Post- Magazine

when country’s culture wars forgot its artists [A&C]

more indie than industry plant

Ask anyone about the summer of 2023 and they will tell you it was the summer of Barbenheimer. What they won’t tell you, however, is that it was just as much the summer of country music.

Country music, while often maligned as a genre, owned the top three spots on Billboard’s Hot 100 in July, claimed number one in August, and started September in the top spot yet again.


Nonetheless, many in the media have been reluctant to label 2023 a genuine country music renaissance, possibly because of July’s number-one hit: “Try That in a Small Town.” The Jason Aldean song was completely unremarkable. While the song dropped in May, it wasn’t until the music video, released July 14, that the song began to climb the charts. 

This newfound popularity was largely due to the onslaught of outrage at the music video, which features a compilation of clips of violent protests and Aldean strumming his guitar in front of a courthouse where a lynching once took place, crying out lyrics like:

Cuss out a cop, spit in his face / Stomp on the flag and light it up / Yeah, ya think you're tough / Well, try that in a small town / See how far ya make it down the road / Around here, we take care of our own / You cross that line, it won't take long / For you to find out, I recommend you don't / Try that in a small town

The song faced near-immediate left-wing pushback: Tennessee state legislator Justin Jones labeled the song a “vile racist song” and a “lynching anthem.” 

The right-wing responded: People began purchasing the song, an archaic form of consumption in the streaming age, reserved only to drive a song up the charts to make a principled stand. Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy called out to his supporters on X, formerly Twitter, to explicitly request that they join in this act of conservative rebellion:

Jason Aldean writes a song defending the values that ALL Americans used to share - faith, family, hard work, patriotism - only to be immediately sacrificed at the altar of censorship & cancellation. These are the same people who cheer songs like “Cop Killer” & the glorification of sex and violence in hip-hop. Stand strong against these hypocrites and opportunist frauds, @Jason_Aldean. It’d be a real shame if the song hits #1. We’ll do our part & play it at our rallies.

With America still in the heat of the Aldean saga, a new release from the upstart Oliver Anthony in August plunged the cultural commentators right back into round two of the country music culture wars. Anthony’s song took over the country music scene when he released a video playing his original song “Rich Men North of Richmond” with a microphone and a steel guitar in the middle of the woods. This emotional ballad of the working class man went viral, hitting number one on the charts, but quickly turned partisan when it received passionate social media endorsements from conservative influencers like Matt Walsh and Dan Bongino. Several weeks later, “Rich Men North of Richmond” even played at the beginning of the first Republican primary debate as the moderators posed the opening question: “Why is this song striking such a nerve?”


The left-wing backlash was quick to follow. The Daily Beast accused Anthony of promoting a “racist, Reaganite image of ‘welfare queens,” and Vox described the song as one long piece of “embedded racism."

This clean-cut political narrative of Anthony as the new right wing’s rising star faced one problem: the beliefs of Oliver Anthony himself. 

In response to his newfound infamy, Anthony posted a video to X, insisting that it was “aggravating” to be used as a pawn by politicians who “act like we’re buddies and… fighting the same struggle here.” He even took direct aim at the Republican debate, saying, “It’s like, I wrote that song about those people, you know?” 

When Fox News brought their new right-wing star Anthony onto Fox and Friends, he deviated sharply from their typical talking points, declaring that diversity is “what makes us strong.”

Fast forward a month later, and the country scene is dominated by someone else: a mustachioed man from Oologah, Oklahoma named Zach Bryan. Bryan is a different kind of country star. He presents not as a well-groomed industry pro (like Aldean) or a fire-bearded man fresh out of his deer stand (Anthony); instead, Bryan is a clean-cut former Navy man and outspoken against transphobia.

A country star who fights national foes abroad and transphobes at home is a rare commodity in country music; so, unsurprisingly, the progressive country music stans jumped on Zach Bryan as their hero. Popcast, the New York Times’s culture podcast, declared that Bryan had gone viral on “progressive southern internet,” and an article in The Atlantic praised Bryan’s ability to “somewhat fit the mold of ‘alt country’ singers who capture the NPR crowd.”

