The state of mainstream country music is, to say the least, a mixed bag. The Nashville radio formula that has dominated the art form for over twenty years creates same-sounding singers who try to best each other in paeans to fun with the boys down by the creek with their wholesome girlfriends or wives alongside. Of course, a lot of alternative country, whatever that means in 2015, is great, but most of that does not tap into a mainstream audience.
Yet even if much of what comes out of Nashville is bad, perhaps no cultural form provides a better window into the state of the white working and middle classes than country music. For all the music’s current cheesiness, the genre has long represented the yearnings and politics of the everyday whites who listen to it. The demographics may have changed from the rural South in the 1930s to the suburbanites who make its listenership today, but the lyrical content has always intended to appeal to a large swathe of workaday whites, whether Tennessee farmers in 1932, southern migrants to Detroit factory jobs in 1956, or Charlotte suburban residents in 2015.
Most on the left usually ignores country music, seeing it as a mire of right-wing resentment best avoided, shunned, and ridiculed. This attitude betrays snobbishness toward working class people to the sound of the banjos in Deliverance. There’s no question that country music, like the southern white working class where it originated, has a deep conservatism. The banjo player Earl Scruggs was called the only man in country music who voted for George McGovern in 1972; his old partner Lester Flatt was more typically writing songs about hippies with lines such as “I can’t tell the boys from the girls.” From the string band pioneer Fiddlin’ John Carson playing a role in the 1915 lynching of Leo Frank to the cheap jingoism of Toby Keith and his bro knockoffs, the left has rarely had reason to take country music seriously as an art form that expressed the potential for solidarity.
That doesn’t mean country music hasn’t had its left-populist streaks. Going back at least to Roy Acuff’s “Old Age Pension Check,” a celebration of Social Security that venerates Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the music has occasionally reflected a politics of universal improvement that suggests a bit of class-consciousness. But more often, the politics of resentment has taken over. For all that people have attempted to explain away Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” by saying it tells his father’s side of the hippie story (especially since Haggard was definitely smoking marijuana in Muskogee), “Fighting Side of Me,” his follow-up hit that attacked Vietnam protestors, is just ugly and awful. That’s just the tip of the iceberg for the nastiness of the country music response to the protests of the 1960s, which created a whole subgenre of songs dedicated to hating hippies, perhaps personified in Autry Inman’s “The Ballad of Two Brothers,” contrasting an older brother fighting in Vietnam to his worthless hippie brother protesting in the streets, who only learns how he has betrayed American values after the brother dies in Vietnam. During these years, popular country music became a vehicle for expressing white working class contempt for anti-war protestors and hippies, even as hippies such as Gram Parsons broadened its horizons and sympathetic figures such as Johnny Cash complicated its mainstream message.
On a rare occasion, something good both comes out of mainstream Nashville and has an interesting political message. Angaleena Presley’s excellent 2014 album American Middle Class suggests the complexity of how country music politics represent the limits of white political consciousness. How often do we see an album of any genre dedicated to dissecting class in any conscious way? Very rarely. So from a political perspective, this is already interesting. Songs like “Pain Pills,” “Grocery Store,” and “Knocked Up” tell well-crafted stories about the white working class that show great sympathy and sensitivity for everyday people.
But that her album is titled American Middle Class and not “American Working Class” says a great deal, for not even Presley can escape the divisive politics that undermine class solidarity in the United States. The album’s title track opens with Presley’s father, a Kentucky coal miner for thirty years, talking about life in the mines. He explains the hard work, how the companies “make thousands and thousands of dollars” while the workers get almost nothing. He closes by saying “It ain’t no life really.”
How on earth is a poor Kentucky coal miner middle class? The answer is that in this song, as in much of America, middle class actually means “white.” See how Presley frames her father’s words in the song:
Now daddy can’t get his pension or Social Security
worked thirty damn years in a coal mine feeding welfare families
struggle hard and hide it well, you sure ain’t rich and you sure as hell ain’t poor enough to get one little break
’cause everything would collapse
without the hardworking God-loving members of the American middle class
“Worked thirty damn years in a coal mine feeding welfare families.” This line says so much about the problems of class and racial solidarity in the United States. Of course Presley doesn’t mention race directly. No mainstream singer would in 2014. The politics of overt racial resentment are too toxic today. But the lightly obscured politics of race are as powerful as ever. “Welfare” mostly means “black people cashing their welfare checks while rolling up to the store in their Cadillac and then ordering a t-bone steak” has a decades-long history by now. It is worth noting of course that in much of the South there is also a white underclass that also receives the welfare stigma from society and she may well mean those people too, but there’s no way to define coal mining as a middle class job.
Presley is also mostly wrong about what her father’s money funded. That tax money went to a military buildup, the nation’s oversized and racist prison system, servicing the nation’s debt, and replacing the high tax rates once paid by the rich. In 2012, the 1 percent became the richest in recorded history earning 19.3 percent of American income, surpassing the previous record of 18.7 percent, set in 1927, just before this income inequality contributed to the Great Depression. Between 1979 and 2007, the one percent captured 53.9 percent of the increase in U.S. income while average income for our elites grew by 200.5 percent versus just 18.9 percent for the bottom 99 percent. Between 1978 and 2011, CEO pay rose 726.5 percent versus 5.7 percent for workers.
This doesn’t mean the song is wrong or bad. Presley may well be presenting her and her father’s point of view, one typical of much of the white working class. Presley grew up in Beauty, Kentucky. That is in Martin County, on the West Virginia border, deep in Appalachia. Martin County is over 99 percent white. Thirty-seven percent of the county’s residents live below the poverty line. Despite this, Martin County gave Mitt Romney 83 percent of its vote in 2012, compared to 15 percent for Barack Obama. This was one of the highest votes for Romney in the state, with more than 89 percent of nearby Leslie County voting for Romney being his highest. If these people vote, it’s overwhelmingly for a political party with the open agenda of destroying the social safety net they benefit from at higher rates than most of the country. Even when some of the mine jobs were union, these were not middle class folks; coal mining was always dangerous and not well-paid. But the mythology of the middle class can exist when you see people who are below you in social class. In Martin County and evidently for Presley, that’s largely black people, people who do not live there, who are in Louisville, Cincinnati, New York City. These are the others taking money from the hard working taxpayers of Martin County, even as social services flow into that impoverished place.
This nation has a toxic relationship with class and race. The politics of middle class mythology reinforce the corporate powers that increasingly control our lives. If all whites are middle class–or all whites who include lifelong coal miners left with nothing–then politics that actually promote the interests of the poor are undermined. If the poor consider themselves “middle class,” how do we create institutions that effectively demand a more robust welfare state and worker power? I’m not sure we can until we disconnect popular ideas of class from race. And given the upsurge in racism over the past seven years, we are far from accomplishing that goal.