Controversial Country Songs
Country music and controversy go together like peanut butter and bananas. The mix isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly interesting. Over decades dozens of singles and album cuts have fanned the flames of public discontent while strengthening the resolve of an artist’s most devoted fans. These controversial songs from different eras of country music show that giving people something to talk about is a hobby that doesn’t discriminate.
Brad Paisley‘s ‘Accidental Racist’ is the most recent example of a country track stirring the pot, but hits by Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn represent the golden age of country music. Tim McGraw, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire also find their songs on this list. In many cases, the controversial songs become an artist’s signature tune. Remaining strong during an initial period of criticism seems to be the most daunting of tasks.
‘Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)’
No song represented the American still angry after the 9/11 attacks better than Toby Keith‘s hit from 2002. However, many — like ABC’s Peter Jennings and the Dixie Chicks — felt it went too far and was “ignorant.” Ask someone who claims to hate Keith about the reason for his or her rage and it won’t take long for them to point to this song. It’s still the highlight of his live show to this day.
It’s been long enough that even the most ardent ‘Fancy’ detractors can accept this hit for its theater and inspiring storyline, but in 1991 a song about a prostitute didn’t go over well. Time has a way of properly deciding the fate of controversial country songs though, as proven by McEntire’s success.
‘Would You Lay With Me in a Field of Stone’
The problem with this 1973 hit by Tanya Tucker wasn’t in the lyrics. “Would you lay with me, in a field of stone / Should my lips grow dry, should you wet them, dear,” is a spicy lyric, but not so racy it’d make the modest fan blush. It was Tucker’s age at the time that turned heads. She was 15, so her performance implied sanctioning of sex before marriage.
A humorous video starring Dennis Franz took the edge off this cutting Top 20 hit from the early 2000s, but the Dixie Chicks would be judged for recording and celebrating a song that involves murdering one’s spouse. While many would praise the trio for shining a light on domestic abuse, others would argue there is more than enough pain in real life to justify playing this track.
Tim McGraw was a star before he released ‘Red Ragtop’ in 2002. A country newcomer may not have gotten away with the controversial ballad about a couple who decides to have an abortion. “Tim, when he heard the song, recognized that it was a real song about real issues and things people have to deal with,” the singer’s manager told Country Weekly that year. “He views it as truly a slice of life.” Some still turn off the radio when it begins, while others appreciate it as a beautifully tragic story.
You know you’ve stirred the pot when religious leaders get involved. That’s what happened with this Loretta Lynn hit from 1975. A song about the birth control pill would turn heads in the 2010s, but in 1975 it was absolutely taboo. However, after a preacher in Kentucky publicly denounced the song, it became a Top 5 hit.
‘Okie From Muskogee’
Timing created a controversy for Merle Haggard. His 1969 hit was banned from some radio stations by owners who disagreed with the singer’s politics. That was after several groups — like the Black Panthers — called the lyrics “divisive.” President Nixon loved the song, but Haggard wasn’t even trying to be political when he wrote it.
‘Have You Forgotten’
Much like Toby Keith’s ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,’ Darryl Worley‘s ‘Have You Forgotten’ was praised by flag-waving country fans and criticized by many not in support of the war in the Iraq. The problem may have been timing. Seemingly dozens of lesser songs were being written and released at the same time, many of which felt less than sincere. Once again, the passage of time justified this chart-topper.
Many marked this song as one to seek out before it was even released on Brad Paisley’s ‘Wheelhouse’ album. The duet with LL Cool J looks to explore centuries worth of racial tensions. It’s an ambitious idea that has been both praised and labeled as ham-fisted. It’s doubtful the song will become a single, though (it’s nearly six minutes long).
‘Down From Dover’
First found on Dolly Parton’s ‘The Fairest of Them All’ album from 1969, ‘Down From Dover’ is a woman’s wait for the father of her unborn child to return home. As the song continues one senses he’s a deadbeat, but the tragic ending blindsides a first-time listener. Though never a commercial hit, ‘Down From Dover’ is well-known amongst Parton fans, and it’s been covered several times. It helped define her as someone who would blaze her own path; ideas of sex before marriage just weren’t addressed so blatantly in the mid-to-late ’60s.