Retuning Nostalgia: Anti-Black Racism and the Cultural Politics of Country Music

n.b. Today we have the latest contribution to The Middle Spaces by regular writer Nicholas E. Miller in which he examines both his personal history with country music and its cultural history, to think through how it could be more than just a white identity genre that selectively erases or elevates the music, and build narratives that disrupt the notion of a mythic white past known as “the good ole days.” In his typically sharp and rigorous way, Nicholas both excavates what is productive towards his liberatory aims and critically examines what seems self-evident. This is a great addition to a small (but hopefully growing) number of posts on popular music.


I never planned to write an essay on country music—likely due to the shame I feel regarding my affinity for the genre and my desire not to repeat or overwrite the brilliant work already published by scholars like Tressie McMillan Cottom. Yet here I am, decades after what I once referred to as my “country music phase,” still trying to make sense of my relationship to a genre that is, as Cottom writes, “all about being white.” While a primer on country music and its relationship to whiteness studies falls beyond the scope of this essay, I should note that there is plenty of excellent scholarship out there on the cultural politics of white nostalgia in country music, our racialized understanding of musical forms and genres, and the interracial histories of country music as it intersects with folk, soul, and other adjacent genres. Still, while this scholarship and my own life experiences have made the connection between whiteness and country music more apparent, that connection was harder to see when I was younger.

Senior photo of Nicholas E. Miller. Image courtesy of the author.

That I had (or perhaps still have) a country music phase should come as no surprise. I grew up in a largely white town in rural Michigan. My grandparents were farmers. Construction workers populate both sides of my family tree. My parents lived in Alabama briefly before I was born, and I grew up visiting North Carolina every summer. My grandmother (and later my father) listened to country music regularly. In middle school, my classmates listened to George Jones and George Straight as “cool” throwback music. And, although I was not a farmer (I preferred Lilith Fair to the county fair), I did make the regrettable decision to wear a cowboy hat in my senior photos. Honestly, there is a lot of country music that I still love. I know the lyrics to early songs by Garth Brooks and Faith Hill, for example, and sing along when I hear familiar country music on the radio. Yet I am also a different person than I was as a teenager. I am now aware that the cultural politics of whitestream country music are toxic. That, I suppose, is where the shame lies: I still love (and perhaps want to love), a form of popular culture that remains committed—sometimes explicitly and nearly always implicitly—to anti-Black racism.

As a scholar of popular culture, I rarely struggle to maintain a critical distance from the things I love; that job hazard is a given. Moreover, my scholarship on this site regularly engages with critical nostalgia and related frameworks. Yet my previous work on nostalgia has usually foregrounded its liberatory potential and when it comes to country music, I am much less hopeful. In this case, I am not looking at some innocent form of mis-remembering the past, but the willful construction of a false racial imaginary. Indeed, contemporary country music, as we know it, would not exist without a carefully constructed nostalgia for a mythical white past. As Cottom argues, “today’s country music is the official soundtrack for white-identity politics because of a deliberate Republican strategy to brand the GOP as a white-first party with a soundtrack.” Cottom goes on to note that journalists like David Browne and artists like Rissi Palmer have traced this effort to politicize the genre back to figures like Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. With that in mind, the questions that continue to haunt me are: How do we engage critically with country music without reifying an anti-Black nostalgic mode? And how might we consider the transformative potential of country music without mounting a defense of the genre?

A number of writers have already identified this transformative potential in making the case for reconsidering the Black origins of country music, using streaming services to broaden our definitions of the genre, and amplifying marginalized voices in country music that have always been there. These efforts are essential and they align nicely with my belief that popular culture plays an important role in social justice efforts. As researchers at the Perception Institute report, “popular culture can serve as a vehicle to increase empathy across racial and ethnic lines, particularly in communities where opportunities for interaction are rare. In addition, popular culture has the ability to portray people of various racial and ethnic groups in their full humanity—with the hope of increasing recognition of our shared humanity” (10). In terms of popular music, specifically, researchers have noted how “music exposure has been shown to have powerful effects on human behavior [and] is often a catalyst to social movements” (16). However, I want to suggest that critical conversations about country music too rarely acknowledge this catalytic potential; critics and scholars tend to focus—perhaps rightfully—on how the genre fails to address racism and bigotry in meaningful ways. Still, considering that there are more U.S. radio stations dedicated to country music than other genres, it is also worth revisiting such narratives with a critical eye. In doing so, I suggest that we strive not only to disrupt dominant narratives about the genre, but also to revisit and retune the white-identity nostalgia that permeates many country music fan communities.

