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The Most Controversial Country Songs

February 27, 2024 9:02 pm GMT
Last Edited March 1, 2024 12:56 pm GMT

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If country music was a guest at a dinner party, it has traditionally only followed one half of the occasion’s rules of etiquette; the old adage that one should never talk about politics or religion in polite company, such is their potential to divide and enrage.

Whilst you’ll find no shortage of country tunes that proclaim an allegiance to God, country artists have largely accepted the avoidance of politics as the law of a successful country career. However, controversy is its own beast and has been finding its way into the genre for years. Sometimes this controversy has been intentionally courted, but often, this backlash has left artists bemused and bewildered.

Artists like Loretta Lynn have boldly tackled social issues like birth control, whilst others, like Brad Paisley, have proclaimed surprise at the response their controversial tunes have garnered. Sometimes the beef stays in-house and artists feud over their own musical drama.

Either way, in 2024, that old adage doesn’t seem so prudent anymore, with artists increasingly unafraid to put their voices to political use.

As the rules of the game continue to change, we present Holler's list of the most controversial country songs.

15
Mercury Nashville | 1959

'Danny Boy' - Conway Twitty

Songs get banned for a number of reasons, but perhaps none more so comically than Conway Twitty’s version of 'Danny Boy', the only known banned version of the song.

The sombre Irish tune and funeral classic – the lyrics for which were actually written by an English lawyer – has been interpreted to have many meanings, the most popular and widely believed to be that it is about a father waving goodbye to his son as he goes off to war.

With thousands of cover versions floating around, most artists have kept their versions as gentle, delicate and sad as the song’s lyrics. Not so for Conway Twitty, whose jubilant, pop version of the song that would be more fitting at a party than a funeral, was banned by the BBC.

No official reason was given, but it was thought to simply be because of how bad it was.

14
Curb | 1994

'Indian Outlaw' - Tim McGraw

One of two controversies for Mr. McGraw, 'Indian Outlaw' was his breakthrough song but it was not without its critics.

In what was supposed to be a proud depiction of Native American life, the song was told from the perspective of an “Indian outlaw” and leaned heavily on stereotypes of Native American culture, referencing wigwam huts and ceremonial tom tom drums. The song’s producer, James Stroud, has gone on record to say that at the time of recording he tried to warn Tim off the tune as “the worst thing in the world”.

Several radio stations dropped the song from their rotations and Native American communities spoke out, calling the song “cheap Hollywood music”. When McGraw was asked how he would feel about stereotypical redneck presentations of his own Louisiana countrymen, he replied “I see the entertainment value in it”.

The criticism of 'Indian Outlaw' doesn’t appear to have stuck, as Tim still performs the song at his live shows.

13
Sony | 2022

'Fancy Like' - Walker Hayes

Walker Hayes has been responsible for some divisive country music but rarely anything spicy enough to be controversial.

That changed when country’s sad-boy darling Zach Bryan posted his outrage that radio programmers would play Hayes’ hit 'Fancy Like' over Tyler Childers’ 'In Your Love', which had just cracked the country radio chart in a career first for Childers.

Hayes responded with a "diss track" stating that “somethin’ in the orange says you’re feeling green”, a reference to Bryan’s hit 'Something In The Orange', before going on to say “most of us die trying to be like Zach Bryan”.

In an accompanying Instagram post Hayes referenced the 18 years he’d spent making music before it became a paying job, a point seemingly designed to contrast against Bryan’s ascent to stadium filler before the age of 30. Zach Bryan insisted that his original post was meant with humour and the feud ended in a vanilla fizzle.

12
Big Machine Label Group | 2018

'God Made Girls' - RaeLynn

Former The Voice contestant RaeLynn has showcased her ability to handle sensitive subject matter on songs like 'Love Triangle', the story of growing up torn between divorced parents.

Some of her earlier tracks, however, took a less nuanced approach, notably her hit ‘God Made Girls’. Variously listing the reasons why God made girls as because "somebody's gotta wear a pretty skirt" and "somebody’s gotta let him drive", the song was criticised as sexist and offensive to both men and women, implying that women were created only to please men and that men were incapable of basic functions, such as washing their truck without female influence.

Ironically the song came about at the height of the bro-country era, succeeding in gaining radio play when women were largely shut out of the format. RaeLynn defended the song and its all-female songwriters, stating "It's just a sweet song about the connection between guys and girls".

