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The Rust Belt & the New South in the Music of Toby Keith & Brad Paisley & Ted Nugent & Kid Rock

Nixon, Ford, Carter, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush, or Obama; Keynesian or Austrian; demand side or supply side; Milton Friedman or Robert Rubin; saving the safety net or dismantling the nanny state; foreign wars or diplomacy. Throughout all these struggles to adjust to a globalized economy, no matter what ideology gained the upper hand, all allowed the United States to abandon domestic manufacturing (unlike Germany and Japan) by doing little to protect and nurture these industries and their employees, by allowing largely unrestrained and therefore uneven access to our consumers for our Cold War, (and then War on Terror), allies, and by favoring global finance and global intellectual property rights with so called free trade agreements such as NAFTA.

To simplify further: Except when a bubble burst this led to good times in the domestic centers and pockets of finance, entertainment, software, hi-tech, and oil; and more consistent bad times in domestic centers and pockets of manufacturing. So now the stock market is back up beyond pre Great Recession levels and real estate prices are rising on the coasts. And Detroit is bankrupt.

From the era of the Model A, through the Arsenal of Democracy war years, to the two-cars-in-every-garage Age of Compression, Detroit was the center and symbol of an industrialization that extended coast to coast  but gathered on the Great Lakes from Buffalo to Milwaukee, pulling in immigrants from overseas as well as the Midwest and southern whites and blacks.  In manufacturing’s decline Detroit remained a symbol, but now its ravaged cityscape stands in for the empty factories, lost jobs and abandoned housing from Camden, New Jersey to Evansville, Indiana to Oakland, California and most notably again, along the Great Lakes, the so-called Rust Belt, while whatever new manufacturing produced by globalization appears in the anti-union Sunbelt, or thanks to the Interstate, out in the suburbs.

Because this devastation is occasionally observed and noted, but largely left unexplained and rarely addressed, present tense Detroit appears as a metaphor of mystery, best borrowed by Berliners who heard techno as the soundscape for an urban spaciousness explored inside the abandoned ruins of in their case the collapse of Stalinism (and maybe the defeat of the Third Reich) and in our case the collapse of Cold War Keynesianism and rise of Reaganism and neo-liberalism.  Or present tense Detroit is acknowledged as a heartland outpost of the South Bronx so enormous it could even spawn one good white rapper.

While past tense Detroit lives on in the mythology of some aging heartland rockers.

At Ted Nugent’s Black Power Tour stop outside of Buffalo last summer he began his set appropriately bathed in strobe lights and smoke after an introductory medley of Grand Funk Railroad’s “We’re An American Band,”  Mitch Ryder’s hit Little Richard tribute, and the first verse of the Stones’ “Street Fighting Man”. I count that as over two thirds signifying Michigan. Later in the evening he advised the audience to “Never forget where you’re from. I’m from Detroit.” And then went into a rapid paced but lengthy monologue about “killing shit” as a little boy in Detroit and “still killing shit” apropos of hunting deer and Second Amendment gun rights.

I’m not going to dwell here on Nugent’s involvement with the NRA, or his function as the Bruce Springsteen of far right Republicans, but I found it striking that he placed his identity as a hunter inside his identity as a native of Detroit. (As he later placed his rocker cred inside his patriotism. “The USA is the greatest country in the history of the world because no other country could have produced a Little Richard or Bo Diddley.”)

I lived in Detroit in the summer of ’65 and pass through it sometimes returning to the Midwest. I don’t claim to know the city now or be able to locate where Nugent actually grew up. But I do know it’s a quick drive from the middle of that city to the corn fields. If Nugent seems a baffling mix of camo-clad rifleman, white blues revivalist, ‘70s arena rock sex maniac, and trash talking right wing nut job, I propose to understand him instead as a coherent public presence, someone who believes he represents a Detroit that disappeared, and so at least acknowledges that disappearance, even if his explanation (the rise of the welfare state) is whack. Taking shape in an industrial behemoth that pushed the races and ethnicities together close by deer hunting semi-wilderness, Nugent articulates a rock era industrial white masculinity that feels abandoned because it has been, and so has fallen back on rock era individualism, and out of Detroit, so to speak, back to the countryside, and in Nugent’s case, in reality, all the way to Texas.