To make that claim, I turn again to a personal narrative. This past December I tackled the annual chore of re-curating my playlists on Spotify. I wanted to mix up my music before pretending that I was going to exercise more. But I was also struggling emotionally at the time: December marked five years since the passing of my father and six months since the passing of my grandmother. With the two of them in mind, I began to update a country music playlist that I call “Drop Kick Me, Jesus.” Until last year, that playlist had mostly served to aggregate what I deemed “good” country music (often “alternative” country or folk). This time, however, I added a number of 90s and early 00s songs that sparked good memories for me. Specifically, I found myself returning to songs that my father would play on Saturday mornings as we did chores around the house.

As I was trying to finalize the playlist, I got hung up on finding a song my father listened to repeatedly when I was a teenager. It took some texting with my mom and sisters before I located a self-titled album by Western Flyer (1994) and the song, “Cherokee Highway.” If you want to find this song on Spotify or other streaming services, you are out of luck—the band put out two albums before disbanding, and I had to burn files from a physical CD to add it to my playlist. In 2020, as country music continued to reckon (somewhat) with its racist history, listening to “Cherokee Highway” felt like a different type of nostalgia than what I had experienced while listening to, say, Sara Evans or Collin Raye. I certainly remembered singing along to the song with my father in the car, but I also remembered other things. One such thing was that I had a shameful obsession with the Confederacy when I was little; I even owned a replica kepi and doodled “Rebel” bayonets. And it was not until I started high school in 1994—the same year that “Cherokee Highway” was released—that I packed up my kepi, never to be touched again. Now I certainly do not want to draw reductive conclusions about the song’s influence. It did not suddenly make me aware of racism or the bigoted politics of the Confederacy. Yet I do think that it was part of a larger popular culture moment and it helped to shape my racial imaginary.

Western Flyer’s self-titled album featuring “Cherokee Highway.”

As Shirley Jinkins reports, 1994 was an important year for activist songs out of Nashville, including Martina McBride’s “Independence Day,” about domestic violence; Collin Raye’s “Little Rock,” about alcoholism, which gave rise to Raye’s public service announcements for Al-Anon and Alateen; and Reba McEntire’s “She Thinks His Name Was John,” about AIDS. That year also marked the passage of a deeply racist 1994 crime bill. And just three years prior, Rodney King was assaulted by police officers in Los Angeles, again thrusting police brutality into the national spotlight. That incident inspired another song that I regularly sang along to: Garth Brooks’s “We Shall Be Free.” As Wide Open Country notes, that song was penned by Brooks with Stephanie Davis during a stay in Los Angeles as protests overtook the city. Its lyrics champion coming together to create a better world for all human beings, and it was released as the first single on Brooks’s 1992 album, The Chase. Even today, “We Shall Be Free” often regains popularity in times of struggle.

Yet whereas Brooks’s song was written as an anthem of inclusivity, “Cherokee Highway” was much more explicit in its description of racism. The lyrics tell a story of two boys, Kevin (white) and Willie (black), who are best friends in Mississippi in 1961. Willie’s father is killed by the Ku Klux Klan one night and Kevin runs back to his house to get his father, “who will know what to do”—only to find him cleaning blood off of sheets and his hands. In the next verse, Black residents retaliate by setting fire to Kevin’s family home. Although his parents escape, Kevin is caught in the house surrounded by flames. Then, just as the house collapses, Willie rushes in to try to save Kevin from the fire. The song ends with Kevin’s father looking at two blackened bodies—both charred by the fire—unable to tell which dead child is his. Even as I write this, I acknowledge that these lyrics might not hold up under scrutiny. Still, they had an impact on me at the time. They also seem to have had a broader impact as well. In 1995, Western Flyer became the first country music group to perform at the annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Birthday Bash in Atlanta, where they were introduced by Coretta Scott King. “Cherokee Highway” also received enough airplay to warrant a passing reference in Sarah Vowell’s Radio On: A Listener’s Diary (1997). Yet, as I mentioned earlier, the song has dropped off the map somewhat in the twenty-first century. Indeed, its absence from streaming services and its lack of an official video presence keep the song from being aggregated on the many listicles and playlists that we now use to construct a sense of nostalgia in our digital era.

For all the critiques that I might level against this song (and there certainly are some), I still have no problem playing it loudly and getting emotional as I sing along. One simple reason for this is that the song remains relevant today. One of its most striking features is the opening verse, which is sometimes omitted in the music video version, where a young child sings a few lines from “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” With an innocent voice, the song opens with the claim that:

Jesus loves the little children,
all the children of the world.
Red and yellow, black and white,
they are precious in his sight.
Jesus loves the little children of the world.