Perhaps at no point was the progressive-king-Zach-Bryan discourse stronger than when he was arrested three weeks ago in Oklahoma. Naturally, his public arrest for obstruction of a law enforcement officer during a traffic stop ignited endless discourse about Zach Bryan’s views on law enforcement. After Bryan posted a video about his arrest, one X user responded, “Zach Bryan really said ACAB without actually saying ACAB as many times as possible in his story and that is so slay of him.”

But Bryan, much like Anthony, is not the political icon his fans may think he is. In his written statement about the arrest, he apologized for his disobedience and insisted that he “support[s] law enforcement as much as anyone can.”

He even clarified his initial remarks about transphobia in a now-deleted Tweet saying, “yo I don’t support transgender people attacking swimmers I just have family transitioning and have blood to defend here. No one threaten me pls.” For Zach Bryan, opposing transphobia means protecting the family unit—a long-standing theme of country music and conservatism—more than it means advancing any progressive agenda.

And his new, self-titled album is coursing with sentiments that are distinctly anti-progress: The first track of the album is a spoken word poem titled “Fear and Fridays,” in which he says that he has “learned that every waking moment is enough and excess never leads to better things / it only piles and piles atop the things that are already abundantly in front of you.” The drive for more change, for always moving faster, and for a solution that lies just around the bend is not a universal fix for Bryan; instead, it is a cause for great fear. He sings about how what we already have is enough, and how moving ever forward does not signal “progress” but redundancy: It “piles and piles” until the life we once knew becomes obscured. 

Bryan’s political valence is not the only area in which he differs from his peers in today’s industry. While many mainstream country artists like Morgan Wallen seem to be turning to big pop sounds with roaring choruses, Bryan’s are more like the hushed confessions of a man scribbling away at his notepad in a cabin somewhere. Bryan’s raspy and whispered breakout hit “Something in the Orange” sounds more like a Noah Kahan or Passenger song than a country and western anthem. So it was no surprise when, this past weekend, he released his first collaboration with Noah Kahan and the two voices flowed together perfectly.

These two men are indie artists at their core—their nature-filled aesthetics and subtle whines of loneliness portray them as men of the outdoors who, like Oliver Anthony, are fundamentally independent. These are artists who defy both easy vocal and social categorization alike.

When Zach Bryan’s mug shot goes viral, then, it seems less likely that he is an ACAB radical leftist, and more likely that he is reigniting a long tradition of the outlaw country artists of the past who refused to conform: men like Merle Haggard, who sang “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” or Willie Nelson, who sang “Hard to be an Outlaw.” While the polarized politics of a modern landscape defined by tribal loyalties to the left or the right may be new to the 21st century, the story of the lonesome cowboy who doesn’t fit in and will never want to can be traced back through centuries of country and western music.

As country music critic Grady Smith said about Zach Bryan’s brand of country music, these songs fall not on “the spectrum between right and left,” but on something that transcends politics: the divide between “establishment versus independent.” 

Neither Bryan nor Anthony has found their team—politically, or socially—but perhaps this is what country music has always been about. Historian Bill C. Malone explains in Ken Burns’s Country Music, country music “spoke for a lot of people who were being forgotten, or felt they were being forgotten.” Neither man feels like he belongs in the current iteration of America, and maybe that’s a radical political message. Or maybe, as Anthony sings, it is simply a feeling that resonates deeply with “people like me, and people like you.”

Beyond the cooked-up controversies, perhaps country music’s latest boom could be a reflection of a large portion of Americans who feel that they, too, no longer belong. Maybe Zach Bryan was the number one album not because of chart-rigging stans like Aldean’s, but because more and more Americans are feeling socially and politically homeless, a feeling that resonates deeply when Bryan croons, “Hey driver, you can drop me off anywhere.”

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