To move forward, country music should look back to the Dixie Chicks
"Country can ― and should ― include everyone"
Anne-iversaries is a bi-weekly column by writer Anne T. Donahue that explores and celebrates the pop culture that defined the '90s and 2000s and the way it affects us now (with, of course, a few personal anecdotes along the way).
Twenty years ago, the universe bestowed upon us a gift: Dixie Chicks' Fly. The group's near-perfect fifth album was a massive step in cementing the trio as not only an incredible country act, but an incredible act in general.
Which, obviously, I could've told you after months spent playing Wide Open Spaces on repeat alone in my room. While convincing myself I sounded like Natalie Maines (I didn't and will never), I clung to the titular track, dreaming about where the future might take me. And that was before over-romanticizing the record's bevy of love songs like I could relate to them whatsoever.
But then came Fly. And where Wide Open Spaces delivered music from the standpoint of women who weren't afraid to express themselves, Fly took it further thanks to singles like "Ready To Run" (about fleeing one's own wedding) and "Cowboy Take Me Away" (which used country-music imagery to celebrate the universality of being in love). And of course, there was "Goodbye Earl."
While nobody here is about to sanction murder, some of us (hello) are still more than happy to draw attention to the ease in which the Dixie Chicks addressed the issue of domestic violence by using humour (through lyrics and the video) to shed a necessary light on abuse. When a woman named Wanda finds herself married to the abusive Earl, her best friend Marianne flies in to help execute an escape plan. As a result, the two poison his dinner and once he's dead, not a soul misses him. It's an extremely dark track set to a catchy chorus and playful melody, but where it could've seemed like the group was making light of something terrifying, it emphasized the friendship between Wanda and Marianne and the isolation that tends to accompany domestic abuse.
It also brought much-needed attention to the lack of protection victims are granted ("But Earl walked right through that restraining order and put her in intensive care"), and brought the commonality of domestic violence to the mainstream. Was it perfect? Of course not. But it further separated the Dixie Chicks from the country predecessors who'd made the likes of "Stand By Your Man" the female norm.
Granted, country music had been (very) slowly moving in this direction for some time. Loretta Lynn's 1967 "Don't Come Home A-Drinkin" is a straight-up shut-down of an alcoholic partner who seems unfamiliar with consent, while her song "The Pill" was about just that. Dolly Parton's "Just Because I'm a Woman" confronts slut-shaming, and Reba McEntire used "She Thinks His Name Was John" to confront the AIDS crisis. Martina McBride also addressed domestic violence in "Independence Day," and Shania Twain's 1997 track, "If You Wanna Touch Her, Ask!" is obviously self-explanatory. The genre is built on the names of women who've used their voices to convey key messages. The problem it, country's reputation has tended to eclipse them.
The thing is, it's easy to look over the powerful messages put forth by female country stars in lieu of the genre's more obvious problems. Which, well, fair enough. Sexism is rampant in country music. So is toxic masculinity. Ultimately, it's a genre that's nearly as synonymous with whiteness as it is with heteronormativity, and it's highly entrenched in conservatism.
After all, lest we forget that when Natalie Maines said she was ashamed President Bush was from Texas shortly after the Iraq war began, the Dixie Chicks were so hated by members of the American public that their lives were threatened and their albums were destroyed.
When Shania Twain bared her midriff in the mid-nineties, it was deemed scandalous. So even when celebrating the importance of "Goodbye Earl" or Shania's "That Don't Impress Me Much" (a track that hides beneath digestible kitsch before ushering in the key message, "I'm so over being objectified, leave me alone"), they're seen as relative drops in the bucket. Even though the work these particularly songs may have been bigger than we actually know; they may have changed mindsets ― or more importantly, lives.
Or perhaps through these veterans, the genre can come to recognize and amend its decades of misdeeds. After all, Kacey Musgraves ― one of the biggest country and pop stars right now ― is a prominent advocate of the LGBTQ+ community, and Lil Nas X has bridged the gap between country music and rap (and done it beautifully).
Obviously, country music is still super white and super male and super straight and super conservative (and at times super-problematic), and to think of the amount of work it needs to do is daunting. But at the same time, two decades ago, some of the biggest country music stars were using their platforms to advocate for equality, for consent, and for survivors of domestic abuse. And while some of those songs have gone on to be karaoke staples or serve as relics of the past, they are still songs that existed.
So if country could do that then, there's no telling what it can do now. Especially since we all know better, and know that country can ― and should ― include everyone.