A generation down the road, this same journey by necessity got even more disjointed as traveled by another Detroit identifying pop star, Kid Rock, whose career influences flow from Run DMC to Hank Williams Jr. (or as he a little more benignly rhymes it “Johnny Cash and Grandmaster Flash.”) And who knowingly places himself and his career inside the tradition carved out by Detroit rocker Bob Seger.

It’s not my music, but it still creates and animates its audience, and as absorbed inside of post-Globalizing Country Music, speaks as a piece of a larger aesthetic to that larger audience.

A few years back Nugent toured with Oklahoma’s Toby Keith, and as recently as last year’s tour Keith closed his shows, before the patriotic big hits encore, with a rousing blues rock guitar jam freak out crescendo he attributed to “Uncle Ted Nugent.”  Cynics may see this as merely part of a wide net cast to catch the biggest demographic  – according to Forbes, Keith pulls in more annual income and is more vertically integrated as a business than any other Country entertainer, including Taylor Swift.

But I prefer to understand it this way: as the industrial base has shifted out of Northern cities while drifting out of North America altogether, and the industrial white working class has lost it economic and cultural reference points up North, Country has come to stand in for whiteness in a way it did not in the Age of Compression. Much less a regional music now, Country must incorporate rock elements not just to extend its shelf life and space but to adequately represent the new realities of a globalizing north and south.

Keith started out a honky tonker with the obligatory guilt ridden divorced dad song and eulogy to disappearing country small town song. But he didn’t hit his stride until he dropped the guilt and sorrow to take shape as the patriotic fun loving badass with an endorsement deal for Ford F150 Pick Ups (the bestselling vehicle in the USA for the last 32 years) and a string of restaurants in shopping malls and casinos around the country named after one of his hit songs. Keith saw the mainstream and moved into (or maybe toward) it, in a way one of his touchstones, Merle Haggard, never could, but another, Bob Seger, taking us back to Detroit, (and Kid Rock) did not have to work to locate.

That the mainstream may have moved to the oil fields of Oklahoma from the factories of Detroit, especially during the George Bush II years, Keith’s peak of cultural power, should not come as a surprise. But why the need to incorporate Ted Nugent’s guitar jam freak-out? (And here I distinguish the guitar jam freak-out from the guitar jam groovy boogie.)

In Keith’s world the characters have jobs, but not ones they like. It’s payday so “let’s go get drunk and be somebody.”  If there’s a farmer in a song, he’s on the edge of town, assumed to be well off, but working dawn to dusk because “it’s a hard hard world.”  In other words, TobyKeithdom encapsulates the stresses and the strains, the contradictions, the psychological chaos and energy of the industrialized post-war world best captured, so far, musically, by rock and roll. (In this formulation, then, hip hop would be the music of de-industrialization.) If there’s a stress line, it isn’t caused by cheating on your spouse, poverty, or the loss of an agrarian paradise, it’s there inside the whole idea of an America under siege.

I’m a lifelong lefty pacifist who views the invasion of Iraq, in particular, as a tragedy. But I find a real depth in the assertive, sometimes bellicose anthems that Keith pulls out from that era in his encore, unlike some of the other songs that appeared after 9/11, perhaps because Keith’s songs acknowledge and address some real pain and fear.  As he shapes a storyline in his concert set list we go from boozing, toking, brawling, sex and maybe a little Jesus, to the guitar jam to the patriotic finale. I hear that as incorporating a lot of psychological territory, not just genre hopping, while both absorbing and critiquing Nugentism. Keith’s American Soldier is achieving something difficult when he pulls himself together to take a stand because “freedom isn’t free.”  Nugent’s warrior outlaw is closer to the Last of the Mohicans, still on the lam.

