For a lot of people, country music and patriotism go hand in hand. Thanks to songs like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless The U.S.A.,” country music earned a reputation as a flag-waving, blue-blooded bastion of American pride.
And they’re not wrong. But what few folks realize is that country music has always been a home to protest music and political rallying cries, too. In fact, country music champions individual liberties, equality and peace as much as it honors American troops and small-town living. Here are 10 of the most political country songs throughout the genre’s storied history.
10. John Rich — Shuttin’ Detroit Down
John Rich co-wrote “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” after seeing repeated news stories about the decline of the auto industry in Michigan. He takes a strong anti-bank stance, aiming his pen at the banks who received federal bailouts under then-President George W. Bush. He contrasts it with all the people losing their jobs, particular auto workers and farmers. Kris Kristofferson and Mickey Rourke even starred in the video. Washington eventually bailed out the auto industry too, first with a temporary fix initiated by Bush and later with a comprehensive plan put into place by Barack Obama. Though unpopular at the time, the bailout eventually revitalized the United States auto industry.
9. Hank Williams Jr. — Keep The Change
Hank Williams Jr. raised plenty of eyebrows with his 2012 song “Keep The Change,” in which he took an unbridled stance against the current political landscape. The name is an obvious reference to Obama’s 2008 campaign slogan. He also went after Fox and Friends, which he blames for being removed from ESPN’s Monday Night Football theme. Basically, it was the exact moment Hank Jr. went from quirky to possibly crazy.
8. Merle Haggard — Fightin’ Side Of Me
Merle Haggard found himself cast into political realms multiple times in his career. Though he always refused to label himself as a liberal or conservative, he was often championed by both ideological camps throughout his career. “Fightin’ Side Of Me” is a great example of his nuance, in which he acknowledges protester’s right to stand up for what they believe in, including protesting war, but warns not to bad-mouth the soldiers themselves.
7. Kris Kristofferson — The Eagle And The Bear
Kris Kristofferson may be one of the most vocal celebrity opponents of military action. It comes from a genuine place, though, as he is also a decorated veteran and widely considered one of the most intelligent songwriters in country music. “The Eagle and The Bear” again showcases Kristofferson’s deftness. He talks of a supreme love of country, but also uses that love of country to reference Nicaragua and El Salvador. At the time, the U.S. government was involved in revolutions in those countries, something Kristofferson actively protested.
6. Steve Earle — Mississippi, It’s Time
If Hank Jr. is country’s resident crazy conservative uncle, Steve Earle is country’s resident bleeding heart liberal cousin. Earle’s career was built on songs tinged with political undertones. “Mississippi, It’s Time” is one of his most recent protest tunes in which he argues for the state to quit using the Confederate flag in its own state flag. All the proceeds of song sales went to the Southern Poverty Law Center.
5. Hank Williams — No No Joe
Who else but Hank Williams could make the 1950s’ polarizing fear of Russian communism sound so whimsical? The song was directed at Joseph Stalin and features plenty of clever wordplay from writer Fred Rose. Interestingly, the song was released under Williams’ pseudonym “Luke The Drifter,” so as not to tarnish his relatively controversy-free catalog.
4. Garth Brooks — We Shall Be Free
In his first single from 1992’s album, The Chase, Garth Brooks champions things like freedom of speech and gay rights. He also tackles homelessness, hunger, racism, inequality, religion and just about every other bullet point on the progressive agenda. It’s a bit ridiculous to imagine a song that basically advertises the American dream in neon letters causing controversy, but that it did. Some radio stations even banned the song, leading it to halt its climb on the charts at No. 12.
3. Willie Nelson and Bob Dylan — Heartland
Two of the most prolific songwriters in the history of music banded together to write an anthem for struggling farmers. “My American dream fell apart at the seams,” sing the two. “You tell me what it means.” The song harshly criticizes the practice of foreclosing on farms and land, one of the main issues that led Nelson to form Farm Aid in 1985. The tune became a staple of the event.
2. Toby Keith — Courtesy Of The Red, White, And Blue
Few people realize Toby Keith wrote “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” largely as an honor to his father, who died in a car crash six months before the Sept. 11 attacks. Of course, most people know the song became somewhat of an anthem for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. And everybody knows that famous line, “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Keith always had an immense respect for the troops, but his political leanings are much harder to pin down. He was a lifelong democrat who voted for both George W. Bush and Barack Obama and now identifies as an independent.
1. Merle Haggard — Okie From Muskogee
The story behind “Okie From Muskogee” varies. Merle Haggard originally wrote “Okie From Muskogee” in response to Vietnam War protests during the 1960’s. “Here were these [servicemen] going over there and dying for a cause — we don’t even know what it was really all about — and here are these young kids, that were free, b—hing about it,” Haggard once told The Boot. “There’s something wrong with that and with [disparaging] those poor guys.”
But Haggard also called the song a parody of all the things he claimed to be. Or as Rolling Stone called it, his “contradictory masterpiece.” After Haggard realized just how much the song spoke to people, he changed his tone. He acknowledged the song actually captured a legitimate sentiment of a large swath of Americans often not making the nightly news. The tune launched a sense of pride in simple living and gave a rallying cry to the “silent majority.”
In 2000, Haggard said he no longer felt the same way about the song and even wished he hadn’t written it. And how different his career would have been had he not. For the rest of his life Haggard made an effort to add nuance to his political country songs.