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Conservative Culture & Country Music

I almost never listen to country music, and when I do, it’s usually country music that’s so far outside the mainstream it has nothing to do with anything going on today (e.g., a week or two ago, I listened to Willie Nelson’s “Red Headed Stranger” album, from 1975). I tell you this to point out that I know nothing about contemporary country music, and don’t have an opinion about any of what you’re about to read. But it sounds really interesting to me, and I want to put it out there for you readers who do listen to and enjoy country, to see what you think. This gave me new insight into why my late sister and I never saw eye to eye. More on which later. Here we go.

Will Wilkinson wrote an essay about country music and the culture war. Excerpt:

In the car, I listen to country music. Country has an ideology. Not to say country has a position on abortion, exactly. But country music, taken as a whole, has a position on life, taken as a whole. Small towns. Dirt roads. Love at first sight. Hot-blooded kids havin’ a good ol’ time. Gettin’ hitched. America! Raisin’ up ruddy-cheeked scamps who you will surely one day worry are having too good a hot-blooded time. Showing up for Church. Venturing confused into the big wide world only to come back to Alabama forever since there ain’t a damn single thing out there in the Orient or Paris, France what compares to that spot by the river under the trembling willows where first you kissed the girl you’ve known in your heart since second grade is the only girl you would ever truly love. Fishin’! How grandpa, who fought in two wars, worked three jobs, raised four kids, and never once complained, can’t hardly wait to join grandma up in heaven, cuz life just ain’t no good without her delicious pies.

Last night, on my way to fetch bok choy, I heard Collin Raye’s classic “One Boy, One Girl,” a song that takes the already suffocating sentimentality of the FM-country weltanschauung and turns it up to fourteen. The overwhelming force of this song’s manufactured emotion led me unexpectedly to a conjecture about conservative psychology and the stakes of the “culture wars.”

When I read that first paragraph, I felt instinctively defensive, because the tone of that writing is massively condescending. But I had to admit that this description, however snotty, is an accurate description of the way my sister Ruthie saw the world, and how lots of folks where I live see the world. I bristle at the snotty tone, because I know how good and true these people are, and I don’t like people like Will Wilkinson talking down to them. You might feel the same way, and if you do, I encourage you to keep reading Wilkinson’s piece, because there are some interesting insights into how and why country music appeals to many conservatives. It’s something that rings very, very true to me, based on my experience with my sister, who was a big country music fan, and though entirely unpolitical, one of the most profoundly conservative people I’ve ever known. More after the jump.

Wilkinson’s essay then draws on scientific research exploring the different psychologies of self-identified liberals and conservatives. He points out that generally speaking, liberals are the sorts of people who are more open to different kinds of experiences than are conservatives — a point that seems intuitively true. And Wilkinson — who is, if you don’t know, a libertarian — points to other research showing that country music listeners tend to be culturally conservative. What’s the connection between the ideological stance of country music, as he describes it, and this psychology? Wilkinson cites that story about rural Washington, Okla., that I wrote about last week (“Sad Town Lacks Vibrancy”), in particular a quote from a local who says he wants to preserve the town as it is for his children. Here’s Wilkinson’s commentary on this:

But why would you want your kids to grow up with the same way of life as you and your grandparents? My best guess (and let me stress guess) is that those low in openness depend emotionally on a sense of enchantment of the everyday and the profundity of ritual. Even a little change, like your kids playing with different toys than you did, comes as a small reminder of the instability of life over generations and the contingency of our emotional attachments. This is a reminder low-openness conservatives would prefer to avoid, if possible. What high-openness liberals feel as mere nostalgia, low-openness conservatives feel as the baseline emotional tone of a recognizably decent life. [Emphasis mine — RD] If your kids don’t experience the same meaningful things in the same same way that you experienced them, then it may seem that their lives will be deprived of meaning, which would be tragic. And even if you’re able to see that your kids will find plenty of meaning, but in different things and in different ways, you might well worry about the possibility of ever really understanding and relating to them. The inability to bond over profound common experience would itself constitute a grave loss of meaning for both generations. So when the culture redefines a major life milestone, such as marriage, it trivializes one’s own milestone experience by imbuing it was a sense of contingency, threatens to deprive one’s children of the same experience, and thus threatens to make the generations strangers to one another. [Emphasis mine — RD] And what kind of monster would want that?

Country music is a bulwark against cultural change, a reminder that “what you see is what you get,” a means of keeping the charge of enchantment in “the little things” that make up the texture of the every day, and a way of literally broadcasting the emotional and cultural centrality of the conventional big-ticket experiences that make a life a life.

I think he’s on to something here, and not just about country music. Conservatives may not be able to articulate why they are against gay marriage, so it gets written off as mere bigotry (because if you can’t explain it, then it must be prejudice, right?). And obviously a lot of it no doubt is just flat-out hatred of homosexuals. But I think Wilkinson’s essay gets closer to the emotional and psychological truth of the matter. To make a major life milestone like marriage into a contingent event is to undermine one’s sense of cultural solidity and unity. Liberals tend to be fine with that sort of thing, because they are more open to it. Conservatives, however, don’t like it, for reasons UVA’s Jon Haidt discusses at length in an essay well worth your time. 

Here’s a conjecture from me. One the big mysteries I was hoping to solve in doing this book is why my sister was so defensive about me. The best answer I’ve been able to learn in interview with  people who knew her was a sense that by moving away, I was breaking faith with the family, and our way of life. The way of life Wilkinson describes in his snide first graf — that’s how it is here. That’s what Ruthie loved. It celebrates the values of the people in my culture. I never liked country music, at least not mainstream Nashville country. If Wilkinson’s conjecture is correct, the fact that I was raised here and moved away and built a successful life, rather than doing the expected thing and marrying and building a house and raising a family in the community where we grew up might have been experienced to Ruthie as a profound threat in ways she couldn’t articulate, though felt deeply. The idea is if I can be raised in the same house as she, yet have very different tastes and feelings about openness to experiences, the nature of our difference was destabilizing of the worldview she embraced. My leaving wasn’t just me going off to find my way through life; it was false consciousness, or perhaps a flat-out rejection of the things she valued. And it would make our children’s generation strangers to each other. Finally, our inability to coalesce on questions of ultimate meaning must have worried her. She had such a Confucian view of life — the idea that everybody had his place and his duty in the hierarchical order. I had refused my place at home, thereby violating the order of things.

My problem is that I probably have a liberal psychology, re: openness, but conservative convictions.

I can’t say anything about country music, but fans should take a look at Erik Kain’s complaint that it has become like conservative politics:  “easy and unthinking. No depth, all surface. Superficial and insular.” True?

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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