Let’s first unequivocally establish that the time of the Confederate flag has come and gone. And despite the consternation some might feel at this conclusion, the assessment is nonetheless final. You may want to rattle on about how it symbolizes heritage and not hate, and for sure the symbol shouldn’t be completely scrubbed from all recollection lest we lose touch with the critical lessons the American Civil War continues to confer to us today, which perhaps are more crucial to heed than ever in this contentious moment in history. But the stars and bars are just seen as offensive to too many people to be rehabilitated or reconciled at this time.
But we also can’t judge individuals and moments in the past with the perspective, sensibilities, and customs of today. The State of Mississippi didn’t officially remove the emblem from their state flag until a couple of weeks ago—January 11th, 2021. That means that in 2021, schools, state buildings, banks, churches, post offices, court houses, city halls, and other establishments were flying this symbol, not to mention other entrenched institutions throughout the South where the decommissioning of the Confederate flag even in official capacities has been a slow, but steady process.
That observation is not to excuse anything. But it must be understood that individuals who were born and raised in environments where the Confederate flag was prominent and accepted have a different perspective than those that were born and raised in environments where it was immediately seen as racist.
On Monday, February 1st, Luke Combs released a new bluegrass song with fast-rising bluegrass flatpicker Billy Strings called “The Great Divide,” which attempts to address the increasing dissonance in American society that only seems to grow louder by the day. Part of a greater bluegrass project Luke Combs has in the works, Combs wanted to release the song now as an answer to the acrimonious mood of the current moment.
“I thought now was a good time to put this song out with everything that has been and is going on in the world,” Combs said in part. “It isn’t meant to be political or try and tell you what to think or believe; that’s not my job. It’s just me saying how I felt when I wrote it and I wanted y’all to hear it.”
Performer Margo Price took exception to the Luke Combs comment, quote tweeting his statement and saying, “when people say ‘they don’t want to be political’… smdh” and posting two images of Luke Combs with a Confederate flag sticker on his guitar, another with a Confederate flag looming in the background, and a fourth with Combs making a “3” symbol with his hand, taken from a performance on Saturday Night Live in February 2020.
As these things tend to do, the Tweet went viral, with many commenters chiming in criticizing not just Luke Combs, but Billy Strings for agreeing to the collaboration. But of course, these images are missing critically important context.
First, as far as the supposed “white power” symbol of Luke Combs making a “3” with his fingers, this is very easily debunked. If you watch the live performance of Luke Combs performing his song “Lovin’ On You” from SNL, it’s clear he’s making the symbol when he speaks the lyric, “Three chords and the truth…” Portraying the gesture as anything else—especially as a white power symbol—is irresponsible. Furthermore, multiple controversies stemming from similar opportunistic screenshots have been roundly debunked, with the actual instances of individuals making the gesture as a true effort to convey white power being few and far between.
As for the sticker on Luke’s guitar, it’s from a guitar Combs has not played in some five years, as is the screenshot of him with a Confederate flag looming in the distance. It’s also probably fair to point out that the Confederate symbol on his guitar is from a business bumper sticker, not an autonomous Confederate flag emblem, and the screenshot is from a video that he was a guest on, not the featured artist.
It’s also not fair to downplay Luke’s past embrace of the Confederate symbol. To be frank, these images presented by Margo Price only tell half of it. In 2015, Luke Combs collaborated with country rap artist Upchurch on the song and video for “Can I Get A Outlaw.” The video for the song is an outright Confederate flag parade, with Confederate flags purposely strewn throughout the video, and where the one screenshot from the Margo Price tweet comes from.
However, it is very important to contextualize that Luke Combs has completely scrubbed Confederate flags from his image, and for many years now—a critically important point not relayed by Margo Price’s tweet. If nothing else, this should exonerate Billy Strings from having to answer for anything. It’s extremely unlikely Billy Strings had any knowledge of these photos before choosing to collaborate with Combs.
