An inherent relationship exists in the mythos of country music between the storytellers and the land. The rivers and oceans and lakes and dirt roads have provided inspiration for many a songwriter and performer for as long as country music has been made in America. It’s an untold story. But it’s a story defined by artists all across the country spectrum- folk country, traditional country, outlaw country, truck-driving country. Examples are scattered across decades worth of country music gold.
A turn toward corporatism, sponsorship, and radio conglomeration over the past couple of decades have increasingly got in the way of acknowledging intrinsic things that get at the heart of what country music *is.* Country music began as a rural and small-town based phenomena. Born out of a rural lifestyle is a deep connection to the woods and the streams and the animals that give life- and take it away. Even as country music massively grew over the 20th Century and expanded into urban population centers and big cities, there remained an innate sense of place and setting in so many of the songs appearing on a country chart at any given time. Small towns, farms, pieces of Americana, mountain towns in Appalachia. But I’m not just talking about the themes of songs. I’m talking about a songwriter’s appreciation for clean water. Mountains untouched from strip mining. Oceans and coast lines with an abundance of wildlife that lived a symbiotic relationship with mankind.
Somewhere (within the past decade), country music lost that symbiotic relationship. Now, when we hear about a rural lifestyle, it’s braggadocious, party-based, and in-your-face. No mention of the beauty of the natural surroundings. Not a word about an eagle soaring through a deep blue sky. A bottle of Southern Comfort with the sun hitting the glass is good enough for country radio. But it wasn’t always that way. Imagine you’re taking a seat on a swinging chair of a front porch as the locusts chirp in the background and the sun sets on a late summer’s day with the sound and message of John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind” pulsing through your ears.
John Anderson’s “Seminole Wind” is the essential country environmental conservation song. It may, indeed, be the all-time greatest pro-environment song in all of music. The Florida-born Anderson wrote and performed the mournful song that brought to attention the draining of the Everglades and the destruction man has brought to nature.
The actual production of the song is urgent and beckoning for help as Anderson sings, “Progress came and took its tool, and in the name of flood control/They made their plans, and they drained the land. Now the ‘Glades are growing dry…” The draining of the Florida Everglades has been a controversial and disastorous consequence of the sprawl that has slowly engulfed the Sunshine State. Developers as far back as the 19th Century believed draining the great wetland would allow more people to settle in Southern Florida and use the land for agriculture. But Mother Nature had her own plan. Wetlands are necessary to prevent flooding- in particular when hurricanes come ashore in the first part of the 20th Century. The draining of the Everglades resulted in hurricanes having a much more severe effect on Florida, and the Army Corps of Engineers (who, more often than not, simply make a problem worse) decided to build “sections” of the Everglades to try to control flooding and give population centers the water it needs to survive. It’s still a problem that hasn’t been solved.
“Seminole Wind” speaks to the issues of man trying to control nature; the song passionately discusses mankind’s arrogance in believing it can stop floods or storms or wind from destroying what we’ve built in places where no development belongs. “Blow, blow Seminole Wind, blow like you’re never gonna blow again…,” sings Anderson, as he seems resigned to the progress and blight we have wrought.
William Dale Fries, Jr. is best known for his contribution of “Convoy” to the country music catalog. Better known as C.W. McCall, Fries (now 91 years old) is a dedicated environmentalist who counts a number of conservationist anthems to his discrography and also served as mayor of Ouray, Colorado from 1986–1992.
