U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Can a Country Girl Still Survive?: Female Country Musicians as Chroniclers of Rural Poverty

Today we are lucky to have a guest post from Matthew D. Linton, who is a doctoral candidate in history at Brandeis University and research assistant at the Harvard Business School. His dissertation, Understanding the Mighty Empire: China Studies and the Construction of Liberal Consensus, 1928-1980, examines the development of academic China scholarship and the field’s relationship to domestic liberal politics. The following text in italics is Matt’s introduction to his series on country music and intellectual history. After that (once more in Roman type) follows the first installment of that series. – Andy Seal


This is the first of a five-part examination of how country music can inform current historical discussions over class, race, gender, and global history. I will try to release the parts weekly, though it is contingent on dissertation progress.

Background: I have enjoyed country music for the last four or five years. Growing up in New England, a place with only a tenuous connection to the country tradition, I was not exposed to country much as a child and had little interest in it. I was lured to the genre by the usual suspects, Bob Dylan’s “Nashville Skyline” and Johnny Cash’s late career work with the producer Rick Rubin, but grew to love the storytelling, humor, and honesty of artists across the genre from pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers, Ernest Tubb, and Kitty Wells to Merle Haggard and Buck Owens’ Bakersfield Sound and beyond.

I was always troubled by the politics of classic country music, however.

The lyrics of most country musicians were at odds with my core values. While artists like Kitty Wells and Loretta Lynn defended women, misogyny was – and remains – a chronic problem. Racism was also endemic and a constant throughout the genre’s history: Jimmie Rodgers began his career as a blackface minstrel performer, Hank Snow performed at segregationist rallies, and David Allen Coe circulated copies of explicitly racist songs into the 1990s. Country music’s Nashville establishment has been largely unwilling to recognize its troubled past and its continued appropriation of black culture led Steve Earle (a pioneer of the alternative country movement in the 1990s) to call contemporary pop country “hip-hop music for people who hate black people.”

I was still working through these moral quandaries last year when Donald Trump ran on a platform consonant with my misgivings about country, in the process attracting support from some of my favorite artists like Loretta Lynn. Researching and writing these pieces has been therapeutic. It is way of working through my conflicted feelings about the relationship between music I love and politics I despise. It is a way of confronting country’s past, while challenging misconceptions about its provincialism and narrow-mindedness. These essays are designed neither to explain Trump’s election victory nor to understand Appalachia or the “South” (whatever that is). Instead it uses the analytic frameworks of intellectual history to capture country’s diversity and interrogate the choices of some of its artists.

I look forward to any and all feedback.

  1. Can a Country Girl Still Survive?: Female Country Musicians as Chroniclers of Rural Poverty.
  2. Good Wives and Honky-Tonk Angels: The Feminisms of Tammy Wynette, Loretta Lynn, and Nikki Lane.
  3. Countrypolitan Nationalism: Ernest Tubb and Hank Snow as Translators of American Empire.
  4. The Othered Ones: Charley Pride and Country’s Fraught Racial History.
  5. Country My Ass: Outlaw Country’s Endless Search for Authenticity.

In his article, “’Indie Country’ Takes on the Mainstream with True Tales from Red State America,” The Guardian’s Jonathan Bernstein argues that a cohort of young female country musicians give voice to a rural America ignored by mainstream pop culture. Unlike their pop country contemporaries whose lyrics about parties and pick-up trucks have drawn critical ire and the unflattering appellation “Bro Country,” Bernstein’s indie country rejects pop country escapism for “bleakly honest stories of a struggling middle America” – laid-off, insular, opiate-addicted, and impoverished. While Bernstein avoids oversimplification in saying indie country explains the climate that facilitated Donald Trump’s rise to the presidency, he argues that this music is an important starting point for understanding “a part of the country that is largely misunderstood.”

Bernstein is correct in noticing indie country’s (a term for artists signed to non-major labels and largely ignored by mainstream country radio) willingness to explore rural suffering, but he misses the ways indie country both operates within and challenges a legacy of country music’s depictions of rural poverty. For contemporary country artists including Angaleena Presley, Margo Price, and Brandy Clark, poverty is the defining feature of the rural experience. Unlike prior country chroniclers of rural poverty like Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, however, poverty was not an ennobling crucible; propelling its (usually child) sufferers to a better life by cultivating an appreciation for thrift, sacrifice, and family. Though sometimes treated humorously, country music’s discussions of contemporary rural poverty portray an unending process of deepening immiseration and sneering cynicism at the prospect that poverty builds character.

