The Virtue of Despair
Essays Culture Music

The Virtue of Despair

Aubrey Child

The Past, Present, and Future of Country Music

I’m just an American boy, raised on MTV
And I’ve seen all the kids in the soda pop ads
But none of ’em look like me.
So I started lookin’ around for a light out of the dim
And the first thing I heard that made sense was the word
Of Mohammed, peace be upon him

— “John Walker’s Blues,” Steve Earle (2002)

John Walker Lindh was born and raised in the land of the free, a native son of America. He was radicalized online. When he was 20 years old he fought for the Taliban in Afghanistan until the Northern Alliance captured him. When he was 21, the United States Department of Justice imprisoned him as an enemy combatant. When he was 38 they let him out. He’s still not allowed to use the internet.

Steve Earle’s song about John Walker Lindh was a flop in 2002. No one in Nashville wanted to hear it. They wanted to hear chart-toppers by Alan Jackson and Toby Keith about not knowing the difference between Iraq and Iran, about the angry American with a plan to “put a boot in your ass,” about President Bush dropping “little bombs all over the holy land.” I was twelve years old at the time and I’d never heard the word “ass” on the radio before.

Somebody told me, when I came to Nashville
Son, you finally got it made
Old Hank made it here and we're all sure that you will
But I don't think Hank done it this way

Are You Sure Hank Done It This Way?

Times have changed. The pro-war ejaculations of Bush-era Nashville stars were perhaps a deviation from, and certainly a political focusing of, the country music tradition: from varied and ambiguous stances of patriotism, anti-government sentiment, and every position in between, Nashville effectively became a marketing arm for Bush’s policies. Acts like the Dixie Chicks, once praised for their rebellious, outlaw dispositions, became personae non gratae overnight thanks to their anti-war statements. Steve Earle’s NPR-friendly politics look a bit different these days.[1] Times have changed since the Bush years—and times have been changing since long before the millennium turned.

A Widening Gyre

One by one they have gone from the old cottage home
On earth we shall see them no more
But we'll meet them again on that beautiful shore
Where parting will come nevermore

— “My Old Cottage Home,” recorded by the Carter Family (1931)

When you think of the early history of country music, images may come to mind of Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, buckskin fringe, rhinestone cowboys, big white hats, that kind of thing. But there are deeper, weirder roots—twisted roots that run through ancient British ballads, Hawaiian guitarists, blackface minstrel shows, the blues, Civil War poets, mining songs, Africa.

Before World War I, before the harsh glare of commercialization began to bleach the irregularities out of what would eventually become "country music,” American music was wild. Nasty, pious, horny, miscegenating, drunk, praying, preaching, murdering, testifying—traditional music sucked up influences from every part of the abundant world it came in contact with. When Spanish and Portuguese sailors brought guitars to Hawaii and Hawaiians started playing guitar with a slide, country boys from the United States saw it, brought it home to become the slide guitar, and eventually transformed it into the pedal steel. When the old English and Scottish ballads survived up in the isolated Applachians, some of them transmogrified into "Negro Folk-Songs" found in Texas centuries later. When urban grifters took their medicine shows with their Tin Pan Alley songs out to the hills and hollers, people listened and stole and fit the music to their own instruments and voices. In the golden age of the American railroad, country boys with a rambling urge drifted down to New Orleans and Deep Elm (now known as Deep Ellum) and picked up the syncopated energies of early jazz and the complex guitar techniques of Black musicians (without this transmission there'd be no Chet Atkins, no Merle Travis). And of course, that old conflict between the world and the Christian, the flesh and the Spirit, the devil and Jesus, exploded into a brand new kind of American musical energy.

"Country music" as a distinct genre is a product of marketing and advertising. When records first became a serious business in the 1920s and record catalogs started to appear, music had to be categorized. Outside the more sophisticated, urban categories like classical and big band music, there were a couple of major categories: race records and hillbilly music. By the 1940s, after the Great Depression, the "race records" category had been renamed "rhythm and blues" and "hillbilly music" had become known as "country and western." These categories did not reflect any kind of original musical distinction; they did not carve nature at her joints. While there may be separate traditions of "Black" and "white" music in America, each tradition is a living stream running parallel to the other, connected to all of music by secret underground passages.

When that harsh glare of commercialization did start to shine on country music, something strange happened. A cycle of commercialization and reaction against it started up, a widening gyre of decadence and return, capitalism and traditionalism.

We can locate the moment of mythical origin for country music in the 1910s, as the Victrola machine introduced recorded music. For decades there was a growing tension between making money and making authentic music. This tension came to a head in the early 1940s, when the Carter Family stopped recording and the Grand Ole Opry went national, ushering in a synthesis that landed Roy Acuff as King of Country Music and one of the Opry’s biggest stars. Traditionalists bewailed the commercialization of country music and praised the good old days when real authentic country folk used to make genuine music.