McCall’s most poignant contribution to country music’s environmental history is 1976’s “There Won’t Be No Country Music (There Won’t Be No Rock ’N’ Roll)” off the aptly titled Wilderness. The album is dedicated to conservation and the threats posed to Earth and all living things. But it’s “There Won’t Be No Country Music” that provides the most urgent plea. The opening verse lays down a marker for the seriousness of the situation:
“Well, it’s only gonna be about an hour, friend, ‘til they dam your favorite river, so you can water-ski just one more reservior/And them supersonic ships are gonna take you ‘cross a sea of pavement to one more faceless brickyard on the shore…”
Each verse progresses quicker and quicker with one of the more jarring verses being:
“Well, it’s only gonna take about a minute or so, ‘til the junkyards fill the prairies, boy, and them smokin’ yellow grass fires start to burn/ And the warnings on them beer cans gonna be buried in them landfills, no deposit, no sad songs, and no returns…”
McCall paints a bleaker and bleaker picture for the future of the Earth while pleading for the need to take action. McCall’s goal while writing the song was to connect music, what we feel in our souls, and how it all flows from our natural surroundings. Water, mountains, wildlife. It’s all connected, and without that relationship, McCall sings, we all lose our souls.
The entire Wilderness album is well-worth a listen with many lessons being applicable to today’s conservation movement as is McCall’s entire discography. Even in his truck-driving songs, McCall includes observations about what the narrator sees on his journeys across highways and through small-town America that relate to the natural beauty of the Earth, and how it needs preserved.
If C.W. McCall was an activist singer-songwriter with strong messages in his songs, John Denver was the same- just on a much larger scale. Though he came up through the folk scene, John Denver is inherently tied to country music through songs like “Take Me Home, Country Roads” and “Thank God I’m a Country Boy” and his controversial CMA Entertainer of the Year Award in 1975. Denver testified before Congress, lent his songs and voice to nature documentaries, and even founded the Windstar Foundation in 1976 with the goal of promoting sustainable living (the organization closed its doors in 2012 after years of education and conservation).
But most significantly, John Denver fought for the environment through song and music. Two songs are easily worth mentioning first- “Rocky Mountain High” and “Calypso.” “Rocky Mountain High,” one of the two official state songs for Colorado, is a positive, uplifting anthem about a man who “was born in the summer of his 27th year” after leaving his previous life behind for the mountains of Colorado. The imagery is intense and vivid with lines about “cathedral mountains” and “the serenity of a clear blue mountain lake.” Denver is at once a poet, activist, and songwriter, and all three ideals combine to allow Denver the ability to poignantly draw out the details of our natural surroundings.
But perhaps the most important detail of “Rocky Mountain High” comes toward the end as Denver sings:
“Now his life is full of wonder, but his heart still knows some fear, of a simple thing he cannot comprehend/Why they try to tear the mountains down to bring in a couple more. More people, more scars upon the land…”
Despite the beauty and splendor of the Rocky Mountains, man cannot help but exploit nature for its own gain. For someone in tune with nature, as Denver’s character is here, he can’t understand the need to destroy Earth’s greatest wonders in the name of commercialization.
“Calypso,” on the other hand, finds John Denver exploring the virtue of the oceans as he sings, “To live on the land, we must learn from the sea.” The song was inspired by the famous French explorer Jacques Cousteau and named for the ship he used to research countless areas across the world. Whereas “Rocky Mountain High” could be called a solid piece of 70s country music with its production, “Calypso” leans more folk but still includes the classic elements of country music that allowed John Denver to become an artist who transcended genre.
While we could go on and on with John Denver’s contributions to the environment through song (he does, after all, have a song titled “Earth Day Every Day”), one other to mention before moving on is Denver’s “Wild Montana Skies.” I’ve always found “Wild Montana Skies” to contain a sense of melancholy as Denver sings of a young man who lives a calm, peaceful life that has become harder and harder to maintain. Denver’s focus here is on the character, but even in the chorus, Denver manages to include highly specific details about beauty of Montana. Denver finds the character admirable as he lives a life “Giving a voice to the forest, giving a voice to the dawn/Giving a voice to the wilderness and the land that he lived on.”
The John Denver and C.W. McCall songs mentioned are outwardly conservationist, but some of the other pro-environment contributions to country music’s catalog take a more subtle approach and focus on a way of life that, as Denver observed in “Wild Montana Skies,” is becoming harder and harder live.