Rural poverty has always been central to country music. Country grew as an independent genre during the Great Depression, when Mississippi Delta blues fused with Appalachian folk and bluegrass to form a new sound made famous by Jimmie “The Yodeling Brakeman” Rodgers and his blue yodels. The lyrics were sparse, but, on songs like “Hobo’s Meditation” and “Blue Yodel #8 (The Muleskinner’s Blues),” Rodgers told stories of people down on their luck and looking for work. While they drew inspiration for the rural poverty that surrounded its writer, the songs did not dwell on Depression-era misery and instead focused on the search for and rhythms of rural labor.

Drawing from the pioneering work of Rodgers and others, country musicians made rural poverty a central theme of their work in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Most were children of the Depression and many grew up in poverty. Women, as country’s guardians of hearth and home, were particularly adept at translating rural poverty for mainstream audiences.[1] For Dolly Parton and Loretta Lynn, who grew up in rural Tennessee and Kentucky respectively, their childhoods were defined by privation. On her signature 1969 hit “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” Lynn sang of how her father and mother worked morning until night to provide for her and her seven siblings. Similarly, Dolly Parton’s 1971 single “Coat of Many Colors” found a young Dolly dressed in rags and the subject of charity. Both songs are nostalgic; adult women reflecting on the simpler times of childhood. They were also huge hits that made their singers into stars and reinvigorated Nashville, which had ossified into a staid affluence in the mid-1960s, by depicting a more “authentic” experience of the difficulty of country life.

Poverty was not the subject of these songs, however, but instead was the vehicle for Christian lessons about thrift, humility, suffering, and family. Lynn and Parton’s depictions of rural poverty were essentially romantic.[2] Lynn’s song is a paean to her coal miner father’s sense of obligation and willingness to put family first as well as her mother’s religious devotion and self-abnegation. Parton’s “Coat of Many Colors” begins as a story of Christian charity (receiving the colorful rags) becomes a lesson in thrift and self-reliance (Dolly’s mother making a dress out of the rags), and ends as a tale of familial love (despite the other children making fun of Dolly’s dress of rags, Dolly realizes its value comes not from its materials but from her mother’s love embodied in the dress’ labor). For both women, their impoverished childhoods were important in shaping their character; making them better people by instilling in them Christian values. For Dolly Parton, it has become the center of an international brand including a charity, films, and even a theme park, Dollywood. Dolly has become so synonymous with 20th century Tennessee hill country that an entire course at the University of Tennessee uses her life and work as a lens to examine Appalachian life and interrogate stereotypes about the region and its people.

Contemporary indie country is indebted to and takes inspiration from Lynn and Parton. Loretta Lynn has been covered by artists like Nikki Lane and Margo Price’s 2016 album “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter” is a direct reference to Lynn’s earlier album (this will be treated in greater depth in a subsequent post on feminism and country music). Parton’s voice remains the genre’s gold standard and her charitable work in rural Tennessee has been widely acclaimed. Her tolerance has also been admired by more liberal indie country musicians and her “Coat of Many Colors” has become a symbol of tolerance and diversity in a genre known for neither.

While Lynn and Parton are widely admired, their descendants have presented a divergent picture of American rural poverty. Poverty does not instill Christian values, but, instead, corrupts good people by forcing them to make bad decisions. Angaleena Presley’s song “Pain Pills” (2014), for example, describes the crimes and dishonesty wrought on a small Kentucky town by the opioid epidemic. Lying ministers, nephews stealing from cancer-stricken relatives, and junkies dying on a bathroom floor are Presley’s protagonists. “Pain pills, pain pills, a little bit of hurt is surely gonna kill a lot of good people in these here hills/Lord won’t you save us from these old pain pills?” she asks. Similarly, on her 2016 single “Broke,” Brandy Clark chronicles the everyday miseries of living in poverty: a truck that won’t start, settling for low quality food, and even hoping an aged relative will die to avoid paying for their needs. Clark’s characters are struggling too much just to make ends meet to aspire to virtue. Even Margo Price’s “Midwest Farmer’s Daughter,” which is most directly indebted to Lynn and more in the barroom brawling outlaw tradition, recounts the painful loss of the family farm and trying to meet ends meet on the single “Hands of Time”. Unlike Presley and Clark, Price dreams to turn back the hands of time and vows “that’s the last time I let them take what should be his” in reference to her father’s lost farm.

