The leftward lunge of the New York Times arts pages as the election looms continues apace. In Sunday’s Arts & Leisure, Brett Anderson hailed the new aggressively “progressive” strain in Southern rock while dismissing conservative bands and listeners in “Southern Bands, Progressive and Proud.”
On the first week of his life as an expatriate southerner, Patterson Hood of the rock band Drive-By Truckers wrote an essay denouncing the Confederate flag. It was July 2015, and the 52-year-old, who had never lived outside the states of Georgia or his native Alabama, had just moved with his wife and two children to Portland, Ore.
His new home was about as far from the South as Mr. Hood could get without leaving the Lower 48, and the plan was to stop writing so much music about the issues he had obsessed over for decades. But the massacre at the Emanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston, S.C., that June drew Mr. Hood back into entrenched disputes over race, region and identity. When Mr. Hood and Mike Cooley, 50, the band’s other principle songwriter, started work on what would become their recently released album, “American Band,” their left-leaning lyrics were stocked with tales about immigration and guns, blood and burning crosses.
From police treatment of African-Americans to the current presidential election, the issues roiling America today have led the Truckers to drill down on the topic that has preoccupied them for 20 years -- the South -- while bringing a relatively unheard perspective to pop music’s discourse: that of the progressive white Southerner.
....On the Drive-By Truckers’ new song “What It Means,” which was written in response to the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo., Mr. Hood sings, “If you say it wasn’t racial when they shot him in his tracks, well I guess that means that you ain’t black.”
(Anderson doesn’t bother to unpack the actual facts of what happened in Ferguson in August 2014, when 18-year-old Brown was shot by a white police officer. According to the most credible reports, Brown stole cigarettes from a convenience store and shoved the store clerk who tried to stop him, then charged police officer Darren Wilson, who fired at Brown. Reports that Brown had his hands up in surrender were found not to be credible.)
But the genre took a conservative turn in the 2000s, as many of Southern rock’s best-known artists became surrogates for conservative political interests. A New York Times article about the Southern rock artists playing the 2004 Republican National Convention in New York City was headlined “G.O.P.’s Southern Strategy? Cranking Up Lynyrd Skynyrd.”
The band, or a version of it, famous for its 1973 hit “Sweet Home Alabama” and for flying the Confederate flag onstage, regularly performs in support of conservative politicians, including during the Republican National Convention in Cleveland in July.
Another conservative musician, Charlie Daniels, is a former Jimmy Carter supporter turned conservative-nationalist firebrand, expressing his disdain for the “flower child president,” Barack Obama, in an ad for the National Rifle Association.
(Daniels was the winner of the 10th annual 2016 William F. Buckley award for Media Excellence for his columns and spoke on patriotism at the Media Research Center’s gala last month.)
Anderson pushed the hard-to-swallow idea that liberal musicians in the South are somehow reluctant to speak out on politics these days, Anderson set up conservatives as “censors” while embracing the critical theory aspects of lefty Southern rockers “interrogating” their heritage.
....Citing as an example the Dixie Chicks’ 2003 criticism of President George W. Bush, and the CD-burning and widespread radio bans that followed, Mr. Gaillard said it still takes “a certain amount of bravery” for Southern musicians to speak their liberal minds.
Mainstream country’s conservative fans can still operate like unofficial censors. Last year, radio stations across the country stopped playing Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” after some listeners complained that it promoted homosexuality. (The song is actually about a heterosexual romance.)
The Truckers found their voice during the period when both Southern rock and mainstream country became increasingly synonymous with white conservative values, seizing on the rich creative potential of an alternate strategy: Southern music that interrogates the South while also embracing it.
Anderson explained the Drive-By Truckers’ purposely released “American Band” in the heat of the campaign to be politically provocative and make a statement.
“We’re middle-aged, Southern white guys from working-class backgrounds,” Mr. Cooley said. Mr. Hood elaborated in a separate interview, suggesting it can be constructively provocative for listeners to hear “a white guy with a heavy Southern accent say ‘Black Lives Matter.’”
In August, at an outdoor festival in Lexington, Ky., Mr. Cooley sat for an interview, wearing cargo shorts and flip-flops. A Black Lives Matter sign pasted to the front of a keyboard was the band’s only stage decoration. He spoke about being particularly angered by the Charleston massacre.
Anderson found more guilt-ridden Southern musicians, some of which were suffering from cultural cringe.
The Dexateens, which formed in Tuscaloosa, Ala., just put out “Teenage Hallelujah,” an album that opens with “Old Rebel,” a song that tweaks Southerners who celebrate the Confederacy.
“People already say that Alabamans are racist,” the band’s frontman, Elliott McPherson, explained in an interview with punknews.org. “Why give the rest of the country more ammo to fire at us?”
The Truckers have never shied from hot-button material...Mr. Hood said the band was met with jeers when it played “Putting People on the Moon,” which is pointedly critical of Ronald Reagan.
“One night in Charlottesville, Va., it got so heated, I thought we were going to have a riot in front of the stage,” Mr. Hood recalled. “There were frat boys shooting us birds. I think we ran off a certain part of the fan base over that.”
Another musician had a simplistic take on conservatism in country-tinged Southern music.
The Americana format, which could be loosely described as alt-country or Southernish, “has by and large taken a left-leaning political slant,” Ms. Scott said. “There are a lot of different flavors under that umbrella. It’s not all ‘my country, right or wrong.’”
The band ended its set with an extended cover of Prince’s “Sign o’ the Times,” and the audience members didn’t voice any obvious disapproval of the political Truckers songs that came before it. Mr. Hood suggested it wouldn’t have mattered if they did.
“This is what we do,” Mr. Hood said. “If you like it, great. If you don’t like, go see someone else. Go see Charlie Daniels.”
That’s pretty good advice, actually.