This story has been updated (see below).
We are slowly creeping towards a moment in time where the runaway culture of calling out anything and everything that someone somewhere may find offensive will result in the outright censoring of a country music artist, and a canceling of their career for a completely harmless or innocuous reference or remark in their music, or some other indiscretion in their past that is blown completely out of proportion. The reason for this fear is very simple. We saw it happen in recent history with the Dixie Chicks.
The canceling of Confederate Railroad from performing at the Illinois State Fair in Du Quoin simply due to their name this past July—and not because of some public outcry, but due to a passing quip by a single political reporter that got put on the desk of the right people—is possibly a harbinger of things to come. But delving into the details of the current situation involving Riley Green, it seems more a circumstance of self-censorship and prudence as opposed to public outcry or some renegade journalist putting their foot down, resulting in external pressure to remove the song. Nonetheless, it is troubling.
Last week, Riley Green’s song “Bury Me in Dixie” disappeared from streaming services and other music outlets unannounced. Originally released in 2015, and given credit for creating the initial attention behind the Jacksonville, Alabama native, it is a pretty typical country music list song, enumerating things Riley Green appreciates about the South. But it was the line, “I wish Robert E. Lee could come and take a bow” that apparently was deemed too troubling to continue to serve it to the public.
Exactly who was troubled by the song aside from maybe a smattering of social media chatter seems inconclusive. Rolling Stone Country, which is often especially sensitive on these politically-tinged subjects, recently profiled Riley Green and even began the discussion with “Bury Me in Dixie,” without showing any trouble for either the title of the song, or the Robert E. Lee reference. Unnamed sources are confirming that it has to do with the Robert E. Lee reference and the “controversy” swirling around it, however tepid and compartmentalized to a few on social media that controversy might be.
Very similar to the situation involving Confederate Railroad, the backlash from the removal of the song has received significantly more attention than any outrage that preceded it, and if anything, has driven more interest to the song and support for it from people wondering what all the hubbub is about. The removal has certainly received more press coverage than “Bury Me in Dixie” ever did before. Similar to the criticism Dave Chappelle received for his recent Netflix comedy special, it’s more a public relations boon than a rebuke, while it possibly stokes more racial acrimony than it resolves.
But again, the move by Riley Green and Big Machine appears to be preemptive as opposed to reactionary, and there’s another reason we can deduce this. Parallel to the removal of “Bury Me in Dixie,” a new version of Riley Green’s current radio single, the critically-lauded “I Wish Grandpa’s Never Died,” was sent to radio. Similar to “Bury Me in Dixie,” a new version was sent out due to a supposed controversial line. The line in the song that was changed was, “I wish country music still got played on country radio.” It now says, “I wish George Jones still got played on country radio.”
Though the difference is subtle, it’s clearly calculated to curry favor with country radio. “I Wish Grandpas Never Died” currently sits at #35 on the radio charts and has been gaining traction, though much slower than most expected. The removal of “Bury Me in Dixie” appears to be a part of a greater campaign to cleanse Riley Green for more wide mainstream acceptance, not necessarily to deal with an impending public relations nightmare tied to a four-year-old song with a passing reference to Robert E. Lee that was never released as a proper single in the first place.
Of course there’s an entire Pandora’s box that can be opened in the discussion upon if the Robert E. Lee line in “Bury Me in Dixie” should be controversial at all. In these discussions, subtly and nuance is often left by the wayside as blanket accusations fly. But compared to other references in songs in country music and beyond, it feels pretty docile. Remember, The Band released a song called “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” in 1969, written by Canadian Robbie Robertson. The song romanticizes the Confederate South, and also references Robert E. Lee. Levon Helm, who sings the song, said in his 1993 biography, “I remember taking [Robbie] to the library so he could research the history and geography of the era and make General Robert E. Lee come out with all due respect.”
“The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” became a #3 hit on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1971 when Joan Baez covered the song. It’s often included in lists of the greatest songs of all time. It is one of dozens of songs that doesn’t necessarily glorify the Confederacy, but does tap into the romanticism surrounding the conflict, and mystique surrounding Robert E. Lee specifically.