Sometimes, but not always included in this mix is Keith’s hit “Made In America.”  Ostensibly about “my old man” with “Semper Fi tattooed on his left arm” whose heart is broken “seeing foreign cars/Filled with fuel that isn’t ours/And wearing cotton we didn’t grow” who will “spend a little more in the store for a tag in the back that says ‘USA,” this song comes as close as any I have heard to at least addressing the fact that we don’t make stuff anymore. Why this might be considered jingoistic says more to me about our political and economic confusion or intentional ignorance or facebook/finance elitism than it does about Toby Keith’s at times mis-oriented saber rattling.

Which brings us to Brad Paisley. If Toby Keith’s slogan might be “Never apologize for being patriotic” Paisley’s might be “Welcome to the Future.”  If Keith is comfortable in contemporary Oklahoma and by extension in America, but gains focus “sticking a boot up the ass” of what we decided (incorrectly, as I see it) were our global enemies, Paisley is anxious but excited about touring the world, and having the world “wash up on our shores.” A great country rock guitar player, clever wordsmith, and arena presence, he appears to be safely steering between the double dangers of his noted and perceived connection to Obama, and the younger crowd of rockin’ country party boys. In other words, the south getting swept up in a globalized economy is understood as an opportunity rather than a threat.

Any big time country act that can feature pictures of George Jones and Martin Luther King Jr. in a full strength stage act deserves and has my admiration. And if Paisley  balances his relationship to Obama with his relationship to Hank Williams Jr., who sings about “taking our country back” and sending “Obama back to Chicago” on his recent CD while also dueting with Paisley on a different cut, I say that proves something but I don’t know what, and is certainly a cultural moment worthy of attention.

I appreciate Paisley’s attempts to understand how tolerance plays off against provincialism in this larger world, admire his skill at balancing tradition and change, and well, just love a lot of his songs and his concerts. But . . . where’s the hard part beyond the tension between the old and new?  The recognition, even if sublimated, that some of this wonderful new future has come at a price?
I would like to be proven wrong, but so far, the only time I have seen an identifiable American union member in any music video anywhere is at a Toby Keith concert: UAW members assembling Ford F Series Pick-Ups. One of which pick-ups, by the way, received its own round of applause when it appeared in another of the evening’s videos. 

With the 2014 defeat of the United Auto Workers in the union recognition vote at the VW plant in Chattanooga, Tennessee and the unbelievable, outrageous news that Michigan is now a Right To Work state, one wonders how much longer there will even be any American union members, visible or not, as the Age of Inequality rolls on, having survived or even flourished during the Great Recession.

Interstate 75 flows south like a concrete Mississippi from the Ontario – Michigan border down through Flint, Detroit, Toledo, Cincinnati, Chattanooga, and Atlanta, ending in Miami. As pieces of Michigan’s economy float down that highway to Tennessee while pieces of Tennessee’s policies float up to Michigan, let’s hope the music identified with Michigan and Tennessee finds a way to stretch across that distance and help illuminate and mend the promise of democratic industrial affluence that Detroit once represented.  That would, of course, also require a more direct confrontation with the catastrophe of deindustrialization than our current political options are capable of creating.

Presented at EMP Museum Pop Conference April, 2014, revised

Tom Smucker

Books I read to write this:

Pivotal Decade: How the United States Traded Factories For Finance in the Seventies, by Judith Stein, Yale University Press, 2010

Rock and Roll Always Forgets, by Chuck Eddy, Duke University Press, 2011

The White Working Class Today, by Andrew Levison, Democratic Strategist Press, 2013

The Shock of the Global, Harvard University Press, 2010

Deer Hunting With Jesus, by Joe Bageant, Three Rivers Press, 2007

Ted, White, and Blue, by Ted Nugent, Regnery Publishing, 2010

Stayin’ Alive, by Jefferson Cowie, The New Press, 2010


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