Happy Independence Day to my fellow Americans!
And to all non-Americans, happy Wednesday!
If you were with me last year, you’ll remember that for this holiday I did a post on Celebrating America’s Diversity in Country Music. However, this year, I’m approaching this holiday from a different angle. That angle is a political one and for the occasion I’ve put together a list of songs that tackle some of the important issues facing our country. These songs touch on many things currently taking place in America- police killings of black men, the pay gap, guns, and more. And of course almost all of these songs fall into the Americana category- a genre that isn’t afraid to get political with artists who aren’t afraid to speak out. These men and women put the ‘American’ in Americana!
The Pay Gap
Margo Price– “Pay Gap”
How do I love Margo Price? Let me count the ways! One of those ways would be her courage to sing about not-so-sexy topics like the pay gap. Aside from the pay gap, women in Nashville have a hard enough time making it as it is. And with the city’s “shut up and sing” mentality towards female artists, I imagine outspoken women like Margo have an even harder time. With this song she shows that she’ll speak out about what she thinks is important and just because she’s stopped to sing doesn’t mean she’s leaving her opinions behind- she’ll put them into a song. I respect Margo for sticking to her guns (not literal guns though) and singing about what she feels is important.
“We are all the same in the eyes of God
But in the eyes of rich white men
No more than a maid to be owned like a dog
A second-class citizen”
Race Relations and Police Brutality
Rhiannon Giddens– “Better Get It Right The First Time”
Rhiannon Giddens’ voice is so powerful and moving that you almost forget she’s signing about police killing unarmed black men. It’s a topic that needs to be spoken (and sung) about and I admire Rhiannon for having the courage to do it. While this song came out in 2017 it’s still relevant a year later. Unless we see some real changes, I’m afraid this song will still be relevant for many years to come.
“(Young man was a good man)
Did you stand your ground?
(Young man was a good man)
Is that why they took you down?
(Young man was a good man)
Or did you run that day?
(Young man was a good man)
Baby, they shot you anyway”
Priscilla Renea– “Land of the Free”
On her recently released album Coloured, whose style she calls “country soul,” Priscilla Renea sings about race relations and police brutality in her song “Land of the Free.” The song concludes with Jimi Hendrix playing the “Star Spangled Banner” and couldn’t be more appropriate for the holiday today. I’m proud to include yet another black female artist on this list (Rhiannon Giddens being the first) and hope that over time we will begin to see more diversity in both Americana and country music. Read more about Priscilla in this NPR interview, “Priscilla Renea Refuses To Be Quiet About Racism In Country Music.” Shout out to my friend who sent this to me!
“There’s enough to go around for everyone to share
But a check from Uncle Sam? What would that repair?
All the broken families, fathers in a cell
Slavery’s abolished, but it’s still alive and well”
Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit– “White Man’s World”
I know I talk about this song a lot but some things are worth repeating for redundancy’s sake. While this song deals heavily with race, mentioning both Native Americans and blacks, Jason also brings up sex, looking at the struggles his baby girl and wife face simply because they’re females. In spite of it all, Jason still has faith- “maybe it’s the fire in [his] little girl’s eyes.” While I’ve included this song here in this section, I could have also included it in the section below on the 2016 Election since it was written in response to it.
“I’m a white man looking in a black man’s eyes
Wishing I’d never been one of the guys
Who pretended not to hear another white man’s joke
Oh, the times ain’t forgotten”
Shakey Graves– “My Neighbor”
Not sure if Shakey (if I may) wrote this song in an attempt to address race relations or not, but the image of a man in a turban living next to a polyester suit wearing (presumably white) man made me think about how none of us really know our neighbors. Not just our figurative neighbor but our literal neighbor, like the person you park your car beside and whose mail sometimes accidentally finds its way into your box. That guy.
“Oh my neighbor, my neighbor
At best we share a fence
We smile at each other
And we make up all the rest
I see you
In the polyester suit
Safe behind a cabin now
Wonderin’ if I’m around
‘Cause who am I?
Just some guy
With a turban and a knife
Only here to take away
Only reason you’re afraid
There’s no face
There’s no man behind the name
I’ve started to believe
My neighbor, we’re the same”
Drive-By Truckers– “Surrender Under Protest”
Featured on their 2016 album American Band, this song is “directly inspired by civil rights activists’ successful campaign to remove the Confederate flag from the South Carolina Statehouse after white supremacist Dylann Roof allegedly murdered nine African Americans at a Charleston church meeting, [it] casts an unsparing eye on those unable to abandon tradition even when the sin at its root has been fully exposed.”
