There is no doubt that by any objective assessment, when it comes to the world of creative types, whether it’s in the realm of music or otherwise, their ranks tend to veer more towards liberal ideals when it comes to politics. Chalk it up to the right brain paradigm, or an element of peer pressure within those communities and industries to present a more progressive mindset or be isolated or even ostracized, this tends to be the way the world is ordered.
But that assessment in no way excludes the gift of creativity from people who happen to be more conservative or independent of mindset. You can be for lesser government, self-reliance, be religious or patriotic, or believe self-determination should be the at the root of people’s lives, or just think that politics is a bunch of nonsense that has unnecessarily polarized society while still being a force of creativity in the world, and still write great songs.
This appeared to be called into question recently by the current King of Americana music, Jason Isbell, when he snapped back at a commenter who claimed liking Isbell’s music but said Isbell’s progressive politics “blow ass.” Isbell’s response was, “If it ever gets to be too much for you, there are a lot of great songwriters out there who agree with you politically. Oh wait, no there aren’t.”
Though this line has been interpreted different way by different people, it at the least seems to call into question the prevalence or ability for songwriters who happen to be conservative or Republican to write a “great” song.
But this just isn’t the case, and not even close. Though many of Jason Isbell’s supporters wholeheartedly agreed with his assessment, saying anyone who would consider themselves conservative is incapable of the empathy or insight that it takes to compose a good song—while other cited the worst examples of conservative entertainers such as Kid Rock and Ted Nugent—they are all overlooked an incredible canon of music contributed to American culture by songwriters who happen to be conservative, or that don’t espouse a political affiliation at all, something that Jason Isbell also criticized as well in his recent song, “Be Afraid.”
In many ways, this whole discussion is hurtful to the institution in music by politicizing it unnecessarily, and injuring music’s unique ability to bring people together regardless of political affiliation. Also, unlike many liberals, conservatives are less likely to wear their politics on their sleeves, with obvious exceptions of course. Furthermore, just labeling some artists “conservative” these days is taken as a scarlet letter by some, with angry ideologues saying that anyone who would even consider veering right is explicity for putting kids in cages, for example.
But just for the sake of argument, find below just a few of many examples of songwriters, and some specific songs too, that come from professed conservatives or that espouse conservative values, and a few from staunch independents, all that severely call into question the idea that there “aren’t” any.
And like it goes for any list, of course it is incomplete, and it is not invalidated simply because someone is on it, or someone else is left off, so please understand this while reading. It’s simply an illustration that yes, people who lean right can be quality songwriters too.
And just for the record, the whole reason this is of such concern is that the music of Americana is at a crossroads at the moment. If creators are going to be admonished for not being progressive, and not broaching political subjects in their songs, it is going to limit the talent pool Americana has to draw from, and repel many creative types, while others may feel pressure to get progressive with their music even if they’re not comfortable with it in order to curry favor for awards, for Americana radio play, touring opportunities, media coverage, or other benefits.
If you want an example of a conservative who is also an award-winning and well-respected songwriter, the line might form behind Jamey Johnson. Though his output has virtually ceased over the last few years, he still remains one of the most decorated and revered songwriters of our time. Jamey Johnson won both the CMA and ACM Song of the Year for in 2007 for his original composition “Give It Away.” In 2009, Johnson won the CMA Song of the Year again for “In Color.” Jamey Johnson has also been nominated for 9 Grammy Awards in his career, and has written songs for Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard, George Strait, Joe Nichols, and many others.
Furthermore, many of Jamey Johnson’s songs deal with what would be considered conservative themes, including the reflective “In Color,” and the cautionary tale, “High Cost of Living.”
The retired Marine corporal doesn’t keep a very active social media profile, but has let his politics be known on multiple occasions, and in pretty high-profile ways. In 2017, Johnson canceled a show after he refused to walk through a metal detector at a venue. Also in 2017, Johnson criticized people at a festival for what he characterized as denigrating the American flag.
