Four Ways that 9/11 Changed Country Music

The terrorist attacks on American soil ten years ago changed the course of our nation’s history in far more significant ways than just its impact on country music.

But the fact is that country music was changed as well.  Here are the four biggest ways that it did, for better and for worse.

1. Alan Jackson Becomes a Legend

He was still getting solid radio airplay and record sales in 2001, but it seemed like his glory days were behind him. Then, he stepped on to the CMA Awards stage and debuted “Where Were You (When the World Stopped Turning)” to a stunned industry crowd on national television.

It was the perfect song by the perfect artist at the perfect time, and it launched an amazing return to the head of the pack.  The commercial success was great, but it’s worth noting that “Where Were You” served notice that he was undergoing an artistic renaissance as well.   The big hits that followed – “Drive (For Daddy Gene)”, “It’s Five O’ Clock Somewhere,” and “Remember When” – were the best of his career.  Heck, of anybody’s career.

2. Toby Keith Becomes a Superstar

On the same night that Jackson performed his instant classic, Toby Keith just sang his latest hit, the novelty number “I Wanna Talk About Me.”  But the following spring, he came out with the next quintessential post-9/11 anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.”

While it didn’t lead to nearly the same level of artistic growth that Jackson experienced, it did launch Keith into the rarefied air of country superstardom.  For most of the next decade, he’d be an instant add at radio.  And if some of those hits made us wince, it was still great to see the finest male vocalist of his generation get his due.   For those of us who thought that he was robbed at radio and industry award shows in the nineties, it was rewarding to see him have his day.

3. The Politicization of Country Music

National unity began to fade in the run up to our invasion of Iraq, and country radio picked a side, much to the detriment of the format.  The shamelessly jingoistic “Have You Forgotten?” became a seven week #1 for Darryl Worley, while a criticism of President Bush wiped the Dixie Chicks off of the radio dial.

The upshot?  Country radio sent the message that if you weren’t on board with the Bush Administration, you better keep your mouth shut.   Then again, with Worley’s career fading soon after “Have You Forgotten?”, opening it was no guarantee for long-term success, either.

4. Female Domination of the Genre Evaporates

This was the worst of it.   Country record sales exploded in 2002, and the industry credited it to traditionalists Jackson and Keith.   Radio drew the conclusion that  listeners didn’t want any more pop-flavored country, despite the fact that two of the biggest selling albums of the year were by Shania Twain and Faith Hill.

Both ladies struggled at radio with their top-selling projects, and the careers of Lee Ann Womack and SHeDaisy nearly ended.   Even ten years later, with the top-selling artists being Taylor Swift and Carrie Underwood, most female artists are still struggling to get radio play.




  1. I couldn’t listen to country radio for a while around this time because of the jingoistic themes. I came back for a short amount of time, but they lost me in the late ’00s as the quality of singles dropped.

  2. At the time, I didn’t mind Have you Forgotten. Now whenever I hear that song, I actually get really pissed off. Maybe it has to do with the country music response to the Dixie Chicks (Which is still going on today even though Bush is no longer the current president), but it was that rah rah America is Cool mentality and arrogance (Emphasis on Arrogance) that really bothered me. Not only this song, but you had Toby Keith’s Curtesy of the Red White and Blue which is probably his worst song ever and I’m sorry but that really angered me. Maybe I’m not “conservative” enough for the Genre at the time (And I’m sorry if I ruffle any feathers here, but I’m trying to be honest) but I almost turned off country music because of that kind of music.

    I think the difference between those songs and why Where Were You resonated with me was because of how personal Where Were You was. I mean I remember that performance at the CMAs (And there was a post here about heartfelt performances like the one Adele had and I would rank Jackson’s right up there as well) and it was the kind of song that a sad nation needed to grab ahold of and maybe say that things were going to be alright. Life must go on, but right now that pain is all too real.

    Good post on this subject Kevin. I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of the genre at the time and why I was almost embarrassed by it.

  3. I assume that ‘for good’ here means ‘forever’, rather than being the opposite of ‘for bad’. I was rather confused for a few moments when reading about the politicisation of the genre – I was sure CU wouldn’t see that as a positive!

    I’d never heard Have You Forgotten until hearing it performed last year… I literally laughed out loud at the terrible rhymes in the song! I’m shocked to hear it was No 1 was seven weeks!

    Whereas Where Were You is a lovely song.

  4. It’d be nice to have some form of traditionalism back, if you ask me, though I’d love it not to be at the expense of the female artists.

    Why is it that pop-country seems to only be apparent (at least in some people’s eyes) in only female country artists, while males don’t seem to face the same problems when they do pop-country? (I hope I phrased that right)

  5. Sunday was horrible… albeit in a “first-world problem” kind of way.

    I live in the middle of frickin’ Massachusetts, and they still played “Have You Forgotten” at least once per hour on the Country station I listen to.

