In his new book Coming Apart, Charles A. Murray argues the white working class is doomed to poverty because more and more of them are abandoning the American values of hard work, family, and faith. The book reiterates the all too familiar argument that poverty plagues the United States because the poor are morally inferior, and Murray misinterprets macro level data to reinforce reality as he and other libertarians see it—mostly by concentrating on the increasingly low rates of employment, marriage, and church attendance amongst the white working class. Yet, since Murray relies on secondary data and never immerses himself into his subjects of critique, he can’t convey how working class whites personally experience, perceive, and adapt to their increasingly bleak socio-economic reality (made worse every day by shifts in the global economy that reduce the need for unskilled labor and suppress wages more generally).Others (like, for instance, me) have watched working class men and their families struggle with the loss of high-paying, low-skill jobs that are an inevitable outcome of the global race to the bottom described by other cultural critics like Susan Faludi. I grew up in Appalachia and still regularly visit family members there. First as a graduate student and now as an assistant professor working in the heart of the old Confederacy, I have explored the white working class as a qualitative researcher. While I agree with Murray that cultural changes are afoot amongst this group, my research tells a very different story about these transformations. Like scholars such as Paul DiMaggio, I find cultural and moral change is an inevitable outcome of the economic hardship that makes it tougher and tougher for working class men to conform to the roles, identities, and practices of many social institutions including the economy, religion, and family.
To dig deeper, I chose the southern rock revival as my subject of study—that is, as my case. This scene is an underground continuation of the southern rock and outlaw country movements that celebrated rural, white, working class men during the 1970s with blues and country music. Contemporary musicians incorporate punk rock and heavy metal alongside traditional Americana. Ever since this once popular music(s) faded into obscurity in the 1980s as the glamorization and massification of both rock and pop country was propelled by music television channels like MTV and CMT, a small community of artists remained. Comprised mostly of working-class, middle-aged white men, these musicians kept the genre alive by writing, recording, and performing in the margins of the culture industry. These musicians devote themselves to communicating the struggles of white, rural, working class guys in ways that neither glamorize “Middle America” (like Nashville) nor poke fun at “Blue-Collar Rednecks” (like Comedy Central). I first encountered the scene as a touring musician and then later as a sociologist. I have since analyzed over 1,000 songs, interviewed 47 southern rock revival musicians, and attended concerts all over the southeast to talk with fans.In doing this research, I have come to understand how these “southern men” (a grouping that has little to do with being from the south and everything to do with being poor, white, and rural) react to the rapid reorganization of our postindustrial economy by changing their moral outlooks and relationships to certain social institutions. I do not doubt these institutional changes are reflected in Murray’s macro level data. However, when you actually “walk a mile” in working class shoes, you find many simply gravitate toward the few available ways to salvage masculine pride in an economy that makes it nearly impossible for low skill workers to achieve the American Dream of a good paying job, a happy family, and church on Sundays.
The contemporary struggles of white, working class men are readily apparent in southern rock revival songs. “Workin’ Man,” by Bob Wayne and Hank Williams III, highlights how limited economic opportunity has put the American dream out of reach. The song describes how a construction worker wanted nothing more but to “trade his blood and sweat to feed his kids,” but is increasingly unable to do so because the “boss man” and a “rich politician” ensure the only work available is a low-paying factory job. Throughout the song, the construction worker turns less and less to God for comfort and instead to “drink” and “smoke” (in “outlaw country,” smoking usually means smoking pot).
While the blue-collar man was once considered an icon of masculinity and a pop culture hero, southern rock revivalists are aware the world has changed. The new service-sector jobs provide neither the wages nor the status needed to support masculine pride. Worker exploitation is, therefore, a common theme of many southern rock revival songs. In his song “Work,” Scott H. Biram describes a father telling his son he’ll “be another poor fool standing in a line, working his life away,” and in their song “Up the Creek,” the band Artimus Pyledriver (a moniker with deep Southern rock roots) describes the working man as “damned” and “living a sham.” During interviews, many musicians described jobs to me as a form of “wage slavery,” and in their song “Wage Slave,” Alabama Thunderpussy claims the profit driven production system imprisons the working man in an endless cycle of harder work for fewer rewards. Echoing Bob Wayne and Hank III, the song goes on to describe the worker as giving his “sweat, bad blood, and tears” only to remain perpetually in debt and considering crime as his only option.