What is moving about these lyrics, however, is not their call for Christian inclusivity. Instead, it is the clear hypocrisy they illuminate when contrasted with the main narrative of the song—one in which a nominally “Christian” white community kills a local Black man out of hatred. The songwriter, Danny Myrick, made it clear that this was intentional, sharing that “what I grew up with was more of an attitude, like singing ‘Jesus Loves the Little Children’ in church, with ‘red, yellow, black or white,’ then seeing a difference between these attitudes in real life.” Written and performed by an all-white band of (mostly) conservative men, “Cherokee Highway” thus disrupts some of the white-identity narratives more common on country music airwaves.

The song is also notable for its insistence, in the chorus, that “the blood still runs down Cherokee Highway” (emphasis mine). Unlike many Southern apologist narratives that only confront racism as a sin located in the past, Western Flyer called upon the most explicitly visual narrative of racism in this country (cross burnings and the violence of the Ku Klux Klan) only to emphasize that such racism still exists in the United States. Similarly, even as the song briefly produces a fraught “both sides” narrative of violence with the retaliation of a Black community and the line about “two dark sides to Cherokee Highway,” the video version of the story ends with the white father in handcuffs as the lyrics narrate that “standing in the ashes / he sees what hate really is.” In this way, the final verse places responsibility for this hatred on the white community that initiated the violence.

Most importantly, I remember “Cherokee Highway” as a song that explicitly named racism and hatred. In that regard, the song stands out among tamer attempts at progressive country music, including Garth Brooks’s call for inclusion in “We Shall Be Free” or any number of generically anti-hate songs (e.g. Eric Church’s “Kill a Word” or Maren Morris’s and Vince Gill’s “Dear Hate”). Even as country music continues to embrace the cultural ideal of “telling it like it is,” much of what passes for “risky” country music these days seems more invested in making white communities feel hopeful than actually naming or critiquing anti-Black racism. Even the most progressive music by so-called mainstream artists gravitates toward the language of diversity and inclusion as a stand-in for frank conversations about the persistence of racism in the industry. In this way, institutionalized efforts at diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) in country music seem awfully similar to institutionalized efforts elsewhere (academia being a prime example of this). As Ellen Berrey has noted in a critique of the language of diversity, “it lets white people off the hook from doing something about our own culpability in the problem.” What brings me back to a song like “Cherokee Highway,” then, is the image at the end of the music video: a racist white antagonist who is not let off the hook through an abstract narrative about learning to love all people.

Speaking of not letting someone off the hook, I feel the need to pause and mention that—while an analysis of the casual settler colonialism of this song title falls beyond the scope of this essay—I could not locate an actual “Cherokee Highway” in Mississippi as part of my research,  although the Natchez Trace could make for a decent analog. There is a Cherokee Foothills Scenic Highway in South Carolina which was once part of the “Cherokee Path” but while in the south, that’s not Mississippi, where the story of the song takes place. As such, I worry that the title of this song participates in the appropriation and exoticization of Native tropes that is also all-too-common in country music, as exemplified by Tim McGraw’s 1994 song, “Indian Outlaw.”

For me, it is specificity versus abstraction that marks the major difference between a song like “Cherokee Highway” and, say, Carrie Underwood’s “Love Wins.” Although I like Underwood’s song and adore the Dazzler-esque makeup in her video, “Love Wins” exemplifies this problem by vaguely gesturing to gun violence without naming race, invoking LGBTQ+ rights without calling for them, and abstractly claiming difference as a positive without acknowledging the lived experiences of people of color in this country. Similar to many institutional diversity initiatives, songs like “Love Wins” become a stand-in for more difficult conversations that Americans are not willing to have about race or other vectors of identity. That Underwood found it “scary” to produce such a tepid song highlights the state of country music today. If country music wants to be the politically incorrect voice that says plainly what it means, fans could do worse than turn our nostalgic attentions back to different or ignored elements of the genre.

My goal, however, is not to pit white creators against each other, nor to give out “ally cookies” to artists who are relatively more progressive in their music. Nor do I wish to hold up “Cherokee Highway” as a model for anti-racist country music. The song itself is not particularly radical nor transformative. Instead, I want to think about “Cherokee Highway” as an opportunity to be more intentional about how I construct my nostalgia for country music. Perhaps my memories of the song can become a foothold from which I can reach for a more radical present. You see, like Kathleen Stewart, I view nostalgia as “a cultural practice, not a given content” (227). As such, its forms and meanings are malleable and relational—and not inherently white. Yet as Geoff Mann has suggested, nostalgia continues to serve as an organizing tool for “besieged” whiteness in country music and is thus used to exclude Black artists from a mainstream cultural imaginary.

