Music

The Music Club 2021

Entry 6: Country music’s complicated year—from the lows of Morgan Wallen and Kid Rock, to the highs of “Fancy Like” and Mickey Guyton.

Two white men singing into mics.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Terry Wyatt/Getty Images for CMA and Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images for iHeartMedia.

In Slate’s annual Music Club, Slate critic Carl Wilson emails about the year in music with fellow critics — featuring New York Times contributor Lindsay Zoladz, freelance writer Briana Younger, NPR music critic Ann Powers, Glitter Up the Dark author Sasha Geffen, Pitchfork contributing editor Jenn Pelly, WXNP Nashville editorial director Jewly Hight, Penguin Books author Julianne Escobedo Shepherd, critic Steacy Easton, Slate pop-culture critic Jack Hamilton, and Chris Molanphy, the host of Slate’s Hit Parade

Howdy y’all:

A TikTok video started circulating across my social media feeds (and even email!) last week. It featured one of those smug white men alone in his room—albeit not to the same level of smugness as Bo Burnham—arguing that the internet was not real. At first, I was annoyed; two years into a pandemic, the internet seems very real to me. My social contact has been limited to either the internet or people who lived a few blocks from me. My coursework is online, my writing is online, and my entertainment is online (though when things eased up a little this summer, I did travel a little).

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

However, the more I thought about it, the more quaint it felt to maintain the digital and analog as separate fiefdoms. There is a dark irony that the mimetic desire to be viral ratcheted up at the same time as a virus was killing hundreds of thousands of people. I am glad that Carl brought up Patricia Lockwood’s novel No One Is Talking About This, said to be a satire of the “very online,” but in that novel, a disaster returns us to the real. Nothing is real this year, and everything is real this year.

I wonder if “very online” is an overused phrase—we are all very online, living in a juxtaposition of a very specific collection of stories of physical places told in a very peculiar code to a very niche audience, mostly outside of that physical place. We are all Tamarian people from that episode of Star Trek where the aliens only speak in recursive quotations . Thinking about the distance and isolation that Sasha talks about in their letter, the moving in and out from the digital, rests on the body, of course.  Though it may occur less in songs, I was moved by Sasha writing, “My desire to reassume old habits of joy and communion and pleasure strained against newer, fearful habits, habits meant to stave off danger.” Concentrating on country as a genre—because it’s what I follow—I find that what is underwritten about is recognizing the push between those who sought to maintain the fear and those who, as Adeem the Artist sings, sought “to build a machine that will convert shame to celebration.” This year, the tension seemed untenable, the constant pushing resulting in nothing more than fracturing and isolation. That machine, like Guthrie’s guitar, is a conceptual one, often prone to failure.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Adeem’s album is called Cast Iron Pansexual, and his nostalgic reclamation of pop country tropes for a new queer understanding of desire is one way that his machine makes that conversion, similar to TJ Osborne’s coming out single “Younger Me.” I do not have enough space to work out exactly the blossoming of queerness, but one seems more online and one seems more populist. But they both refuse the heternormative tightness of much country discourse.

Country is already hermetic enough as it is—less hermetic than it used to be, as the money is more significant than it was in the 1970s, and there has always been overlap in genre. But lately it feels like audiences push themselves into small and self-selecting groups, some more righteous than others, some selling better than others. The land that they live on and the ideas of that land move from the concrete to the abstract, in ways that are slippery at best. To name some examples, think of Kid Rock, an upper-middle class son of a used car dealer tsar, in suburban Detroit—beloved by Trump and owner of one of the biggest “honky tonks” in Nashville. Stealing working class culture for the elite, this million-dollar real estate deal resulted in a concentration of Covid cases, perhaps unsurprisingly. And his bigger political ideologies are certainly not dissimilar from those that fueled the events of January 5. Kid Rock as an idea gave birth to Kid Rock as a place, which conglomerated into Rock as political influence, while he’s been only sort of making music.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Kid Rock’s politics could also be seen in Morgan Wallen, perhaps the biggest breakout country music star over the past year-plus. He built his reputation on drinking too much in places where he could pretend to be populist, but when he was invited to play on SNL late last year, he ended up pissing away that opportunity after showing up wasted and unmasked in a college bar in Tuscaloosa—a place that pretended to be a honky tonk, but was a frat dive at best. (He was invited back two months later, where he offered a mea culpa for his actions.) In February of this year, Wallen got drunk on Lower Broadway and was driven home; around 4 a.m., he was videotaped calling his white friends racial and homophobic slurs. This video would be distributed via the internet, and two things happened: One, Black and queer performers’ opinion that Nashville was not safe for them deepened; and two, white nationalists were emboldened to buy Wallen’s music in droves. All the while, he again issued apologies that merited skepticism and promised to promote the work of Black artists, both with his money and his mouth. Instead, he had a significant career spike as a result of saying nasty words out loud, and though he didn’t end up on the awards circuit, he also did not entirely fulfill his commitments to giving that windfall to Black artists. As Andrea Williams wrote this year in Vulture, Willie used the word to describe Charley Pride (which bothPride himself mentioned in his autobiography and David Cantwell noted in the New Yorker, in 2019); George Jones joked about the KKK; racism has always been present in the genre. However, the viral distribution method of the internet is what has changed.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

