This week is a history making one in the genre of Country music! Jason Aldean has scored his first career Billboard number one with his new song ‘Try That in a Small Town’. Aldean insists the song is a paean to neighbourly values but critics have described as a call to racist vigilantism after its music video became a culture war battleground. Now the song has ascended to the peak, becoming the first No. 1 single on Billboard’s all-genre singles chart in Aldean’s nearly two-decade career as a top Nashville hitmaker.
Just two weeks ago, before the controversy began, the song was posting minimal numbers. But in its most recent week out, it garnered 31 million streams, sold 175,000 copies and reached a radio audience of nine million people in the United States, according to the tracking service Luminate. As the song has stirred debate, tweaks have been made to its music video, which early on was pulled without explanation by Country Music Television (CMT) but remains available on YouTube. Country music is no stranger to controversy in its songs – the very nature of the genre – three chords and the truth – leads to artists and songwriters bearing their souls and standing up for the things they believe in.
The perception of controversy can vary among individuals and can change over time due to shifting societal norms and sensitivities. Here is a list of ten country songs that have been considered controversial at some point in the history of Country music.
‘Okie from Muskogee’ by Merle Haggard (1969)
The song sparked debates due to its portrayal of conservative values and criticism of the counterculture movement. Haggard said of the track in 2012, speaking to The Music Hall magazine. “My father was an Okie from Muskogee when ‘Okie’ was considered a four-letter word. I think it became an anthem for people who were not being noticed or recognised in any way – the silent majority.
‘The Pill’ by Loretta Lynn (1975)
This song was controversial for its frank and unapologetic depiction of birth control, challenging traditional gender roles. As conservative social norms have ossified around the country music establishment, ‘The Pill’ is still forsaken nearly fifty years since it was released. According to Luminate (formerly Nielsen Music), the song was played just once by a country radio station in the U.S. in 2022, even though it’s a classic of the genre.
‘God Bless the U.S.A.’ by Lee Greenwood (1984)
While this song became a patriotic anthem, some critics argued that it oversimplified complex political issues and propagated a narrow view of patriotism. The song has been heard at countless patriotic events in America and has been embraced by many Republican leaders, including former President Donald Trump. Greenwood sang it at Trump’s inauguration and also, oddly, created a Canadian version too!
‘The Thunder Rolls’ by Garth Brooks (1991)
The song’s music video faced controversy for depicting domestic violence, leading to some country music networks banning it. It’s crazy to think in 2023 that this song offended or upset anyone but Garth still choose to leave out (our was forced to leave out!) the final third verse in which the long suffering wife shoots her adulterous husband. Thank goodness he sings it live!
‘Goodbye Earl” by Dixie Chicks (1999)
This song tackled the theme of domestic abuse, which sparked backlash from some fans and country music radio stations. It was foreshadowing The Chicks’ eventual cancelling amid the ‘Shut up and Sing’ furore which changed the trajectory of their careers.
‘Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley ft. LL Cool J (2013)
This collaboration attempted to address racial issues but was criticised for its oversimplification and for not fully understanding the complexities of racism. Paisley is a well-known liberal and his recent involvement in the Ukraine way and his support for the oppressed nation has also caused controversy amongst certain sections of the south and certain ‘America-first’ supporters.
‘Girl Crush’ by Little Big Town (2014)
Despite being a critically acclaimed song, it faced backlash from some listeners who misinterpreted the lyrics as promoting same-sex relationships. When ‘Girl Crush’ aired on radio stations, some disc jockeys did not anticipate that they would get manic phone calls and e-mails condemning the “promoting of the gay agenda”. The controversy arose from the song’s lyrics about sex and casual marijuana use, the latter of which does now seem odd in 2023 when every third song in Country music references weed somewhere!
‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X ft. Billy Ray Cyrus (2019)
Initially, this song sparked controversy for challenging genre boundaries and not being perceived as “traditional” country music. It is one of a countless number of songs that have been criticised over the years for not being ‘Country’ enough and we could have picked any of those but ‘Old Town Road’ is perhaps the most recent.
‘Rednecker’ by Hardy (2019)
The song’s title and lyrics stirred discussions about the use of the term “redneck” and the portrayal of rural life. We wrote an article last year on the whole issue of whether the term ‘redneck’ is a racial slur these days and you can read that if you missed it right here.
‘The Highwomen’ by The Highwomen (2019)
This song faced criticism from some listeners for its feminist themes and challenging conventional gender roles in country music. Again, for some readers this song, along side many of the others on this list, will not be controversial in the slightest but for others, some of the songs here challenge perceptions of gender, race and social norms including religion that go against the ideals that they believe in. That’s life in 2023 folks!
Keep in mind that the perception of controversy can change over time, and other songs may have sparked debates or faced censorship in different contexts. Additionally, individual opinions on what constitutes controversial content may vary widely. If there’s one thing we can all agree on, though, it’s that controversy drives sales and hence we see why Jason Aldean has achieved his first career Billboard number one and partly why Morgan Wallen became so popular after his controversial ‘n-word’ doorbell camera scandal a few years ago. It’s good for the bank account!