But the biggest question here is if Luke Combs is some sort of racist, as is implied by the Margo Price tweet. Aside from some photos taken from his past, there’s just no evidence of such. In fact, the evidence is to the contrary.
First, Luke Combs has clearly distanced from these Confederate symbols, and specifically from the Upchurch collaboration. In 2016, representatives for Luke Combs reached out to Upchurch and asked for Luke’s name to be removed from the “Can I Get An Outlaw” track and video, and specifically cited the reason for the request as being Luke Combs no longer wanting to be associated with the imagery present in the collaboration. Ultimately, that request was granted. For his part, Upchurch has distanced from Luke Combs, regularly calling Combs out on social media for being a sellout and not sticking to his country roots.
Meanwhile, the collaborations and friendships Luke Combs has forged over the last five years paint a completely different picture from the one Margo Price wants to portray with her tweet of old photos. In 2018, Luke Combs participated in a cross collaboration with throwback R&B/Americana artist Leon Bridges, where Bridges sang on a version of Luke’s “Beautiful Crazy,” and Luke sang on a version of Leon’s song “Beyond.” On the expanded version of Luke’s current album What You See Is What You Get, he collaborates with Amanda Shires on the song “Without You.”
Are we supposed to now judge black artist Leon Bridges for working with Luke, similar to how many are lashing out at Billy Strings? Or how about Amanda Shires, who might be one of the most politically outspoken artists in Americana?
The context is completely missing from Margo Price’s tweet, as we see with so many viral moments. In fact, it’s the lack of context and truth that sends them viral. The true story of Luke Combs and the Confederate flag should be one of renouncement and reconciliation. Was the scrubbing of the stars and bars from his past partly the effort of major label image consultants not wanting to impinge on Luke’s commercial applicability moving forward? It very likely was. But portraying these images as a present-day representation of Luke Combs is patently false.
Furthermore, renouncing everyone who may have an image of the Confederate flag associated with them in their past is a very dangerous exercise. Emmylou Harris and Gram Parsons performed in front of a Confederate flag. Johnny Cash and other country artists performed in front of Confederate flags as part of a common set adornment on The Muppets. Tom Petty had an entire stage setup and album release incorporating the Confederate flag. Confederate flags adorn the cover of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s iconic album Will The Circle Be Unbroken, counterbalanced by American ones. All of this symbology may make modern perspectives uncomfortable, but few would argue Emmylou Harris, Tom Petty, and Johnny Cash are racists.
But Luke’s use of the Confederate flag is not really what Margo Price is raging against here. She’s simply weaponizing these images to cut his legs off, undermine his position, and create a viral moment. Her true concern is that Luke Combs said about his new song with Billy Strings, “It isn’t meant to be political or try and tell you what to think or believe; that’s not my job.”
The prevailing ideology among a strident group of artists and journalists on Twitter believes its an imperative that artists speak out politically. In fact to many, that’s the entire point of covering or discussing country and roots music. It’s an attempt to assuage the public towards their political ideologies through the conduit of country music media coverage. An artist saying “That’s not my job,” and especially in the context of a song meant to bridge differences instead of define and exacerbate them is damaging to the cause of dividing and conquering the country music pubic, and polarizing fans to generate clicks, and interest in the music and media brands of individuals.
Presenting old images in an attempt to either discredit or deplatform Luke Combs or his opinions is underhanded due to Luke’s recent behavior. It has also created collateral damage in the form of a backlash towards Billy Strings that is completely undeserved.
Perhaps Luke Combs should be pressed to answer for his previous uses of the Confederate flag. Saving Country Music reached out to Luke’s representatives for a statement, and has yet to hear back. But public shaming is not the way to reconcile these issues, or to build consensus behind the idea of removing offensive symbols from the music sphere, especially when the ire of this viral moment is someone who had already removed them from his public image himself over half a decade ago.