11
Patriot Records | 1995 / Capitol Records | 1996

'Strawberry Wine' - Deana Carter

Hailing from an album called Did I Shave My Legs For This?, Deana Carter’s debut collection of songs was never going to be a shy and retiring set of tunes.

'Strawberry Wine', a coming-of-age tale about a young girl getting her “first taste of love”, caused controversy upon its release due to its description of a young girl losing her virginity, with some radio stations refusing to play it.

Carter, who was discovered by Willie Nelson, didn’t write the song but it’s worth noting that her own high school love was actor James Denton – aka Mike Delfino from Desperate Housewives – the memory of which no doubt allowed her to convey the woozy magic of a first summer romance.

The controversy couldn’t eclipse the song’s success and it remains one of the most beloved classic country hits, with Garth Brooks calling it his favourite country song of the '90s.

10
Curb | 2002

'Red Ragtop' - Tim McGraw

Originally recorded by singer-songwriter Jason White, 'Red Ragtop' found a new audience when Tim McGraw gave his voice to it for his 2002 album, Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors.

The song tells the story of a young couple whose summer love leads to an unplanned pregnancy and eventually an abortion. Jason White insisted that the song was simply about abortion, rather than a statement that endorsed or condemned it.

Regardless, with its reference to an almost untouched subject in country music, the track riled some conservative listeners, leading to its ban by several radio stations.

The experience didn’t deter McGraw, who handled the issue again in 2023 during an interview with Time Magazine, stating “I support a woman’s right to choose”. He also used the same interview to weigh in on the famously thorny issue of gun control, calling for “common sense policies” and “red flag laws”.

9
MCA Nashville | 1956

'It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels' - Kitty Wells

The 1950s weren’t the most welcoming time for women to discuss gender dynamics and their role in infidelities, particularly in country music, but Kitty Wells did just that.

In Hank Thompson’s 'The Wild Side Of Life' he sang “I didn’t know God made honky tonk angels”, referencing a bride who left him for another man. Wells’ response song, which was written by Jay Miller, hit back at the idea that women should take the blame for cheating and broken hearts, blasting married men who “think they’re still single, that has caused many a good girl to go wrong”.

The song, which was released in 1952, caused an immediate reaction from social commentators who were beginning to be unnerved by the first seeds of women’s liberation, and was banned by several radio stations and the Grand Ole Opry.

Despite the outrage, the song became the first female solo song to go to No. 1 on the Billboard country chart.

8
Sony | 2013

'Accidental Racist' - Brad Paisley

In what was presumably meant to be a show of racial unity, Brad Paisley’s 'Accidental Racist' was not taken as such.

The song, which featured and was co-written by LL Cool J, defended the wearing of confederate flags as simply a sign of Lynyrd Skynyrd fandom, rather than having any racial or segregationist connotations from the memory of the civil war. This messaging, ill-guided at best, fell even further flat as the song was released in 2013, at which time even Lynyrd Skynyrd themselves were not using the flag in their branding.

With lyrics like “If you don’t judge my durag I won’t judge your red flag / If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget the iron chains”, many felt that the song treated slavery and racism with too much levity, needing only a shrug of the shoulders to be forgiven.

Paisley described the reaction as a “learning experience”.

7
SKG Music Nashville | 2002

'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue' - Toby Keith

Toby Keith’s political leanings swayed between blue and red over the years, but his support of the military was a mainstay of his career. The son of a solider, Keith would often perform for US troops, sometimes traveling to where they were stationed in the Middle East to do so.

Keith’s patriotism was perhaps most visibly on display in 2002 when he released 'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue'. The song, which was written in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and Keith’s father’s death, spoke of the military might of the US and how it would be used to avenge attacks upon its soil. Keith was supposed to perform the track on a TV special but refused when he was asked to soften the lyrics or perform another song.

A public feud with the Dixie Chicks ensued, with Keith displaying a photoshopped picture of Saddam Hussein with Natalie Maines, who’d called 'Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue' “ignorant”, at his concerts.

6
Columbia Records | 2002

'Travelin Soldier' - Dixie Chicks

How did controversy cause a 14 year album hiatus for one of country music’s most successful female acts of all time?

The Dixie Chicks were at the heart of possibly the most notorious fallout in country music history in 2003. Whilst playing a London concert shortly before the Iraq War began, lead singer Natalie Maines told audiences that the band were ashamed to be from the same state as President George W. Bush and that they did not support the war.

The backlash in the US was almost immediate, with the band’s single 'Travelin’ Soldier' quickly being taken off radio rotations and falling down the charts, as well as death threats, the band’s CDs being burned and promotional deals scrapped. The band released a response song in 2006 called 'Not Ready To Make Nice' before going on hiatus the following year.

