Tim McGraw reminds us that there are many 'Southern Voices.' He sings them all.
It’s a cliché among liberals to look at the rural American South with snobbery and scorn, condemning an entire region to some Deliverance-stereotype. Bill Maher devotes a few minutes during every episode of his weekly talk show “Real Time with Bill Maher” on HBO (currently on break) to ridiculing the South. The arbitrators of established truth, such as the New York Times, dedicate hours to studying what makes the South “the way it is.” A writer for the liberal magazine Mother Jones recently said his notion of Southern culture was “redacted on advice of my frontal lobe.”
Left-leaning outsiders have mistreated the South for decades and I could go on with my protests. But instead, I think we should turn to an unlikely and unassuming critic, a country superstar who is an outspoken Democrat, has seized the opportunity with much more urgency, authority, and danceability than I ever could.
Tim McGraw’s new single “Southern Voice” from his album of the same name should be required listening for country music fans — and for liberals who amuse themselves, and no one else, by pretending that the American South is simply a pit of toothless, rump-scratching, drunken low-lives whose favorite hobbies are burning crosses, incest, and dropping out of school.
It opens with a Stonesy guitar and bluesy harp, but carries on with an irresistible twang and bouncy beat. The infectious hook should stay with any listener long after the song’s conclusion. Although, like much of McGraw’s music it is overly polished, “Southern Voice” has a refreshingly adult and ragged sentimentality that is desperately needed in country music, especially after Taylor Swift won Entertainer of the Year at this year’s Country Music Awards.
The song becomes very interesting once one listens to the words:
Hank Williams sang it
Number 3 drove it
Chuck Berry twanged it
Will Faulkner wrote it
Aretha Franklin souled it
Dolly Parton graced it
Rosa Parks rode it
Scarlett O chased it
Smooth as the hickory wind
That blows from Memphis
Down to Appalachicola
It’s hi ya’ll, did ya eat well
Come on in
I’m Sure glad to know ya
Don’t let this old gold cross
And this Allman Brothers t-shirt throw ya
It’s cicadas making noise
With the southern voice
The celebratory references to Hank Williams, William Faulkner, Rosa Parks, and Gone With the Wind are part of the list that continues in the second verse, featuring Michael Jordan, Jack Daniels, Tom Petty, and Martin Luther King. The chronicle of Southern accomplishment and influence is impressive, but also maddeningly incomplete. Musicians from Elvis to Outkast, writers from Flannery O’Connor to Tennessee Williams, and political figures from Morris Dees and Joseph Levin Jr. (founders of the Southern Poverty Law Center) to Jimmy Carter receive no mention, and despite a shout out to sweet tea, Southern cuisine goes unacknowledged.
The song serves its purpose without these references, and is perhaps stronger without them. The listener is naturally encouraged to consider his or her own nominations for Southern brilliance and excellence, and thereby realize that “Southern Voice” could go on for twenty minutes.
The seductive song clocks in at four minutes and one second, but adds up to a desperately needed and musically exciting documentation of the vastly rich contribution the South has made to American culture. Despite the low-budget horror movie that passes for its political system and its Ponzi scheme management of the economy, the United States of America is still an extremely fun and satisfying place to live. Much of this is due to the country’s eclectic options for musical, literary, artistic, and culinary delight. The brilliant hybrid of American culture was created and is continually crafted by immigrant influence and regional difference. We should all offer thanks, love, and a raising of the glass to the various ethnic and racial groups that populate the country, along with every region that houses them.
Most especially the South.
Tim McGraw is perhaps the perfect Southern voice to carry the banner of regional pride, because he offers a complex contradiction to the identity politics practiced by his neighbors to the north. McGraw is not only a registered Democrat, but also a fiercely unwavering critic of the flaws and failures of American society. His knife-edged words following Hurricane Katrina may seem like common sense years after the storm, but do not complement the conventional view of a country singer originally from Louisiana.