“Does the color really matter?
On the face you blame for failure
On the shamin’ for a battle’s losing cause”
Particle Kid– “Gunshow Loophole Blues”
According to The Coalition to Stop Gun Violence, “The Gun Control Act of 1968 requires anyone engaged in the business of selling guns to have a Federal Firearms License (FFL) and keep a record of their sales. However, this law does not cover all gun sellers. If a supplier is selling from his or her private collection and the principal objective is not to make a profit, the seller is not “engaged in the business” and is not required to have a license. Because they are unlicensed, these sellers are not required to keep records of sales and are not required to perform background checks on potential buyers, even those prohibited from purchasing guns by the Gun Control Act. The gun show loophole refers to the fact that prohibited purchasers can avoid required background checks by seeking out these unlicensed sellers at gun shows.” Yep, that gives me the blues too!
Brandi Carlile– “Hold Out Your Hand”
While you wouldn’t necessarily think “gun control” while listening to this song you will once you watch the video which features the March for Our Lives protest in Seattle. If there’s one thing Brandi Carlile is an expert at it’s knowing how to get me misty-eyed. This happened at her concert in May and also while watching this music video. #enoughisenough
“Well he came to my door to sell me the fear with some cameras and bullets and tension and here is a license for killing your own native son for a careless mistake and a fake plastic gun?
Deliver your brother from violence and greed for the mountains lay down for your faith like a seed. A morning is coming of silver and light there will be color and language and nobody wanting to fight. What a glorious sight”
Dispatch– “Dear Congress: Your Thoughts and Prayers Are Not Enough”
This song from Dispatch is in support of Common Sense Gun Reform. While I could post a powerful lyric from the song below for you, I’d rather you watch the video and read the Tweets that are posted and take in the images on the screen for yourself. I think that would say more than I ever could.
Will Hoge- “Thoughts and Prayers”
Following this trend is Will Hoge’s “Thoughts and Prayers,” which is also directed at Congress, or as he sings in this song, the people in “that big white dome” a.k.a. the whores to the NRA (his words, not mine. Though I don’t disagree.) You may remember Will from my liberal country music post from last year where I wrote about his song “Still a Southern Man.” Will has a history of writing songs about the not-so-pretty parts of America, from the confederate flag to gun violence.
“There’s a momma cryin’ ’cause the baby won’t come home
You tell a father that you’re sorry that his son is gone
While you sit and do nothin’ in that big white dome
And just hope we all forget to care”
War (What Is It Good For?)
Mary Gauthier– “Brothers” (see also: the entire Rifles and Rosary Beads album)
Mary’s album Rifles and Rosary Beads was co-written with American veterans and their families, through the nonprofit SongwritingWith:Soldiers, and details the struggles that military men and women face not only overseas but at home too. This song in particular tells the story of a female soldier struggling to be considered an equal among her “brothers.” It’s fitting that we’re talking about this song on July 4th as one of the lines from the song reads, “I thought RPGs were fireworks, that’s how green I was at first.” You can read more about this project from Mary Gauthier’s NPR interview here. ALSO, I just want to add that I was at the gym this morning and saw Mary on CBS talking about this album! Glad others are getting to hear about her work on this holiday.
If anything, this album should serve as a wake-up call to the horrors of war. And not only the stuff that happens on the battlefield but after the war too. This country doesn’t do enough for its veterans and despite your views on war we should still take care of our military men and women. You can donate to the Wounded Warrior Project here.
“You broke my heart on veterans day
Don’t you understand the words you say
You raised a flag for the men you serve
What about the women, what do we deserve?”
Bob Wayne– “80 Miles from Baghdad”
This song is from Bob’s album Bob Hombre (think of that title what you will.) He co-wrote this song with a veteran soldier who was stationed in Iraq, which makes its depiction of war all that more real. You can watch a video on the song-writing process behind this song here.
“80 miles from Baghdad, I killed my first man
3000 miles from nowhere, away from my homeland
I didn’t go there seeking weapons or some foreign policy”
Sturgill Simpson– “Call to Arms”
I’ve already written about this song in my post “Sturgill Simpson: A Metamodern Country Philosopher,” if you want to read what I had to say about it there.
“Well they send their sons and daughters off to die
For some oil
To control the heroin
Well son I hope you don’t grow up
Believing that you’ve got to be a puppet to be a man”
John Prine– “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore”
An oldie but a goodie! As John said at this concert just last month, he wrote this song in 1968 as a political song and it’s still a political song today. And he’s gonna keep playing it until they get it right!
