The crimes of American country music are great and many: for every Hank Williams there is a Conway Twitty, for every Gram Parsons a Garth Brooks. Johnny Cash may well have been arrested for stopping to smell the flowers, but his crimes pale into insignificance compared to the current crop of country stars whose rejuvenated musical careers owe as much to September 11 and the current war in Iraq as they do to any - questionable - musical ability.
Country's latest heartthrob Darryl Worley received an American flag from Lieutenant General Richard Cody during a recent (31/03/03) concert in Montgomery, Alabama. The flag, one of many flown at the Pentagon on the first anniversary of 9/11, was presented to Worley in recognition of his vocal support for the patriotism of American soldiers and their families. That's a mighty fine accolade you might think, even for a self-confessed good ole boy from Hardin County, Tennessee. So, what, you ask, do you have to do to receive such a fine honour?
Well, plumbing the depths of post-9/11 taste and decency by writing a song which calls for a war on Iraq to avenge the bloodshed wrought by Osama Bin Laden certainly helps. 'Have You Forgotten'' (almost certainly not a rhetorical question) is that song; an emotive call to arms in which Hardin County's currently most famous son asks:
'I hear people saying we don't need this war
I say there's some things worth fighting for
What about our freedom and this piece of ground'
We didn't get to keep 'em by backing down.'
Worley then proceeds to magically conflate the current War in Iraq with the events of 9/11 in a chorus whose blustering rhetoric and fuzzy logic have proven popular with any number of undiscerning country music fans and right-thinking Americans:
'Have you forgotten how it felt that day
To see your homeland under fire
And her people blown away'
Have you forgotten when those towers fell'
We had neighbors still inside
Going through a living hell
And you say we shouldn't worry 'bout Bin Laden
Have you forgotten''
'Have You Forgotten'' is currently riding high at number one for the second consecutive week in Billboard's Hot Country Singles and Tracks chart. Never, it seems, has the phrase 'number one with a bullet' been more apposite. Worley bristles at charges that the nakedly emotive nature of the song has helped forward Bush's war agenda; arguing two weeks prior to the American led invasion of Iraq:
'I am not a politician. I never have been. It's amazing to me how a lot of people become successful at their particular job in entertainment; whether it be an actor or a dancer or a singer or whatever. And all of a sudden they become this force to be reckoned with on a political level. There is nothing in this world that I want less than that.'
Fine words from a man who, at a March 26 concert and rally for families of serving American soldiers (part of the 'Spirit of America' tour currently entertaining military personnel and their families) held at Tampa's MacDill Airbase, took George W. Bush's hand and said, '"Mr President, I want you to know that I pray for you every day." Bush, himself also not averse to making banal statements on a grand scale, responded in kind: "That is the greatest gift you could ever give a President."
General Michael DeLong, Deputy Commander of the U.S. Central Command, told the cheering 4,000 strong crowd, 'If Darryl Worley, Toby Keith and the Star-Spangled Banner can't get your blood boiling, you're at the wrong place. ' He very probably meant 'pumping', but 'boiling' will certainly do. Bush, for his part, missed the show proper, citing special presidential dispensation in his defence: 'One of the problems with being the President is you always end up being the last guy here' he told the crowd, before solemnly thanking Keith and Worley for 'providing their talents in support of our efforts to make the world a more peaceful place.' Amen.
Worley will doubtless be crushed to hear that - daily bouts of Bush inspired genuflection notwithstanding - the Commander in Chief is in fact a closet Toby Keith fan. Who's Toby Keith you ask? What, you mean to say you don't know who the Big Dog is? Why, he's the Angry American, that's who. Keith scored a massive hit last year with 'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)', a song which asserts
'Justice will be served
And the battle will rage
This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage
And you'll be sorry that you messed with the US of A
'Cause we'll put a boot in your ass
It's the American Way.'
Little wonder then that Dubya is a card carrying member of the Toby Keith Appreciation Society. Keith's brand of angry Americanism has already wowed them at the Pentagon and on a USO tour of Bosnia and Kosovo. Keith, who penned the song as a tribute to his army serving father who died in 2001, says "it was a song I was inspired to write because I lost my father six months before 9/11. Nobody wrote an angry American song, and this was one. It was the way everybody felt when they saw those two buildings fall."
Keith is witheringly disparaging of those sorry individuals who have only let Ol' Glory back into their hearts post 9/11: 'He taught me to be a flag-waving patriot long before it was cool to wave a flag like it is now.' A close friend of metaphor, Keith's live performances include a video backdrop showing a bulldog - 'Toby' natch - urinating on a newspaper picture of Osama Bin Laden. Recent live performances have seen the 'Big Dog' look at the lot of the average 'two bedroom cave' dwelling Afghan 'middle-aged Middle Eastern camel herding man' overjoyed at the downfall of the Taliban in - wait for it! - the imaginatively titled 'The Taliban Song' (the self proclaimed national spokesman for the American Redneck Society's talent for metaphor is somewhat mercurial). Speaking prior to the onset of hostilities in Iraq, Keith sought to distance himself from the song's gung-ho sentiment in a clumsily formulated attempt at clearing the decks:
"Probably the biggest thing that people don't realize about my situation on that is I'm as anti-war as the next guy - I really am. I'm not for ever having to go to war. If you have to go fight... If our President and our people that we've got elected... I have faith that they'll make the right decisions and if we do, then I think you've got to go in gung ho and protect as many of us as you can."
