The emergence of country music is very much intertwined with African-American musical traditions with the banjo, an instrument foundational to the formation of country’s “sound”, being brought to the US by enslaved African peoples. Blues music also served as a great source of inspiration for the country genre with the so-called “father of country”, Jimmie Rogers, drawing upon it in songs like ‘Blue Yodel No. 9’ explicitly referencing it by name, and employing its conventional 4/4 rhythm, typically woeful lyrics and instrumentation with Louis Armstrong being heard on the horn. Armstrong’s appearance on this track demonstrates the influence of African-American music upon Rogers and indeed country music as a whole; he was and is one of the most prominent figures in jazz.
Armstrong later performed this same song with Johnny Cash, who is somewhat emblematic of 60s and 70s country music. He was also known as “The Man in Black”, because, you guessed it, he always dressed in black explaining in his song ‘Man in Black’ that he will “always dress in black […] for the poor and beaten down”. He pledges to continue to do so until the world is “brighter” as he saw no colour in a world where people were marginalised and “beaten down”, with this phrase suggesting this oppression came from a higher entity such as the state. This indicates his status as a direct opponent of the American government, and showcases how patriotism has not always been the standard sentiment of country music. His anti-establishment attitudes are again evidenced by his album ‘At Folsom Prison’, recorded live from Folsom Prison. The album includes blues songs, highlighting the enduring influence of African-American music upon country beyond the earlier half of the 20th century into its latter decades too. Moreover, Cash is exceedingly provocative in songs like ‘Folsom Prison Blues’ and ’25-Minutes to Go’ as he writes them from the point of view of the prosecuted, a perspective inherently at odds with the American state, and Jimmie Rogers did so too in the aforementioned ‘Blue Yodel No.9’. This reinforces how old-style country music never used to be about championing patriotic narratives, but rather about those in conflict with authority such as convicts and cowboys.
Hence, the assumption that country music has always been aligned with a conservative ideology is not necessarily true. However, this has unfortunately come to be the case as of the last few decades, a shift likely catalysed by 9/11 evoking a “rally-around-the-flag” response, promoting an America-first mentality.
Consequently, the modern country scene is relatively bleak with minorities and leftists being somewhat anomalous. This is the result of not only a general air of right-wing intolerance for marginalised peoples, but due to their systemic exclusion as shown when Lil Nas X’s ‘Old Town Road’ was removed from Billboard Music’s Country charts, with acts like these making commercial success all the harder for minorities to achieve. Instead, stars such as Toby Keith with patriotic anthems like ‘Courtesy Of The Red, White and Blue’ dominate the country industry. I use the word “industry” here so as to reference the marketisation and subsequent homogenisation of the genre; it is devoid of the heart and soul intrinsic to country music of the past, which heralded emotionality and storytelling. Moreover, this veneration of “all-American” ideals is a marked ideological shift away from the political perspectives of country legends like Cash who were highly critical of America. In turn, it seems ironic that these conservative modern country stars are often pictured donning a cowboy hat as Toby Keith does in his Spotify profile picture; cowboys represent ideals antithetical to patriotism and conformity as they are, in essence, outlaws with a resentment for authority.
However, amidst this sea of soullessness and conservatism are queer artists like Orville Peck and drag-queen Trixie Mattel who serve as beacons of light, reconnecting with and reinventing American folk traditions. Peck harks back to the imagery of old-style country music with his cowboy hats and songs, and his use of the trope feels more appropriate because he, as a gay man, can better resonate with the cowboy’s predicament, because through his sexuality he is pushed to the margins of society, similarly being a kind of social pariah and maverick. Mattel also pays tribute to old-style country by covering the songs of the “woke” Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton, the latter being one of her musical, aesthetic and personal inspirations; Parton’s message is one of positivity and inclusivity, which while speaking to all seems particularly relevant to LGBTQ+ listeners. Also, unlike the comparably impersonal music of more conventional modern country artists, Mattel’s work recalls the tradition of American folk music being a medium for storytelling as her lyrics are deeply subjective as with her autobiographical song ‘This Town’, in which she recounts her experience of growing up in a rural working-class town and the hardships of this life.
We can conclude that while country music is, to a certain extent, the genre of conservative, straight, white men, this has not always been the case and may not necessarily continue to be. This is due to the emergence of new, queer voices like that of Orville Peck and Trixie Mattel, with the former’s nomination for ‘Country Album of the Year’ at the 2023 Juno Awards and victory at the 2020 Libera Awards for ‘Best Country Album’, evidencing how the genre is coming to be more expansive and inclusive. Thus, I believe, there is still hope for the future of country music.