If one doesn’t see this truth about country music’s relationship to racism in moments like Wallen’s, there are other places that make it visible. Take Turning Point USA’s America Fest lineup, which includes artists like Jason Alden: Aldean played coy about his politics, pretending to shut up and sing, though everyone in Music City knew the tune, until his wife launched a T- shirt line with slogans riffing on hipster brands like the Anti Social Social Club. The slogans became more polarized as Aldean’s own positions became more clear, including posing in one shirt arguing that  Military Lives Matter, erasing Black lives in the middle of a year of racial reconciliation. (One of the strangest things about the January 6th insurrection, after all,was how professional their merch looked.) The question I kept returning to this year when considering the people that populate country music was exactly how conserative these people were, and if there was a place for a mainstream, pleasurable, inclusive country to exist. Even my faith in Carrie Underwood, whose genius, heartfelt, formalist masterpiece of hymn singing was among one of my favorites this year, was marred by a coded support of anti-maskers and work with Aldean. I may have also been unsettled by what I came to realize while writing a  book about Tammy Wynette (and I appreciate the shout-out, Lindsay), which was that her genius was enmeshed with some pretty retrograde, unapologetic support of people like George Wallace.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

Country is not only the music of the far right, and the parsing of its politics has to be open to a depth and complexity. This year, there were people who were very online and whose materiality led to justice. Jason Isbell actually gave all of his money from Wallen singing one of the songs Isbell wrote to Black Lives Matter-supporting causes, and in his residency at the Ryman, he featured eight days of Black women openers. These were a cluster of incredibly talented women of whom, in a recent Buzzfeed article, Isbell accurately stated, “None of these people should be available to open for me … They should all be too big for that.” These women included Brittney Spencer, Mickey Guyton, Amythyst Kiah, Shemekia Copeland, Allison Russell, Joy Oladokun, and Adia Victoria, all of them coming off successful years in their own rights.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

They also reflect Isbell’s own evolving feelings on country music. Isbell talked to Buzzfeed about how insecure he is about country as a signifier—that he was not sure if it ever should have existed, how he sent back his membership to the Country Music Association, and how he played in a rock band, not a country band. Shemekia Copeland and Amythyst Kiah are blues singers; Mickey Guyton has solid pop chops. Aida Victoria has a successful Americana career. Joy Oladkun moves between gospel and folk.  Allison Russell’s “Montreal,” from her debut solo project, is a torch song flirting with chanson. Isbell, choosing these artists, made a political argument about the centrality of Black aesthetics in American popular music, the racism of Nashville, and who gets to perform at the Ryman (called “Mother Church” among country music traditionalists).

Advertisement
Advertisement

However, he also made an aesthetic argument, for a plurality of sounds and pleasures. Briana’s discussion of what exactly R&B is, and about genre writ large, made me think about the online conversations where digital listening both evades the commercial categories of previously understood genres, and silos it from more complex lessons. Isbell, using his (often insightful) social media platform and economic capital to make these arguments, still has the energy of a Fiat. He works among the stop-and-start flow of new sounds, new methods of making and distributing music, and older traditions.

This year, there was a mass of Black women making first-rate country music—and though they were attempting to find commercial success alongside critical acclaim, neither country musicians nor their loyal listeners were picking their music up. See Mickey Guyton, who recorded some of the best music of her career in 2021, was nominated for major awards, showed up at the CMAs, and was on all of the radio shows. Her singles were sometimes explicitly political, sometimes just loose examples of small joy, but none of them charted.

Advertisement
Advertisement

It means something that dangerous, inarguably shitty white men are harnessing the power of the internet to craft a world which is actively and physically dangerous. There are other ways, where there was less damage, and something more significant. Walker Hayes’ “Fancy Like,” one of the biggest country singles of the year, would not exist without TikTok, for instance: I like Hayes, I like the song, and I like how he is capable of being both earnest and jaded. He’s self-aware enough to poke fun at himself, which is key to the song’s mainstream virality. But I also think one of the most underrated qualities of country music is the self-conscious stupidity it revels in sometimes—the “so-fucking-stupid-it’s-clever” nature of it. “Fancy Like” succeeds in this way, too; maybe it’s because I grew up in the suburbs and still consider fast casual restaurants a treat, or maybe it’s because I like the double-entendre of the Frosty and the fries. But I love that Hayes is looking like he is having a good time, even if what he’s saying doesn’t always constitute what we tend to consider to be good songwriting.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

However, country music often is very serious, working out narratives of sadness or tragedy with an unusual tenderness. There is the ability for queer and Black artists, who are deeply connected to a very specific place, to tell the stories of those places they are connected to and universalize them through digital distribution—I’m thinking of Willi Carlisle singing about Arkansas and performing tiny little house shows throughout the West and the South; or Adeem, whose Appalachian tales interacted with a global monoculture and who fundraised for his new album via Twitter. There was even room for people like the non-binary radical folk singer Alex Sturbaum, who is writing Guthrie-style organizing songs inside Facebook groups like Traditional Music Today.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Lastly, I wanted to note Logan Mize, whose album Welcome to Prairieville is very much not online. He writes songs about the death of his hometown and not being sure why anyone would stay there, while telling stories about staying anyways. It becomes its own kind of resistance.

— Steacy

10 favorite albums this year:

Ashley Monroe — Rosegold

Little Simz — Sometimes I Might Be an Introvert

Carrie Underwood — My Savior

Lula Wiles — Shame and Sedition

Lainey WIlson — Say What I’m Thinking

Logan Mize — Welcome to Prairieville

Shane Pendergast — Second Wind

Tinashe — 333

Mickey Guyton — Remember Her Name

Another Timbre — John Cage Number Pieces

10 favorite songs this year: 

Carly Pearce — “29”

Wet Leg — “Chaise Longue”

Brothers Osborne — “Younger Me”

Lil Nas X — “Montero (Call Me By Your Name)”

Brittney Spencer — “Sorries Don’t Work No More”

Jake Xerxes Fussell — “Love Farewell”

Syd — “Fast Car”

Miranda Lambert — “They’ve Closed Down the Honky Tonks”

Iamdoeechi — “Yucky Blucky Fruitcake”

Olivia Rodrigo — “Brutal”

Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.

Advertisement