“But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore”
John Prine- “Sam Stone”
Here’s another John Prine song for you! Featured on Rolling Stone’s “Reader’s Poll: The 10 Saddest Songs of All Time,” it’s “Sam Stone,” a song about a war veteran returning home and turning to heroin. Sam Stone dies at the end of this song “when he popped his last balloon.” If Sam Stone’s story doesn’t convince you that soldiers need better access to mental health programs when they return from combat, nothing will. If you want to help, you can donate to The Soldiers Project here.
“Sam Stone came home,
To the wife and family
After serving in the conflict overseas.
And the time that he served,
Had shattered all his nerves,
And left a little shrapnel in his knees.”
The 2016 Election
Brandi Carlile– “The Joke”
Feeling defeated after the 2016 election? Yeah, I know it’s been over a year and half but some of us are still dealing with this. Brandi Carlile’s “The Joke” looks at others who are also feeling this way. According to Brandi, “There are so many people feeling misrepresented [today],” she said. “So many people feeling unloved. Boys feeling marginalized and forced into these kind of awkward shapes of masculinity that they do or don’t belong in… so many men and boys are trans or disabled or shy. Little girls who got so excited for the last election, and are dealing with the fallout. The song is just for people that feel under-represented, unloved or illegal.”
Despite the content of this song, Brandi still manages to provide a glimmer of hope. As she sings, she’s been to the movies, she’s seen how this ends, and the joke is on them. Gee, I sure hope she’s right!
“They come to kick dirt in your face
To call you weak and then displace you
After carrying your baby on your back across the desert
I saw your eyes behind your hair
And you’re looking tired, but you don’t look scared”
American Aquarium– “The World Is On Fire”
How many of us can relate to waking up on November 9, 2016 and thinking that the world was on fire? (Probably a majority of us but I won’t get into that here. Stupid electoral college.) This song provides a sense of comfort in knowing that you weren’t the only person feeling this way that Wednesday morning. I always get emotional when I hear BJ Barham, American Aquarium frontman, sing the words below. Thanks for raising your daughter right, BJ!
“I got a baby girl comin’ in the spring
I worry ’bout the world she’s comin’ into
But she’ll have my fight, she’ll have her mama’s fire
If anyone builds a wall in her journey
Baby, bust right through it”
American Aquarium- “Tough Folks”
Another American Aquarium song? You bet! And this time they’re serving up a big heapin’ portion of hope by reminding you that “tough times don’t last, tough folks do.” Stay strong, folks!
“And last November I saw firsthand
What desperation makes good people do”
Willie Nelson– “Delete and Fast Forward”
Delete and fast forward? If only it were that easy, Willie! I keep hitting the fast forward button but it seems like these four years are passing by at a snail’s pace. I guess if Willie can make it until 2020 then so can the rest of us!
“Delete and fast-forward, my son
The elections are over and nobody won
You think it’s all endin’ but it’s just settin’ in
So delete and fast-forward, my friend”
Andrew Combs– “Dirty Rain”
A song about the environment? Andrew Combs is a man after my own heart (I write this as I sit drinking out of my reusable Starbucks cup). While I go back and forth on the whole “wanting to have kids someday thing,” one reason for my not wanting to is the fact that the environment only seems to be getting worse. Why would I want to have kids just so they can play in the “dirty rain,” as Andrew sings?
“Flattened static, paved in progress’s name
But what will all our little children say
When the only place to play
Is in the dirty rain”
Father John Misty– “Things It Would Have Been Helpful to Know Before the Revolution”
If you don’t care about the “bright blue marble” that we all live on, maybe watching the music video for this song can convince you otherwise. Perhaps iPhones turned into artifacts in a post-apocalyptic world will speak to you. The puppets from this video, which was directed by Chris Hopewell, were auctioned off and the proceeds were given to the Environmental Defense Fund. If you care about the environment, like I assume Father John Misty a.k.a. Josh Tillman does, then consider donating to this fund as well. Or, better yet, start recycling, reducing your waste, and eating less meat. You can also take part in Plastic Free July and join the challenge to refuse single-use plastic this month. And why stop there? Keep it going all twelve months!
Aaaannndddd…if you purchase anything from FJM’s web store between July 2nd – 6th, he’ll be donating all merchandise profits to the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES). You’ve still got two more days!
