Joseph Thompson on the long connection among race, military recruitment and country music in the Washington Post

Tuesday, June 9, 2020

The longtime connection between race, country music and military recruitment

By Joseph M. Thompson
Joseph M. Thompson is an assistant professor of history at Mississippi State University. He is currently writing his first book, “Cold War Country: Music Row, the Pentagon, and the Sound of American Patriotism,” which traces the economic and symbolic connections between the U.S. military and the country music industry since World War II.

June 9, 2020 at 5:00 a.m. CDT

As protesters against police killings take to the streets across the nation, different branches of the U.S. armed forces have begun to reckon with the issue of race and military service. The Marines announced a ban on public displays of the Confederate flag. Gen. Charles Q. Brown Jr., an African American and Pacific Air Forces Commander, posted a video to Twitter detailing the racism he has faced while serving the country.

Given the current momentum behind the Black Lives Matter movement and the fact that more than 40 percent of the nation’s active duty military are members of a racial minority, it makes sense that the armed forces are grappling with their racial politics.

But if the military truly wants to change race relations in the ranks, it may have to rethink an old strategy that has made a recent comeback in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic — the use of country music as a tool for military recruitment.

The Army and Air Force Recruiting Service began using country music radio and television performances in the 1950s to boost voluntary enlistment among the young white Southerners who were the presumed audience for the genre. The Army stumbled into this tactic in 1953 when it drafted a rising star named Faron Young. While Young completed basic training, his first hit, “Goin’ Steady,” climbed the charts.

Recruiters then made Young a voice of recruitment and entertainment for the remainder of his enlistment period — including an appearance on an ABC talent show, “Talent Patrol,” that showcased the entertainment skills of service members. By employing Young in this way, the Army used the singer’s growing popularity as a way to plug enlistment from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry and brand military service with the down-home appeal of country music.

The recruiting service soon partnered with Owen Bradley, one of Nashville’s top producers, to create more Pentagon-sponsored country music content. In 1957, the Army launched “Country Style, U.S.A.," a 15-minute television program recorded at Bradley’s studio. Each episode featured current stars, including future legend Johnny Cash, performing a few songs with a recruiting service message to join the Army stuck between the tunes.

Other service branches copied the Army’s strategy. The Air Force created a radio recruitment show called “Country Music Time,” and the Navy followed with the humorously named “Hootenavy.” The entertainment value lured audiences to these shows, exposing them to the recruitment pitches embedded within each episode.

Yet, this wasn’t simply an economic win-win-win for the military, the country stars who gained publicity and potential enlistees. Rather, the recruiting service’s use of country music also had a dark side. Because of the racial history of the country music industry, recruiters imagined that their message only appealed to white recruits, and they used it heavily during the height of the mid-century civil rights movement.

While country music can claim fans of all genders and races, it still retains a reputation as a genre made by and for white Southerners, a reputation that stretches back to its commercial beginnings. In the 1920s, record companies segregated musical genres along racial lines in reflection of the Jim Crow laws of the day, casting “hillbilly” music, later renamed country, as an all-white genre and “race records” as a catchall for different genres of black music. Those divisions never really abated over the years, even as country music produced African American stars like Charley Pride and later Darius Rucker.

For the white Southerners targeted by these country music campaigns in the 1950s and 1960s, joining the military offered a steppingstone to social respectability and economic stability — a way to avoid the manual labor and low-wage service sector jobs that dominated the post-war economy of the South. The pitches in shows like “Country Style, U.S.A.” always focused on the economic benefits of military service. Thousands of white Southerners, including several future country music stars, joined the armed forces for these economic reasons. Cash, who grew up on a farm in Dyess, Ark., enlisted in the Air Force in 1951 for the prospect of a steady job. As he wrote in his autobiography, “a government paycheck and a clean blue uniform looked pretty good.”

The military’s use of country music continued for nearly 40 years — until rising enrollment of African Americans and people of color prompted a change in recruitment strategies. Backed by fiddles, steel guitars and banjos, country music recruitment helped brand the genre as the sound of white devotion to the nation-state. At the same time, the recruiting service acted as an unofficial promotional branch of the country music industry, helping push the music to military and civilian audiences and giving a government-sponsored boost to the genre in the process.

Of course, the links between country music and the military extended beyond these recruitment partnerships, as country stars found success with patriotic anthems and militaristic themes, from the anti-hippie backlash of Merle Haggard’s “Fightin’ Side of Me” to the macho nationalism of Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue (The Angry American).” These types of songs have led many observers to equate country music with the conservative political beliefs that tend to align with unflinching support for the nation’s military missions.

Given this history, it’s not shocking that since May 17, the U.S. Army has sponsored country music star Chuck Wicks’s weekly Facebook Live “Sunday Serenade,” marking the return of country music recruiting. On the first Army-sponsored episode, neither Wicks nor guest Brantley Gilbert engaged in jingoistic posturing or even urged their audience to join the military. But Wicks appeared in front of an Army recruitment banner, an Army logo appeared in the bottom corner of the screen and the artists mentioned briefly that the U.S. Army sponsored that week’s show.

While the lack of a hard sell might surprise some, the hawkish patriotism heard in songs by the likes of Haggard and Keith has obscured the deeper connection between country music and the U.S. military found in the long history of musical recruitment. Now, amid the coronavirus pandemic and its economic fallout, it looks as if the Army has retooled this old strategy for a new landscape, deploying country music to entice a new generation of recruits with the tools of social media.

Therein lies the inherent problem with country music recruitment. Although country music has grown more diverse over the last decade, with artists like Rucker, Kane Brown and Jimmie Allen experiencing success, the industry still predominantly caters to a white fan base.

Just last week, Mickey Guyton, an African American country singer, released a new song called “Black Like Me” in which she sings “If you think we live in the land of the free / You should try and be black like me.” This is not patriotism as support for the military but patriotism as dissent. Guyton has struggled to break through in the white, male-dominated world of country, and the smash hit “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X proved deeply controversial and failed to get country airplay, reinforcing the sense that country is a white-dominated genre.

Country music’s history as the sound of hawkish patriotism, owing both to connections with the military and songs from artists like Keith, means that the return of country music recruitment strategies runs the risk of reinforcing the racial divisions that have plagued the nation for generations. Instead, the military ought to consider the impact of its longtime country music recruitment strategy and wrestle with the way it contributed to some of the cultural problems our armed forces must now confront.

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