The Past and Future Politics of Country Music with Marissa Moss
I grew up hating country music (mostly because my dad forced me to listen to it in the car) but going to college in Texas helped correct my opinion. It people like Dwight Yoakum and Clint Black (and other neo-traditionalist if that era) that hooked me. I remained pretty in thrall through the early 90’s and it seemed like there were tons of great, interesting women country stars (Mary Chapin Carpenter was a legit, mainstream star for Pete’s sake) and then they just sort of disappeared (thanks to this interview I have some insight into why that happened) and it bums me out. I’m afraid I’m one those folks that Anne might get annoyed with these days. I love artists that embody to me the real spirit of country music (like Tyler Childers, Sturgill Simpson, early Neko Case, Margo Price and lesser known but absolutely vital artists like Laura Cantrell and Zoe Muth) but I have zero interest in Country radio. Part of that is unfortunately politics but as our polarization somehow continues to grow, it feels the politics of the Nashville machine are very different from my own. I mean just look at Kacey Musgraves. She should be a huge country star, played constantly and embraced by all fans but the machine can’t seem to abide that (of course she is a huge star in spite of Nashville). So I love the genre but hate the machine and the right control the industry wields over who gets hear what.
Given how obsessed I currently am with Morgan Wade thanks to a previous interview here, I'll be getting some more music off this one.
I listened to a ton of country music -- on the commercial country stations -- from the early 2000s to like 2011 (what changed was that I stopped doing long drives on my own) and thinking about that time I am now listening to Alan Jackson's "Drive" and contemplating where to go next in the nostalgia vein. But boy, your intro about that Toby Keith concert -- I always get stuck on what a really fun song "How Do You Like Me Now" is to listen to and what an absolutely mean-spirited song it also is. All she did was "overlook [him] somehow" and maybe, according to rumor, make fun of him, and for that he's spending adulthood celebrating that he's successful and she's had her dreams torn apart and has a miserable life. Before his political turn, Toby Keith told us who he was with that song, and it was such a good song it was too easy to ignore what it told us. Right now I want to listen to it and also it makes me feel kind of dirty. And while that's one of the clearest examples, that kind of, like, triumphalist masculinity where the shallow woman needs to be put in her place is such a strong strain in the country of at least the era I was listening the most. Thinking also of Montgomery Gentry's "She Couldn't Change Me," for instance.
Anyway, early on when I listened to country radio, the Philadelphia station I listened to had one show that would play alt country and Americana, which I also loved -- found Buddy and Julie Miller on there, only to mention them to my parents and learn that my parents had seen them live, which, way to spread the news, guys -- and I never knew for sure but it went off the air right around the time of the Chicks backlash, so I wondered.
In general, I hate that music is sorted into genres. If you're a great musician, I don't care what type of music you play or sing. I haven't listened to music on the radio for a long time, grateful for streaming music.
I went to a Garth Brooks concert a few years ago, to my mind it was an entertaining rock show, the most "country" thing about it was his hat. If you're a great musician, I don't care what you play or sing. Love Vince Gill, enjoy Keith Urban. I fall hard for women with strong clear voices and attitude, Trisha Yearwood is my favorite female country singer, enjoying new music by Margo Price, Amythyst Kiah.
Great interview. I grew up with country music (my dad is a steel guitar player and played in a country cover band for most of my childhood), but I distanced myself from it because I just couldn't abide the politics. I was a kid when "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" came out, and the genre very quickly became with associated with a certain set of beliefs. By the time I was in high school I never listened to country music and didn't really want to.
But I've been thinking lately about how formative Shania Twain's music was for me. "If you want to touch her, ask" seems like an important message. And I always loved "That Don't Impress Me Much." There was so little popular music by women on the radio that wasn't about pining-after-or-being-attractive-to-a-man. I never really appreciated the difference until now.
"(Ghost) Riders in the Sky" is a legendary country song that my dad's band used to play that I always loved. And "Neon Moon" by Brooks and Dunn still makes me tear up.
Going to have to get this book I think! :)
As an aside to this conversation, Sarah of Pantsuit Politic's has this excellent Playlist of 90s and early 00s country with a heavy emphasis on the teenage angst songs that flavored high school for me:
Check out the Now What…We listen to 90’s country! playlist on Amazon Music
Here’s an NPR piece from December on the growing influence of Black women in country and roots music. It’s more comprehensive than this interview suggests. https://www.npr.org/2021/12/14/1063781819/how-black-women-reclaimed-country-and-americana-music-in-2021
This was a fascinating interview, thanks.