“It got too hot and so we overthrew the system
‘Cause there’s no place for human existence like right here
On this bright blue marble orbited by trash
Man, there’s no beating that
It was no big thing to give up the way of life we had, oh”
Hurray for the Riff Raff- “Rican Beach”
I’ll let Alynda Lee Segarra of Hurray for the Riff Raff tell you about this song in her own words, “‘Rican Beach’ is a fictional place and the song is a cautionary tale.” “It tells the story of a city progressing rapidly into militarized and segregated areas. There’s a lot of symbolism in the song that reflects our times, of course. I felt the water protectors at Standing Rock and the people of Peñuelas were important to reflect on while listening to the lyrics. The point of view is one of resistance, people of color claiming their space and their right to exist. It is about claiming ancestry and recognizing a history of facing systemic oppression while protecting and connecting with the land. Even though it was written about an urban space, I think it speaks to the actions of these activists who are connected with the earth.”
American Politics in General
Particle Kid– “Everything is Bullshit”
He’s not wrong. Everything kind of is bullshit. The song’s title was inspired by Particle Kid’s (a.k.a. Micah Nelson who happens to be the son of Willie Nelson) girlfriend who said the phrase one day while watching the news. As Micah says, “To me it’s a healing song about facing the reality of how weird and out of control reality is, and finding some humor in there.”
“Post a picture for your Facebook
Make a profile on your Snapchat
Murder people from a distance
Laugh at videos of cats”
Margo Price– “All American Made”
One of my favorite things about Margo Price is that she sings about the ugly things that America is guilty of like the pay gap and the Iran-Contra Affair. Yep, the Iran-Contra Affair. Bet you never thought that would come up in an Americana song much less one that was released thirty years after the scandal took place. If you don’t remember the Iran-Contra Affair (I wasn’t even born yet), a condensed version of what happened is the following: “It consisted of three interconnected parts: The Reagan administration sold arms to Iran, a country desperate for materiel during its lengthy war with Iraq; in exchange for the arms, Iran was to use its influence to help gain the release of Americans held hostage in Lebanon; and the arms were purchased at high prices, with the excess profits diverted to fund the Reagan-favored “contras” fighting the Sandinista government in Nicaragua.” Hey, what can I say? It was “All American Made.”
“1987 and I didn’t know it then
Reagan was selling weapons to the leaders of Iran
And it won’t be the first time and, baby, it won’t be the end
They were all American made”
Yeah, just hearing that title makes me scoff. Remember when Jason Isbell said it was a “white man’s world”? Well, it’s actually a conservative Christian, right-wing Republican, straight, white, American man’s world. However, this isn’t a new thing, it was this way in 2004 when this song was released, and it was that way long before. If you aren’t familiar with the creature of the “conservative Christian, right-wing Republican, straight, white, American male,” allow Todd Snider to fill you in.
“Conservative Christian, right wing Republican
Straight, white, American males
Gay bashin’, black fearin’
Poor fightin’, tree killin’
Regional leaders of sales
Frat housin’, keg tappin’
Shirt tuckin’, back slappin’
Haters of hippies like me
Tree huggin’, peace lovin’
Pot smokin’, porn watchin’
Lazy-ass hippies like me”
Childish Gambino– “This is America”
This song is not Americana but I would be remiss not to include it here. I’m also not going to include any lyrics here as a way to encourage you to watch the video instead. Take the next four minutes and four seconds to really watch this video. But really, is there anybody out there who HASN’T seen this yet? And do they live under a rock?
Paul Cauthen– “Everybody Walkin’ This Land”
While this may be a song encouraging people “to get right with God,” I hear it as a call to people to just get right. Period. Especially the racists, fascists, and bigots Paul Cauthen references in this song. This song is political to me, and earns a spot on this list, because of the very fact that he calls out fascists. Y’all need to get right!
“You racists and fascists and nihilists and bigots, I’m callin’ you out my friend”
Peter Dawson– “Willie Nelson For President”
He’d make a better president than the one we’ve got that’s for sure, though I feel like he may be a single-issue politician. You already know the issue. Also, if this ever happens, I’ve already got the bumper sticker for it! I wonder who he would choose as his VP?
“If I could I’d vote for Willie to run our government
“Good mornin’ America, how are you?” He’d say with his pigtails and a grin
He would unite the whole nation with his guitar and his song
It’s the only thing that makes perfect sense
Willie Nelson for President”
Lukas Nelson & Promise of the Real– “High Times”
Including this as a political song might be a bit of a stretch but if his dad can run for president (see above), surely Lukas Nelson can as well, as he sings in this song, “I’m gonna run for president, vote for me, I’m heaven sent.” I’m not opposed to a Nelson family dynasty in the least. Perhaps his campaign slogan could be, “It’s High Time You Vote for Lukas Nelson”?
