Nicholas Niles: John Prine understood the relationship between protest songs and true country music
While 9/11-era country music affirmed American chauvinism, Prine attacked it directly.
I went on a sightseeing trip to Big Bend National Park with my grandfather not too long ago. A native Texan, he told me he knew the place like the back of his hand. As we drove from vista to vista, we exhausted our words pretty quickly, turning to music to keep us company. He plugged in his phone and threw on some country music. The artist he selected was a man named John Prine.
I may have been from Dallas, but I somewhat prided myself on being unable to resonate with country music. To me, the genre represented the voice of someone I knew all too well: the Dallas elite. I found country music to be soaked in faux-cowboy adages, nostalgic for some imaginary moment in American history where God-fearing frontiersmen called the shots and everyone listened.
But Prine was different. His nasal voice harked back to a perhaps extinct period of American country music when artists spoke for the everyman instead of pandering to a nonexistent past. While I usually see modern country artists pushing cliches, Prine simply told the grassroots truth. That authenticity became the bedrock of his songwriting and accentuated his authority as a force in protest music.
Prine would probably cringe at the notion of being called a protest musician. He did not possess the moral certainty of a Pete Seeger, nor the self-assuredness of a Bob Dylan — the two musicians I see most commonly praised for their roles in the protest music of the Vietnam era.
And it was impossible to attribute political motive to a man like Prine, who seemed so utterly committed to simply describing his own reality as it was. He didn’t position himself as an activist; he was just a man singing songs and calling balls and strikes as he saw them.
Prine himself was drafted into the war in the 1960s, which affords his listeners the benefit of the doubt to trust him. It’s not as if Prine doesn’t love his country — quite the contrary, actually. On his 1972 track “The Great Compromise,” he laments the pernicious feeling that he loves America dearly yet she seems never to love him back.
In “Sam Stone” (1971), Prine describes the harsh reality of addiction and re-acclimation that veterans face returning from war. He envisions a world where those who fight for their country are not punished once back in their country’s arms. The song serves as a referendum on the United States’ hypocrisy: Our nation is infatuated with war, yet unwilling to truly honor its warriors. Supporting veterans, to Prine, had become a burlesque American liturgy. It’s this sort of writing that made me fall in love with Prine, and it’s why I think his country music stands as vastly underappreciated in the anthology of American protest music.
It is no great leap to say that much of the modern landscape of country music pledges allegiance to the flag more often than critiques it. Take, for example, songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” by Toby Keith. Released in 2002, the song serves as a battle cry for post 9/11 American intervention in the Middle East, including the not-so-subtle line about lighting up the region “like the Fourth of July.”
That same year, country music singer Hank Williams Jr. echoed a similar sentiment with songs like “America Will Survive,” which declares:
I read, “A tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye”
And that’s an old slogan we’re going to revive
The “God and country” music of post-9/11 country music envisions a concept of American exceptionalism that Prine must have found quite baffling. While these artists certainly position themselves as a sort of protest musician, they derive their purpose from militarism itself.
It should come as no wonder, then, that Keith’s songs became anthems for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Keith was booked as the headliner for Trump’s “Make America Great Again” pre-inauguration concert, where he performed pro-America hits “American Soldier,” “Made in America” and, of course, “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue.” This past January, Trump awarded Keith the National Medal of the Arts.
This leads us back to Prine. Almost 30 years before the release of Keith and Williams Jr.’s pro-America hits, Prine was warning the nation of growing nationalism within her borders. He takes on American exceptionalism in his 1971 classic “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” which imagines a man who accumulates so many American flag decals on his windshield that he can no longer see the road when driving. At the end of the song, he crashes his car and dies, only to be denied access into heaven because it’s filled with victims of the war.
Prine’s critique is obvious: When blinded by “America First” ideology, the flag clouds Americans’ ability to see and interpret the world clearly. While 9/11-era country music affirmed American chauvinism, Prine attacked it directly.
I see Prine everywhere now — the news has become a sober reminder of his warnings. It’s hard not to see his face on the front of the newspaper as I read about the pain caused by American warmongering.
It’s easy to assign substantial blame to country music for the axiomatic cultural shift toward nationalism since the turn of the millennium, and one would not be entirely wrong to do so. But never for a second should we forget those verses sung by the late prophet himself as he tried so desperately to grab our attention. We cannot pin the sins of the nation on a genre that, for all its faults, gave us the understated, cigarette-toting renegade that was John Prine.
Nicholas Niles is a master’s in divinity candidate at Princeton University studying the relationship between religion and politics.
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