Does Morgan Wallen Represent Country Music?
Photo by Yanyong / Getty Images
EDITOR’S NOTE: This essay, which first appeared as a thread on singer-songwriter Karen Pittelman’s Twitter account (@kandthesorrows) last week, addresses the “not who we are” reactions after country radio star Morgan Wallen was seen on video using a racial slur. She has adapted it into an essay here for No Depression.
Does Morgan Wallen represent country music? What does that really mean? What is the relationship between country music and white supremacy?
Country music tells stories. In particular, it tells stories about American rural — especially Southern rural — identity. How these stories get told is a big deal. It’s been a big deal since Reconstruction and it’s just as big a deal right now. These stories help determine how we understand race, wealth, and power.
They are stories about whose lives matter. About how we see the past. And how that past defines — and justifies — the present.
These stories, just like all American stories, are always about white supremacy in one way or another. Though how clearly that is understood depends a lot on both who is telling the story and who is listening. There are many ways these stories can be told, of course. But the country music industry has only ever been interested in one.
By looking at the industry’s official version of these stories about American history and identity, we can see how country music works to help keep white supremacy in place. And we can see all this in Morgan Wallen’s lyrics. His stories are the kinds of stories that the country music industry has always centered.
Ok, but how do these stories do what they do?
In “More than My Hometown” we learn that what matters most — more than even romantic love — is where you’re from. This song celebrates rural roots, and we have all the standards here: church, drinking, fishing, train tracks, a night sky full of stars out in the middle of nowhere.
In “Seven Summers,” we learn to celebrate our hero: “a good old boy” who still drinks with his “same friends on Friday.” He’s not rich, but he “bought a few acres, couple roads off the highway.” He’s tied to tradition and to the land.
In “The Way I Talk” we learn about pride. Pride in being country and sounding like it; pride in family (“The way I talk / It sounds a little bit like my daddy / It don’t cuss around my mama”); pride in knowing that while others may look down on him, “The man upstairs gets it.” We learn that a country accent stands for a whole way of life: “I just live the way I talk.” And a willingness to fight for that way of life: “Fighting words if you run my last name down / I ain’t ashamed, matter of fact I’m damn proud.”
In “Up Down,” we party to a burnt CD of Lynyrd Skynyrd. The fact that it’s outdated technology reminds us we are celebrating working class culture. The fact that it’s Lynyrd Skynyrd reminds us we are celebrating white culture and invokes the legacy of “Sweet Home Alabama.” Both working class pride and Southern pride are tied to whiteness: “If you can’t buy her a yacht, but still proud of what you got / ’Cause when the day’s done, red neck is from the sun.”
In “Sand in My Boots,” we learn that no matter where you go, you’re still that same small-town boy (his Red Wing boots by her flip-flops). You are tied to the land, to that little Tennessee town hidden by dogwood trees under a sky full of stars. And when those big-town girls break your heart, what matters most (as always) are your roots: “Like a heart-broke desperado, headed right back to my roots.”
Again and again, these stories tell us that we are where we come from. That tradition and our ties to the past matter above all. And that we should take pride in and defend this tradition against a world that is determined to tear us down.
But what’s so bad about all that? Nothing, of course. It’s only by looking at what Wallen leaves out that we can see how these stories help keep white supremacy in place.
In Wallen’s nostalgic American South, there is only pride, God, family, fishing, and stars. Both the violent past and the violent present of white supremacy are completely erased. It’s not that race doesn’t exist here — we get plenty of clues that whiteness exists. And there is plenty of struggle, too. But it is only class struggle, and our white heroes with sand in their boots are always the victims, never the oppressors.
Yet while Wallen’s nostalgia erases white supremacy, it has still left a trace. These songs are full of anxiety, fear, and grief about being disrespected and losing traditional ways and freedoms. They are a call to take pride in this precious way of life and even a bit of a veiled threat to any who might think otherwise.
In his essay “Why Does Country Music Sound White? Race and the Voice of Nostalgia,” Geoff Mann talks about country’s nostalgic “used to,” a longing for a past that is not necessarily specifically historical but that “hails” white people who feel they are “victims of an institutional and social disfranchisement” that is not expressed in terms of race, but more as an “‘understandable’ opposition … to disorder and instability.” And yet it’s still clear that white people are the ones who are besieged here and that the privileges of this “used to” that must be restored belong to white people alone.
Politicians have been tapping into white people’s nostalgic longing for order and sense of victimization and disfranchisement to help keep white supremacy in place for a long time. That’s why I said that the way we tell these stories has been a big deal since Reconstruction — this strategy goes way back. In the 1870s they used more explicitly racist language, but these stories hail white people just as effectively today with their more coded, subtle terms.
A 2017 study found that most white working-class people who voted for Trump didn’t do so for financial reasons but because they felt like the American “way of life has deteriorated,” that “things have changed so much that I often feel like a stranger in my own country,” that America needs to be “protected from foreign influence” and “is in danger of losing its culture and identity.”
This is exactly the kind of nostalgia and anxiety that country music’s official stories, stories like Wallen’s, are expert at producing.
Harnessing this white nostalgia and anxiety is also very profitable. People like Ralph Peer understood this from the start, and that’s one reason why they segregated “hillbilly” records from “race” records even though they both came out of the same Southern vernacular music.
If you want to make your money selling white nostalgia, then there are a lot of other stories you must exclude at all costs. Above all, you must exclude any story that tells the truth about the violent past and violent present of white supremacy that Wallen’s lyrics work so hard to erase.
Like I said, country music tells stories. In particular, it tells stories about American rural — especially Southern rural — identity.
Black people, especially Black people from the rural South, have always used country music to tell stories, have always been creators and innovators of this form, have always been country singers, musicians, writers, producers, engineers, promoters, visionaries. And fans.
But the industry did not/does not want to risk its profits in white nostalgia by centering Black stories. Instead, the industry safeguarded those profits by naming country music as white music for white people even though that’s never, ever been true. It continues to safeguard its profits by centering white people like Wallen who know how to tell the right stories. (Not, for example, The Chicks, who told the wrong story.)
It’s not that everyone has to be white — there can be Black country stars too. They can even be celebrated. But they can’t ever be centered. To protect the industry’s profits in white nostalgia, Black country stars must always be an exception to the rule.
In the country music documentary TV series Jill’s Veranda, Linda Martell explains that country music is “really all about remembering, knowing what has been, and what is, and what can be.”
That is what makes country music such a perfect art form for producing this type of dangerous nostalgia that helps keep white supremacy in place.
But if country can be a poison, it can also be a cure. It is a form of music that demands we tell the truth about our lives. That, as Martell says, we remember.
I don’t believe in the country music industry. But I believe in country music. I believe that when the stories the industry has tried to erase all these years are centered, when their truths are sung, when we know what has been and what is, we can begin to know what can be.
Karen Pittelman is a singer-songwriter for her country band Karen & the Sorrows (karenandthesorrows.com), and has also been organizing queer country shows (gayoleopry.com) for the last 10 years. For more, please see “Another Country: On the Relationship Between Country Music and White Supremacy — and What We Can Do About It” and get involved by taking the #ChangeCountry pledge at bit.ly/changecountrypledge.
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