Bush must surely have been listening. 'I'm angry about a singer in a band called the Dixie Chicks' the Big Dog told an appreciative Alabama audience in March. "She felt a need to tell the LA Times that my song was ignorant and you were ignorant if you listened to it" he said, referring to criticism levelled at him by the Chicks' Natalie Maines. "She was also recently on a European tour where there was an anti-war flavour and said some things about President Bush and the war. So, what do I think about her?" he asked. Cue 'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue' played against a visually doctored backdrop of Maines and Saddam Hussein together. I guess you had to be there.
But spare a thought for those poor godforsaken Dixie Chicks. The popular country trio saw their latest single 'Travelin' Soldier' tumble down the country charts thanks to very public anti-Dubya comments made by Maines at a recent London concert. Maines, doubtless appalled by the resulting lack of radio airplay and the damaging commercial implications of her comments, later made not one, but two very public climb-downs:
"As a concerned American citizen, I apologize to President Bush because my remark was disrespectful. I feel that whoever holds that office should be treated with the utmost respect. We are currently in Europe and witnessing a huge anti-American sentiment as a result of the perceived rush to war. While war may remain a viable option, as a mother, I just want to see every possible alternative exhausted before children and American soldiers' lives are lost. I love my country. I am a proud American."
A group of outraged Dixie Chicks fans have started a freedom of speech petition in support of Maines following the South Carolina Legislature's adoption of a resolution calling for a public apology from Maines and a free concert for military families when the popular country trio resume US touring duties resume in May. A case of a tour of duty, as opposed to touring duties, one assumes. Irate talk radio host Mike Gallagher has proposed an alternative concert to the Dixie Chicks South Carolina date, with all proceeds from the concert donated to South Carolina military families. Fit to burst, he said, 'Obviously, this is designed to send a message that it's not okay to run down our President during this time of war. They insulted their core audience. Country music fans are red-blooded, patriotic Americans who support our military and support our commander in chief. '
Country Music Queen Rosanne Cash has claimed that the treatment of Maines is something very much like the rise of McCarthyism all over again. "It's the people who scream loudest about America and freedom who seem to be the most intolerant for people with a different point of view" she told Australia's Undercover Music. The current issue of the American satirical magazine The Onion hits the nail dead on the head in a mock opinion piece by Ellen Dunst entitled, "I Should Not Be Allowed To Say The Following Things About America":
"True patriots know that a price of freedom is periodic submission to the will of our leaders, especially when the liberties granted us by the Constitution are at stake. What good is our right to free speech if our soldiers are too demoralized to defend that right, thanks to disparaging remarks made about their commander-in-chief by the Dixie Chicks''
Unfortunately, truth really very often is stranger than fiction. The Dixie Chicks make it on to an online traitor list alongside other such showbiz luminaries as Madonna, Mos Def and Sheryl Crow to name but a few of the 'flaky' celebs who fall foul of the website's guiding principle that 'if you do not support our president's decisions you are a TRAITOR to our country!'. A patriot list is also provided in the interests of balance, which very handily comes replete with a useful dictionary definition of the 'p' word for those not quite so certain as to the increasingly tainted word's meaning ('one who loves his country, and zealously supports its authority' in case you were wondering). José Maria Asnar, 54, Madrid, Spain has signed up but Darryl and Toby are noticeable by their absence.
More bad news came the hapless Chicks' way with the dread news that Al Gore had taken up the freedom of speech cudgels on their behalf. Speaking recently to an audience of college students, Gore said, "They were made to feel un-American and risked economic retaliation because of what was said. Our democracy has taken a hit. Our best protection is free and open debate." Cometh the hour, cometh the man, so to speak.
Yet where Maine's timid anti-Bush outburst resulted in a very public slap-down from the media and country radio programmers alike, Worley and Toby Keith have been garlanded with praise and country music award nominations galore as a result of their twangin' post-9/11 triumphalism. Not only did Keith record the fastest selling record of his career to date, but he also scooped eight Academy of Country Music Award nominations.
Worley for his part bagged a best New Male Vocalist nomination. According to Worley's record label Dreamworks, the song is "scaling the charts faster than any single in recent memory. Obviously, Darryl has hit a nerve that strikes to the core of this country's conscious" (sic). The song has certainly hit a very obvious emotive nerve; whether it strikes to the core of the American conscious is another thing entirely. One can only wonder what the good folks of Basra and Baghdad would think of Worley and Keith's chest beating invocations to war.
The 'Spirit of America' has well and truly been reawakened; unfortunately it is the mean spirited paranoid America of McCarthy's House on Un-American Activities - simply substitute Hanns Eisler and Pete Seeger with Natalie Maines or even Pearl Jam's Eddie Vedder (who has recently taken to impaling a mask of President Bush on a microphone stand at recent concerts). In that context, red blooded patriots Keith and Worley may well be the Elia Kazan Lites of their generation. Winning three awards at Country Music Television's 2003 Flameworthy Video Music Awards, Keith graciously dedicated his video of the year award to Donald Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks and "all the people over there [Iraq] putting it down for us tonight."
Richard Perle, one of the chief architects of the Bush administration and former president of the defence policy board, has famously said:
"If we let our vision of the world go forth, and we embrace it entirely, and we don't try to piece together clever diplomacy but just wage total war, our children will sing great songs about us years from now."
Thankfully, they'll know who to call. As is so often the case in these things, the last word must go to Toby 'Big Dog' Keith:
"Soon as we could see clearly through our big black eye
Man, we lit up your world like the fourth of July."
Repeat to fade, as they say.