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Work the Line

Country music, like its middle class listeners, is in an era of disillusionment.

2022 iHeartRadio Music Festival - Show
Morgan Wallen performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival on September 23, 2022 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Toni Anne Barson/FilmMagic)

Before there was country music, there was the music of Appalachia. The region of the United States that surrounds that mountain range cuts a broad diagonal from southern New York to eastern Tennessee and is the source text for much of what we now recognize as “country.” From folk music to ballads, bluegrass to hillbilly, Americana, ragtime, gospel, and string bands—it almost all started here. It’s home to Bristol, Tennessee, the official “Birthplace of Country Music,” where the Carter family and so many others first recorded the hits we still sing today. It’s also home to U.S. Highway 23 in Kentucky, otherwise known as “Country Music Highway” because so many stars were born and raised in those deep, dark woods. There seems to be something in the water—or the mountains.

Country music, like the region it hails from, is often considered the de facto home of the political right. Everyone knows this, even if nobody wants to admit it—from the country artists who intentionally try to distance themselves from their listeners (especially during the race riots of 2020) to the Republican candidates who try to capitalize on the connection, playing country songs at rallies and campaigning in cowboy boots. Like the political right, country music is currently engaged in a debate over its future, with new, young artists on the darker side of country sparring with the good ol’ boys for the right to define the genre.


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