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Another Country: Georgie on Their Mind

William MacDougal
Date Published: 
September 14, 2004

You probably missed country star Darryl Worley’s performance at the 38th Superbowl, overshadowed as it was by the headline grabbing antics of Justin Timberlake and Janet Jackson. Nonetheless, it’s been a pretty good 12 months or so for the country singer who went from being just another Stetson in the country music firmament to one of its biggest stars with ‘Have You Forgotten?’; an emotive call to arms in which Hardin County’s most famous son asked: “Have you forgotten how it felt that day/To see your homeland under fire/And her people blown away?/Have you forgotten when those towers fell?/We had neighbors still inside/Going through a living hell/And you say we shouldn’t worry ‘bout Bin Laden/Have you forgotten?”

According to Worley’s record label, Dreamworks, the song scaled the charts faster last year than any single in recent memory, prompting one Dreamworks talking head to claim that “Daryl has hit a nerve that strikes to the core of this country’s conscious.” ‘Have You Forgotten?’ helped Worley bag a Best New Male Vocalist nomination at last year’s annual Academy of Country Music (ACM) Awards as well as a hat trick of nominations at the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) Country Music Awards.

In the event, Worley was pipped to the Songwriter and Artist of the Year titles by Alan Jackson, whose more contemplative ‘Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?’ (‘I’m just a singer of simple songs/I’m not a real political man/I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran’) also helped him to Country Music Awards Entertainer and Male Vocalist of the Year titles into the bargain.

Where the likes of the Dixie Chicks are only now starting to recover from the adverse publicity and country radio boycotts caused by very public anti-Bush comments, some country stars have jumpstarted healthy if unremarkable music careers thanks to their twangin’ post 9/11 triumphalism. Foremost among these is Toby Keith, who recently walked off for the second year in a row with the coveted Academy of Country Music Entertainer of the Year Award.

Most famous for ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)’, Worley’s Dreamworks label-mate scored a massive hit last year with a finger-wagging song which angrily warned that “Justice will be served/And the battle will rage/This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage/And you’ll be sorry that you messed with the US of A/’Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American Way.”

Angry Americanism

It comes as no surprise that the Commander-in-Chief is a card carrying member of the Toby Keith Appreciation Society (Keith’s unique brand of angry Americanism has already wowed them at the Pentagon and on a USO tour of Bosnia and Kosovo last year. This year the self proclaimed big dog undertook an extended USO tour with firearms habitué Ted Nugent which took in Kosovo, Germany, Italy, Afghanistan, and Iraq).

“It was a song I was inspired to write because I lost my father six months before 9/11,” explained Keith at the time. “Nobody wrote an angry American song, and this was one. It was the way everybody felt when they saw those two buildings fall.” Enjoying what can only be described as a hot song-writing streak, Keith also went on to pen ‘The American Soldier’ and ‘The Taliban Song’, which not only pushed the country music envelope for doggerel verse and bad taste further still (“So we prayed to Allah with all of our might/And then those big US jets came flyin’ one night/They dropped little bombs all over our holy land/And man you should have seen ‘em run like rabbits, they ran – the Taliban”), but helped Keith’s overall album sales touch the 20 million mark. The name of his latest album? Shock’nY’all.

Performing at a ‘Spirit of America’ concert at Tampa’s MacDill Airbase last year, Darryl Worley took time out to tell George W. Bush that he prayed for him daily. Bush, himself no stranger to the delights of prayer, responded by saying “that is the greatest gift you could ever give a President.”

Not to be outdone by his Dreamworks label mate in the lickspittle sycophancy stakes, Keith dedicated his Country Music Television 2003 Flameworthy Video of the Year award to Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks as well as “all the people over there [Iraq] putting it down for us tonight.” Winning the same prize again this year, Keith told the audience, “I know it’s getting to be old hat sometimes to be patriotic, but don’t forget our brothers and sisters overseas making it free for us tonight.”