The second cycle started in the early to mid-1970s. Again there was a growing tension between the Nashville establishment and musicians who wanted to do things their own way, producing the outlaw country movement. We could pin this onto our timeline at 1972, the year Waylon Jennings’ Ladies Love Outlaws was released.

It looks like this cycle repeats around every thirty years, once a generation. Going by the numbers we’d expect the third cycle of reaction against a complacent, over-produced country music machine to have started about thirty years after 1970, around 2000 or 2001.

America was a bit distracted in 2001, though. The cycle was disrupted as the cultural production capacity of America’s heartland was re-dedicated to jingoistic sentimentality about the beauty of our weapons. “We’ll put a boot in your ass”, Toby Keith sang, “it’s the American way.” The cycle was disrupted, but not canceled—the third cycle seems to have kicked off in earnest around 2019. In between these three peaks of reaction are all the rhinestone suits, Nashville string sections, and songs about having a big truck that have come to stand for “country music” in the educated popular mind.

The Secret Tradition

Country music has a long and strong tradition of anti-military, anti-cop, anti-corporate songwriting. To name a few examples: Merle Travis (b. 1917, wrote “Sixteen Tons”), Johnny Cash (b. 1932, Native American activist), Willie Nelson (b. 1933, known lawbreaker and weed smoker), John Prine (b. 1946, chronicled the despair of veterans and prisoners), and Steve Earle (b. 1955, canceled by Nashville for being a liberal). A newer generation of musicians is continuing the tradition — Sturgill Simpson (b. 1978 — listen to “Call to Arms”), Jason Isbell (b. 1979 — listen to “Something More Than Free” and “White Man’s World”), and Tyler Childers (b. 1991 — listen to “Long Violent History“). All of these artists have sung of the morally questionable ways our nation uses its military and police forces. This continuity is not something that recent generations of country musicians have planned and sworn loyalty to in order to establish some kind of trad country credentials; it's a natural response to the persistence of the same moral and political challenges and questions.

This anti-military tradition is not a tradition of protest songs. It’s a tradition of describing the human destruction caused by war. Johnny Cash could be plenty patriotic, but when singing “The Ballad of Ira Hayes”[2] (“Call him drunken Ira Hayes / He won't answer anymore / Not the whiskey drinking Indian / Or the marine that went to war”) and “Man in Black” (“I wear the black in mourning for the lives that could have been / Each week we lose a hundred fine young men”) his focus is on human tragedy. In Sturgill Simpson’s “Call to Arms,” this tragic note takes a turn toward fury in the face of our futile wars ("I done Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and Iran / North Korea tell me where does it end / Well the bodies keep piling up with every day / How many more of ‘em they gonna send?").[3]

Woven into this tradition, especially in the country music that comes from Appalachia, is a pro-union, anti-boss, coal mining strand. The best known example might be Merle Travis’s 1947 song “Sixteen Tons,” made famous in 1955 by Tennessee Ernie Ford. I grew up hearing the version of “The Legend of John Henry's Hammer” by Johnny Cash, who would never play a show unless the crew was union.[4] Sturgill Simpson’s songs “Old King Coal” and “Hero” self-consciously tap into this tradition right as he’s leaving the line of work — “I'll be one of the first in a long long line / Not to go down from that old black lung.”

Protest songs like, say, Joe Hill's 1913 "There is Power in a Union" or Bob Dylan's 1963 “Masters of War” rest on the premise that democracy in action might produce an equal and opposite de-militarizing reaction. Protest songs have a few things in common. First, none of them are tied to a specific artist or singer; they are, in a sense, communal property. The Pete Seeger or Woodie Guthrie version might be the most widely known, but the songs belong to the people in a way that Sturgill's and Isbell's don't. Second, these songs are distinctly and deliberately political, aimed at concrete democratic or socialist objectives. See Joe Hill's 1910 song "The Preacher and the Slave": "Workingmen of all countries unite / Side by side we for freedom will fight / When the world and its wealth we have gained / To the grafters we'll sing this refrain: / You will eat, bye and bye, When you've learned how to cook and to fry / Chop some wood, 'twill do you good / And you'll eat in the sweet bye and bye."

The country music songs I'm talking about here aren't like that. There are no rallying cries, no political tactics, no solidarity, no unions, no indictment of capitalism. This isn't to say that these songs are not political—as discussed, there's plenty of anger directed at political issues. They just aren’t activist songs. To take one contemporary example: Josh Ritter's song "All Some Kind of Dream" (featuring Jason Isbell on slide guitar), for example, is directly focused on a specific national failure of compassion, but in a purely mournful mode. There's no call to action, no threats to evildoers, just a rotten sweet sadness. It’s a purely lyrical, not tactical, response to a political problem. Simpson’s “Call to Arms” is another good example—there is, ironically, no call to arms. The only action the lyrics suggest is to "Turn off the TV / Turn off the news / There's nothing to see here."