Sunny Sweeney is not boisterous about her political views, but doesn’t shy away from them either. She made light of her political differences with friend and fellow songwriter Brennen Leigh in the song “But You Like Country Music” released in 2015 about a couple of politically diametrical friends who find common ground from their love of country.
A highly-revered songwriter who was once signed to Big Machine Records and was nominated for the ACM Top New Female Artist in 2013, Sunny Sweeney’s 2017 record Trophy received lots of critical acclaim. Speaking to the quality of her songs, “Bottle By My Bed” from Trophy won Saving Country Music’s 2017 Song of the Year.
After 9/11 is when the worst of the jingoistic mainstream country music came about, and established it in the minds of many as what modern country music was, primarily due to the success of Toby Keith, and the blackballing of The Dixie Chicks. But even though Toby Keith won the decade after 9/11 with albums sold and touring purses, it was Alan Jackson that emerged with a career resurgence with class, and on the back of songs that spoke to something much deeper than threats and revenge.
It wasn’t Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American)” that won the CMA Song of the Year in 2002, it was Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning).” In fact to many pontificators at the time, a vote for Alan Jackson was a vote against Toby Keith. Alan Jackson ended up winning the CMA Entertainer of the Year in 2002 and 2003 as well, partly off the strength of the song. “Where Were You” was also nominated for the Grammy for Best Country Song in 2002.
But Alan Jackson’s songwriting contributions go much deeper than that. It’s easy to pick on some of his songs like “Chattahoochee,” but so many of his 35 #1 singles personify quality country songwriting, and most all of them emanate from the pen of Alan Jackson himself—something he rarely gets credit for when arguing for his legacy. The Country Music Hall of Famer has been one of the most successful and prolific songwriters in country music history.
Chris Knight is one of the most revered songwriters of our generation, up there with Jason Isbell, John Moreland, or whomever else you might want to name off. Songs of his have been recorded by the likes of Randy Travis, Lee Ann Womack, Montgomery Gentry, Wade Bowen, and others. Knight has never publicly professed a political alignment. In fact if there was any it might be more anti-political than positively conservative. But his music veers very political in the way his characters develop, and the situations they find themselves in. The conservative maxims of pulling your own weight, and getting by with what you have and being thankful come up regularly in his music, as does the struggles of life.
As Saving Country Music determined with his 2012 record Little Victories, while declaring it, “A Political Album Done Right” during the height of a previous Presidential election:
This album presents a challenge. Are you going to sit there and take the easy way out by framing your life in the form of a negative thought? Or are you going to be awed by the amazing riches afforded to the modern American no matter how poor they are and be thankful? Are you going to make an excuse, or are you going to make a plan?
And like only Chris Knight can, brunt force diatribes are abandoned in favor of building believable characters out of the ruins of America’s rural landscapes, and telling their stories of heartbreak, bad luck, and redemption to make the points. What a refreshing, poignant, timely, and telling message; a hot dagger in the heart of the wicked polarization that grips our country and divides our purpose; the antidote to the depression of the apolitical person in the height of the political season.
In 2019, Chris Knight arguably did himself one better on his new album, Almost Daylight. As Saving Country Music declared, “An entire catalog of self-help material can’t help motivate and embolden your worn down spirit as much as the message in his song ‘Go On.’ This hole we’ve dug for ourselves with all this left and right stuff is so deep we can’t even see over the edge to the eternal truths of life, but Chris Knight’s ‘The Damn Truth’ brings it all back into perspective for everyone.”
Travis Tritt is a strongly expressed conservative, though similar to John Rich, he’s been caught saying artists shouldn’t get political while doing it himself (and got called out on Twitter by Jason Isbell personally for it). You also may point to Travis Tritt’s mullet years and his “Put Some Drive In Your Country” and “T-R-O-U-B-L-E” era and declare he’s got little to offer in the songwriting realm. But 90’s country fans know differently.
