Speak Your Piece: Tim McGraw’s ‘Southern Voice’

[imgbelt img=Mcgrawhat.jpg]Tim McGraw reminds us that there are many ‘Southern Voices.’ He sings them all.


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.[imgcontainer left] [img:dale_earnhardt.jpg] Number 3 — Dale Earnhardt

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.” 

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