“I’m gonna die for CNN
Believing in the dream I’m in
I’m gonna die for Fox News
For skewed views
And twisted spews”
Bryan Lewis– “I Think My Dog’s a Democrat”
I wanna be friends with this dog. Besides the obvious reason that dogs are awesome this particular dog appears to have good taste in politics. Perhaps he might be interested in the same Donald Trump chew toy I bought for my dog? You can find this toy (also available for cats) for sale here and on Amazon.
“I pay for all his healthcare and I buy everything he eats
I provide him with a place to live just to keep him off the streets.
Well, he just acts like he’s entitled,
Even tried to unionize the cat,
Yeah, I think my dog’s a Democrat.”
Neil Young and Promise of the Real– “Already Great”
Leave it to a Canadian (Neil Young) to tell us that our country is already great! For all those wanting to make America great again, Neil Young is here to tell you that it’s already great! And he’s brought along his American friends, Promise of the Real, to help him relay his message. The song’s bridge is “no wall, no ban, no fascist USA.” While there are some nasty people calling for walls and bans, there are also Americans marching in the streets calling for “no wall, no ban.” It’s the latter of these two that make America “already great.”
I do have a question for Neil Young though- if he thinks America is already great, what does he think of our lovely neighbor to the north, his home country, dear old Canada?? I’ll go drool over pictures of Justin Trudeau while I wait for his response.
If you like this song, you’ll also like “When Bad Got Good,” also from The Visitor album. Throughout the song the words “lock him up” are chanted and the phrase “liar in chief” comes up.
Not my words
That’s just you the other day out on that street
(My American friend)
You’re looking at one of the lucky ones
Came here from there to be free”
Aaron Lee Tasjan– “If Not Now When”
Invoking Hillel the Elder, though maybe not purposefully, this song is a “call to action” of sorts. If the things above bother you- gun violence, global warming, the pay gap- do something about it. Vote for politicians who care about the environment, who want common sense gun laws, who value women. Call your representatives, donate money, even if you only have a little, to organizations like the ACLU, Texas Civil Rights Project, the Refugee and Immigrant Center for Education and Legal Services (RAICES), and if you can’t donate your money, donate your time. Educate yourself and those around you. Speak out when you see injustice. Do what you can NOW. Because, as Aaron Lee Tasjan sings, “if not now, when?”
“Over and over again
You try and try to pretend
That it’s never gonna be the end
If not now, when?
If not now, when?”
America the Beautiful, despite her flaws
While I could have gone in another direction for this 4th of July post and posted about the most patriotic country songs out there, I wanted to instead highlight the artists out there singing about real problems facing this country. Rather than just singing about how much they love America and ignoring her flaws, they’re bringing attention to her flaws. You can still love your country and be critical of it. Wanting your country to be better because you care about her and her people is the best kind of patriotism.
You’ll also notice that with a few exceptions most of these songs fall under the “Americana” category. I’m not sure if mainstream country artists are singing about these issues because honestly I haven’t listened to country radio in quite some time. My guess is that they’re not. In fact, I just scrolled through the list of top country songs and if the song titles are any indication, they definitely aren’t (though maybe Luke Bryan’s “Most People Are Good” could be an exception to the rule.) Singing about politics and real issues would put them at risk of not being played on the radio and it’s all about that airplay, right? (Sarcasm!) It’s the courage displayed by the artists above to sing about these topics and about what they believe in that has steered me away from mainstream country and into the world of Americana.
If you like the songs above and the subjects they address, you should also check out my “That Good Ole Liberal Country Music (Yep, you read that right!)” post, which deals with topics like the confederate flag and the LGBT community and features Steve Earle and Kacey Musgraves.
So while some of you may be cranking up the Toby Keith and Lee Greenwood today, I’ll be listening to these guys and gals! All of the songs mentioned above can be found on a Spotify playlist I’ve created for this post. I’ve also included the liberal country music songs found in my other post on this playlist. Of course, this list isn’t comprehensive so if you’ve got any other political songs (from any genre) that I may have missed from the past few years, let me know!
Happy 4th, everyone!
Currently listening to: Turnpike Troubadours- “The Bird Hunters.” While this song doesn’t fit in with the other songs listed above, it does mention the 4th of July. I had the privilege of seeing them perform this song on Saturday night at the 9:30 club.
“And a flutter of feathers
Then a shotgun to shoulder
I thought of the Fourth of July
She’ll be home on the Fourth of July
I bet we’ll dance on the Fourth of July”