When hear the term Country Music, what immediately comes to mind? The South? Banjos? Cowboy hats? Country music is arguably one of the most stereotyped genres of music in existence in the United States. These stereotypes of country music are reinforced by the major record labels associated with the music. Country music has created its own image of the average American citizen, one that is not true in most circumstances, but avid country music fans are constantly exposed to this type of discourse by the music that is streamed through their radios. However, one country singer from a long line of musicians dared to challenge the establishment with one of the most controversial albums ever released in the world of country music, challenging the sub-culture that’s being created by “pop country.”Hank Williams III is the grandson of one of the founders of modern country, Hank Williams, and the son of the Great Bocefus himself, Hank Williams Jr. With his release of “Straight To Hell” Hank III’s second album, he became an outlaw and rebel in the country world because he chose to fight the preconceived imagery that is created by country music.
Modern country music ideology is none more present in the tune “A Good Man”, by the Canadian country group Emerson Drive.
Lyrics to the song include, “I just need a little green in my pocket, so I can buy my buddies a round… Lived a good life, loved a good wife, always helped someone in trouble…” The pre-conception in this song can be used as an example for country music in general, is that the average man should strive to have good Christian values, love their wife, be a good samaritan, etc. This “code” is followed fairly standardly by country artists, and any songs that attempt to break these ethics usually tie the consumption of alcohol to the “evil” acts as defined by Christian Ideals. Take for instance the song “Whiskey Lullaby” by Brad Paisley, where a couple are so broken-hearted over each other that they use alcohol to literarily drink themselves to death, but are reunited in the afterlife. Even the most depressing or somewhat controversial topics held by modern country still have what seems to be a distinct Christian philosophy with a lot of talk of heaven and none to much of hell. Where Hank III dares to strive is blending his punk rock background with that of a country twang, meaning his message is pure and clear, “pop country really sucks”, and rather than end up in heaven he’s convinced he will go “Straight To Hell.”
The album is glorified by punk rock enthusiasts because of its originality, however some of its content is expectably obscene. Some of the lyrics off several of the songs in the album can be viewed as unrighteous, and homophobic. Hank III dares to cross these lines, and stays in the underground of country music, because the radio and music industry will not accept his message and distribute it accordingly. Hank stays with the punk rock philosophy, alienating himself from the “music world” and playing in small clubs to avid fans who appreciate the message, which is once again “pop country really sucks.” In ways this could be viewed as Orientalism because he is alienating himself and exposing everything that he is not, rather than what he IS. Hank’s message may be vulgar and inappropriate but he puts it forth in context, that you can take it or leave it, good or bad, this is how country ought to be.
Hank III’s message also expands off of the fact that such country artists as Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis were outlaws in their own time, challenging the rules set forth by the music industry. American youth took in to this new trend that expanded out of country music, and it evolved into rock and roll. What has happened since that time is that country has seemed to slip back into its infant stages and the outlaws cease to exist and the music industry once again controls the market. Because of this, and the fact that the music industry is one of the most powerful forms of media, an ideology is created within the genre of good Christian values and a powerful sense of right and wrong. Hank III’s message is not necessarily right or wrong, but what it is, in his “Straight to Hell” album, is different. It changes the perceived normalcy that country has beheld fairly untouched for several decades.
The album “Straight to Hell” contains obscene lyrics, such as slurs for homosexual preference, and about every four letter word in the English language that cannot be played over the radio. But this can be viewed in the context that Hank III is simply exercising his right of free speech and the music is just a prime example of the positive aspects of American Constitutional Rights. But another contextual argument against the album might be that this seemingly discriminatory character is spreading his words of hate in form of his album. But the point Hank is trying to convey is that the American people share in his feelings at a natural basis, that is, before their thoughts are influenced by media.
Regardless of whether the album can be viewed as right or wrong, “Straight To Hell”, receives its shock value, which is exactly what is intended. Hank is trying to prove to the music industry in Nashville that country’s good and wholesome Christian values are not exactly the feelings of the people that it is being exposed to. The album has very offensive lyrics and takes a contextual approach to appreciate or dislike, and that, once again, is one of the main ideals of the album. It is safe to say that Hank III has not changed the country music industry with his album, but it certainly is message music that strikes deeply into the heart of the values that the genre currently holds.
Williams, H., III. (2006). Straight To Hell. On Straight to Hell [CD].
Bruc Records Inc. Drive, E. (2006). A Good Man [Recorded by E. Drive]. On Countrified [CD]. Midas Records.
Paisley, B. (2003). Whiskey Lullaby [Recorded by B. Paisley & A. Kraus]. On Mud On the Tires [CD]. Nashville: BMG Music.
About BMC 277: Media and Diversity
This course asks students to critically examine the role of the media in facilitating and challenging the social constructions of race, class, gender, and sexual orientation in U.S. culture.