Can Country Music Quit the Rebel Flag?

James Joiner
Its biggest stars have voiced support for the Confederate flag in their lyrics. But now that even big-box retailers see the flag’s inherent racism, what will happen next?
The fight is on to remove the Confederate Battle Flag from our collective existence, eradicating it in the wake of the racially motivated Charleston shootings as a symbol of hatred and intolerance. Bit by bit, it’s a fight that is at last succeeding. More and more state governments and consumer outlets are acknowledging the flag’s reprehensible symbolism and removing it.

Yet there’s one arena in our nation’s cultural pantheon no one is talking much about, one that holds the rebel flag near and dear—country music.

The all-American soundtrack to driving pickup trucks, grilling meat, drinking beer, working hard, and exalting all things cowboy has a long and proud history of singing the praises of the Confederate flag, which they take as symbolic of their Southern fried heritage.

Which it is. But that doesn’t make it a symbol of the South’s good things.

Sure, there are those who argue that the flag is a symbol of “heritage not hate.” Award winning, multi-platinum country star and actor Trace Adkins employed this method when called out for wearing an earpiece with the Confederate design at a New York Christmas concert a couple of years ago. He issued a statement on his website, which has since been taken down, after coming under fire for his poor wardrobe decision.

“To me, the battle flag represents remembrance of my Southern lineage… I advocate for the preservation of America’s battlefields and honest conversation about our country’s history. To those who view the flag as a symbol of racism, that was not my message and I did not intend offense,” he wrote.

Adkins self-identifies as a Civil War buff, claiming in his book A Personal Stand to be a “lifelong member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” and “deeply proud to be a descendent of the Confederacy.” He also prefers “War Against Northern Aggression” to “Civil War.”

Let’s assume, of course, that Adkins does not actually think African Americans belong in bondage and aren’t worthy of equal rights. But he does “advocate (for) honest conversation about our country’s history,” right?

So let’s take an honest look at what it ultimately means when someone considers the term “Confederate” to be interchangeable with “Southern heritage.”

Trace Adkins self-identifies as a Civil War buff, claiming in his book A Personal Stand to be a “lifelong member of the Sons of Confederate Veterans,” and “deeply proud to be a descendent of the Confederacy.”

Confederacy Vice President Alexander Stephens explained this eloquently on March 21, 1861, when he gave his Cornerstone Address, in which he discussed the key differences between the newly formed Confederacy’s constitution and the United States’ own.

“Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition.”

That’s pretty definitive. No matter how much an apologist might hide behind the guise of “pride,” what he or she is proud of is a legacy of constitutional hatred and oppression.

Another excuse for the continued waving of the Confederate flag is to honor Southern rock bands, like when rapper-cum-country artist Kid Rock accepted a controversial award from the NAACP in 2011. As protestors picketed outside for his use of the flag in concerts and videos, Rock explained that he flew the rebel flag in deference to his love for Lynyrd Skynyrd, never because of any hatred.

Yet even Skynyrd no longer want to be tied to this sickening symbol, denouncing the flag during an interview with CNN.

“Through the years, people like the KKK and skinheads kinda kidnapped the Dixie or Southern flag from its tradition and the heritage of the soldiers. That’s what it was about,” Gary Rossington, Skynyrd’s last surviving original member, said. “We didn’t want that to go to our fans or show—the image [that] we agreed with any of the race stuff or any of the bad things.”

Kid Rock has worked alongside black artists, and raised money for black causes. But it’s hard to forget he also has lyrics like these, from his song ‘Black Chick White Guy:”

Black chick with a real white accent/Pretty girl in the ghetto go figure/yeah she got macked by some dope dealin’ n—-.”

And also proudly declares in his hit “Lowlife (Living the Highlife):”

I think racist jokes are funny.”

And Rock booked David Alan Coe to open for him in 2000, co-wrote with him, and covered his music on tour.

Coe has spent much of his career trying to distance himself from two albums he released in the ’80s, which included songs like “N—— Fucker,” and were describedby the New York Times’ Neil Strauss as “among the most racist, misogynist, homophobic and obscene songs recorded by a popular songwriter.”

“Distance” being relative: Coe still sells these albums via his website, plus a boxed set that includes country artist Johnny Rebel performing tunes with names like “Ship Those N——s Back” and “She Died a N——.”

Rock and Adkins are not alone among many of country’s biggest stars in standing behind—or in front of—the Stars and Bars. Top-tier mainstream artists from Hank Williams Jr., Sammy Kershaw, and Brantley Gilbert to Jason Aldean have displayed or worn the flag, often selling merchandise with their names worked into it.

Country-rapper Colt Ford, writer of Republican presidential hopeful Rick Perry’s 2016 campaign theme song, regularly rocks Confederate flag cowboy boots.

Even pop-country sensation and television personality Blake Shelton has woven the rag into one of his songs, “Kiss My Country Ass:”

“Tearin’ down a dirt road / Rebel flag flyin’ … If you got a problem with that, ha ha! / You can kiss my country ass.”

Outlaw country has a particular passion for this so-called rebel regalia, as highly pedigreed artist Hank Williams III noted in an interview:

“Even though I wear the stars and bars [Confederate flag], the only reason I fuckin’ wear it is I’m proud of bein’ from the South. I’m not proud of what the Klan has done, or all the racism that’s come out of there, but I’m from the South, and I’m a rebel, and that’s the way it is.”

And who can forget the Brad Paisley/LL Cool J disaster that was “Accidental Racist”?

OK, yes. We’re all trying to forget that. But maybe that’s the problem.

None of this is to scream “racism!” and point fingers at country music elite, or to paint a scarlet R on their 10-gallon hats. None of them, save perhaps Coe and his reprehensible vitriol, deserve that.

But they are perpetuating a tradition that only weaves the threads of racism deeper into the fabric of American society. Perpetuating the “heritage not hate” mantra is not an excuse. Sure, the Confederate flag has certainly taken on some additional meaning over the years, but that doesn’t wash the blood off of it—some of which was tragically shed in its name just last week.

Don’t relegate country music and Confederate apologists to rural dwellingDeliverance redneck stereotypes. Consider the demographics: The average country fan is an upper-middle-class, home-owning, family-loving American. This is not a fringe demographic.

With 42 percent of the U.S. population claiming to be country enthusiasts, that’s about as mainstream as it gets.

Back in 1996, MCA Nashville president Tony Brown was quoted in The New York Times as saying, “Country basically is white music. Why would black people want to sing those straight notes…? To me black music is about feeling and white music is about no feeling.” (Granted, he went on to bemoan his inability to discover and market a black country artist.)

It’s true, country music is predominantly enjoyed by white people, even as it slowly incorporates (or appropriates) elements of hip-hop. So if some songs include a little tongue-in-cheek nod to the support for the cruelest part of our past, well, that’s OK, right? As long as nobody acts on it or shouts it from the rooftops, it’s not that big of a deal.

Except that it is.

It is a big deal to the nine dead parishioners in Charleston. It is to the people beingterrorized by the KKK’s national push for media attention by leaving bags of candy and propaganda in people’s yards, it is to every unarmed black man who is shot without provocation by white police officers, and it is every day by countless African Americans who have to live in a society that looks the other way and makes ignorant excuses when entertainment icons wave a symbol of hatred and oppression that was supposed to have been eradicated 150 years ago.