Thus, southern rock songs about work have changed their focus since the 1970s. While Merle Haggard songs like “Working Man Blues” or “Working Man Can’t Get Nowhere Today” recount the hardships of low wage work, they also reflect the pride and fortitude of the men who endure tough conditions, often for the sake of their families. In fact, in addition to songs like Alabama’s “40 Hour Week” that celebrate a variety of working class occupations, in the late 1970s an entire genre of songs celebrating occupational truck drivers rose to popularity (recall the joys of “Convoy“, “Chicken Truck,” and “Eastbound and Down“). In contrast, contemporary southern rock songs focus almost exclusively on the exploitative, demeaning, and degrading aspects of modern labor.Increasingly unemployed or underpaid, working class men are correspondingly lashing out at authority figures. In “Quittin’ Time,” Joecephus of the George Jonestown Massacre tells his “son-of-a-bitch” boss to “f-off,” then sings, “I think I represent a whole lot of people out there, who don’t seem to be getting their fair share.” In “If You Can’t Even Help Your Own,” Hank III first sings how the greedy government is “doing us wrong,” then adds how he will never forgive them for taking his “poor granddad’s farm.” Similarly, in “Working at Working,” Wayne “the Train” Hancock not only describes being unable to pay his bills despite working hard (“rich folks call it recession, but the poor folks call it depression”), he also challenges authority by “wondering if the president knows how I feel?” And, in “Before They Get Those Cuffs on Me,” J.B. Beverly describes assaulting a bank teller, killing a sheriff, and threatening a judge, each of whom tried to force him to pay his bills. While these songs from the southern rock revival are in line with older songs like David Allen Coe’s “Take this Job and Shove it,” most of the earlier generations of southern rockers held back such explicit criticism of authority figures. For instance, in the re-mastered version of their song “Trust,” Lynyrd Skynyrd accepts it when the police tell them to drink elsewhere—they explain there’s no sense in talking back to the police, since they’re just doing their jobs. Now, as working class men and their representatives on stage are increasingly unable to establish a cooperative relationship with economic elites, they rebel (or fantasize about rebelling) against them.
Working class men of generations past also built masculine pride upon their breadwinner role in the traditional nuclear family—often at the expense of gender equality. Many southern rock songs of the 1970s celebrate family; cherished relationships between parents and children are the main theme of Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Every Mother’s Son” and “Simple Man,” while Waylon Jennings’s “Dukes of Hazzard” theme has the eponymous brothers getting embarrassed when their mother sees them in handcuffs.
As more and more white, working class men accept they will never be able to support their wives and children in the ways their fathers did, they must accept an almost complete reversal in the framing of the family. Today, southern rock revivalists reject wives, children, and materialism more generally. Throttlerod sings about being “No Damn Fool,” telling a partner to pack and leave, since a big house and fancy car aren’t exactly forthcoming. In his song “Movin’ Out,” Bob Wayne (with his band, the Outlaw Carnies) tells his partner about the futility of money and “keeping up with the Joneses,” and Unknown Hinson complains about being forced to support another child in his song “Pregnant Again” (reminiscent of Loretta Lynn’s recent “Story of My Life” complaints that she’s got “kids of four and I’m telling you I don’t want no more” but still, “the babies are coming in pairs!”). The way The Reverend Horton Heat sings it, he’s just happy to have gotten out of his marriage with his Galaxie 500. In these ways, revivalists often tie protests of marriage, children, and other demanding responsibilities to economic difficulties.
