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Preacher's Daughter: American Civil Religion and Masculinity in Country Music

There has always been an element of conservatism in major label country music. Often, it combines Protestant Christian ideology with with nationalistic rhetoric. Scholars and church leaders call this strange combination "American civil religion" (a term I will use because it's a mindset that does not give much thought to other countries in the Americas). Even Johnny Cash, known for his populist politics and self-identification with the poor, sometimes indulged in these themes.

Of course, the attacks of September 11, 2011 led to American civil religion on steroids, and this was reflected nowhere more than in country music. Can anyone forget Lee Greenwood's awful song, "God Bless the USA"? Well, just in case you have, you can listen to it here (video includes lyrics):

Or Toby Keith's even more strident "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue" (video includes lyrics):

Toby Keith is back with a brand new ode to God and country called "Made in America" (lyrics):

This song lays it on thick, right down to the images we see. It begins by juxtaposing Keith's performance with shots of beautiful fields of grain. Then an elderly man appears who is identified as Keith's father. He wears the standard heartland farming outfit (plaid shirt, jeans and baseball cap) and is shown posing with a tractor—and later with bales of hay. Then with his wife in a field.

The images convey several ways in which (mostly white) rural southerners tend to romanticize the South. Rural working-class people are celebrated as the heart and soul of the US. They have worked hard all their lives,* and we they continue working even as they reach ages at which many have retired. These are not pretentious city folks. Rather, they appreciate their small communities, where they can trust that people hold their values—and love both America and god.**

The nationalism of the farmer's wife is stereotypically soft and female-coded. We are told that she "decorates on the fourth of July" but still "says everyday is independence day." She is shown teaching at an ostensibly public school—that is to say, enthusiastically serving her local community. Apparently, "some folks say it isn't cool," but she still "says the Pledge of Allegiance anyway."

This music often conceives of the military as an exclusively male domain, as when Greenwood sang, "I'm proud to be an American, where at least I know I'm free/And I can't forget the men who died to give that right to me." There is plenty of that here. Keith's dad has a "semper fi" tattoo on his shoulder, and the singer himself gives a military salute. Elderly male veterans are honored at a parade.

White families with young children constitute the majority of parade attendees, and images shift to a focus on children carrying flags and celebrating the country. I think this is a nod to the familiar truism that "children are our future." Again, those pictured are almost exclusively white. The only substantive clue that children of color are also "our future" is the moment in which children in the classroom solemnly rise to recite the Pledge.

God is ever-present in the song, conceived as the bulwark of American moral and military might. Keith lauds "King James and Uncle Sam" as joint symbols of US power. At the parade, signs read, "God bless America." The implication is that god is part and parcel of American civic pride.

There is one relatively new element here: "Made in America" reflects an element of economic protectionism that I suspect has to do with the struggling US economy. Keith sings that "it breaks his [father's] heart seeing foreign cars/Filled with fuel that isn't ours/And wearing cotton we didn't grow." It continues, "Spend a little more in the store for a tag in the back that says USA." Buying American is just one more way in which US citizens can serve their country.

Over the next couple of posts, I plan to continue exploring masculinity as celebrated and understood in country music. I'll discuss the implications of women who contribute to these tropes. Then I will consider what is different (and yet still the same) about the sub-genre we call "alt country" (sometimes "outlaw country"). Let me know your thoughts in the comments!

*My mother was raised on a tobacco farm, and much of my extended family in North Carolina still farms. People with small family farms do work very hard, and for the record, I completely respect what they do. I am describing and critiquing a romanticized Southern ideal, not the working-class individuals and families I know.

**I know there are enclaves in the South where people fly the rebel flag and talk about how "the South will rise again!" I also know that there are very wealthy plantation families. I am not describing all white people in the rural south, but, again, an ideal that I have seen perpetuated.

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Comments

15 comments have been made. Post a comment.

Isn't Toby Keith from

Isn't Toby Keith from Oklahoma? Is Oklahoma considered part of "the south"?

I believe so...

Or rather, I think a lot of Oklahomans identify as being Southern. Toby Keith certainly does: http://www.cmt.com/news/country-music/1669757/toby-keith-cmt-insider-int.... From the interview, "We have a little group prayer before we go on every night -- a bunch of good spiritual boys out here who were raised in the South"

____________
Kelsey Wallace, contributor

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Well I looked it up -- the

Well I looked it up -- the census apparently counts Oklahoma as "the south" so I guess it must be! I honestly never thought of how to regionally identify Oklahoma.

