These progressive country songs helped the winds of change to shift and then some.
Through the decades, progressive country songs occasionally shake up the charts usually dominated by trucks on dirt roads. These songs have helped foster real kitchen-table discussions about everything from family planning to abuse to gender. When a mainstream country artist embraces change, it’s usually a bellwether for a significant chunk of the country. Through time, here are the progressive country songs that have rocked the boat.
12. “D.I.V.O.R.C.E.” – Tammy Wynette (1968)
Around the time that Wynette divorced her second husband Don Chapel, she released this lonesome single about a marriage that’s run out of steam. For many women in the 50s and 60s, divorce was an ugly taboo reserved for people who didn’t try hard enough. Wynette helped to shift that perception – sometimes it just doesn’t work out, and it’s painful but better in the long run.
11. “The Pill” – Loretta Lynn (1975)
Loretta Lynn’s pretty much always been a boss. Through clever rhymes and wordplay, Lynn declares freedom from being stuck in a cycle of pregnancy thanks to the infamous birth control pill. She complains of the double standard that men can paint the town red while their wives are stuck at home rearing children, and through “The Pill,” Lynn helped her fans see that family planning is no original sin.
10. “Fancy” – Reba McEntire (1990)
Though many country songs have alluded to prostitution, few have been as brazen as “Fancy”, originally recorded by Bobbie Gentry in 1969 and made famous by Reba in 1990. The song follows a young girl, Fancy, who grows up in the abject poverty of a roach-infested New Orleans shack. Her mother believes the only for her daughter to escape this vicious cycle is through prostitution. As horribly sad as this decision is, Fancy ends up a wealthy property owner while her father abandons the family, her mother dies, and her infant sibling becomes a ward of the state. Fancy’s mom was right, and Fancy ends up forgiving her for the tough choices she had to make.
9. “Independence Day” – Martina McBride (1994)
Martina McBride got in a bit of trouble with this one. Written by Gretchen Peters, it parallels the 4th of July with escape from an abusive marriage – by any means necessary. The uncompromising black and white music video shows the horrors of domestic violence, and when McBride sings “Now I ain’t sayin’ it’s right or it’s wrong, but maybe it’s the only way,” her point is hard to argue against.
8. “Mr. Mom” – Lonestar (2004)
Not all progressive songs have to be a bummer. Lonestar’s hilarious paean to housewives follows a newly out-of-work dad who thinks children rearing will be a piece of cake. He’s sort of right, but only because he burns one in the oven. As the chores and tasks pile up, Mr. Mom realizes his wife’s job is harder than any he’s ever held down. The song both shows us what rockstars moms are, and introduces the idea that men should be allowed to stay at home as well. We’re only guessing, but “Mr. Mom” probably won the boys in Lonestar some major points at home.
7. “She Let Herself Go” – George Strait (2005)
George Strait is the King of Country for many reasons, one being that he’s great at putting himself in others’ shoes. “She Let Herself Go” follows a tough breakup, with the man feeling guilty about how hard the woman will take it. She ends up taking it just fine – she goes on vacations, goes to the spa and in general focuses on herself. Strait subtly subverts the idea that women are done in by break-ups, even when the guy is a cowardly jerk who breaks up with her through a note.
6. “Evangeline” – Little Big Town (2007)
As with many songs on this list, “Evangeline” deals with abuse, but the less-discussed brand that isn’t physical. In 2007 LBT bravely tackled the misconception that abuse is only abuse if it leaves bruises or bodily scars. Abuse can be emotional and mental, and often is, but when imminent threat isn’t there it’s easier to deny. As they put simply, “It ain’t love if it’s mean.”
5. “Gunpowder & Lead” – Miranda Lambert (2008)
In the continuing spirit of “Independence Day,” Miranda Lambert cemented her rep as a gun-totin’ firebrand with her 2007 hit “Gunpowder & Lead”. The song follows a mistreated woman whose abuser is about to get out of jail, and she sees only one way out. This not-so “real man” had it coming, and this song endeared Lambert’s fans to her girl power attitude.
4. “Blown Away” – Carrie Underwood (2012)
Sometimes a shotgun isn’t the best way to get out of an abusive situation, especially when the man doing the abusing is your father. Underwood’s heart-wrenching 2012 single added yet another voice to the canon of country women speaking out against what goes on behind closed doors. The song’s abuse survivor has no other way out – her dad has a drinking problem, and her momma is “an angel in the ground,” implying that her dad may have put her there. That’s when Mother Nature steps in.
3. “Weed Instead Of Roses” – Ashley Monroe (2013)
Country has often skirted around the marijuana issue with euphemisms like “smoke a lil smoke”, but with the legalization movement gathering widespread support in recent years, notable songwriter Ashley Monroe decided to tackle it with humor and grace. Her song imagines a plateaued relationship, and she wants to spice things up – not with the pedestrian wine and roses, but whiskey and weed instead.
2. “Accidental Racist” – Brad Paisley feat. LL Cool J (2013)
Brad Paisley is definitely one of the more progressive voices in country right now. He’s decidedly pro-immigration, and his 2013 collab with LL Cool J – though some hilariously called it “hot garbage” – was an honest attempt at racial discourse. Paisley begins the song by apologizing for wearing a stars-and-bars adorned Skynyrd shirt without realizing how it might come across to a Black man at Starbucks. Most folks in this world aren’t malicious, and when all voices are given a chance, that’s when change truly happens.
1. “Follow Your Arrow” – Kacey Musgraves (2013)
By her fourth record, Kacey Musgraves was ready to bring out the big guns. On its third single “Follow Your Arrow” she tackles the Madonna-whore dichotomy, body image issues, sexuality and pot use, and still manages to make a catchy hit out of it. In years past, country radio may have been afraid to put these ideas into rotation, but, sign of the times, they did anyways and it performed pretty well.