Instead of building their identities around their occupations or roles in the family, southern rock revivalists also capture how working class men increasingly affirm their masculinity through drug use, binge drinking, and violence. Where once Johnny Cash sang “Cocaine Blues” as a warning—”Lay off that whiskey and let that cocaine be”—Nashville Pussy describes becoming a “Lazy White Boy” after going broke growing tobacco, and The Revered Horton Heat, too, sings (tongue-in- cheek) about failing at raising honest crops in Texas and moving to Peru to grow “Bales of Cocaine.” In “Six Pack of Beer,” Hank III sings about how he would work harder if he had more money coming to him, but since he’s broke, he prefers to drink (while his father, Hank Williams, Jr., still gets whole crowds to sing along as he describes the “Family Tradition” of drinking, smoking pot, and “living out the songs that they wrote”). So, though songs about drinking and drugs aren’t new to country music or southern rock (or any genre, really), unlike the first generation of each, revivalists are both more sanguine and sinister, more likely to describe turning to drugs and alcohol as a straightforward way to combat the stress of economic difficulties (rather than just do it quietly and alone, the way men like the first Hank Williams had).
FaithFurther distancing themselves from the songs of the 1970s, known for expressing a commitment to Christianity despite or in spite of drinking and drugging, revivalists celebrate their use of substances in religious terms. Suplecs named their song about cocaine “White Devil,” and, in “Evil Mother Fucker from Tennessee,” Joe Buck sings how he’s got the Devil (e.g., whiskey, heroine, and cocaine) in him. One of Buck’s former bands, Th’ Legendary Shack Shakers (Joe Buck was also in Hank III’s “Damn Band” and punk-metal group Assjack), describes a Friday night at the bar as the “Devil’s Night Auction.” Hank III sums it up with his guttural intent: he’s going “Straight to Hell.” The way religion as a social institution is viewed across the two generations of southern rock has thus flipped; revivalists flaunt Christianity but in a celebration of sin, while traditionalists respected the teachings of the church even as they contradicted those edicts in their personal lives. Personally, I recall how my grandparents would skip church on the weeks before paychecks. They were too embarrassed to have nothing for the offering plate, but would complain bitterly about how those with money had their prayer list at the top of the bulletin. Perhaps the decline in church attendance documented (and lamented) by Murray and the rejection of Christian morality described by southern rockers are also linked to economic decline.
Economy, Morality, and the American SoulSouthern rock has long exaggerated and idealized its depictions of contemporary reality. While most working class men do not live out the songs they love, there’s no doubt that such songs reflect real economic anxieties. As they sing along loudly at concerts and in their cars, these men demonstrate how their worries change their approaches to (and rejections of) their roles as workers, husbands, fathers, and religious believers. Sure, Murray may be accurate in statistically documenting declining rates of marriage, employment, and church attendance in the white working class. But it’s simplistic and naive for Murray to reverse causal reality to argue that changes in morality cause economic hardship. There are fewer and fewer opportunities for working class men to support even themselves, much less their families and communities; the decline in these institutions is driven in part by a crumbling economic foundation.
This means if Murray and other libertarians want to return to their idealized America of the 1950s—with its committed families, strong churches, and proud workforce—they need to accept that we must organize our economy to benefit those at the bottom just as we did in the postwar period. Perhaps this time around we might overcome both the massive gender and racial inequalities that stain earlier iterations of the utopian United States and the tendency to use disadvantaged groups as scapegoats for our economic and cultural decline.
To read more about the representations of working class men in these songs and many more, just pick up any of these insightful works:
Mike Butler. 1999. “‘Luther King was a good ole boy’: The Southern rock movement and white male identity in the post-civil rights South—Sound recording review,” Popular Music and Society.
Jason T. Eastman. 2012. “Rebel Manhood: The Hegemonic Masculinity of the Southern Rock Music Revival,” Journal of Contemporary Ethnography.
Jennifer C. Lena. 2012. Banding Together: How Communities Create Genres in Popular Music. *To listen to an Office Hours interview with Jenn Lena regarding this book on The Society Pages, click here.
Bill C. Malone. 2006. Don’t Get above your Raisin’: Country Music and the Southern Working Class.
Ted Ownby. 1998. “Freedom, manhood, and white male tradition in 1970s Southern rock music,” In Anne G. Jones and Susan V. Donaldson, eds., Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts.