Thursday, August 20, 2015

Harlan Howard's Nixon's America

Harlan Howard
There's a long tradition of social conservatism in country music, in songs extolling traditional family values and gender roles to songs about the virtues of God and government. (There's also a loud tradition bucking this tradition, but that's for another time.) Inevitably, one of the great songwriters in country music dipped his toe into the cultural waters. Harlan Howard's 1971 album To The Silent Majority, With Love is a priceless time-capsule of the roiling pre-Watergate, high-Vietnam Nixon era. The President didn't coin the titular phrase, but he made it famous in a November 1969 speech, asking for support from "the great silent majority" of his fellow Americans. Nixon meant, of course, Government-loving, War-supporting, middle-American Christians, those disgusted by the long-haired youthful protests and counter-cultural shenanigans aired on the nightly news and yet politely "silent" in their dissent.

In December 1970 the venerable Howard, author of numerous classic country songs, wrote and recorded a dozen tunes at Nugget Studio in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, fifteen miles north of Nashville, as the country was reeling; in November, the Democrats swept the Congressional midterms and Jimmy Carter was elected Governor of Georgia; Nixon announced that the U.S. would withdraw 40,000 more troops from Vietnam before Christmas just as Lieutenant William Calley was going on trial for the My Lai massacre; the Environmental Protection Agency began its operations. Protests and dissent were occurring with greater frequency and decibel-level. Howard's response was to plug in to middle-class traditional values, perhaps his own, as if recording an imaginary soundtrack for cartoon father of the comically-divided family in Wait Till Your Father Gets Home (which debuted in 1972 but the spirit was already in the air). No work of art exists in a vacuum, and the song titles provide most of the context: "Uncle Sam (I'm A Patriot)," "Better Get Your Pride Back Boy," "The World Is Weighing Heavily On My Mind." There are a couple of more conventional tear-in-beer ballads ("She Called Me Baby," "The Chokin' Kind") but the bulk of the album is comprised of jingoistic tunes intended to both soothe and rally the folk pictured on the album cover: salt-of-the-earth, God-fearing, factory-working, hard-hat-tipping members of the silent majority.


A brief review of the album in the June 12, 1971 issue of Billboard reveals that the songs "have a statement to make."

Indeed they do. Three songs distill the statement well. "Sunday Morning Christian" (co-written with Lawrence Reynolds) is terrific, and was a small hit. Here, Howard gets his hands around the complexities of faith, devotion, family dysfunction, and social standing that in other songs are ignored, or flattened out and overly simplified. "Mister Jones" is the epitome of the contradictory man, and, thus, interesting, and Howard and Reynolds essay him concisely.


More representative of the album's mood, politics, and intentions is "Three Cheers For The Good Guys," a paean to those men who "work hard every week / and get a tear upon their cheek / when they see old glory waving in the breeze." Diplomatically, Howard allows that a Good Guy isn't only a Christian, but "Protestant and Jew / he's every creed and color race and hue," a qualification he's careful to make elsewhere on the album.


In "Mister Professor," those in my profession are admonished—warned, really— to leave the preaching to the preachers, and to inspire a student to become a brave, God-fearing man, "not a coward that [sic] runs and hides." After all, Howard sings, "If you look down with a cynical frown on us workin' slobs / Then all I can say is the taxes we pay created your jobs / Don't turn our kids loose on the world with a messed-up mind / Just help them learnin' nor marchin' and burnin' and we'll like it fine." I'm not sure where liberal arts and sciences learnin' ended and good-old Commie brain-washin' began—probably soon into a history of democracy, protest, and dissent—but, what the hell, the country waltz sure is pretty.


Howard famously coined the phrase "three chords and the truth" in describing the essence of county music. His songs on To The Silent Majority, With Love describe apparently self-evident truths that many couldn't get behind. And the beat goes on.


Anonymous said...

some of that country stuff rides the fine line between straight-faced and ironic or sometimes things get written for what the writer thinks the audience wants. Haggard has said that "Okie From Muskogee" was taken the wrong way.

"Chokin' Kind" is one of those great country songs that get covered by black artists, in this case Waylon's original done by Joe Simon. Joe was produced in Nashville by the great DJ John R(ichbourg).

Joe Bonomo said...

For sure. I don't know enough about Howard to guess at what degree irony/commercialism was at play here, but either way it's of the era.

Chokin' Kind is a great song.