A Country Divided Against Itself

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There's more radicalism in Nashville than you might think.

Country music, it ought to be agreed, can't be cool. Teenage kids in the Bronx are unlikely to rob passers-by for their Nike stetson, and you wouldn't increase your chances of getting into the most prestigious nightclub in town if you stood in the queue with a pedal steel guitar.

But then there's Johnny Cash. Cool enough to be part of the scene with Elvis and Jerry Lee Lewis in the 1950s, he became an icon all over again in the 1990s, storming Glastonbury and creating a series of astonishing records into his seventies. And he didn't achieve this by following current trends, or reissuing "A Boy Named Sue" in a 12-inch club mix version, but by maintaining the honest, gruff simplicity that made him popular in the first place. He was country's Tony Benn, finding that sticking to his original principles made him a hero for youth, the nose-studded generation adoring him as a beloved and slightly vulnerable uncle.

And this has continued after his death, with a Hollywood film about his life - or rather, part of his life. Because, as well as his music, Cash's life was driven by a deeply held ideology which is barely present in the film. One of my favourite live recordings of any musician is of Cash in New York in 1970, in which he humbly mutters an introduction to a pacifist song, describing how he'd recently played for the troops in Vietnam. He says, "Afterwards a general said to me, 'Johnny, as you've performed here, that must make you a hawk now.' I said, 'No sir, it's made me a dove with claws'." And this to a largely white working class audience that Dylan and Hendrix found much more difficult to reach.

Cash also became obsessed with the plight of Native Americans, producing a series of records about their condition. One of the most delightful lines in these is in a song about General Custer. He sings "Now Custer split his men," then breaks off to cough out a jolly chuckle before continuing, "Well, he won't do that again." When radio stations banned these songs, he paid for a nationwide advert that must be unmatched in its combination of courage, integrity and amphetamine-fuelled incoherence. It screamed, "DJs, station managers, owners, etc. Where are your GUTS?... The songs ARE strong medicine. Well, so is Harlem, Birmingham and Vietnam."

And his most famous record, recorded live at San Quentin prison, includes possibly the most impressive pause in music. He begins a song with the simple line, "San Quentin, I hate every inch of you." There follows an audible silence of about a second, as the inmates contemplate whether they've actually heard this right, the first expression of humanity they've experienced since arriving there - until they overcome the disbelief, then cheer and cheer and cheer.

But Hollywood's problem wasn't just of how to sanitise a popular radical. The country scene today ought to epitomise Bush's heartland. It's the music of the small towns, the Midwest, the middle-aged flag-waving proud, overweight truck owners who wear very big belts. Could anyone symbolise this America more than Willie Nelson, usually pictured on a horse, and who apparently owns an entire county somewhere. Last year I saw Willie Nelson at the Shepherd's Bush Empire, playing in front of a vast Texan flag, and yet he has campaigned stridently against the war in Iraq, and wrote a song that ended "How much blood can oil be worth?/Whatever happened to peace on Earth?"

The only person with a claim to be more American than Willie Nelson must be Dolly Parton, except she has spoken of her opposition to the war as well. The Dixie Chicks' statement that George Bush made them ashamed to be Texans was well publicised. But late one night I stumbled across a TV programme showing a Country Music Awards ceremony from Nashville that threatened to drown under a torrent of glittery hats, stars, stripes and screams of "Yee-ha". The best of us, I thought, asked to talk about the war to that audience, would probably decide to skirt round the issue. But then an announcement was made that a special commendation was being awarded to the Dixie Chicks for their "international achievements".

Merle Haggard is a country star who took on opponents of the Vietnam War, saying in one of his songs "If you run down your country you'll be running on the fighting side of me." But even he has written a song condemning the war in Iraq, and said recently, "The three biggest assholes ever to walk the earth are Hitler, Nixon and George Bush." Which could be interpreted as a subtle move to the left.

The process isn't in one direction. The country song "Where Were You When The World Stopped Turning" by Alan Jackson became a patriotic anthem, despite containing the depressingly accurate line "I'm just a simple man/I don't know the difference between Iraq and Iran." And other singers have worked hard to maintain the stereotype, but the country scene, the terrain Bush must see as his cultural heartland, is clearly deeply divided.

So what could Hollywood do with Johnny Cash? They could portray him accurately as driven by a Christian pacifism, and unyielding anti-racism, but while this may excite half the potential audience, they'd alienate the other half. So they gently ignore the ideals that drove him, in an effort to appeal to both sides of an America that's polarised - not just between cities and the countryside, or students against conservatives, but divided where America's at its most American.