The political ramifications of these songs are uneven. These artists can be reactionary. Presley’s “American Middle Class” (2014), toes the line between criticizing the narrowmindedness of her poor neighbors clinging to their middle class status despite their obvious poverty and lashing out at “welfare families” gobbling up undeserved food and scholarships. Still the overall feel is not resentment, but hopelessness; individuals trapped in spiraling poverty with no way out. While it is possible to see Trump’s rise here, it is just as easy to see Bernie Sanders or any other antiestablishment figure promising change. Instead of advocating a specific political philosophy, contemporary country documents the banality of every day suffering outside major media markets. Its artists tell painful stories and have no easy answers or avenues for escape. As Angaleena Presley said in a recent interview with Rolling Stone, “I am really nice and passive, and I don’t have the courage to be an outlaw. But I have the courage to tell the truth.”[3] If Hank Williams Jr.’s “country boy” could survive economic recession by withdrawing from modern society, indie country’s songwriters show how deeply modern problems – drug addiction, debt, and anomie – have devoured parts of rural America. If Bruce Springsteen’s generation was born to run from the darkness at the edge of town, today’s indie country artists ask: but what if there is only more darkness?

[1] Even for male musicians, experience and anxieties about poverty were often viewed through women. Merle Haggard’s “Hungry Eyes” (1968), for example, examines poverty in a California work camp and the desperation of a father trying to provide for his family through the desperate, unsatisfied eyes of his wife (the singer’s mother). Freedom from employment and familial responsibilities were also intertwined, particularly for outlaw country musicians. Johnny Paycheck can only tell his employer to “take this job and shove-it” after his “woman” leaves him taking with her the reason for continuing to work at a dysfunctional factory.

[2] I specify rural poverty not only because it was more often discussed than its urban counterpart, but also because urban poverty is not portrayed as redemptive. Dolly Parton’s cover of Elvis Presley’s “In the Ghetto” (1969) tells a story of generational poverty without escape or reason. Urban poverty also seems coded as “black” for country musicians, whereas rural poverty is interpreted as white. Significantly, while “In the Ghetto” was recorded by Presley and written by a white songwriter, it was initially pitched to Sammy Davis Jr. and its recording was supervised by Rev. Jesse Jackson. The difference between rural and urban poverty was not only a feature of Appalachian country music either. Buck Owens, pioneer of California’s Bakersfield Sound, recorded “I Wouldn’t Live in New York City” in 1970. Like Presley and Parton, he portrayed New York as dirty, immoral, and overcrowded.

[3] I wouldn’t take this passive claim at face value. The chorus of one of her most recent songs (“Bless My Heart” (2017)) is “If you bless my heart/I’ll slap your face” after all.

11 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Really enjoyed this piece, not the least because I teach at a place where we’re intimately tied to Music Row and the Country industry. We have a “Songwriting” major, and one of our largest majors is “Music Business.” (Brandy Clark is a graduate of Belmont.) With that in mind, and at the risk of seeming cynical, I wonder whether “the ways indie country both operates within and challenges a legacy of country music’s depictions of rural poverty” is a product of a peculiar culture industry at this moment in time, its various pressures and expectations. These women are very sophisticated, I suspect, about how they pitch their songs. I suspect Brandy Clark knows exactly how she’s pitching her songs. In other words, the structure and character of the country music industry is various and complex, and that needs accounting, at the very least since intellectual historians have made a kind of institutional turn in recent years.