Sturgill Simpson grew up seeing what came of the classic era of protest: not much. He grew up in coal country as the unions were losing ground to management and normal people were turning to oxycodone and suicide. The military and corporate machinery is bigger than the biggest star from Kentucky or Arkansas, and so is the Nashville machine. He knows he can’t stop it—his momma didn’t raise no fool. Sturgill Simpson may be the first ever country music singer to sing about internet ad tracking and Nintendo 64.[5] He’s a thoroughly modern, cosmopolitan, tuned-in and turned-on country songwriter.

The Iraq Years

Eleven years into America's armed conflict in Iraq and thirteen years after the United States went to war in Afghanistan, I was twenty-three years old, working in Arkansas as a delivery driver for a furniture store and studying for the U.S. Department of State's Foreign Service Officer Test.[6] In between shoving La-Z-Boy recliners around the concrete warehouse floor and driving the Isuzu NPR box truck, I was reading Johnson Chalmers's Dismantling the Empire: America's Last Best Hope and George C. Herring's From Colony to Superpower.

I had two coworkers who drove around in the truck and moved the furniture with me. They weren't allowed to drive the truck due to their previous encounters with the criminal justice system. One was Clayton, a former Marine Corps helicopter mechanic who grew up in a trailer park, drove Asian motorcycles, seemed to get most of his money from various mothers of his children, and, as best as I could tell, had been dishonorably discharged from the armed forces for using methamphetamine. He was a Sergeant-at-Arms in the local branch of the Ruff Ryders and liked Woody Guthrie.[7] The other was Little Joe, a five-foot-five former weed dealer with "H A R D" tattooed on the left hand and "T I M E" on the right. Joe liked rap music and speculating about the sexual lives of our customers.

One day I was driving to deliver a mattress to an architect's house in the local college town. Little Joe was in the passenger seat. It was an election year and a certain judge in the state circuit court, let's call her Karen Becker, was running for her seventh re-election. We drove past one of her election billboards. Little Joe, from the passenger seat, looked out the window and said, "Fuck you, Karen Becker!" He then listed off for me all Karen's offenses as a judge—child custody cases decided wrong, minor offenses blown into larger offenses, unfairly punitive sentences against him and his friends. Joe himself, due to past criminal convictions, couldn't vote.

Another day I was driving down from the Ozark mountains with Clayton. We were smoking his cigarettes and discussing his experiences being incarcerated. I never fully understood how many times he’d been in or in what facilities, but county jail seemed to be a recurring setting. Clayton's usual habit when first getting to his bunk was to yell for a while and give shit to anyone around, because "they don't have any real rules about it" and, he said, "I just like to make myself comfortable since I'm gonna be there for a while." I made a mild suggestion that maybe the jail system was a waste of resources and an unnecessarily punitive approach to justice for a decent guy like Clayton. "Naw, man, I deserved to be in there! Look, when I go to jail I'm a convict. They convicted me of a crime and I got put in there because I did something wrong. And I learned a lot in jail too. That’s the only place I ever read books, is in jail, because it’s not like there’s other stuff to do. But I don't want to be a recidivist."

Hearing Joe’s passionate opinions on the Arkansas judiciary and Clayton’s inside view on correctional facilities was more of a political education than the thousands of pages of I was reading to study for the FSOT. In all the time I worked there, national politics and the kind of culture war issues in which the average college-educated Twitter user trafficks never came up as topics of conversation. But these men were not politically apathetic, or ignorant—they were politically neutered, and they knew it. They knew their own individual political impotence. They may have been shut out of local and national political engagement by criminal disenfranchisement laws and a credentialist class system, and if they’d been able to vote in 2016 they would have probably voted for Donald Trump, but they weren't stupid. They shamed me out of my attitude of quiet superiority. I realized that I, too, was disenfranchised by default, even if I knew more than they did about America’s foreign relations in the late 19th century. Despite my education and my registered voter status, my agency in our political system was roughly the same as theirs, which is to say next to no political influence, my body more or less at the mercy of the government.[8] That mercy may be distributed unevenly across the intersections of race, class, and gender, as Tyler Childers acknowledges in “Long Violent History” (“[The world’s] called me belligеrent, it's took me for ignorant / But it ain't never once made me scared just to be”). But it seems to me that there's another important division among people, maybe even more important than race, class, and gender: the division between those who see themselves as real political actors and those who see themselves only as acted upon.

