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State of the Country 

When Martina McBride comes to town, will she face a crowd of left-leaning Big & Riches or right-wing Clint Blacks?

Let freedom ring, let the white dove sing;

Let the whole world know, that today is a day of reckoning.

Let the weak be strong, let the right be wrong.

Roll the stone away, let the guilty pay ...

It's Independence Day.

-- from Martina McBride's hit "Independence Day," by Gretchen Peters

The cowboy sitting in the studio at WSOC in Charlotte looks like Dubya. Small, shiny beads for eyes, a permanent squint and a country smile that says, Everything's all right. Don't worry so much. Wearing a snug denim jacket and black cowboy hat that fits over his graying sideburns like it's glued on, Clint Black starts a song. His words match his outfit:

"All my life I've been a cowboy in my heart ..." His Texas twang wavers as he croons the chorus: "The code of the West was black and white, the good guys and the bad. You would always know who's wrong or right by the color of their hat." Then the words turn political: "We could use a few more cowboys here today. A few more days of reckoning and a lot more hell to pay. Where that debt is owed there ain't no middle ground."

The veteran country singer is on WSOC's Tanner in the Morning Show promoting his CD Drinking Songs and Other Logic, released late last year. On the show, Black cannot say enough about his wife and daughter. He tells a childhood story about hunting for poisonous snakes in the east Texas bayou country. He's one mention of the Almighty away from covering all the bases.

click to enlarge Martina McBride - CLINT BLACK
  • Clint Black
  • Martina McBride

Clint Black could not embody modern country music's brand any better. That makes sense. After all, Black was the first country star to mass-market the music's post-1980s hat-act image. Before Garth Brooks rode Black's wake to success, the singer spearheaded mainstream country's big bang in the early 1990s. More than a decade later, country music is in another boom phase, a larger one this time augmented by the mass popularity of other aspects of Southern culture: Larry the Cable Guy's cornpone humor on Comedy Central, NASCAR's victory among the suit-and-tie set.

In a political era in which the United States has been divided into red and blue, more and more Americans are tuning in to the soundtrack of the South. In cities across the nation, country radio stations are consistently in the top of the Top 5, says WSOC's Operations Manager D.J. Stout (in a recent ratings period, Charlotte's two country stations were ranked first and second). There's no question country's out of the back roads, but does its crossover into the mainstream say anything about its content? Will country's conservative core soften as the genre enters more politically correct territory?

One of the first contemporary mainstream country artists to push the political envelope in terms of lyrical content was Martina McBride, who performs at Bobcats Arena on Saturday, April 1. With her 1993 hit "Independence Day," McBride built a reputation as a singer of progressive subject matter during a rather staid era in country music. The song is about an abused woman who burns down her house with herself and her husband inside, told from the point of view of an 8-year-old girl.

Gretchen Peters, the writer of "Independence Day," has penned songs for Faith Hill, Neil Diamond and many others. Peters says she wrote "Independence Day" as an outlet to express her outrage over domestic abuse. The jumping-off point was the memory of her parents' divorce when she was 8, which gave her insight into some of the song's themes, although she had never experienced domestic abuse.

"At the time, it was seen as really edgy," Peters says, but she views the song as just another in a great tradition of country songs that lean to the left, from Johnny Cash's anti-Vietnam war ballad "Man in Black" to Henson Cargill's civil rights anthem "Skip a Rope." "Look at [the line] 'I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die.' Some of Dolly's really gothic, unwed-mother pregnancy songs. Loretta Lynn tackled every possible domestic subject, including birth control. Or [Tom T. Hall's] 'Harper Valley P.T.A.'"

Still, Peters says that by the early '90s country music was neck deep in a sanitized goody-goody phase, and she was pretty sure "Independence Day" wouldn't be cut. Murder/suicides weren't being sung about, let alone a song about a woman standing up for herself. McBride took a chance on it, putting the song on her second album, The Way That I Am. During that period, women weren't getting much airplay in country, another card stacked against Peters' song. She says only one or two female artists were being played on country stations an hour, and those were the cookie-cutter types.

McBride's fist hit from the album, "My Baby Loves Me," also written by Peters, was one of the dime-a-dozen love ditties. When the label finally decided to push "Independence Day" well after the album's release, the song languished near the bottom of the charts. Many country stations wouldn't play it. Peters was right; it was too progressive for the mainstream.

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