For decades, country music artists have spoken out about social issues through their music. Johnny Cash was a staunch advocate for Native American civil rights in the 1960s. When he met Republican president Richard Nixon, Cash launched into a barrage of his songs protesting the Vietnam War, standing up for the poor and, again, lamenting the plight of Native Americans.
Johnny Paycheck became one of the strongest voices for labor unions with his song “Take This Job And Shove It,” even showing up to labor protests and defiantly singing the song in support of the unionizers. Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” and “Rated X” supported sexual freedom for women, and even Merle Haggard revealed his red-blooded fodder like “Okie From Muskogee” were more ironic than anything.
Music with a message seems to be on the rise again (even if it’s not on the radio as much as the 1960s and 70s). Let’s take a look at 10 recent country songs that call out the social issues of today.
Brad Paisley’s recent album of the same name features this scorcher of a duet. In it, he and Creedence Clearwater Revival founder John Fogerty blast the typical treatment of veterans. The song basically calls out phony patriotism by saying we ship soldiers off to die and then forget about them when they come home.
The opener off Brandy Clark’s phenomenal 2013 debut, “Pray To Jesus” is more or less an onslaught against the American way of life in general. In it, she equates common prayer to a crutch and our desire to complain about things we can’t fix and get rich quick. This line in particular calls out marriage culture (at the time this song was written, Clark, who is gay, could not legally get married in Tennessee): “Grow up, get married, and when that one ends we hate sleeping alone so we get married again.”
Chesney’s “Rich And Miserable” is a veiled jab at getting consumed by capitalism. But the line that really calls out a social issue in a unique way speaks to a lot of millennial right now. Chesney points out the increasing costs and declining worth of a college education, singing, “Go to school to get a job; don’t make enough to pay it off.” Interestingly enough, Tennessee became the first state in America to make community college free to all adults in 2017.
Anybody familiar with Steve Earle shouldn’t be surprised by his progressive views. But in “Mississippi, It’s Time,” he doesn’t pull any punches. He takes aim at the state for failing to remove the Confederate flag from its history, rightfully equating it with the racism and pain it represents.
Jamey Johnson released “High Cost Of Living” back in 2009, making him slightly ahead of the other songs on this list. But that’s probably because the subject matter — a personal look at addiction — is relatively universal. But with the opioid crisis in full swing, drug addiction is as pressing an issue as ever. This song does what it can to show that addiction affects everybody. The protagonist in this song is “just a normal guy” with a normal job who gets high in a church parking lot.
Kacey Musgraves’ first single “Merry Go ‘Round” took a realistic look at the darker realities of small-town living. But “Follow Your Arrow” was a huge revelation in country music at the time. Yes, the lines about doing (or not doing) drugs and the “can’t please anybody” attitude got people talking, but her lines advocating same-sex relationships made her a progressive hero.
Jason Isbell sings of white privilege and gender discrimination in this bluesy tune. He knows the country was built on the bones of Native Americans and feels shame for not standing up to racists jokes. It’s a wide-ranging gamut that manages to be both introspective and socially conscious.
About a month before the election, Radney Foster warned of the perils of political extremism. A lot of people equated the song with calling Donald Trump a fascist. Foster responded to that with a thoughtful note saying the song is not about “him,” but about “us.” Whoever it’s about, it’s a darn powerful song that warns about going backwards in the way we treat each other.
Willie Nelson is one of classic country music’s biggest activists alongside people like Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson. But he’s not just letting his past speak for him. His most recent record God’s Problem Child features a song that takes aim at selective acceptance of the truth and our political cycle. “The truth is the truth but believe what you choose,” he sings, along with other lines like, “Had a chance to be brilliant and we blew it again.”
Sturgill Simpson’s “Call To Arms” is one of the strongest anti-war songs of the past decade. But it’s also a critique of social media and its ability to distract us while world leaders take us to the brink of destruction. It’s not a pick-me-up, by any means, but it’s just more proof that some of the most-respected country artists of the day are also the least likely to fit the country music stereotype.