Since the topic at hand is songwriting, nothing either embellishes or exposes a songwriter more than putting them on a stool at center stage and seeing if they can compel an entire audience of people with just a microphone and an acoustic guitar. With an arsenal of quality songs, and in this intimate setting is where Travis Tritt has thrived for years, with many fans on both sides of the political aisle in agreement about this. Singing #1 songs that he wrote such as “Help Me Hold On” and “Can I Trust My Heart,” Travis Tritt can definitely move people as good as any.
Larry Gatlin can’t wait to tell you about his right-leaning politics at nearly every turn or opportunity, yet writing off his contributions as a songwriter in both the country and Gospel realms would be a disgrace to the medium. Throughout the 70’s and into the 80’s, there were few as good. “All the Gold in California,” “Houston (Means I’m One Day Closer to You), “She Used to Be Somebody’s Baby,” “Talkin’ to the Moon,” and so many more from there speak to his prowess as a creative type, who is also revered by many of his peers regardless of their political stripes. If you want an A1 example of a strongly-professed conservative who can still write excellent songs, Larry Galtin might be your mark.
Loretta Lynn’s song “The Pill” is the go-to example in progressive think pieces about how country music is and has always been more liberal than it’s portrayed, mostly because the people writing these articles don’t know anything about country music, and are cheating off each other’s papers for a lack of right answers. But the problem with this assessment is that women’s rights are not just the ownership of the left. In fact that is what Loretta Lynn makes a better example of as opposed to progressivism in country.
In the last Presidential election, it wasn’t Toby Keith, Larry Gatlin, John Rich, Lee Greenwood, or anyone else stumping for Donald Trump the hardest. It was Loretta Lynn. Her concerts during the election season were nothing short of political rallies not just for the Republican ticket, but for Trump specifically, including having voters registration volunteers on site at her shows, and giving long-winded speeches about why people should vote for Trump before and during performances. And of course, all of this is happening while 20-something journalists were writing think pieces about how country fans should vote Democrat due to Loretta Lynn, completely blind to what was happening in the real world.
Lynn told Rolling Stone in 2017, “I think they ought to leave [Trump] alone and let him do his job. That’s what I think. He’s up there and he’s the president. They need to help him, not hinder him. Everybody ought to pitch in and help, do everything they can to help the man.”
Loretta’s love for conservative ideals is nothing new. Though she’s always been a strong voice for women, she’s also been a strong voice for the right, which despite the characterization of some, are not mutually exclusive. And of course, Loretta Lynn is one of the greatest songwriters in history.
Hank Williams Jr.
Similar to Travis Tritt, a shallow gander at the discography of Hank Williams Jr. might leave one determining that all he was good for was boisterous country boy odes that don’t contribute much of anything to the canon of songwriting. But if you don’t think songs like “Country Boy Can Survive” or “Whiskey Bent and Hell Bound” don’t exhibit strong songwriting, you might be biased, politically or otherwise.
Meanwhile, those who’ve studied the back catalog of Bocephus know that each of his records is good for a few very well-written and more deep, heartfelt songs. If you can’t hear the emotion in his song “All In Alabama” about his fall of Ajax Mountain and identify it as good songwriting, then you’re unfit to judge.
If you’re looking for an example of contemporary conservative songwriting that isn’t full of patronizing cliches and pandering to a red meat base, and hits all the top tenets commonly tied to of quality songwriting, a good place to start is Tracy Lawrence’s 2019 record Made in America. Making the case for personal responsibility and self-reliance without coming across as judgemental or accusatory, it was a surprisingly well-written late career record, with Lawrence writing most of the songs himself.
Made in America does everything right that many of the post 9/11 flag-waving and sabre-ratting songs and albums did wrong. Tracy Lawrence is also a good example of someone from the country music community that spends a lopsided amount of his time volunteering his time now that his career requirements have diminished. With his annual turkey fry at Thanksgiving in Nashville going on for 14 straight years benefiting the Nashville Rescue Mission and many other events and contributions over the year, he puts his time and money behind his message of helping others.
