Circa March 26th, 2018 a video of Mason Ramsey, also known as “Yodeling Walmart Kid,” singing a 1949 Hank Williams tune, “Lovesick Blues,” in a Walmart was uploaded to YouTube. It soon found its way through the internet’s web, amassing millions of views, along with the eventual memes. It was shared all over the place– there was not a day where the crooning, “Lord, I don’t know what I’ll do…” were not the opening words on many American’s timelines– whether it be on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Hank Williams’ song reached a #4 spot on Spotify’s Global Viral 50 shortly after, along with appearances by Ramsey on The Ellen Degeneres Show and Coachella.
Days later, on March 30th the Grammy-winning, unconventional country star, Kacey Musgraves, released her highly-anticipated album, Golden Hour. It grabbed more commercial success than her previous work. Major music publications like Pitchfork and SPIN raved. USA Today called it “2018’s best album yet.” When has a country album, or “galactic country,” as Musgraves calls it, been considered a best album of any recent year? She later went to tour the United States with British boyband heartthrob-turned-rockstar, Harry Styles that sold out arenas across the country.
These two events collided at the strangest, yet most-fitting moment in time, Donald Trump’s presidency. Trump is loved by Middle-America and the Republican Party, which are both demographics of people that happen to include cowboys, Southern, and Western-Americans. Republican values were, and still are Southern and Midwestern values– an emphasis on religion, limited government, and the right to bear arms.
Hunter Harris, an associate editor of New York Magazine’s “Vulture” culture blog, recalls back to the election.
“I remember reading somewhere that after Obama’s election, it felt like the culture of D.C. changed overnight: in the Bush-era, advisors and officials could wear cowboy boots, and play in and around the Bush family’s Texas fantasy,” she said. “When Obama took office, his aids were younger and snappier and tech-obsessed. That’s only an anecdotal observation, but it sort of holds true that Obama didn’t deal in the same good ol’ boy southern or southwestern folksiness that Bush did.”
Circling back to Kacey Musgraves, she’s become a gay, hippie icon. She is open with her liberalism, and unafraid to challenge the old ways of country music. She admits to taking psychedelic drugs and uses them as inspiration for her songwriting. She has taken the country music stereotype and flipped it on its head, and she’s succeeding at it.
A professor at UCLA and the founding executive director and then chair of the Institute for the Study of the American West at the Autry National Center, Stephen Aron, discusses Musgraves success.
“I think Kacey Musgraves makes for a very interesting case study of how some artists have used and subverted the dominant cowboy mythology and mystique,” he said. “On the one hand, especially on previous tours, she dressed as a “cowgirl’ (and put her band in cowboy costuming — though more in the style of Nudie Cohn than of real ranch hands). On the other, her lyrics posed a challenge to traditional and conservative country music precepts.”
But these traditional, conservative values led to a long period of disdain in popular culture for country and even folk music. This was especially apparent in the early to mid-2010’s where “bro-country” was the norm, and gave country music a reputation that sounded a lot like “My beer, my truck, my God, my girl.” Oh, and the girl was either demonized or put on an unattainable pedestal. It reeked of toxic masculinity and misogyny. In 2015, radio consultant, Keith Hill infamously said, “If you want to make ratings in country radio, take females out.” Not to mention, country was a straight, white, male dominated industry all those years, as well.
That did not sit very well in U.S. popular culture at the time, which tended to run more liberal. A study of 2,250 Americans was published in the culture journal Poetics in 2012 by University of Notre Dame Professor Omar Lizardo. His findings reflect the negative point of view on country. It revealed that although most Americans are now more open to all genres of music, country, folk, and religious music were thought of as “divisive” genres because of country musicians’ political stances.