  6. While Alan Jackson’s song has several beautiful lines, I cringe at “I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran.” It reinforces the unfortunate stereotype that country music fans are politically ignorant and shoot off their mouths without knowing the facts.

    And I’m still pissed about what happened to the Chicks.

  7. re your 4 changes:

    1. Where Were You – great song. I could be wrong but I never had the feeling that AJ wrote it with the hope of having a hit song.

    2. TK – loved him in the 90’s but that Courtesy of RW&B was awful, jingoistic garbage. (Note Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “On With the Song”.) I’ll add that it’s easy to sing “Cos we’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way” when it’s someone else’s job to shoot and apply that boot.

    I don’t agree that TK is “the finest male vocalist of his generation”. I saw him on a CMT concert I believe in the late 90’s. His live performance could not match the vocal quality of his cd’s. I’ll take Hal Ketchum, Collin Raye, John Berry and numerous others ahead of TK as a vocalist. Different tastes in this country universe.

    3. I have mostly forgotten Darryl Worley but miss the Chicks with Natalie.

    4. I do agree it’s a shame that women fare so poorly in country music. I wish Trisha Yearwood would scrap the cookbooks and get back in the studio but she probably would have difficulty cracking the top 40.

  8. @Hard Times

    I don’t think that line gives off any sort of stereotype about country fans. That’s just reality. The only other time the middle east was on people’s radar was during the Gulf War. You can’t expect everyone to be well versed in Middle Eastern geography and politics. Heck, I’m college educated and would honestly have a hard time remembering which country is which on a map. It’s something you’d hear from an “every-man” type of person, and Country music is that of the normal, everyday person, right?

  9. 5. Country Started Going to Church Again.

    Not only did Country want you to know how American it was, but it wanted you to know how Christian it was, too. It reminds me of that line in “Weird” Al Yankovic’s “Amish Paradise” that goes:

    “Think you’re really righteous, think you’re pure at heart
    Well I know I’m a million times as humble as thou art”

    Some of the stuff was actually thoughtful (“Three Wooden Crosses,” written by Kim Williams and Doug Johnson and recorded by Randy Travis comes to mind), but the trend itself skewed much more in the direction of defensive xenophobia. Because our attackers subscribed to a perverted, twisted strain of Islam, it became important for Country–and its target listeners–to make a big show of being Christian. Songs frequently invoked a defiance against persecution (despite the fact that it was this fiery brand of Christianity that has been doing the lion’s share of persecuting in the last decade). The Bush administration blasted away at the separation of church and state, and got away with it largely by conflating the flag with the cross…and Country was there to provide the soundtrack to it all.

    You’ve cited several key examples of post-9/11 Country, but for the sake of charting the evolution (devolution in many ways), I would cite the following pair of songs as the last of our “9/10” era mentality:

    “Only in America,” recorded by Brooks & Dunn; written by Kix Brooks, Don Cook and Ronnie Rogers

    “When God-Fearin’ Women Get the Blues,” recorded by Martina McBride; written by Leslie Satcher

    Those two hits were the last of their ilk recorded prior to 9/11. Rarely since has Country shown as inclusive a view of patriotism, or been willing to wink at religion. Instead, the last decade has been characterized by litmus tests of the flag and the cross. “You’re either with us, or you’re with the terrorists,” President Bush said and Country writers took that to heart; the last decade has been inundated with anthems designed to foster solidarity among “us” while thumbing “our” noses at “them.”

  10. I can see why some might perceive the “Iraq/Iran” line as reinforcing stereotypes, but I’ve never had a problem with it myself, since there are plenty who are not quite that well-versed geographically. I’m sure there are people from all parts of the country, and who listen to all kinds of music, who don’t know the difference between the two countries.

  11. @Devin

    You make very good points. I get the “everyman” concept. Yet I maintain the line was unfortunate, precisely because so many people at that point were giving their opinions without knowing much about anything. Lots of Americans were dying in Iraq, and lots of Iraqis were dying, too. It seemed incumbent upon all of us to know the difference between Iraq and Iran.

  12. I’ve always had a fondness for the “Iraq/Iran” line because it rubs up against my own religious philosophy: God created the world. Man put imaginary lines on it. Far too much violence occurs because we see the people on the other side of the imaginary line as less than human for whatever reason.

    I sometimes wonder if God wonders, “Iraq? Iran? Is that what they’re calling it now?”

  13. “While Alan Jackson’s song has several beautiful lines, I cringe at “I’m not sure I can tell you the difference in Iraq and Iran.” It reinforces the unfortunate stereotype that country music fans are politically ignorant and shoot off their mouths without knowing the facts.”

