By William Nash
Jason Aldean’s song “Try That In A Small Town” extols small towns as bastions of conservative values standing up against a litany of violent big-city bogeymen. The song, and the backlash against it, threatens to strengthen popular conceptions about the inherent conservatism of country music.
As an American Studies professor who teaches courses on country music, I am interested in the genre’s competing “liberal” lineage. For example, I have written about country musicians’ compassionate responses to the opioid crisis.
Another group of songs casts light on abortion rights, a newly pressing issue in the wake of 2022’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization Supreme Court decision overturning the constitutional right to abortion. Rather than resort to angry polemics or pronouncements about morality, however, these country – and, more broadly, Americana – songs create intimate portraits of the women and men engaged in the painful realities of daily life. This helps maintain compassion and empathy in discussions of reproductive freedom.
Stories in post-Roe America
Perhaps the most striking of the new “abortion songs” comes from acoustic guitar wizard Molly Tuttle, a bluegrass musician and rising star in the American roots music scene. With “Goodbye Mary,” a track from her new album, “City of Gold,” Tuttle creates an intimate portrait of a woman’s struggle for bodily autonomy that captures the potential terrors of a post-Roe America.
The story chronicles the aftermath of a love affair between Thomas and Mary, whose language marks them as country folk. The song recounts Thomas’ abandoning the pregnant Mary, who chides him for failing to keep his promise to “build a cradle soon”; sending her directions on where to find an abortionist, who refuses to perform the procedure because “the baby’s too far ‘long”; encouraging Mary to fling herself down the stairs or “ride careless down a rocky road”; and saying that he “prays for her soul” after she finds and uses a “wire” in “the old tool shed” to abort the fetus. In the final verse, she asks him, from the confines of her jail cell, to “place pretty flowers on her grave.”
This last twist shifts the narrative from being solely a tale about the tragic failure of the man to own his part in the conception and destruction of their fetus. The story becomes a more layered statement about a woman’s grief when she is pushed to unbearable choices, and her need to balance control of her own body with the legal and psychological guilt imposed by society when she takes the only means of control open to her.
The result is an intimate portrait of a woman navigating a complex landscape made more perilous by the erasure of her rights. The agency left to her, in a world where male doctors can refuse her care and absentee partners can advocate for dangerous solutions, is self-destructive and scarring.
With “Goodbye Mary,” Tuttle joins a line of female artists who have used country, folk or roots music to emphasize women’s reproductive rights. Perhaps the most famous example is Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” a song so controversial that it was effectively banned by country radio programmers after its 1975 release. Despite the resistance to the song, its message resonated so strongly with country listeners that it became one of Lynn’s biggest hits.
You wined me and dined me when I was your girl
Promised if I’d be your wife, you’d show me the world
But all I’ve seen of this old world is a bed and a doctor bill
I’m tearing down your brooder house ‘cause now I’ve got the pill
Another well-known chronicler of women’s struggles is Dolly Parton, whose 1970 track “Down from Dover” chronicles the sufferings of an abandoned teenage mother who feels relief and grief when her baby is stillborn. Less well-known by the mainstream but no less critically important in this history is Malvina Reynolds, whose 1973 “Rosie Jane” supported the Supreme Court’s 1973 Roe v. Wade ruling and whose 1978 “Back Alley Surgery” responded to efforts to restrict Medicaid funding of abortion.
There’s also a small but important history of male artists taking up these issues. Among the most moving of John Prine’s songs is “Unwed Fathers,” a pointed tale of Appalachian men who “can’t be bothered” with unwanted pregnancies and pursue personal and cultural freedoms that elude the women they have impregnated.
But not all the men in these situations are carefree. In “White Beretta,” a song from his “Weathervanes” album, Jason Isbell chronicles the retrospective grief and agony of a rural man who, when a teenager, failed to do more than the minimum for his pregnant girlfriend. The protagonist of the song does take her to have an abortion, but he offers her little empathy and sends her “in that room alone.” He does not regret the decision, thanking his former partner for her “grace/For the dreams we got to chase” because of her choice.
In the final analysis, both Tuttle and Isbell have created intimate, intricate portraits of people making decisions that cause them grief and bring them relief. Neither oversimplifies the issues at hand, just as neither artist wavers from the belief in the rightness of the decisions their respective characters make.
Put another way, these songs succeed in putting human faces on issues that have been depersonalized for political ends. Tuttle and Isbell remind their listeners that there’s more than one side to small-town life.
William Nash is Professor of American Studies and English and American Literatures at Middlebury College.
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