felt that day? / To see your homeland under fire / And her people blown away / Have you forgotten when those towers fell?" Later, Worley seems to acknowledge that Iraq is the country he's singing about when he delivers these lines: "Some say this country's just out looking for a fight / After 9/11, man, I'd have to say that's right."
In other words, some of you Ay-rabs are gonna have to pay, no matter if you, your government or anyone from your country had anything to do with 9/11. Since when was Wolfowitz-Perle-Cheney a Nashville songwriting team?
Not every country artist is pro-war. Steve Earle, Wilco, Emmylou Harris and Lucinda Williams all have signed petitions for peace, and of course, Dixie Chick Natalie Maines is famously anti-Bush. In an infinitely larger reprise of the Jimmie Dale Gilmore Mucky Duck controversy reported in this space a year ago (see "World Views," March 21), Maines recently touched off a firestorm when she told an audience in London that she was ashamed to be from the same state as President Bush.
Some country stars -- Travis Tritt among them -- are openly critical of Maines. Tritt said that Maines should "get behind the troops," and also said, "When you [say] we're ashamed our president comes from the same state we do, it comes off as being cowardly because it was done across the ocean. I dare her to go to the Astrodome and say that. Also, it's a cheap shot against one individual."
(Yes, Travis, it may smack of cowardice, but that doesn't make it any more or less right or wrong. In the 1950s, plenty of people attacked the Jim Crow laws from afar who wouldn't dare voice those same views from a stage in a football stadium full of white Mississippians. And since when is heartfelt criticism of the most powerful man in the world a cheap shot? And when did she say she wasn't behind the troops? Aren't we all?)
But the reaction of country stars has been muted when compared to those of country fans. Pockets of them held Dixie Chick CD-smashing parties, reminiscent of the Beatles album-burning soirees rampant across the land after John Lennon said his band was bigger than Jesus. Radio stations were flooded with e-mailed and phoned-in complaints, and in response many of them (including KKBQ and KILT) yanked the Dixie Chicks' current single, "Travelin' Soldier," off their playlists.
Or perhaps the stations were just listening to their consultants. According to the Web site allyourtv.com, an adviser to a chain of country stations counseled his charges in a leaked memo thusly: "Your station can't be too patriotic. Wave the flag, convince advertisers to wave the flag, and never lose sight of your core audience Remind listeners that you're there for the troops, for the President We obviously are not hoping for war but if someone is making money, it should be us."
Lost in this little lesson in War Profiteering 101 is the fact that "Travelin' Soldier" is one of the most thought-provoking and beautifully played songs on country radio in many years. There's no simplistic talk of Ropers up rectums here -- just two young small-town lovers torn apart forever by war. The song's theme is eternal and doesn't take sides -- you could easily replace a few cultural references and have a song about two young Germans in love on the eve of World War I. What's more, the kid who died in the song was a human with dreams and fears -- he wasn't just one of the countless faceless evildoers that Keith would eradicate in "The Ugly," er, "Angry American."
It is also one of the most timely hits in history. Even though the song is set during the Vietnam war, its author says it was actually inspired by his thinking about the human cost of a war in the Middle East. Austinite Bruce Robison wrote the song about 13 years ago, during that time before the first Gulf War when rumors were flying about the Department of Defense having ordered tens of thousands of body bags in expectation of high American casualties. "I was just trying to make sense of the build-up for the last Gulf War," he says. "Now we have the same questions about this military action."
And unlike Keith, Worley and Daniels and Earle, Williams and Harris, Robison doesn't know where he stands. "I always find myself agreeing in principle with about half the stuff that both sides are saying, and never finding that it's as simplistic as either is claiming. Who wouldn't agree with getting rid of Saddam? Who doesn't wish for a world where he's not in power? Who doesn't hope -- as a person who's pretty liberal on a lot of different things -- that things get better for the women of Afghanistan or the people of Iraq?"
But on the other hand "It's hard to see who wouldn't see what trouble blind patriotism has gotten us into in the past. That's where you have a hard time with conversation -- where things degenerate into ideological name-calling."
Robison admits to a vested interest in the fate of "Travelin' Soldier" -- after all, the ban is eating into his royalties. Beyond that, though, he wishes that people would see Maines not just as some star with halfwit opinions but as a woman and a mother and an American and a Texan just as proud and patriotic in her own way as the most hawkish among us. "There's a lot of different ways of looking at it, and I would think that all of them would give you pause before you organized a Dixie Chicks CD-burning party."
Not that Robison can't see the other side of this coin, too. "When you get that popular, you really have to watch your words or suffer the consequences. It's not my place to comment on their lives, but I suppose that anybody would say that was true. Number one, country music fans as a group are very patriotic. And number two, I would imagine that these folks -- the real hard-core country fans -- are the people who have brothers and sisters and sons and daughters over there on the front lines. I don't have any friends in the Gulf -- I'm not proud of that, but that's the case. But these country fans -- that's who is over there."
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Of the Worley and Keith tunes, Robison is slightly less forgiving. He is puzzled by their authors' statements that they are not political people, and thoroughly disagrees with their simplistic, placardlike sentiments. "If anybody wants to know my opinion on any of this they can stop me on the street and ask me, but they better have an hour and a half," he says. "I'm a believer in arguments and ideas and freedom, and that's a word that's taking a beating right now. A lot of things are hard for us, and there's a lot of open wounds. It's just really hard for me to take a simplistic view on any of this. I want people to get their intellects involved in my songs."
Which is just what "Travelin' Soldier" does. Like All Quiet on the Western Front, it stands unflinching and without preaching, in front of a hard eternal truth: Innocent young people die in every war and it's very sad when they do. Unsaid in the song but screaming through your mind is this question: Is this war going to be worth that pain?
"I've always thought that the strength and the weakness of my writing is that it doesn't take a stand," he says. "What I try to do is paint a story and not tell you what to think about it."
In other words, Robison wants you to arrive at your own conclusions, your own truth. And no one could argue that the words of "Travelin' Soldier" are anything but true. No matter how many country radio program directors tell the world it's by popular demand, the fact that this song has fallen victim to a boycott on the eve of combat's outbreak reminds Racket of an old adage, that one about the first casualty in every war.