    Regardless of the stereotype it reinforces, what’s always annoyed me about that line is that grammatically it makes no sense!

  14. “what’s always annoyed me about that line is that grammatically it makes no sense!”

    It’s a variant use of “in,” but unless it confuses people, I say it still makes grammatical sense. :p

  15. I appreciate that line. I don’t think it reinforces stereotypes, but rather, comes from an honest place that represents a lot of people, as Ben noted. Obviously, Jackson identified himself as one who didn’t really know the difference, which seemed like a humble gesture.

  16. I sometimes wonder if God wonders, “Iraq? Iran? Is that what they’re calling it now?”

    Love that thought! That’s an interesting spin on the line, which I hadn’t thought of.

    Obviously, Jackson identified himself as one who didn’t really know the difference, which seemed like a humble gesture.

    It really does across as humble, which is another thing I like about the line.

  17. Points 1 & 2 I agree with – the post 9/11 period did catapult Jackson and Keith to sustained higher levels success.I don’t know that I regard Toby Keith or Alan Jackson as being the finest male vocalists of their generation, but both are realy good singers.

    Point 3 I agree with but I don’t think that it was cause and effect. The electorate has been getting more polarized over a long period of time, dating back to at least Watergate. When I was a teen both political parties were basically centrist with wings on the right and left. The Democrats had a larger left wing and the Republicans had a larger right wing. The left wing of the GOP was wiped out in the elections of 1976 and the right wing of the Democratic party was wiped out in the 1994 elections so that what was left is two centrist parties with very active wingnuts, but only in one direction. The wingnuts are the most active politically so they are able to dominate primaries and tug their basically centrist parties off to the left or right. 9/11 simply drew a sharper focus on what already was happening.

    While I would not regard “Have You Forgotten” as a classic, it expressed sentiments shared by many but not being adequately voiced at the time it was issued

    Point 4 – the evaporation of female domination of the genre was destined to happen anyway. Pop-Country lacks substance and tends to fade away with time. If females would go back to more traditional sounds, and radio would play what people want to hear rather than what the corporate types think people want to hear, there could be a real renaissance of female singers again. I am not holding my breath waiting for this to happen

  18. In a lot of ways, “Iraq/Iran” is one of the most important parts of “Where Were You,” because it confesses an ignorance of our 9/10 world view as a society. I can appreciate the apprehension that it suggests a stereotype of country listeners as uneducated but the truth is, that was an ignorance found throughout America among most groups. Do you think there were many non-Muslims outside of college campuses who were even aware that Iranians are Persian, not Arabic?

    Jackson’s song was written by a man who grew up in the 9/10 world. Up to that day, most people didn’t need or want to know anything more than they already did about the Middle East. In truth, I suspect that many Americans still fail to make any distinctions or understand that part of the world but a lot of more of us have come to appreciate that there are differences, and that those differences matter.

    Regarding the proliferation of female artists, Paul W. Dennis is right to say that the pop-country trend was destined to yield to something anyway. The problem–and it’s not with Mr. Dennis, but with Nashville–is the notion that women who perform country music must perform pop-country. It appears instead that Music Row is simply more comfortable with female artists if they can be presented as an alternative to female pop artists, rather than as counterparts to male country artists.

    Think to the 70s, when you had Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, Tammy Wynette; they were country artists. Few people hear their names and associate them with anything else (except, you know, Dolly). For the last 20 years, though, nearly every female country artist has been styled to resemble pop artists; sexually-charged music videos to get the attention of males, but sanitized for the approval of soccer moms. Even those who didn’t start out that way (Sara Evans, Faith Hill, Martina McBride, LeAnn Rimes, Shania Twain) eventually revamped their images to stay competitive.

    I’m not knocking their artistic explorations, mind you. Evans didn’t completely engage me until Born to Fly, and while we can debate how country and how pop The Woman in Me is, Come on Over was clearly a pop-country album and it was terrific. But it smacks of a clueless gender bias in Nashville that has little confidence that a female country artist can be just that.

    The only female country artist I can think offhand who started out country and has stayed that way is Gretchen Wilson. But it appears Sony was only really interested in using her to help plug the hole in their roster and sales left by the fall of the Dixie Chicks; they pushed her “Redneck Woman” persona, but seemed unable or unwilling to really support her beyond that. It’s a shame, too, because when she steps away from the jingoistic anthems, she’s cut some strong stuff; “When I Think About Cheating” should be considered an overlooked gem of the last decade when we look back.

  19. the careers of Lee Ann Womack and SHeDaisy nearly ended

    I don’t know about SheDaisy, but I thought a big reason for LAW’s Something Worth Leaving Behind not doing well was the perception — aided by lack of airplay — of the title track as her trying to repeat the success of “I Hope You Dance” with a similar formula and people letting that assessment color their opinion of the rest of the album.