    The fate of the Dixie Chicks to me is a cautionary tale for this reason. Your third footnote underscores the problem for women artists in the more “indie” sectors of the industry. (That old Southernism “Bless Your Heart” which has always been barbed to say the least, or in my own partner’s formulation most often, “Bless His Heart” as in “stick it dude.”) That is, I wonder the extent to which the artists in question have to play it pretty carefully lest their stories identify a specific political figure or movement. These women play despair but walk the knife’s edge between despair and the kind of righteous anger that becomes activism. Or, they simply absorb the Chicks’ lesson and don’t worry over overt politics too much, maybe even back up more to play to this or that carefully selected audience chesnut (as if “Dixie Chicks” isn’t enough of a nightmare of signifiers.) It all seems carefully pitched so as to appeal to a broad enough market to maybe hit the radio now and again, or at least find a large enough niche to continue. CMT, for example, gives Brandy Clark plenty of airplay. The idea, I think, is to work that niche and hope for incremental changes and shifts, or not. I hope for the best, for them, and for the songs.

    I’m not sure if I have this right, but I think about this all of the time seeing how I get more of a glimpse of an insiders’ perspective given where I teach I guess. I wait eagerly for the next round.

    • Peter, you bring up a great point about walking the fine line between appearing edgy by challenging the Nashville establishment and not allying one’s self too closely with “left politics” for fear of alienating country’s conservative listeners. The Dixie Chick’s case – they were blacklisted from country radio for criticizing George W. Bush – has definitely muzzled some liberal voices within the Nashville establishment (I think someone like Brad Paisley, for example, would be more political in his songs if he didn’t fear audience backlash). Still, I think many country musicians fall into the disenchanted with politics crowd who view all politics and politicians with skepticism.

      Indie country has divided loyalties on this front and there is a lot of diversity. Clark, in no small part because of her avocation (one might say vocation given her success) writing songs for other artists, is less politically defiant than Price or Presley. She is more likely to deflect with humor than lash out in anger. Price is the most politically liberal and outspoken, but, as a signee of Jack White’s “Third Man Records”, her audience is more indie than country. Indie country is a product of a particular industry (the “music bidness” as Dale Watson is fond of saying), but there is a lot of diversity within the industry and in reaction against it.

      I also intentionally limited my argument to Nashville-based country musicians for the sake of highlighting the lineage between Parton/Lynn and today. Country is so much bigger than Nashville and there are artists writing politically engaged songs from Los Angeles to Boston. All are responding in some way to the demands of the music industry, but scenes in more liberal areas tend to have more outspoken left musicians since they are not seeking a traditional conservative audience.

      Thanks for the great comment!

      • You’re very welcome. Got it (your points, and thanks). Three things, because this stuff is something I think about way too much, two selfish, one not. First, for readers who may not know this, Brad Paisley is a Belmont graduate. Third Man Records and Jack White are in Nashville. Third, I looked around today and discovered that when Loretta Lynn plays “One’s on the Way” (written by Shel Silverstein??!!) in recent years she’s substituted the “Jackie” lines about JFK fancyness, with, first, “Nancy” (Reagan) and then “Michelle” (Obama). What do you make of that? I’m still working through it (the stubborn complexity–the song, the artist, the line, the songwriter). You’ve been thinking about this stuff more than me lately, so I would love to here your thoughts. (Sorry, this post really hit something for me. Can’t help it.)

  2. “One’s on the Way” is one of Loretta’s most fascinating songs. It is her most eloquent equivocation on feminism. I’ll cover some of the themes in next week’s post, but the plot of the song is that Loretta, playing the part of a Topeka housewife burdened with a brood of children (with one on the way, of course), is happy to see the gains made by accomplished/famous women like Raquel Welch but fails to see why that is much of a concern for her who is burdened by the responsibilities of home life. I read the song as Lynn sticking up for housewives whose work is under appreciated at home and ignored by the “girls in New York City” marching for “women’s lib.” Lynn’s housewife embraces modern advances like the birth control pill and scoffs at the double standard that allows her husband to be out at the bar with his buddies while she is at home looking after the children, but does not see any connection between the women’s movement and her lived experience as a Topeka housewife.

    As to the First Lady business, it’s very interesting and the first time I’ve heard of it. Has she switched to Melania yet? I’ll have to check YouTube for recent performances.

    Also, Shel Silverstein is an under appreciated part of the greater Nashville liberal songwriting brotherhood with John Prine, Kris Kristofferson, and Roger Miller! A good portion of his catalogue is available on Spotify if folks are curious.