When discussing the political identification of men in country music I suppose it's pretty inevitable to bring the south into the discussion, since "country" and "Nashville" are so culturally tied together, but to utilize some Blues Brothers regional logic: "We play both kinds: Country and western." It must be the cowboy hats that throw me off.

Right, I meant Southeast and

Right, I meant Southeast and Southwest, not only historical members of the Confederacy.

Anyway, I don't really care

Anyway, I don't really care where Toby Keith happens to be from. I'm referring to commercial country music that counts white people in the south as its largest audience demographic, and is mostly recorded in Nashville. I am sure there are exceptions, but that is not the point. We have to be able to speak generally about some things.

Kelsey-right.

Kelsey-right.

Barbara Ching

Kristin, I've really been enjoying this series. Looking ahead to your next few posts, I was wondering if you were familiar with Barbara Ching's work. If you aren't, she's an English professor who has written extensively on country music and masculinity, paying particular attention toward whiteness. One such essay is called "The Possum, the Hag, and the Rhinestone Cowboy: Hard Country Music and the Burlesque Abjection of the White Man." Anyway, if you didn't know about Ching's scholarship, it might be useful to you, either now or further down the line.

Alyx Vesey

I didn't know about it.

I didn't know about it. Thanks for the recommendation!

I think country music is (or

I think country music is (or is similar to) folk music, and folk music often tries to speak for the "common" person. At least that's how it started out with Johnny Cash and June Carter and the like who got famous playing traditional songs--not just ones they wrote. And traditional folk songs are often heavy on the religious imagery. What's crazy here, like you point out, is not that these songs mention God, but that they raise a country to deity status. Anyway, very nice article. I look forward to the rest of the series. I'm also curious how folk music in different countries differs from American country. what are the major themes of ranchero music, for example?

Sorry, I don't know enough

Sorry, I don't know enough about that music to comment.

Looking forward to the post.

Looking forward to the post. My mom loves Toby Keith and when I heard this song for the first time I was already breaking down the lyrics. After reading your post, I can see the undertones even more. Which women country singers are you thinking about including in the future posts? A few that come to mind are Miranda Lambert and Gretchen Wilson. Gretchen Wilson in particular sings about working hard and partying harder. She often sings about being one of the boys and doesn't care about wearing dresses or putting on make-up. Can't wait to see what you have in store for us. Best wishes!

Yep, Miranda Lambert is one.

Yep, Miranda Lambert is one.

I've noticed that a lot of

I've noticed that a lot of country music fans, who have never served, assume that the military is all white Christian male, reminiscent of a John Wayne movie. When in fact, the US military is made up of people of every race, religion, and color, and there are women.

Foreign Oil,

First he venerates a war in which we were procuring foreign oil and then he creates a song about how this is bad...I am confused by his logic...

KJV & Made in the USA

Glad to see some commentary on this subject. I grew up in Texas but am non-white and have a kinda love-hate relationship with country music.

Two thoughts:

God is ever-present in the song, conceived as the bulwark of American moral and military might. Keith lauds "King James and Uncle Sam" as joint symbols of US power. At the parade, signs read, "God bless America." The implication is that god is part and parcel of American civic pride.

The reference to King James is surprising because the KJV tends to be used in the mainline Protestant denominations most associated with wealth: Episcopalian, Anglican, Presbyterian. Baptist and non-denominational evangelical churches generally prefer the newer translations that don't confuse parishioners with Shakespearean-era language.

There is one relatively new element here: "Made in America" reflects an element of economic protectionism that I suspect has to do with the struggling US economy. Keith sings that "it breaks his [father's] heart seeing foreign cars/Filled with fuel that isn't ours/And wearing cotton we didn't grow." It continues, "Spend a little more in the store for a tag in the back that says USA." Buying American is just one more way in which US citizens can serve their country.

I think Made in the USA has a longstanding connection in most people's minds to an older political conservatism (almost a Buchananite paleoconservatism), the pre-Rush Limbaugh kind that didn't venerate markets over all but instead believed that Americans both made the best of everything and had an obligation to each other to buy that stuff. When I was talking to my younger sister about social strategies for helping our economy, one thing I mentioned was reviving the idea of Made in the USA. After all, people talk about the importance of buying local, but we still end up buying so much from overseas if it isn't made right in our community. (I'm skeptical of imposing tariffs by law because that leads to a trade war and also penalizes people who buy what's made in China because they just can't afford US-made. My sister said she wasn't opposed to the idea, but that she sort of instinctively didn't care for the Made in the USA campaigns because she associates them with political conservatism.