RALEIGH — A dog, a pickup truck, spurned love, maybe some prison time, and beer — a good country song mentions them in some combination. That’s the old joke. There’s some truth in humor, though — recall George Jones’ “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” or the more recent “Ol’ Red,” featuring Blake Shelton.
Criticism of a different stripe is that country music reveals — especially the patriotic variety, such as Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” — an American cultural and political divide. Whether the genre does or doesn’t, that song is too jingoistic for me. Dierks Bentley’s “Home,” however, offers a more sophisticated expression and is illustrative.
What is America? What is patriotism? Ah, it’s those basic questions that baffle. One thinks he knows until asked to explain.
As Bentley sings, the listener hears that “Home” — America — is a particular place. Although ironically the singer is in a plane, the song reveals a sense of rootedness. Take the opening stanza: “West, on a plane bound west/I see her stretching out below/Land, blessed mother land/
The place where I was born.”
But America is more than land, with “mountains high” and a “wave-crashed coast.” The song lacks a definition of an American creed, but it expresses that America was founded on certain principles, with a goal in mind. Consider the second stanza: “Scars, yeah she’s got her scars/Sometimes it starts to worry me/Cause lose, I don’t wanna lose/Sight of who we are.”
The song later declares: “It’s been a long hard ride/Got a ways to go. . . .” But the listener is quickly grounded with the familiar: “This is still the place/That we all call home.”
Indeed, America is far more than a creed, an abstract concept. “Though [freedom] sometimes means we don’t all get along,” problems should not be exaggerated to denigrate the whole. America has a particular history and a particular character.
Is the song contradictory? Whether intentional, the song alludes to the constant tension in American history and in the overall concept of American patriotism — “a mixed patriotism,” as American intellectual historian Wilfred McClay refers to it.
You love a country because it’s yours. You have experienced beautiful vacations and remember your childhood. Your family and friends live here. You toil here yet experience lighthearted moments. Yet you also are patriotic because you believe the founding principles and certain “self-evident truths,” that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Sometimes the love of the particular and the love of the “American creed,” however, are in tension. But they co-exist because American patriotism is twofold.
Let me explain with an analogy offered by McClay: “A man is devoted to his wife partly because she is admirable — and partly because she is his. And it is easy to see how, in a marriage, one cannot separate these two things in practice. A man may perhaps initially fall in love with a woman because she is admirable and lovely. But it is an entirely different matter to explain why he stays married and faithful to her, even when he knows full well that she is not always admirable and lovely.
“Should a man continue to love and honor his wife only if she is always admirable? … Are there not occasions when a good husband honors and defends his wife, even when she may be in the wrong, simply because she is his and he is hers?”
This July 4, when watching fireworks, grilling hamburgers, relaxing by the pool, or maybe simply watching TV and being thankful for the air-conditioning unit, ask yourself: “What is America?” and “Why do I love it?”
What will be your answers?
Dr. Troy Kickler is director of the North Carolina History Project (northcarolinahistory.org).