Of course, all of this song writing service above and beyond the call of patriotic duty is not without its rewards. Notwithstanding the obvious financial benefits of hit singles, tie-in DVDs and prestigious country music award nominations and prizes, Worley and Keith have perhaps been the most high profile country music recipients of civic and military services awards for their public relations work for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

In January, Keith received a West Point saber from West Point Military Academy for his tribute to the American soldier. “Toby Keith hit a bull’s eye at West Point,” said Bill Yost, director of West Point’s Eisenhower Hall Theatre. “His tribute to the American soldier warmed the hearts and souls of the cadets and soldiers who were in attendance for the concert.” Last year Worley received an American flag from Lieutenant General Richard Cody during a concert in Montgomery, Alabama. The flag, one of many flown at the Pentagon on the first anniversary of 9/11, was presented to Worley in recognition of his vocal support for American soldiers and their families’ patriotism.

Patriotic cause

It is doubtful whether country music has ever enjoyed a higher public profile, with interest in country music at a premium thanks to country’s favored sons current willingness to champion the patriotic cause at the drop of a ten-gallon hat. Visitors to (‘Lyrics for country music and patriotic songs’) can express their patriotism by investing in a ‘Where Were You When the World Stopped Turning?’ collector plate.

Certainly, the patriotic furrow which has been ploughed so relentlessly since September 11 by country music stars has captured the imagination of large swathes of the American public. However, it’s a peculiarly exclusive sort of chisel-jawed, chest-beating patriotism; a patriotism equally in thrall to syrupy sentimental notions of some bygone white picket fenced America as it is to the might of the modern American military complex.

Of course, how much can truly have said to have changed? Country music has long been a repository for conservative thinking and a reactionary force for the enshrining of ‘traditional’ American values way outside the common cultural experience of most of America’s multicultural population. Substitute the hokey comedy factor of Merle Haggard’s ‘Okie from Muskogee’ (‘We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee/We don’t take our trips on LSD/We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street/We like living right, and being free’) with the righteous indignation of current country stalwarts and you’ll find that not much has changed. The song remains very much the same. Country music’s hijacking of populist blue-collar values has long acted as a cloak to an industry more at home in the corporate boardroom than it is in the front porches of the regular down home folk it patronises.

Nowhere is the country music industry’s symbiotic relationship to power and commerce more apparent than at the glad-handing awards ceremonies where corporations like Wal-Mart (scourge of working poor Americans and small communities alike) pick up baubles like ASCAP’s Partner in Music Award for their exceptional dedication to promoting and expanding the reach of country music. Academy of Country Music members can likewise vote for the Home Depot Humanitarian Award or the Don Romeo Talent Buyer/Promoter of the Year. It is to be hoped that both Wal-Mart and Home Depot do a good run on collectible patriot plate ware.

Not to be outdone by their conservative brethren, a number of country music fans have also decided to challenge the plaid and gingham checked conservative country status quo. In Nashville, disgruntled music industry leaders have banded together to form the Music Row Democrats in order to recruit and organize Democrats within the music community. Set up in December 2003, Music Row Democrat activities include Kerry-oke fundraisers with artists like Emmylou Harris and Allison Moorer performing to raise funds for the Kerry presidential campaign.

Yet, fine intentions and a few notable country music exceptions aside, most country singers are loathe to say anything vaguely critical of Bush or the occupation in Iraq lest they find themselves on the receiving end of a consumer and Clear Channel-type boycott (an allegation still fiercely refuted by Clear Channel who claim that local managers make their own programming decisions). As one poster to points out, “If they plan on recruiting all the liberals in country music, they could hold a concert in a closet. Willie Nelson and the Dixie Pigs are definitely the exception, not the rule.”

Neo-conservative Richard Perle famously said, “If we let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don’t try to piece together clever diplomacy but just wage total war, our children will sing great songs about us years from now.” Americans owe it to themselves to choose their own soundtrack.