“To me, there’s a lot of politics being played and a lot of people trying to put people in bad positions to further their agendas,” McGraw said in a 2006 syndicated radio interview. “When you have a lot of people dying because they’re poor and because they’re black or poor—if that’s a number on a political scale, then that is the most wrong thing. That erases everything that’s great about our country … to let something like that happen and to continue to let something like that happen and to continue to not do anything about it.”
McGraw continued by telling the devastating story of a young boy he met when visiting a New Orleans shelter: “But the face of that 11-year-old boy, I’ll never forget. The struggle and the weight that he had on his shoulders. Every time his little sister would move, you could see him move toward her and put his arm close to her just to make sure she didn’t get out of reach of him. I asked them when the last time they saw their parents, and the little girl said, ‘Up on the roof.’ That’s a defining moment in their life that will change them forever. And even more so, what will change them forever is knowing that nobody cared.”
McGraw’s politics are certainly uncommon among country musicians. However, the more important story is that McGraw’s passion for progressive politics, which manifests itself in social commentary and campaigning for Democratic politicians on the state and national levels, presents a well-rounded sophistication to the patriotism and celebration of the South in “Southern Voice,” and also the prayerful joy raised in small town anthems such as “Where the Green Grass Grows” and “Beautiful People.” These songs are not jingoistic, naïve, or illusory about America, yet find reason for embattled national pride that finds refuge in love, community service, and the ideal of equality.
McGraw’s music has remained mostly apolitical, but that did not prevent him from running into controversy with his 2002 hit “Red Ragtop.” The mature and tearful tune laments a teenage love relationship that steadily corroded from the male, an adult in the song, point of view. The second verse describes the couple’s decision to abort a child. The mother was 18 years old.
Without moral judgment or approval the song simply tells a story—a story that takes place across America every single day. Yet many country radio stations refused to air the song. McGraw was unapologetic for the lyrics and insisted that the song was about “real issues people have to deal with.” Similar, but much more uplifting, is his “I’ve Got Friends That Do,” which is dedicated to innocent men in prison, the unemployed, parents of fallen soldiers, and many other socially dislocated inhabitants of America’s nightside.
Songs from McGraw, along with those like “Cowboy Town” from Brooks & Dunn and “Chicken Fried” from the Zac Brown Band, showcase an impassioned resistance to the materialism and greed that inflicts America. And they celebrate the sacrifice that comes through family, community, and solidarity.
For most of the history of popular radio, small markets and the nation’s regions were given equal power when determining the Billboard chart rankings. For example, John Mellencamp grew in popularity throughout the Midwest before making it to flagship stations in New York and Los Angeles. Lynyrd Skynyrd started first as a Southern band. Recent changes in the way Billboard compiles its rankings have given priority to stations in the largest markets. And that is killing the kind of heartland rock played by Bruce Springsteen, Mellencamp, Tom Petty and Bob Seger.
These unfortunate shifts in radio and the music industry explain why Bruce Springsteen’s “Devils and Dust,” a subtle anti-war folk song told from the perspective of an active-duty solider in Iraq, and John Mellencamp’s “Our Country,” an anthem calling for unity against bigotry, poverty, and war, received greater airplay on country radio and Country Music Television than they did on rock formats.
They also explain why country music has become one of the most highly listened to, downloaded, and purchased forms of music throughout the Midwest and South. Country addresses the real life issues of love, communal struggle and solidarity, as well as the existential dread and joy that bridge Saturday night and Sunday morning.
Tim McGraw’s songs do this better than most because he carries a commitment to progressive reform and a willingness to wrestle with the darker side of human nature, both personal and political. It is through this multi-colored, cracked lens that McGraw sings his music, looks at the world, and raises his “Southern Voice.”
Tim McGraw, who has expressed interest in running for the Senate in Tennessee when he retires from music, intentionally or not, has released a protest song against the distractive feuds that inhabit our politics, and in doing so shows us all how to celebrate regional pride without stepping on others. He has also reminded many that the American voice would be weak, stale, and monotonous without a Southern drawl.
David Masciotra is the author of Working On a Dream: The Progressive Political Vision of Bruce Springsteen (Continuum Books). For more information see www.davidmasciotra.com