    (For the record I didn’t get SWLB, but I heard that beyond the title track it was more or less classic Womack.)

  20. I think the biggest thing that happened to country music following 9/11 was that it began to regress into the kind of stereotypical redneck/right wing behavior that had always repelled people to the genre, a “my country, right or wrong” mentality. Of course, back in the 1960s, if you were against the Vietnam War, you were either a Commie or a sympathizer, but for certain you were “anti-American.”

    In our current time, if you opposed Bush’s wars, you were a terrorist sympathizer. Or at least that’s how Toby Keith, Darryl Worley, and their bunch saw it. But what was true in the 60s is as true today, that when the level of jingoism in song goes up, the quality of the music always seems to go down; and I feel that’s what has happened to mainstream country music. Anyone remember Clint Black’s “Iraq And I Roll”, one of the worst examples of post-9/11 country jingoism?

    And I’d just as soon not say any more about what what was done to the Dixie Chicks, except to say that it was disgusting. Music Row shot itself in the foot there.

    If there was a bright spot for country music in post-9/11 America, then I think it happened in that little fringe known as the Americana sector. Certainly there was plenty of anti-war sentiment to go around there, but there was also a nuanced form of patriotism in at least one song of note–“Bird Of Freedom”, by Tift Merritt, off of her 2002 debut album Bramble Rose. In fact, I feel that Tift has been the single best female vocalist to come along in any musical genre since 9/11, so maybe there’s hope.

  21. I’ve been reading through a lot of these comments, and I just genuinely disagree with a lot of them. Number 1, the point of this article was to point out 4 ways that country music was changed by 9/11. All 4 of these things happened as a direct or indirect result of the terrorist attack. The point of this article was not to slanderize pro-war or anti-war points of view. Number 2, Toby Keith and Alan Jackson are NOT just simple rednecks who wrote a demeaning song. They are both artists who were probably trying to make sense of what happened–the same way we all were. They were being patriotic whether people like the way they went about it or not.

  22. I’m not saying that Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You When the World Stop Turning” made him out to be a simplistic redneck as others might be implying.

    But I do believe, without question, that Toby Keith (with “Courtesy”) and Darryl Worley (“Have You Forgtten?”) were engaged in some none-too-subtle finger-pointing at those who honorably, or even slightly, disagreed with their view of America. One can make the case that they were being patriotic as they saw it. But to call any protesters of the Iraq war or the Bush Administration somehow “un-American” was not the least bit patriotic of them, as far as I’m concerned.

  23. First of all, kudos to you Kevin for writing this piece. I think it’s something a lot of people think but it still takes guts to say it, especially in these polarized times.

    That said, I agree that 9/11 made a lot of the right wing, family values, religious ass kissing that country music does these days okay. Country music is the new rock n roll in terms of people relating to it on a pretty grand scale and I think (or rather I KNOW) a lot of this kind of stuff is what turns people off to it, which is a shame because it could be a lot more than it is, and on its own terms. It’s sad that Nashville used a tragedy like 9/11 as an excuse to peddle garbage like “Courtesy…” and “Have You Forgotten.” Granted it wasn’t the first time, but that doesn’t make it okay.

    In a way, being beholden to these sorts of things makes country music less honest because it doesn’t present both sides of the argument, and rather, tries to assume what some theoretical consumer might think instead of just putting the songs out there and letting them make their own minds up.

    All that being said, I have to say, that as much as I disagree with Toby Keith’s politics (not all of it, but most), I gotta give him props for standing up for what he believes in. It doesn’t seem like any other artist is really willing to stand up and have an honest opinion that wasn’t cleared with their “people.”

  24. I don’t mind “Courtesy” too, too much, in all honesty. Yeah, it’s nearsighted and jingoistic, with so much bravado that it begs for all the mockery and criticism it’s gotten. But I feel like it comes from an emotionally honest place, even if its “emotion” is a sort of flying off the handle. Toby performs it with real conviction, and it’s certainly one of his best musically constructed songs even if you can’t take the full ride with him.

    “Have You Forgotten?”, on the other hand, just feels willfully ill-informed and manipulative.

  25. “I think the biggest thing that happened to country music following 9/11 was that it began to regress into the kind of stereotypical redneck/right wing behavior that had always repelled people to the genre, a “my country, right or wrong” mentality.”

    I’m not sure that I know how to define a redneck, but redneck behavior is everywhere and is as likely to be left-wing politically (read the DailyKos if you don’t believe me) as to be right-wing.

  26. All I have to chime in is that no matter anyone’s political views, it’s wrong to ignore good quality music, what I’m referring to is the Dixie Chicks. No matter your political views the fact that their music was pretty much wiped from radio is one of the worst things radio programmers could’ve ever done!

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