I never became a Foreign Service Officer. Instead, I learned what it’s like to be a guy who knows he can be acted upon by the government, but can not act through the government. My imagination of becoming a person who would have a voice in the halls of government faded. I got a new roommate who had been raided by the FBI and had his computer searched because his former roommate had helped to publicly expose a security flaw in a large company’s email system.

The Revolution Starts?..

Democracy don't rule the world
You better get that in your head
This world is ruled by violence
But I guess that's better left unsaid

— “Union Sundown”, Bob Dylan, (1983)

Ira Hayes came home from the Pacific to die in a ditch, drunk. In John Prine's song "Sam Stone," Sam has a hard time readjusting to civilian life after Vietnam: “There's a hole in daddy's arm where all the money goes / Jesus Christ died for nothin' I suppose.” Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” is about another Vietnam veteran who volunteered in order to avoid the draft. Two tours later, John Lee Pettimoore grows coca and marijuana where his ancestors made moonshine—"And now the D.E.A.'s got a chopper in the air / I wake up screaming like I'm back over there.” It’s a rollicking foot-stomper of a song. John Lee Pettimoore could be the other end of the supply chain that ends up with Sam Stone dead in his chair.

Steve Earle did his damndest to write protest songs that might actually change something (see that 2004 album, The Revolution Starts…Now), but Ira Hayes, Sam Stone, and John Lee Pettimore (and Clayton, and Joe) didn’t have a society to live in after coming home from Vietnam or Iraq or the county jail.

Raised in crumbling communities, growing up with the music of Vietnam veterans, Simpson, Isbell, and many others have found themselves in a world that may not seem much better than it was a generation prior. At its worst, it looks like it’s breaking apart further. I don’t have a political program or a roadmap to the good society—but the twists and turns in the history of country music reflect the one we live in. As these songwriters have tried to show us, there’s a big part of the American populace that has no place in American society. Country stars aren’t writing songs praising democracy anymore, because they’re not sure we live in one. But they’re still writing—perhaps with a new vision in mind. As Jason Isbell quipped, “Maybe democracy is [dead] too but imma keep on playing.”

This attitude declines putting any more hope into politics as democratic action, and sees old-school patriotism as sentimentality. It’s a purely lyrical form of political engagement, a kind of citizenship that does not set out to build a city on a hill or bring democracy to the world. From most angles it looks a lot like the opposite of hope—it looks like political despair. But might we go further and ask: is there a kind of virtue in this political despair?

In 2014 I was driving the truck north from Fort Smith with Clayton. We were listening to my iPod on shuffle and the Willie Nelson cover of Arlo Guthrie’s “City of New Orleans” came on. Clayton surprised me by saying that he loved this song, his whole motorcycle club loved it, and in his opinion the original was a bit better than the cover. We sang together at the chorus. Good morning America, how are you? Say, don't you know me? I'm your native son.

  1. The liner notes to Earle’s 2004 album The Revolution Starts… Now includes the line, “The most important presidential election of our lifetime was less than seven months away and we desperately wanted to weigh in, both as artists and as citizens of a democracy.” He may have been right, but it feels a bit like another cycle in an eternal return after 2016 and 2020. ↩︎

  2. Written by Peter LaFarge, military veteran and protest singer. ↩︎

  3. The boomer generation of Nashville stars largely missed out on this anti-military, anti-cop tradition, probably for reasons to do with the secular cycle outlined above. One suspects it has less to do with any kind of essential generational identity, and more to do with the prosperity experienced by country musicians and the Nashville establishment from roughly the 1960s to the time of the Global Financial Crisis, brashly exemplified by the title of Toby Keith's 2006 album White Trash with Money. ↩︎

  4. Walking the line with Johnny Cash,” Ciara Kenny. ↩︎

  5. See: “You Can Have the Crown” and “Sea Stories,” respectively. ↩︎

  6. I passed two-thirds of the test, which means I failed the test. ↩︎

  7. My research indicates that this motorcycle club is the same one immortalized in the DMX song “Ruff Ryders' Anthem," although Clayton emphasized to me the name's Teddy Roosevelt connection. ↩︎

  8. If anything, Clayton may have had significantly more political agency than me through his Sergeant-at-Arms office in the Ruff Ryders. He was part of a little platoon, a real functioning small polity of some kind, and I was . . . not. ↩︎

Featured image: The Illinois Central's City of New Orleans at Kankakee, Illinois. The train is led by EMD E7 #4017 in photo (August 1964) by Lawerence and David Barera via Wikimedia Commons.

Aubrey Child is a fifth-generation Arkansan. He attended a couple of different state universities where he acquired degrees in English Literature, Piano Performance, and Information Studies. He has lived in the West Bank and in Austin, Texas, where the libraries were better than Palestine but the wedding parties were much worse. He invites you to follow him on Twitter.