13 Controversial Country Songs
Country music and controversy go together like peanut butter and bananas. The mix isn’t for everyone, but it’s certainly interesting.
Over decades dozens of singles and album cuts have fanned the flames of public discontent while strengthening the resolve of an artist’s most devoted fans. These controversial songs from different eras of country music show that giving people something to talk about is a hobby that doesn’t discriminate.
Brad Paisley‘s “Accidental Racist” is one of the most recent examples of a country song stirring the pot, but controversial hits by Merle Haggard and Loretta Lynn represent the golden age of country music. Tim McGraw, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire also find their songs on this list. In many cases, the controversial songs become an artist’s signature tune. Remaining strong during an initial period of criticism seems to be the most daunting of tasks.
“Courtesy of the Red White and Blue (The Angry American)”
No song represented an American still angry after the 9/11 attacks better than Toby Keith‘s hit from 2002. However, many — like ABC’s Peter Jennings and the Dixie Chicks — felt it went too far and was “ignorant.” Ask someone who claims to hate Keith about the reason for his or her rage and it won’t take long for them to point to this song. It’s still the highlight of his live show to this day.
It’s been long enough that even the most ardent “Fancy” detractors can accept this hit for its theater and inspiring storyline, but in 1991 a song about a prostitute didn’t go over well. Even less so in 1969, when Bobbie Gentry wrote and first released the song. Time has a way of properly deciding the fate of controversial country songs though, as proven by both Gentry and McEntire’s success.
“Would You Lay With Me (In a Field of Stone)”
The problem with this 1973 hit by Tanya Tucker wasn’t in the lyrics. “Would you lay with me, in a field of stone / Should my lips grow dry, should you wet them, dear,” is a spicy lyric, but not so racy it’d make the modest fan blush. It was Tucker’s age at the time that turned heads. She was 15, so her performance made many uncomfortable because she was underage and the lyric implied sex before marriage.
A humorous video starring Dennis Franz took the edge off this cutting Top 20 hit from the early 2000s, but the Dixie Chicks would be judged for recording and celebrating a song that involves murdering one’s spouse. While many would praise the trio for shining a light on domestic abuse, others would argue that neither domestic abuse nor spousal murder are appropriate subjects for country radio.
Tim McGraw was a star before he released “Red Ragtop” in 2002. A country newcomer may not have gotten away with the controversial ballad about a young couple who decide to have an abortion. “Tim, when he heard the song, recognized that it was a real song about real issues and things people have to deal with,” the singer’s manager told Country Weekly that year. “He views it as truly a slice of life.” Some still turn off the radio when it begins, while others appreciate it as a beautifully tragic story drawn from real life.
You know you’ve stirred the pot when religious leaders get involved. That’s what happened with this Loretta Lynn hit from 1975. A song about the birth control pill would turn heads in the 2010s, but in 1975 it was absolutely taboo. However, after a preacher in Kentucky publicly denounced the song, it became a Top 5 hit.
“Follow Your Arrow”
Kacey Musgraves caused quite a stir when she released “Follow Your Arrow” as the third single from her acclaimed debut album, Same Trailer, Different Park, in 2013. The song’s casual references to marijuana use and same-sex kissing caused country radio to stay away from it, and Musgraves was even censored when she sang it on the CMA Awards that year. But she got the last laugh when the same song won the CMA Award for Song of the Year the following year.
“Maybe I Mean Yes”
Holly Dunn inadvertently caused a commotion when she released “Maybe I Mean Yes” to country radio in 1991 as a single from her Milestones: Greatest Hits album. She co-wrote the song with her brother Chris Waters and songwriter Tom Shapiro, and they intended a light-hearted look at the dating scene and how sometimes a woman might say no to a date at first, but might actually be testing a man’s resolve. But the line, “When I say ‘no’ I mean ‘maybe’, or maybe I mean ‘yes,'” led to widespread controversy over date rape, and Dunn voluntarily withdrew the song from country radio and chose to stop performing it at her concerts.
“Okie From Muskogee”
Timing created a controversy for Merle Haggard. His 1969 hit was banned from some radio stations by owners who disagreed with the singer’s politics. That was after several groups — like the Black Panthers — called the lyrics “divisive.” President Nixon loved “Okie From Muskogee,” but Haggard wasn’t even trying to be political when he wrote it. He was simply celebrating small town conservative values.
“Have You Forgotten”
Much like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” Darryl Worley‘s “Have You Forgotten” was praised by flag-waving country fans and criticized by many who did not support the war in the Iraq. The problem may have been timing. Seemingly dozens of lesser songs were being written and released at the same time, many of which felt less than sincere. Once again, the passage of time justified this chart-topper.
Many marked this song as one to seek out before it was even released on Brad Paisley’s Wheelhouse album. The duet with LL Cool J looks to explore centuries worth of racial tensions. It’s an ambitious idea that has been both praised and labeled as ham-fisted, but Paisley has said he remains proud of the song for daring to even engage in a conversation about racial divides in the setting of country music, calling the controversy over it a “learning experience.”
“Down From Dover”
First found on Dolly Parton’s The Fairest of Them All album from 1969, “Down From Dover” is a woman’s wait for the father of her unborn child to return home. As the song continues one senses he’s a deadbeat, but the tragic ending blindsides a first-time listener. Though never a commercial hit, “Down From Dover” is well-known amongst Parton fans, and it’s been covered several times. It helped define her as someone who would blaze her own path; ideas of sex before marriage just weren’t addressed so blatantly in the mid-to-late ’60s.
Little Big Town got their first taste of controversy when they released “Girl Crush” as the second single from Pain Killer in 2014. Written by Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose, “Girl Crush” initially met with resistance at radio because some listeners complained after misunderstanding the lyrics to be about homosexuality. The song became one of the biggest hits of the modern country era in part because of the additional exposure, and went on to sweep the major country awards shows.