This collection makes an important intervention in analysis of country music’s cultural politics by detailing the presence of progressive thought within the genre from the emergence of commercial country music in the 1920s through the present. While country music has long been stereotyped as a conservative genre, recent academic studies have found a complex range of political affiliations across the history of the genre, including progressive content. Scholars such as Nadine Hubbs, whose work is featured here, have identified progressive alliances supported by some white, working-class audiences involving working-class advocacy, LGBTQ+ rights, and cross-racial class alliances. This collection offers a vital contribution to this crucial academic interrogation of those stereotypes and country music’s more complex historical practice. Some of the strengths of the collection include the balanced focus on different historical periods, the variety of different kinds of progressive expression it establishes, and the rich range of methodological approaches, including musicological analysis, cultural history, and discussions of cultural theory.
In his introduction, Jackson demonstrates the kind of careful, multi-layered historical development highlighted in the collection. Citing historian Bill Malone, he details how country music first became associated with a conservative Republican political position in the late 1960s and early 1970s due to some responses to the Vietnam War and Richard Nixon’s efforts to use country music audiences. Jackson points to the songs by musicians such as Johnny Cash and Loretta Lynn that expressed ambivalence about the war or supported the antiwar protestors. Even though there has been a range of conservative-to-progressive content evident in the genre from its earliest moments, after this Nixon moment, as Jackson outlines, the genre came to be seen as stereotypically associated with conservatism. He argues that the actual multifarious political content of the genre is lost when commentators ranging from journalists to scholars fail to question that stereotype.
Jackson writes that the goal of the collection is to trace the progressive history encoded in the genre in lyrical content, music, costumes, attitudes, and marketing, correcting the narrative of stereotypical conservatism that still circulates in the cultural reception of the genre. He asserts that the essays taken as a whole show that country audiences are receptive to leftist expression by performers as evidenced by the commercial success of that music, even while the country music industry itself does not always accept or promote those progressive efforts.
The book features a helpful chronological organization, split into the early period of commercial country music from the 1920s to the mid-1950s, the middle period from the 1960s to the early 1980s, and the later stage of the genre from the middle 1980s to the present.
The section on early country music productively draws on political history as well as gender theory. Musicologist Gregory N. Reish argues that early commercial country music in the 1930s evidences some progressive songs celebrating FDR, but that the genre celebrates whatever the leading views of the day are, rather than flipping from being progressive or conservative in one era versus another. Historian Peter La Chapelle traces the 1940s political biography of Glen H. Taylor, a progressive country musician and senator, and describes how he tried to use country music and rural radio to reach voters. In a compelling and nuanced essay, musicologist Stephanie Vander Wel reads Webb Pierce’s contributions to 1950s honky-tonk music as progressive because it broadened the genre’s expressive scope and articulated contradictory working-class identities, particularly in how his feminized vocal style and weeping male, campy embodiment performed gender bending.
The section on the middle period extends further gender theory arguments and adeptly takes up critical questions about cross-racial and cross-marginal alliances involving African-American as well as white, working-class, country performers. Jackson cogently analyzes progressive arguments for gender equality in Loretta Lynn’s oeuvre in the 1960s and 1970s, noting that Lynn rejected the middle-class women’s movement in favor of a popular, working-class feminism. Historian Charles Hughes illuminates the career of O.B. McClinton as he established himself as an African-American country performer in the 1970s who addressed racial discrimination and also merged country with soul and R&B musical influences. In his interview with Steve Young, folklorist Ted Olson shows how this outlaw country artist reflected progressive ideas.
In a powerful and important contribution to the collection, Nadine Hubbs adds to her larger crucial work on how progressivism in country music illuminates histories of white working-class, cross-marginal alliances with members of multiple marginalized groups, including African Americans, Mexican Americans, those who are incarcerated, and queer-working class alliances. In this piece, she reads seven songs from the 1970s as examples of antibourgeois country music that reflect these progressive alliances across race and sexuality, featuring anti-homophobic, anti-racist, coalitional, and counterhegemonic content. Analyzing examples such as anti-homophobia in David Allan Coe and common cause with prisoners and Native American rights in Johnny Cash, Hubbs historicizes this music as evidence of a long progressive white, working-class history in the genre and against a stereotype of bigotry imposed by middle-class narratives.
In the final section on more recent music, several essays take up the progressivism of hybrid genres, while others provide key contributions on African-American performers. Ethnomusicologist Stephanie Shonekan examines how Garth Brooks incorporates progressive representations in his lyrics and public persona, including anti-racist and anti-homophobic content. Stephen A. King and P. Renee Foster discuss how African-American country artists such as Darius Rucker and Rissi Palmer have established careers in the country music industry while dealing with racist responses. Addressing the complexity of racial politics in some hybrid styles, sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom persuasively analyzes the hybrid country and hip-hop genre of “hick-hop,“ noting cross-racial class alliances but also tensions. Her cultural studies model is particularly effective, and her essay provides valuable theoretical discussions of critical race theory in reference to country music history.
In his generous and nuanced essay, Travis D. Stimeling reads alt-country progressivism of the 1990s, specifically that of Uncle Tupelo co-founders Jeff Tweedy and Jay Farrar, in terms of their critique of deindustrialization and their focus on local industrial and post-industrial histories. Stimeling skillfully focuses on a musical discussion of that dynamic in their compositional, arranging, and production choices, and he follows those dynamics in their work to the present day. Closing the collection, Jonathan Silverman compellingly invokes a broader definition of the political to include genre politics. He argues convincingly that Johnny Cash’s American Recordings output beginning in the 1990s is political because it crosses genres in terms of song selection, challenges restrictive ideas of genre by focusing on performance instead, disrupts ageism in the music industry, and establishes Cash’s role in shaping the emergence of Americana as a genre.
Taken as a whole, the collection makes a spirited contribution to scholarship on country music’s cultural politics, highlighting a significant progressive history in the genre and making the case for how that history should shift the way scholars frame the genre.