I went on a sightseeing trip to Big Bend National Park with my grandfather not too long ago. Originally from Texas, he told me he knew the place like the back of his hand. As we drove from panorama to panorama, we exhausted our words fairly quickly, turning to the music to keep us company. He plugged in his phone and turned on some country music. The artist he chose was John Prine.
I may have been from Dallas, but I kind of bragged about not resonating with country music. For me, the genre represented the voice of someone I knew only too well: the Dallas elite. I found country music steeped in faux cowboy adages, nostalgic for an imaginary moment in American history when God-fearing frontiersmen took the lead and everyone listened.
But Prine was different. His nasal voice was reminiscent of a perhaps extinct period in American country music when artists spoke for everyone instead of pandering to a non-existent past. While I usually see modern country artists push back on clichés, Prine simply spoke the basic truth. This authenticity became the bedrock of his writing and accentuated his authority as a force in protest music.
Prine would probably cringe at the thought of being called a protesting musician. He lacked the moral certainty of a Pete Seeger, nor the self-assurance of a Bob Dylan – the two musicians I see most often praised for their roles in Vietnamese-era protest music.
And it was impossible to attribute a political motive to a man like Prine, who seemed so totally committed to simply describing his own reality as it was. He did not position himself as an activist; he was just a man singing songs and calling balls and strikes as he saw them.
Prine himself was drafted into the war in the 1960s, giving his listeners the benefit of the doubt to trust him. It’s not like Prine doesn’t love his country – quite the contrary, in fact. On his 1972 track “The Great Compromise” he laments the pernicious sense that he loves America dearly, but she never seems to love him back.
In “Sam Stone” (1971), Prine describes the harsh reality of addiction and reacclimatization that veterans face upon returning from war. He envisions a world where those who fight for their country are not punished once back in the arms of their country. The song serves as a referendum on the hypocrisy of the United States: Our nation is infatuated with war, but does not really want to honor its warriors. Supporting veterans at Prine had become a burlesque American liturgy. It’s that kind of writing that made me fall in love with Prine, and that’s why I think his country music is vastly underrated in the anthology of American protest music.
It’s not hard to tell that much of the modern country music landscape pledges allegiance to the flag more often than criticizes it. Take, for example, songs like “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” by Toby Keith. Released in 2002, the song serves as a battle cry for America’s post-9/11 intervention in the Middle East, including the not-so-subtle line about lighting up the region “like the 4th of July”.
That same year, country music singer Hank Williams Jr. echoed a similar sentiment with songs like “America Will Survive,” which states:
I read “Tooth for a tooth and an eye for an eye”
And it’s an old slogan that we’ll revive
The “God and country” music of post-9/11 country music envisions a concept of American exceptionalism that Prine must have found quite disconcerting. While these artists certainly position themselves as a kind of protest musician, they derive their raison d’être from militarism itself.
It’s no wonder Keith’s songs have become anthems for Donald Trump’s presidential campaign. Keith was tapped to headline Trump’s “Make America Great Again” pre-inauguration concert, where he performed the pro-American hits “American Soldier,” “Made in America” and, of course, “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue”. “Last January, Trump presented Keith with the National Medal of Arts.
This brings us back to Prine. Nearly 30 years before the pro-American hits of Keith and Williams Jr. were released, Prine was warning the nation of growing nationalism within its borders. He tackles American exceptionalism in his 1971 classic “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore,” which imagines a man who piles up so many American flag decals on his windshield that he can’t no longer see the road while driving. At the end of the song, he crashes his car and dies, only to be denied access to paradise because it is filled with victims of war.
Prine’s criticism is obvious: when blinded by “America First” ideology, the flag obscures Americans’ ability to see and interpret the world clearly. While 9/11-era country music affirmed American jingoism, Prine attacked it directly.
I see Prine everywhere now – the news has become a sober reminder of his warnings. It’s hard not to see his face on the cover of the newspaper as I read about the pain caused by American warmongering.
It is easy to assign substantial responsibility to country music for the axiomatic cultural shift toward nationalism since the turn of the millennium, and one would not be entirely wrong to do so. But never for a second should we forget these verses sung by the late prophet himself as he desperately tried to get our attention. We can’t blame the nation’s sins on a genre that, for all its faults, gave us the low-key, cigarette-smoking renegade that was John Prine.
Nicholas Niles is a Master of Divinity candidate at Princeton University studying the relationship between religion and politics.