The Bob McDill-penned “Lord Have Mercy on a Country Boy” was taken to number seven on the charts by Don Williams and later covered by Josh Turner on Your Man in 2006. “Lord Have Mercy on a Country Boy” is filled with memories of how the narrator grew up and a lament of how things are now. Like the best of Bob McDill’s songs, the details are simply and yet highly vivid in the manner they’re presented. The songs begins with a memory: “Well, I grew up wild and free, walkin’ these fields in my bare feet/There wasn’t no place I couldn’t go, with a .22 rifle and a fishing pole…” The chorus hits as the narrator moves into the present: “Well, I live in the city, but don’t fit in. You know it’s a pity, the shape I’m in/Well, I got no home, and I got no choice. Oh, Lord, have a mercy on a country boy…”
The song becomes urgent with the last verse as the narrator observes the sprawl and destruction that surrounds him: “Well, they dammed the river, they dammed the stream. They cut down the cypress and the sweet gum trees/There’s a laundromat and a barber shop. And now the whole meadow is a parking lot…” McDill’s song is one of simplicity and relatibility. While John Denver reached for beautiful poetry to describe sailing the ocean, McDill wrote about details that are highly relatable to men and women across America. See, the environment bridges cultural gaps as our actions impact each and every one of us. Whether climbing a mountain in a national park or just taking a stroll through the woods, nature and its conservation quickly becomes highly important for us all.
An artist you may not expect to find here but nevertheless an important figure in the discussion of conservation in country music- Hank Williams Jr. and his classic “A Country Boy Can Survive.” “A Country Boy Can Survive,” like “Lord Have Mercy on a Country Boy,” approaches environmental conservation from the perspective of hunters, fishermen, and outdoorsmen. Indeed, the relationship between those who live off the land and conservation is the strongest of the symbiotic relationships mentioned earlier in the piece. No individual knows better the necessity of protecting and conserving nature than an avid fisherman or serious hunter. We’re not talking big-game hunting here (the antithesis of conservation, as if that needs saying). But what we are talking about are those who hunt to feed families and friends and use everything they can to make it worth it (something learned from the Native Americans who first called this land their home). “A Country Boy Can Survive” speaks to this side of conservation. Hank Jr. mentions the Mississippi River going through a drought and then sings of his ability to “skin a buck” and “run a trout line” thanks to his grandpa teaching him “how to live off the land.” In order to live off the land, there has to be clean land and clear water available- something outdoorsmen are inherently aware of.
A fitting place to conclude the discussion is with a song that calls for action and partnership to leave something left for future generations. Alabama’s “Pass It On Down” was released in 1990 as the title track of the band’s thirteenth studio album and reached number three on Billboard. “Pass It On Down” finds Randy Owen beginning the song by singing, “We live in the land of plenty, but many things aren’t plenty anymore/Like the water from our sink, they say’s not safe to drink…” The song addresses a litany of environmental problems including the destruction of the ozone, fires in the Brazilian rainforest, and acid rain. Everyone is responsible, as Owen sings:
“Now we all oughta feel just a little bit guilty, when we look into the eyes of our kids/Cause brothers it’s a fact, if we take and don’t put back, they’ll have to pay for all we did…”
It’s a similar message to “Seminole Wind” and “Rocky Mountain High” in the sense that we are directly responsible for the destruction and over-use of the resources that all life depends on. The call to action for the song comes in the chorus with Owen singing:
“So let’s leave some blue up above us, let’s leave some green on the ground/It’s only ours to borrow, so let’s save some tomorrow, leave it and pass it on down…”
Country music is tied to the land and seas that surround us. How can it not be? The genre was founded in the mountains of Appalachia and the vast fields of the Deep South. Place and setting in country music, more than any other genre, mean something substancial. And these places are what are most at risk. The Blue Ridge Mountains, Gulf of Mexico, and Chattahoochee, Mississippi, and Flint Rivers. All settings of famous country songs. See, country music will always, no matter how commercialized or popular it gets, remain in a symbiotic relationship with nature. And thanks to well-known artists like Alabama and John Denver and not so well-known artists like C.W. McCall, we have songs to remind us of our duty to conserve and protect everything that surrounds us. And pass it on down.