And none of this speaks to the complex history of Robert E. Lee himself. In 1983, Johnny Cash released a song called “God Bless Robert E. Lee,” with lyrics that give credit to the Confederate General for saving thousands of lives, and ostensibly ending the Confederacy for disobeying orders and surrendering his army at Appomattox. The song ends, “I won’t ever stop loving you my Dixie till they put me in the ground. And the last words they probably hear from me are God bless Robert E Lee.” Cash has another song called “Johnny Reb” that pays homage to the Confederate soldier.
These are just a few of many examples. Robbie Robertson, Levon Helm, Joan Baez, and Johnny Cash are all considered to be some of the most open-minded and progressive artists in popular American music history. Rebuking songs and artists that make reference to Robert E. Lee, The Confederacy, Dixie, and other Civil War-era verbiage presents a slippery slope of interpretation, delves into thorny issues of censorship, inhibits lyrical content and creativity, and perhaps most importantly, threatens to eradicate the memory of what happened during the Civil War, which is the first step towards repeating it.
Clearly racist statements should always be rebuked wherever they occur in music, even if they have a right to be made under the 1st Amendment. But misunderstanding the deep-rooted history of the American South and how it intertwines with culture and music is a mistake that shouldn’t be made. Riley Green’s “Bury Me in Dixie” was removed from streaming services, but Mitchell Tenpenny’s “Bitches” remains active because apparently that sentiment is still socially acceptable. This is a good illustration of how what is offensive is in the eye of the beholder, and open to interpretation. That’s why any form of censorship should be approached with caution.
A few people complaining on social media is just that, and shouldn’t be the impetus for the removal of a song, whether it’s done by the artist or the label preemptively, or compelled by public pressure. As “Bury Me in Dixie” was being removed from streaming platforms last week, former President Barack Obama spoke at an Obama Foundation event in Chicago on Tuesday (10-29). In the speech, he spoke specifically about the callout and cancel culture prevalent on socials media that likely led to the removal of the Riley Green song.
“The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids,” Obama said. “I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media—there is this sense sometimes of the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough. If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. ‘Did you see how woke I was, I called you out!’ … That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”
The truth is, with the way the world is ordered at the moment, Riley Green probably should have known better than to invite controversy to himself by referencing Robert E. Lee in a song. But it’s going to take a much greater burden to proof to label Riley Green or “Bury Me in Dixie” as racist or even seriously problematic from what is presented in the lyrics. And if you lower that burden of proof to meet Riley Green and “Bury Me in Dixie,” you’re going to indict a whole slew of additional artists and songs in the process, and gut the American songbook of compositions that allow us to never forget the torn and tattered history surrounding the Civil War, and its inexorable ties to the American South. Today it’s Riley Green and Confederate Railroad. But tomorrow it could be Joan Baez, Johnny Cash, Lady Antebellum, or the Dixie Chicks all over again.
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UPDATE: Riley Green has addressed the song removal in a statement. He says he will be releasing a live version of the song, but does not address why the studio version was removed. He later said in a comment that the new live version will include the controversial line.
So I’ve seen some speculation as to why “Bury Me in Dixie” isn’t available anymore and I wanted to set the record straight. First off, to everyone who has supported me from day one, I want to let y’all know I really appreciate y’all and can’t tell you how much it means to me. I was born and raised in northeast Alabama and anybody who knows me knows how proud I am of that. I wrote “Bury Me in Dixie” as a tribute to my home state and the values we have where I grew up. The song got me where I am today and I stand behind it. Truth be told the article about why the song came down in the first place was strictly speculation.
That being said, we recorded a LIVE acoustic version of “Bury Me in Dixie” at my show in Phenix City, Alabama a couple of months ago and we will be releasing that very soon. For those of you who were at that show, you felt the energy and excitement and I thought it would be a great way to show the world out southern pride by having yalls voice on the new track. Thanks again for all the support over the years and for anyone who questions my pride in where I’m from … come to a show and you can sing “Bury Me in Dixie” along with the rest of my southern family.