This does not, of course, negate the importance of recent milestones. I am thrilled that Mickey Guyton is signed to a major record label, and it was no small feat for her to become—in 2020!—the first Black woman to perform at the Academy of Country Music Awards. Yet in many ways, Guyton (like Darius Rucker before her) exists in a state of exception—one that highlights the rule and reifies an existing white structure. For, even as Guyton rightfully receives accolades for her achievements in the industry, other Black artists such as Rhiannon Giddens and Rissi Palmer are regularly classified as “alternative” country and rhetorically situated at the margins of the industry. Classifying Black artists as “alternative” or “genre-adjacent” in this way highlights an unwillingness to dislodge country music nostalgia from genealogies tied to the bigoted politics of a Hank Williams, Jr., or a Toby Keith.

Keith Urban and Mickey Guyton perform during the Academy of Country Music Awards at the Grand Ole Opry on September 16, 2020. Image by Kevin Mazur.

To disrupt those genealogies, I want to return to the idea of nostalgia as a malleable cultural practice. What if I did not turn back to 1994 and locate country music in fraught songs like Toby Keith’s “A Little Less Talk and a Lot More Action” or Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outlaw?” What if I constructed my nostalgia for country music through a trajectory that included “Cherokee Highway” or “We Shall Be Free” instead? For one, I would stop seeing contemporary Black artists like Joy Oladokun as outsiders. If my nostalgia for country music is rooted in phenomena like Danny Myrick naming the hypocrisy in “Jesus Loves the Little Children,” it becomes easy to see Oladokun’s “I See America” as a mainstream country song. Look at the opening verse:

I saw God out on the block today.
He was darker than the preachers say,
with a teardrop tattooed on his face
and dirt on his fingers.

Indeed, just as the Christianity being preached to Myrick looked very different from the lived racial realities of the South in “Cherokee Highway,” Oladokun’s lyrics highlight the limits of performative Christianity to address the lived experiences of Black communities in America. Both songs see past faux-patriotic narratives of this country to fully see America mired in its multitude of sins. Similarly, one might look to “We Shall Be Free” and its prophetic rhetoric and see connections with a gospel-esque song like Rissi Palmer’s “Seeds. Both declare that we are not free until we are all free. One might even go back a few years earlier and consider how Reba McEntire’s rendition of “Fancy” is invested in similar class and gender politics as Priscilla Renea’s more recent “Family Tree.” In short, white-identity nostalgia for country music has never really been about the actual content or even the form of the music—instead, it has always been about conflating whiteness with Americanness and curating the genre to reinforce this.

Now I recognize that genres are artificial categories and artists should have a say in how their music gets categorized, yet it remains notable that music by queer women of color like Oladokun is relegated to hyphenated genres (“folk-soul”) or subgenres (“roots rock”) while a white woman like Lacy Cavalier—whose music has more in common with pop icon Ariana Grande than country legend Loretta Lynn—is said to be “taking country music by storm.” And that is not meant as a dig at Cavalier, whose work is amazing. It is merely an acknowledgment that nostalgia is an intentional cultural practice and that it is possible to construct a cultural imaginary that includes and foregrounds Black voices instead of marginalizing them.

Rissi Palmer, the first African-American woman to chart a country song since 1987 and the host of Color Me Country Radio on Apple Music. Photo by Samantha Everette.

It is for that reason that conversations about the state of country music cannot focus solely on reclaiming the genre or increasing representation. Music critics and fans must also engage in an intentional act of retuning nostalgia. Whereas the act of tuning something is imagined as an attempt to bring various pitches into harmony, I suggest that what country music needs is a re-tuning—a shift in frequency and pitch (with all the layered meanings of those terms) that is not invested in promoting false notions of racial harmony but instead values the cacophonous and overlapping racial histories that make up the genre. As fans, we do not need to reconcile our experiences of country music into a single narrative or harmonious whole. Instead, we must actively produce a nostalgia that acknowledges the disruptions and contradictions inherent in the genre. For too long, (white) fans like me have listened for the clearest radio signals, adjusting our relationship to country music, and accommodating a whitewashed nostalgia for “the good old days.” In other words, we have been content to locate music that is not invested in a white-identity politics as being a fringe sound—as interference or static. What I want to suggest, instead, is that we begin to listen for that static—for the sounds and the voices that have always been part of the country music industry but have been tuned out in an effort to create a monolithic, white-identity genre.