One of the things I keep thinking about, as someone who listened to a lot of radio country in the 2010s, is the transition from Woman as Object to Woman as Loyal Companion that happened between, say 2013 and now. This is obviously a pendulum that is always swinging, but there was so much "shake that country ass" stuff in the early 10s that has been supplanted by "I'm gonna love you for a zillion years." Some call it the "bro country to boyfriend country" shift -- it seemed to sort of coincide with #metoo, but perhaps only coincidentally? As a genre, country music tends to be slow to align with what they perceive as "the mainstream," but it was a pronounced enough shift to my ears that it has me wondering.
Super interesting, I can’t wait to get my hands on this book!
Another wonderful country artist and songwriter: Ashley McBryde. A beautiful blend of traditional and contemporary, her songs are so well written, and my God, does she have a great voice.
Okay, I can't let this thread pass without calling out the incredible work of Rissi Palmer and Tressie McMillan Cottom who are putting Black country stars - especially women - on the map.
Dr. Cottom's essay in The Undefeated is one of the best reads of the year: https://andscape.com/features/the-black-vanguard-in-white-utopias/
Rissi Palmer's "Color Me Country" radio program and podcast: https://colormecountry.com/
Okay, more from Dr. Cottom: https://tressiemcphd.medium.com/the-art-of-the-new-old-south-3587818a143f
Joy Oladokun and Amythyst Kiah are revelations.
My country 'phase' was also in the 90s. I'm from Chicago, and Shania was my gateway. I listed to Shania, Faith Hill, Trisha Yearwood, Wynonna, Martina McBride, SheDaisy and Dixie Chicks. Dragged my husband to see Wynonna in concert, as well as Faith and Tim's first Soul 2 Soul tour (he said he's never heard a crowd as loud as when Tim took the stage, and he's been to many a rock show). Saw Shania twice, and Deana Carter at a Chicago Country Fest. Mary Chapin Carpenter too. Oh, and ALISON KRAUS, the voice of an angel (although most of her older songs are just sad and lonesome). Introduced my daughter to Shania when she was in grade school. Wish I would hav e seen the Chicks on their reunion tour.
I Admittedly don't know much of the current generation, have only heard a few of Kacey's songs. and her voice was too wispy for me. Wonder why Mickey Guyton wasn't mentioned by name, especially her songs "love my hair" and "Black like me".
Looking forward to the book!
I must admit that as a veteran (and military civil servant shortly after our invasion of Iraq) I still adore "Red, White, and Blue," as well as "Whiskey for my Men, Beer for my Horses" - his duet with Willie Nelson. Toby also had some great videos - particularly for Whiskey and Talk About Me. (So did Travis Tritt, who gave us a freaking trilogy following the same couple through three different videos!) But, yeah... RWB encapsulated so many of my feelings at the time and the feelings of my friends who were nearly all either military or civil service. It didn't age well, and I agree with that, but for the moment and the space I was in it was perfect.
Bo Burnham's country song spoof "Pandering" from his 2016 "Make Happy" Netflix special still makes me laugh, every time. It certainly illuminates some of the genre's sins.
Quite a diversity of music tastes here - great to see. I grew up in San Francisco with the California 60’s and 70’s rock, blues scene. Now I’m in Nashville with country, Americana, influences. Musically speaking these are interesting times.
I grew up in a high school whose biggest clubs were the car club and the Future Farmers of America, and every school dance and bus ride was soundtracked by 94.1 KMPS Country, so of course, my little contrarian self hated all of it except for Mary Chapin Carpenter. Now, 20+ years later, I realize I actually really enjoy a lot of those female artists (still can't get into most of the dudes except Garth), and now that I'm not trying to be The Coolest Alt Girl Ever, it's a lot easier to get into country! Seeking out artists that Brandi Carlile has mentioned and championed has been a gateway to so many great albums for me (which is hilarious bc we went to high school together when she was listening to all these artists and I was neck-deep in riot grrrl and Ani DiFranco).
I have a small pile of vacation reads already, but I think this one's a must...
Good write up, thanks. I also live near Nashville and write about music on SubStack once and awhile. I didn't grow up in an atmosphere of country music but have come to appreciate and listen to much of it. Participate as a musician with a few country leaning types.