Yes, even the poster boy for so much blowhard, jingoistic country music has plenty of excellently-written songs. A registered Democrat when he wrote and recorded “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American),” it went on to define his career in a negative light for many. But similar to Alan Jackson, Toby Keith is a performer who pens the majority of his own material. Chalk it up to a blind squirrel finding a nut every once in a while if you must, but going through the Toby Keith catalog, there are quite a few quality songs when taking an objective ear to them.
Case in point is the one of the most recent songs that Toby Keith has released. Written for the soundtrack of the 2018 Clint Eastwood film The Mule, Toby Keith’s “Don’t Let The Old Man In” illustrates how even the most sullied of songwriters can turn in a gem when they put their effort in that direction. “Don’t Let The Old Man In” is just a good song, regardless of who is singing or wrote it.
John Rich – “Shuttin’ Detroit Down.”
Though John Rich in many instances has symbolized the worst of braggadocios, bordering on jingoistic sentiment in American country music, and was deservedly called a hypocrite here at Saving Country Music for his song “Shut Up About Politics,” that doesn’t limit his ability to write a great song. In fact he’s responsible for arguably one of the best conservative-oriented, yet universally-resonant politically-tinged country songs in the last 20 years. “Shuttin’ Detroit Down” espouses conservative ideals of self-reliance, but also takes the populist view against the government bailing out big banks and the auto industry while rich executives pull golden parachutes.
The song is a great example of not just a conservative writing a great song, but a how a song written from a conservative perspective can be appreciated by everyone. Well-known progressive Kris Kristofferson starred in the video for the song, while The New York Times praised “Shuttin’ Detroit Down,” saying it “…reflects not only Mr. Rich’s songwriting gifts, but also his acumen in gauging and channeling the mood of the country, aggressively striking a note of conservative populism rarely seen in any genre of pop since country music’s response to September 11th.”
Merle Haggard & Charlie Daniels
Both of these Country Music Hall of Famers make tough examples because they both weeble wobbled in their careers when it came to their political alignment, but it’s probably important they’re both mentioned.
Merle Haggard most definitely started his career to the right of the political spectrum with songs like “Fightin’ Side of Me,” and even into 1990 with the song “Me and Crippled Soldiers Give A Damn,” which was about showing respect to the American flag and The United States. Haggard built his entire career off of offering a voice to the Silent Majority in America, and did it so well, he earned respect from many of his more progressive peers. The Grateful Dead covering “Mama Tried” speaks to the kind of influence early Merle Haggard’s songwriting had in music.
But of course later Haggard seemed to lean more left, including revising that “Okie From Muskogee” was written in irony (though at other times backtracking from that). Either way, the political alignment of his early career is undeniable, as is the amazing mark he left on songwriting.
The story of Charlie Daniels is crisscrossed. He started out fiercely progressive, evidenced by his song “Uneasy Rider.” Now, Daniels might symbolize the worst in jingoistic attitudes succumbed to political propaganda on the right. Nonetheless, his talent as a songwriter is revered universally.
More Notable Conservative/Independent Songwriters:
- Billy Joe Shaver is pretty pronounced upon his feelings on politics and religion, and penned an entire record of songs for Waylon Jennings.
- Ronnie Dunn -Part member of Brooks and Dunn who had a hand in writing many of their hits, he also released a song in 2011 called “Bleed Red” that might be the perfect antidote to political rancor.
- Aaron Watson – A family man who wears his faith on his sleeve and isn’t afraid to wax while playing at family-friendly dancehalls and on the rodeo circuit, he also has a big following among the Hispanic population, and paid tribute to them in his album Vaquero.
- The Oak Ridge Boys, Bill Anderson, John Anderson, Maddie Marlow of Maddie & Tae, and many others have let certain political beliefs be known, and are also responsible for an impressive list of songs.