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Stars, Stripes, and Country Music

Country star Tim McGraw gives a free concert at Fort Carson in Colorado in 2003. Courtesy: Budd Butcher/U.S. Air Force

From Merle Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side of Me” to Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” country music is often associated with nationalistic, military themes. But those are just two songs — and the real nature of the relationship between the genre and the armed forces is a lot more complex. So says Joseph Thompson, a PhD candidate at the University of Virginia, who’s studying a U.S. Air Force-sponsored radio program called Country Music Time. American Experience spoke to him about how the two industries recognized a mutual interest — and the music that came out of it.

Military themes seem to be common in country music. Has it always been that way?
The relationship between popular music in general and nationalism goes way back. The 1890s is when you actually have a music industry to speak of with the growth of Tin Pan Alley and the production of sheet music. And a lot of the songs coming out around that time were about supporting a war — the Spanish-American War, which began in 1898. Specifically, a lot of the songs were about the North and the South getting back together to support America’s expeditions overseas. This was a chance to unify the country, or at least white northerners and southerners, 33 years after the Civil War — and it had a soundtrack.

But country music in particular does hold a real claim on certain military themes. That trend is as old as country music as a commercial genre. If you go back to the 1920s, you have what we think of as the first country music recording artists — people like Fiddlin’ John Carson. During World War I, he recorded songs like "I'm Glad My Wife's in Europe" and “Dixie Division,” which was a tribute to the 31st Division of the U.S. Army.

Joseph Thompson. Photo courtesy: Shane Lin

World War II was an especially big boom time for country music. One of the most popular World War II songs was a country song — "There's a Star Spangled Banner Waving Somewhere," by Elton Britt. It's a real weeper. This guy's saying how much he wants to go fight for his country — but he's disabled and he can’t. He says: “Though I realize I'm crippled that is true Sir/Please don't judge my courage by my twisted leg/Let me show my Uncle Sam what I can do Sir/Let me help to bring the Axis down a peg.” That topped pop and country charts — although they didn't call the genre “country” back then, they called it folk.

And you have radio shows like the Grand Ole Opry, which played up patriotic themes. So did the Renfro Valley Barn Dance, which was broadcast out of Cincinnati, and the National Barn Dance, which was broadcast out of Chicago. Now that's kind of to be expected during times of war — and it wasn't just country music doing it. It was pop music, too. But country music artists really embedded themselves with themes of militarism and wartime service and continued singing about them even after World War II had ended.

Country Music Time seems to have reinforced that relationship. Can you describe the show?
Country Music Time was a program created by the U.S. Air Force. There were a few episodes recorded in the early 1960s, but it really picks up production in the late ‘60s and lasts through 1986. It was basically a public service address ginning up support for military enlistment and promoting the economic opportunities that military service provided. It was pre-recorded and sent out to thousands of radio stations.

There would be some banter between the artist who was performing and the host of the show, who was an Air Force recruitment representative. The country music star would sing a couple of songs. And then they’d hand it over to the recruitment officer, who would make his pitch: “Young man, are you looking for a job? Do you know what you're going to do with your life after college? Why not think about joining the Air Force?” That kind of thing. Then they handed it back to the country music performer, who played a couple more songs. The shows lasted about 15 minutes.

What’s really fascinating to me is that the government unintentionally created this archive of country music. Some of the later shows would just play tracks from the artists’ records. But a lot of the early shows are people recording in Nashville, cutting these live tracks. And we're talking about the production of thousands of episodes.

What kinds of songs do they play? Did they have to have patriotic themes?
It's all over the place. A lot of times people are just plugging their biggest hits. So it’s love songs, it's silly songs, and also these songs that are dealing with what country fans are dealing with during times of war, particularly in the late ‘60s with Vietnam. An artist named Ed Bruce recorded a version of The Monkees song “Last Train to Clarksville.” That song is about a soldier leaving for Clarksville, Tennessee, which was home to a training base for soldiers leaving for Vietnam. Then there are artists like Jeannie C. Reilly, who recorded a version of Merle Haggard’s "Fightin' Side of Me,"  this nationalistic song condemning anti-war demonstrations. It’s got this threatening refrain: “If you're runnin’ down my country, man, you're walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.”

How did performing on the show benefit the artists?
Country music stars were willing to do this because it was a chance to further their own self-promotion. When we get back to the economics of the music business, this was a chance to reach thousands and thousands of listeners and to plug either their latest hits or their back catalogue. It also allowed them to align themselves with this patriotic, maybe even nationalistic service. That kind of legitimizes these artists. And it legitimized the genre of country music as something that's patriotic — which made it all the more attractive for consumption to a lot of people.

Can you talk a little more about that attraction? What accounts for the enduring appeal of military themes for country music audiences?
Part of what country music has does as a genre is to take the experiences of working class people, usually imagined as white southerners and southwesterners, and turn those experiences into song. Southerners and working class people in general were disproportionately represented in wars like Vietnam; 30 percent of U.S. soldiers during Vietnam came from the states of the former Confederacy, plus Kentucky, even though they only made up like 22 percent of the nation's population.

On top of that, defense spending was the number one economic driver for the region in the post-World War II period. We're talking about the growth of military installations, as well as defense contractors in southern communities. So it's not that there's some inherent disposition for militarism within white working class southerners. When we think about why country music is preoccupied with militarism, it’s, in part, because it reflects the work experiences of its audience and how they interacted with the federal government.

Much has been made of the anti-war rock ‘n’ roll anthems of the 1960s and ‘70s. There seems to be an assumption that pop music skews liberal and country music skews conservative. Is that a fair assessment?
I think pop music is interested in selling records just like country music. Sometimes that means being anti-war; that's certainly what was coming out of the counterculture, and that shouldn’t be denied or downplayed. It seems to me that was extremely important in the political realignment of America and the culture wars that come out of the 1960s. But I think our understanding of rock ‘n’ roll and pop music being inherently anti-war is a fallacy. When you go back to the charts of what was selling, and what the most popular songs were back then, anti-war anthems aren't really at the top. It's more like The Archies and feel-good bubblegum pop music that was selling.

And I think we have an exaggerated idea of country music as blindingly nationalistic. You can point to examples like that Merle Haggard song I mentioned earlier, but there's also songs like Tom T. Hall’s "Mama Bake a Pie (Daddy Kill a chicken)." Now you've got to look that one up — it will absolutely break your heart. It's about a Vietnam vet coming home. He’s wheelchair-bound and hiding a bottle of booze under his blanket. All you hear is his side of the conversation as he’s interacting with people on the plane coming home, and then when he's with his mom and dad. And you just hear his anguish and emotional isolation. It’s an incredible tune. Then there’s "When You Gonna Bring Our Soldiers Home?" by Skeeter Davis, which was directed solely at President Nixon. And those are just a few examples.

Country music really wedded itself to the themes of militarism and wartime service because of those economics I mentioned before. Now military service in itself got co-opted as a conservative political cause because of liberal protests during Vietnam. When that happened, country music got swept along as the soundtrack. So it's easy to caricature genres as doing one thing or the other — but I think it's almost always more complicated and ambivalent than that.

The interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. 
Published November 2017.

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