September 11 gave Nashville something with gravity to hang its cowboy hat on, a flag of substance to rally around. In retrospect, it might ultimately be the catalyst for country music suddenly sounding as relevant and surprisingly powerful as it often has for the past decade.
It’s easy to forget that in the ’90s, country radio didn’t rely nearly so much on building every-man-for-himself fortresses against scary outsiders. Garth Brooks and Shania Twain, who exploded genre sales records throughout that decade, always came off as relatively cosmopolitan, probably no more right-wing than Bill Clinton. But 9/11 brought reactionary cranks out of the woodwork. Within weeks, Hank Williams Jr. was back with “America Will Survive” (his highest-charting country single since 1991), as was Charlie Daniels with “This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag” (his highest since 1989). And for other artists, it was a game-changer: Toby Keith, until the planes hit, was known primarily for domestic relationship songs.
Keith’s saber-rattling “Courtesy Of The Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” (which ultimately begat Shock N’ Y’all and “American Soldier” and “American Ride” and “Made In America”) is one of two country songs that inevitably come to mind when conversations turn to 9/11. The other, Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” came half a year earlier and was a much bigger hit; beginning in the last week of 2001, it topped the country chart for five weeks, where Keith’s anthem didn’t get its single week at the top until the following July. (Though interestingly, the week after 9/11, Keith was #1 anyway — with his one-night-stand number “I’m Just Talkin’ About Tonight,” of all things.) Jackson’s song, though, was also something of an anomaly — geographically clueless (“I watch CNN, but I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran”) but ultimately non-violent in its intentions.
The United States invaded Iraq in late March, 2003. That week, the Dixie Chicks‘ heart-rending “Travelin’ Soldier” — about Vietnam, but undoubtedly identified in many military family minds with the present — went #1 country; just days earlier, Natalie Maines had introduced the song in England by voicing her opposition to the war and to George W. Bush, which instigated a famous backlash. Then in April, Daryl Worley’s “Have You Forgotten,” which explicitly and unscrupulously linked Bin Laden with Iraq and used that as a justification for pre-emptive attack, took over the country chart’s top spot for seven weeks.
Worley, thankfully, is a bit of a blip. He’s had just one country #1 since, and has barely creased the top 10. But country’s newfound openness to fightin’ words gave boosts through the decade to a certain musclebound breed of male country star, for instance, Trace Adkins, who has belted out a few war-themed songs in his big baritone, at least one of which (“Welcome To Hell”) damned Al-Qaeda terrorists to eternal flames. Even more significantly there’s the reliable duo Montgomery Gentry, whose entire career was seemingly built on a kind of defensive anti-urban paranoia about “the world going down the drain” that tied into Tea Party values before the Tea Party even existed. Lately, in Nashville, that sort of stance has been slipping out of fashion, probably one reason, weirdly, that country radio is duller now than it was just a few years ago; there’s simply less at stake. But for a while there, it was inescapable.
In early 2002, as the music editor of the Village Voice, I put together a 9-11 benefit compilation CD called Love Songs For New York (Wish You Were Here). Though their love for NYC is doubtful, Montgomery Gentry’s label asked that “Tattoos & Scars,” the battle-veteran-inspired title track from the pair’s 1999 debut album, be included; I lobbied for it, but was voted down. It’s possible I should have lobbied harder. Not a single Nashville selection made the cut, which seems odd now, given that country — for all its egregious political faults — was the only genre that regularly continued to acknowledge that the U.S. was engaged in multiple wars in the decade following 9/11. Given wars about which Americans were free to wear blinders, that’s important. In no other genre could an actual Baghdad vet like Luke Stricklin score with a morose song about his overseas experience (“American By God’s Amazing Grace,” 2005); in no other genre could the eventually gay-married Chely Wright have a hit defending her petroleum-guzzler’s U.S. Marines sticker against bird-flipping private-school elitists (“The Bumper Of My S.U.V.,” 2004.) So, in both the short and the long run, it’s hard to think of any other musical genre affected so thoroughly by 9/11. As Toby Keith would say, that day put a boot in country’s ass. It’s the American way.