The incident has become a notorious scare story for country musicians on the potentially career-damaging impact of making political statements.

5
Big Machine Records | 2008

'Picture to Burn' - Taylor Swift

In 2024, Taylor Swift’s shows are known for their atmosphere of inclusivity, friendship and fun. However, way back at the beginning of her career, a song from her self-titled debut album, 'Picture To Burn', raised some eyebrows upon its release with the lyric “go and tell your friends that I'm obsessive and crazy, that's fine, I'll tell mine you're gay".

Whilst Taylor’s sharp songwriting and wit was noted by critics from her first record, some felt that this particular lyric could be construed as homophobic, by using ‘gay’ as an insult. Taylor was Swift to respond to the criticism, changing the lyric to “That’s fine, you won’t mind if I say, by the way”.

Swift has since spoken about how her songwriting has matured over the years and also changed the lyrics to Better Than Revenge', another early track from her Speak Now album, after accusations that the song was slut shaming.

4

'Rich Men North of Richmond' - Oliver Anthony

An overnight viral hit, unknown singer Oliver Anthony took the industry by surprise when he became the first artist to debut at No. 1 on the American charts without a prior entry with his song 'Rich Men North of Richmond'.

A prime draw for America’s culture wars, Anthony insisted that the song, which was the first he’d ever professionally recorded, was non-partisan and a criticism of both the Democratic and Republican parties. However, lyrics about obesity, abuse of the welfare system and an allusion to conspiracy theories surrounding government control and Jeffrey Epstein led the song to be embraced by right wing supporters and denounced by left wing critics.

The song was even referenced at Republican presidential debates, with then presidential hopeful Ron DeSantis stating that “those rich men north of Richmond” had led the country into decline.

The track inspired counter protest songs, notably English folk legend Billy Bragg’s 'Rich Men Earning North of a Million'.

3
BBR | 2023

'Try That In A Small Town' - Jason Aldean

Controversy sells, and no where was that truer than with 'Try That In A Small Town'.

A quizzical track that condemned law-breaking with one hand whilst seeming to endorse it with the other, the song faced global criticism due to accusations of being a “pro-lynching song” and lyrics that many felt glorified gun violence. Critics felt that this was particularly insensitive coming from Aldean, who had been performing at the time of the Route 91 Harvest Festival shooting that killed 60.

The controversy truly hit when Aldean released the music video, which was set outside the Maury County Courthouse where an 18-year-old black man named Henry Choate had been lynched in 1927. It was interspersed with footage that strongly resembled recent political protests.

The song wasn’t written by Aldean, but he continued to defend it as it went to No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, marking a career first for him.

2
Columbia | 2019

'Old Town Road' - Lil Nas X

Many country fans found themselves wondering if they’d clicked on the right chart when this song first hit streamers.

With a remixed Nine Inch Nails sample – which Lil Nas X bought for $30 – as backing, the self-proclaimed "country trap" song went viral on TikTok before going mainstream. Initially climbing the country chart, the song was subsequently removed with Billboard, stating that the song “does not embrace enough elements of today’s country music”.

It opened commentary and criticism around country music’s attitudes to non-white artists, with Beyoncé's 'Daddy Lessons' held as another example of a country-leaning song by a black artist that was pushed out of the genre. Lil Nas X also publicly came out as gay during the song’s reign on the radio dial, further opening the discourse around country music’s lack of diversity at the top.

With Billy Ray Cyrus appearing on a remix, the song hit No. 1 on the pop charts, but was never reinstated on the country charts.

1
UMG Recordings | 1975

'The Pill' - Loretta Lynn

The singer of more banned radio hits than all other male country artists in the twentieth century combined, Loretta Lynn’s tale of women’s liberation in the form of the contraceptive pill cemented her legacy as a social pioneer as well as a musical one.

The 1975 classic ruffled feathers as women rattled pill packets, embracing freedom from incubators and ugly maternity dresses. Lynn herself had given birth to four children before she turned 20 and told reporters: “If I’d had the pill back when I was havin’ babies I’d have taken ‘em like popcorn”.

Controversial as it was, and the rare Lynn single that didn’t hit the top of the country charts, it didn’t stop gospel singers The Jordanaires from providing backing vocals, or the song from becoming Lynn’s highest charting pop single.

The track remains surprisingly relevant in 2024 as women’s reproductive rights have continued to come under scrutiny.

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Written by Holly Smith
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