Retuning nostalgia also requires us to think about country music less monolithically, just as Americans need to view the U.S. South in more complex ways. Having lived through a presidential election in Georgia, it has been fascinating to see peers dismiss or abandon the South as racist or backwards—as if many of our progressive champions and civil rights leaders were not themselves Southern, or as if there are not progressive movements (and, gasp, Black people!) in the South fighting an uphill battle against voter suppression and systemic oppression. With that in mind, I worry that outright dismissals of country music ignore the genre’s long history of attempting to reckon with American injustice and violence—in an uphill battle with the white supremacist power structures and fandoms that push such voices to the margins. Moreover, I think it is important to highlight the importance of country stars explicitly claiming political positions, as the case of Taylor Swift highlights, or else positions will be claimed for them. By drawing attention to the political histories of country music and highlighting voices that have staked out positions, we can construct new nostalgic trajectories for the genre.

As fans, we must also stake out positions. Tuning, like nostalgia, is not merely a passive act of locating content; tuning is an act of creation itself. It is incumbent that we work to reconstruct our memories and the dominant histories of country music in ways that acknowledge its potential. As we retune ourselves to a country music past, we must also produce a present that can be (re)collected by future generations. At a local level, this means taking advantage of our streaming age to insert marginalized voices from the past into present narratives about country music’s pastness. Every time we create a curated playlist or “best of” list, we become nostalgia generators. What would nostalgia for country music look like if we consistently included Charley Pride and Linda Martell in such lists? What might that nostalgia look like if our playlists foregrounded Kane Brown, Amythyst Kiah, Brittney Spencer, and Yola as the driving voices in country music today? What new frequencies and futures might we produce?

Johnny Cash performing at Folsom Prison in 1968.

As I reflect on my experiences with my father, then, I cannot help but think about what nostalgic modes I should want for my children as well. As I mentioned, I currently live in the Deep South, a setting that has helped me to notice the importance of those artists who are reclaiming the protest roots and cultural politics of country music. Although my children are largely not fans of the genre, I do see many of their friends growing up with the pro-LGBTQ+ lyrics of Kacey Musgraves, the empowering feminist anthems by Kalie Shorr (who is downright poetic in her use of f-bombs), and unapologetically Black narratives of songwriters like Mickey Guyton, Miko Marks, and Yola. This generation hears Maren Morris sing “when the wolf’s at the door all covered in blue” and recognizes the song’s connection to the summer uprisings against police brutality in 2020, even if they are unable to connect it to the anti-police and anti-prison sentiments present in country music’s outlaw movement—a movement that includes songs by well-known figures such as Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Merle Haggard. Yet my children and their friends hear kindred sentiments echoed by newer artists like Kane Brown when he sings about this “American bad dream” and recognize the continued existence of racism in the lived experiences of the American South and beyond.

So, despite my hesitation at the beginning of this essay, I find myself wondering (yet again) if there might be a liberatory potential to nostalgia—especially if we can retune that nostalgia to include and foreground voices too often dismissed as mere noise. You see, just as FM radio once sought to eliminate the static found on AM channels, dismissing that static as unwanted noise, the country music industry has continually downplayed the disruptive “noise” of artists who are willing to name whiteness as a bug, not a feature, of the genre. Yet our digital, post-terrestrial radio era now enables us to re-curate our music histories and redefine music genres. The mediascape of the twenty-first century offers a prime opportunity to retune our nostalgic visions of the genre despite ongoing acts of erasure and marginalization within the industry. In closing, then, I would ask: are white communities willing to alter what country music we hear and how we hear it? Can we retune a nostalgia that has so long been centered on an idealized and false narrative about whiteness so that it is fuller and more complex? If so, perhaps we can reconstruct our memories of country music in ways that acknowledge (or introduce) its potential to be a catalyst for social change, its multicultural histories, and its service as a record of the darkest stains of American history. If we shed a false white innocence that has been projected onto country music for so long, perhaps we can hear its many frequencies with more clarity.


Nicholas E. Miller (@uncannydazzler on Twitter) is a regular writer for The Middle Spaces and a soon-to-be Middle School English Teacher at Sayre School. His scholarship can be found in publications like Feminist Media Histories, Inks: The Journal of the Comics Studies Society, Mixed-Race Superheroes, and The Oxford Handbook of Comic Book Studies. He is currently co-editing a volume on the cultural politics of X-Men: The Animated Series. You can visit his website here.

 

 

One thought on “Retuning Nostalgia: Anti-Black Racism and the Cultural Politics of Country Music

  1. Pingback: “Beaten By the Wind: The Forgotten Mystery Movie at the Heart of Bob Seger’s ‘American Storm’” | The Middle Spaces

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