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Sturgill Simpson & Keith Urban: Country Music Joins The Resistance

by Denise Sullivan

Sturgill Simpson is a force in these changing times

Sturgill Simpson is a force in these changing times


Confession:  Country music is not my favorite form of entertainment, not by a Mississippi mile. But as I was preparing this piece — a necessary and newsworthy acknowledgement that country music is radically changing — Grammy Award-winning artist Sturgill Simpson went and crashed the Country Music Awards and made things official: Considering Keith Urban’s new song “Female” (a direct shot at the allegations against Harvey Weinstein) combined with the artists who stepped up in favor of gun control after the massacre at the Route 91 music festival, country artists are the strongest players of the contemporary musical resistance.

In case you missed the performance at last week’s CMAs, Simpson who hails from a Kentucky coal-mining family and works in the outlaw country tradition of Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, was not invited to the awards ceremony but went ahead and performed there anyway:  Opening his guitar case with the intention of busking on the red carpet during Nashville’s biggest night, the singer-songwriter was asked to leave but nevertheless persisted with his livestream on the other side of the building’s barricade.

“I don’t take requests, but I take questions about anything you want to talk about because fascism sucks,” said the note propped inside Simpson’s case. It only got better from there.

Rock ‘n’ soul has a long history of aligning music with messages that oppose the established order:  It’s very creation, a convergence of African, African American and hillbilly music, with some gospel and hymns turned inside out, was an affront to racist America. But country? I usually think of Confederate flag-waving, right-leaning types like Brooks and Dunn. Of course there were arms-bearers like Johnny Cash, an artistic giant who also believed in full rights for Native Americans and the prison population. And outlaws like Willie, Waylon, and Kris Kristofferson created new ways of writing songs that looked inward to forge solutions, though their swagger told you these guys were also cool at the polls. Certainly major talents like Loretta Lynn and Dolly Parton among other women were contributors to women’s rights in song and attitude. And when country changed its tune in the ‘90s, becoming more like rock, more and more singers came out strong about what a drag and a lie “having it all” meant for real women. And as for living with war, who  didn’t admire the Dixie Chicks for calling it early on? There were no weapons of mass destruction.

And so here we are, at this new and interesting place, where country music is leading the resistance against bullying leaders and power brokers. Last week Keith Urban’s answer to the Weinstein scandal (directly impacting his wife, Nicole Kidman) made its live debut at the aforementioned CMAs.  Urban told  Billboard why he chose this moment to record a power anthem for women titled “Female.”

“As a husband and a father of two young girls, it affects me in a lot of ways,” he said. “And as a son — my mother is alive. It just speaks to all of the females in my life, particularly. For a guy who grew up with no sisters in a house of boys, it’s incredible how now I’m surrounded by girls. But not only in my house; I employ a huge amount of women in my team. The song just hit me for so many reasons.”

Keith Urban

Keith Urban

According to the story, the song was written by Ross Copperman, Nicolle Galyon and Shane McAnally after the Weinstein story broke but the lingering emotions following the shooting tragedy in Las Vegas were also in the room at the writing sessions. The Billboard article likens “Female”  to the super-strong “I Am Woman” and “I Will Survive” which I think overstates the case a bit. Part of me wants to say, we don’t need a man singing a song about how great women are:  There are plenty of those. And yet, maybe the song allows Urban to speak for the men who are as horrified as we are at the abuses by weak men, from priests and presidents, to studio heads, and famous actors and comedians who wield power. There is no doubt, we need fresh songs for modern women and our times. Perhaps when men like Urban stand up and say “enough,” it challenges those on the sidelines to speak up, in favor of safety and equality for womankind: It is, after all, humanity at stake here.

In the immediate aftermath of the mass shooting in Las Vegas where 58 people were murdered and over 500 were injured at a country music festival,  performer Caleb Keeter from the Josh Abbott Band asserted, “We need gun control.  RIGHT. NOW.” He and his band are also gun advocates and yet, the live shooting event changed their minds.  In a powerful essay, country music reporter Courtney E. Smith spelled out the relation between country music and the National Rifle Association:  her intimate knowledge of the music’s roots and her personal connection to the community directly impacted by the mass shooting is essential reading. Pointing to country music’s ties to guns and violence, dating back to the Louvin Brothers’ murder ballads (also performed by folk and blues artists and later adapted by rock and hip hop artists too), Smith also cites contemporary songs and the sickening pairing of country music and NRA in an effort to brand music and guns as a lifestyle.

In light of the continued shootings (most recently at a church in Sutherland Springs Texas where 26 people died and over 20 were injured, and on November 14 in Tehama County, Northern California) and revelations that sexual predators in Hollywood are an everyday hazard for women on the job site, country music seems to be more willing to take these matters in hand than their friends in rock and hip hop — for now.  Though country tried and failed with racism (Brad Paisley’s and LL Cool J’s “Accidental Racist”), it seems like it’s taking names and kicking out the jams on the NRA, on misogyny, and even on the misconduct of the President. I’m willing to keep listening and lend them a hand by spreading the good word on their good works (though I’d like it a whole lot more if they lost a little of that twang and kept the rebel yells to a low roar).

Denise_Sullivan_70Denise Sullivan is a California-based author of books on music including Keep on Pushing:  Black Power Music From Blues to Hip HopThe White Stripes:  Sweethearts of the Blues and Shaman’s Blues:  The Art and Influences Behind Jim Morrison and the Doors. Follow her @4DeniseSullivan and at her blog.

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