  3. First, Belmont also has the best unknown basketball coach in America. His team always plays fundamentally.

    Always thought this song from James McMurtry and the Heartless Bastards – “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore” – pretty much summed things up about America at this point in history from the country or blue collar perspective. (He’s Larry’s boy.)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Szclr2caFG8

    Bob Dylan once said: “The truth is just a plain picture.” This is not a pretty picture, but it’s true.

    “We Can’t Make It Here Anymore”

    There’s a Vietnam Vet with a cardboard sign
    Sitting there by the left turn line
    The flag on his wheelchair flapping in the breeze
    One leg missing and both hands free

    No one’s paying much mind to him
    The V.A. budget’s just stretched so thin
    And now there’s more coming back from the Mideast war
    We can’t make it here anymore

    And that big ol’ building was the textile mill
    That fed our kids and it paid our bills
    But they turned us out and they closed the doors
    ‘Cause we can’t make it here anymore

    You see those pallets piled up on the loading dock
    They’re just gonna sit there ’til they rot
    ‘Cause there’s nothing to ship, nothing to pack
    Just busted concrete and rusted tracks

    Empty storefronts around the square
    There’s a needle in the gutter and glass everywhere
    You don’t come down here unless you’re looking to score
    We can’t make it here anymore

    The bar’s still open but man it’s slow
    The tip jar’s light and the register’s low
    The bartender don’t have much to say
    The regular crowd gets thinner each day

    Some have maxed out all their credit cards
    Some are working two jobs and living in cars
    Minimum wage won’t pay for a roof, won’t pay for a drink
    If you gotta have proof just try it yourself Mr. C.E.O.
    See how far 5.15 an hour will go
    Take a part time job at one your stores
    I bet you can’t make it here anymore

    And there’s a high school girl with a bourgeois dream
    Just like the pictures in the magazine
    She found on the floor of the laundromat
    A woman with kids can forget all that

    If she comes up pregnant what’ll she do
    Forget the career and forget about school
    Can she live on faith? Live on hope?
    High on Jesus or hooked on dope
    When it’s way too late to just say no
    You can’t make it here anymore

    Now I’m stocking shirts in the Wal-Mart store
    Just like the ones we made before
    ‘Cept this one came from Singapore
    I guess we can’t make it here anymore

    Should I hate a people for the shade of their skin
    Or the shape of their eyes or the shape I’m in
    Should I hate ’em for having our jobs today
    No I hate the men sent the jobs away

    I can see them all now, they haunt my dreams
    All lily white and squeaky clean
    They’ve never known want, they’ll never know need
    Their shit don’t stink and their kids won’t bleed
    Their kids won’t bleed in their damn little war
    And we can’t make it here anymore

    Will I work for food, will I die for oil
    Will kill for power and to us the spoils
    The billionaires get to pay less tax
    The working poor get to fall through the cracks

    So let ’em eat jellybeans let ’em eat cake
    Let ’em eat shit, whatever it takes
    They can join the Air Force or join the Corps
    If they can’t make it here anymore

    So that’s how it is, that’s what we got
    If the president wants to admit it or not
    You can read it in the paper, read it on the wall
    Hear it on the wind if you’re listening at all
    Get out of that limo, look us in the eye
    Call us on the cell phone tell us all why

    In Dayton Ohio or Portland Maine
    Or a cotton gin out on the great high plains
    That’s done closed down along with the school
    And the hospital and the swimming pool

    Dust devils dance in the noonday heat
    There’s rats in the alley and trash in the street
    Gang graffiti on a boxcar door
    We can’t make it here anymore

    Resist!

  4. This is probably unrelated to the post, but I find Mr. Linton’s dissertation very interesting. The U.S. China Studies has extensive influence to academic training here in East Asia. At the receiving ends, I am constantly frustrated with the lack of context to understand these academics. The popular impression in China is that either these “foreigners” are really interested in China, or they are plotting against “us” for the U.S. government. The actual relationship between these academics and U.S. politics (or generally domestic U.S.) is an important question remains to be answered. I am really surprised to find it on USIH. Good luck with your research!

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