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The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

Emerson College’s only independent, student-run newspaper since 1947

The Berkeley Beacon

The resonating echoes of 9/11 in country music

Courtesy Ashlyn Richards

A year after the attack on the Twin Towers on Sept. 11, 2001, country music goliath Alan Jackson released the emotive and poignant anthem “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning).” The song spoke to the nation in the midst of one of the greatest American tragedies of the 21st century; he sang of searching for faith through the smoke on Ground Zero and admitted his political apathy. The song is powerful, uplifting, and an attempt to make sense of everything the nation was collectively feeling. It wasn’t angry or spiteful—it was a somber call for love and unity. 

It quickly climbed the charts and became his biggest and most lucrative hit to date, inspiring hundreds of songs like it. The initial feeling of loss reflected through lyrics transformed from calls for peace, to calls for retaliation. Most of the country music dominating the radio waves for the past twenty years is directly descended from post-9/11 patriot anthems.

So the essential question is: how did we get from Jackson’s “Where Were You,” to Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” and Oliver Anthony’s “Rich Men North of Richmond”—two songs that came out in the past year with white supremacist dog whistles that only succeed in lifting themselves up by putting down disenfranchised people?

Country music thus became synonymous with pro-America rhetoric. It fits like a missing puzzle piece in the culture of American capitalist individualism, such as the “pull yourself up by the bootstraps” mentality. Unfortunately, because of underlying themes of xenophobia and white nationalism, the anthems of capitalist America quickly became less “pro-us” and more “anti-them.”

The slew of country songs that came out in the years following 9/11, save for Jackson’s “Where Were You,” tapped into America’s fear, anger, confusion, and trauma—and capitalized on it. This is a longtime favorite political tactic of Republican politicians—this classic redirection of anger and fear to blame the wrong people is how Trump got elected. But before the days of MAGA, the Toby Keiths and Aldeans of the country music world used this sort of fear-mongering to sell records, profiting off of one of the most horrific events in 21st-century America. 

In an article for Afterglow, Grace Robertson captures this dichotomy best, highlighting a song from another country music staple, though it starkly contrasts Jackson’s “Where Were You”:

“Toby Keith’s ‘Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)’ channeled the simmering rage many Americans felt, incorporating some of the classic country music storytelling elements with an added F- you to anyone deemed as ‘other’: ‘Justice will be served and the battle will rage / This big dog will fight when you rattle its cage / And you’ll be sorry you messed with / The U.S. of A.’ 

Keith wrote the song in 20 minutes directly after the attack of 9/11.”

Dolly Parton wrote “Jolene” and “I Will Always Love You” on the same day, and Keith did the same for people who love America a little too much.

Obviously, these sort of battle cries have negative repercussions: an overt generalization of the Middle East, a lack of understanding about global politics, and a direct call to action for Americans angry about 9/11 to do something about it. With just enough balance of vagueness and specificity, many country listeners (that is, the predominantly white male audience) heard this message loud and clear.

Anti-Muslim attacks skyrocketed in the year 2001, and continued to steadily increase for the past twenty years.  The predominant message of most country music was one that clearly excluded people of color, queer people, and women. While this is obvious for those who think of country music in the past two decades, this was not always the main message of the genre. 

In her Northeastern text corpus, Elizabeth Maddock Dillon wrote: 

“The most memorable songs of the mid-to-late 1900s often discuss the lives of working-class Americans living in rural areas, like ‘Coal Miner’s Daughter’ by Loretta Lynn and ‘9 to 5’ by Dolly Parton, for example. While this theme is still seen in the country music of today, topics like beer, trucks, girls, and God seem to steal the show.”

Country music was not always about big tires on big trucks and drinking big beers. It used to be the voice for the blue-collar working class—instead of excluding disenfranchised voices, it sang for them.

Before Keith and Aldean, Johnny Cash sang “Folsom Prison Blues” for a crowd of incarcerated individuals in 1968. The sub-genre “Outlaw Country” was the culmination of a disdain for “the man”—institutions that kept poor people poor. Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings sang of these themes, directly for and to disenfranchised, working-class folks.

This is not to say that the genre was perfect before 9/11. There was certainly a staunch exclusion of people of color by white country artists, most of whom directly ripped off their music, and it certainly was not welcoming to queer people. But there have been artists in the past twenty years working to change that, whose music should not go unappreciated just because of the Keiths, Aldeans, and other white men singing about their white male rage.

In the summer of 2023, Tyler Childers released the song and accompanying music video “In Your Love.” The ballad, featuring traditional twangs as well as electric synths, talks of the kind of love you wait your whole life for. The music video features two men who work together in a coal mine and end up falling in love. Though they experienced their fair share of homophobic abuse in the video, their biggest vice wasn’t bigotry; it was black lung, a disease coal miners frequently get from inhaling impure air for long periods that eventually kills them—an estimated 16 percent yearly.

Childers expertly pulls from two different audiences: working-class communities in rural West Virginia that know the strife of coal mines and black lung all too well; and queer folks who can see themselves in this star-crossed love story that he shows. 

Once again, country music becomes the voice for those who might not have had a seat at the table otherwise. 

Childers isn’t the only one doing this, however. There is a plethora of artists giving much-needed representation in the genre, and their work should not be overshadowed because of heavily commercialized and formulaic ethnocentric country records.

The sects of Jingoism, Americountry, and Bro-Country do not represent the genre as a whole. Women in country music, like Carrie Underwood and Miranda Lambert, used their platforms for female empowerment throughout the surge of these more nationalistic sects. Obviously “Before He Cheats,” but let us also pay our respects to “Mama’s Broken Heart” and “Gunpowder and Lead.” Queer artists like Brandi Carlisle and Orville Peck have opened the doors of the genre for a group that has not been historically welcome. Similarly, Kane Brown and Darius Rucker reclaimed a genre that came from Black roots decades before.

Country music is not a lost cause. Quelling the hateful and exclusionary message of some country music by boycotting the genre entirely will not advance efforts of inclusion and moving towards a more inclusive future for country music; it will come from supporting artists who are doing it right, like the aforementioned, and understanding what true country music is:

Anthems of the disenfranchised. Fighting the power. Painting a picture of a vibrant future, like a coat of many colors. This is what the genre was meant to be. And if we continue to nurture it, this is what the genre will be for generations to come. 

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About the Contributor
Meg Richards
Meg Richards, Staff Writer
Meg Richards is a first-year student from Richmond, Virginia. She has a double major in journalism and political communications. She mainly writes for the Opinion section, though she dabbles in News and Living Arts.

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