Controversy can be a double-edged sword in country music. On the one hand, some spirited conversation about a song or album can elevate an artist’s profile, particularly in our present on-demand world. On the other, there’s a real risk of being banished from radio. Here are 10 of country music’s most controversial tunes, in order of their release date.
10. “Girl Crush”
Little Big Town
The latest controversial tune, Little Big Town’s “Girl Crush” entered public consciousness at a time when the discourse over culture and equality was particularly strident. Structured like a lost pop classic, the slow-burning ballad written by Lori McKenna, Hillary Lindsey and Liz Rose begins with a reverb-heavy guitar arpeggio and Karen Fairchild emoting the line, I’ve got a girl crush. That was all some people needed to hear to infer that it was about a lesbian relationship. Truthfully, it’s a song about loss and envy, as the character embodied by Karen sees her ex with a new woman that apparently offers something she herself cannot. I want to drown myself in a bottle of her perfume, Karen sings, supported by the perfect harmonies of her bandmates. It’s a devastating, vivid portrait of a woman shattered and paralyzed by a breakup.
But the conversation dwelled more on the provocative aspects of the song—of which LBT was surely aware when they recorded it—and its spectral suggestion of same-sex love. Some listeners reportedly complained to radio but the song didn’t lose any steam on the charts and won two Grammys and two CMA Awards. And perhaps that’s because, in the larger scheme, it’s a great song no matter how you interpret it.
9. “Follow Your Arrow”
Cookie-cutter country music about dirt roads and tailgates? Keep driving because Kacey’s 2013 song “Follow Your Arrow,” which she wrote with Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, was aiming at another target. And it hit the bull’s-eye, bucking conservative country trends by alluding to sex, drugs and same sex relationships in a message that championed personal choices with lyrics like Make lots of noise / Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that’s something you’re into / When the straight and narrow / Gets a little too straight / Roll up a joint, or don’t / Just follow your arrow. Although ultra-right wingers got their undies twisted over it, the song received modest radio airplay, peaking at No. 43 on Billboard’s Country Airplay chart, but it reached No. 10 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, which factors in streaming and digital sales. The people had spoken. And CMA voters listened by naming “Follow Your Arrow” Song of the Year in 2014. The song was also featured on the record, Same Trailer, Different Park, which earned Kacey a Grammy for Country Album of the Year. How’s that for aim.
8. “Goodbye Earl”
The Dixie Chicks
When it came time to work on Fly, the follow-up to the Dixie Chicks’ multi-platinum release Wide Open Spaces, members Natalie Maines, Martie Maguire and Emily Robison mixed things up with Dennis Linde’s song “Goodbye Earl.” The song’s upbeat lyrics feel like black comedy that Joel and Ethan Coen could have cooked up, as the female characters Wanda and Mary Ann plot the best way to get rid of an abusive ex-husband (Earl) who has walked right through that restraining order, putting Wanda in intensive care. They ultimately decide to dispatch Earl by poisoning his black-eyed peas. Even before its release, the song gained attention with unsolicited airplay in late 1999. After becoming the group’s official single, “Goodbye Earl” (along with the Chicks) was the topic of many headlines, but that didn’t entirely stop the song from getting airplay. While it peaked at No. 13 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart, “Goodbye Earl” became one of the trio’s highest charting songs on the pop charts as well as one of the most popular tunes of their career.
7. “Indian Outlaw”
Political correctness? We don’t need no stinking political correctness in 1994. It may have seemed like a little hubbub over some cliched lyrics at first, but when radio stations stopped playing Tim McGraw’s “Indian Outlaw,” it was time to listen up. Riddled with references to wigwams, tomtoms, peace pipes and medicine men, the song was pulled from playlists for its offensive stereotyping of Native Americans. That gesture was enough to keep “Indian Outlaw” from becoming Tim’s first No. 1 hit in 1994, but it went on to achieve gold sales success.
6. “The Thunder Rolls”
He’s driving home from somewhere that he never should have been. She sits at the house waiting, hoping that it’s only the stormy weather that’s delayed him. The story builds to a tempestuous climax, clearly explaining that the “thunder” in the title no longer refers to the weather conditions but instead the personal clash inside the home. “The Thunder Rolls,” written by Garth and Pat Alger, dared to address a domestic situation in graphic terms, particularly in the second verse when the woman smells the perfume on her cheating husband. But the added-on third verse, which fans can find on his Double Live album, got tongues wagging and controversy brewing like a literal tempest. The woman retrieves a pistol and vows that he’ll not wander on her again. ’Cause tonight will be the last night / She’ll wonder where he’s been, the song concludes. Citing issues of gratuitous violence, cable stations TNN and CMT ultimately pulled the video from their rotations. But Garth had the last word: the single hit No. 1 in 1991 and the video went on to win the Country Music Association award for Music Video of the Year.
5. “The Pill”
In a different time in our country’s history, people were up in arms over women assuming authority over their reproductive ability by electing to use birth control. Loretta Lynn must have had a prophetic vision of how thorny things would be for women after her infamous single, “The Pill,” was released in 1975. In the song, which was penned by Lorene Allen, Don McHan and T.D. Bayless, the narrator comically admonishes her husband for having all the fun while she’s at home having baby after baby with no choice in the matter. But with the titular medication, they’re on equal footing and she’s considerably happier about her situation. Radio, however, was none too pleased with the subject matter and many stations dropped the song entirely, causing it to stall at No. 5. Nonetheless, the controversy also helped Loretta achieve more attention outside country music than ever before. And as a side effect, women from rural areas like Loretta’s Butcher Holler, Ky., became aware that they too could choose for themselves.
4. “You’ve Never Been This Far Before”
Country music has been talking about falling in love, being in love and, to some degree, making love pretty much since the beginning. But those oh-so clever songwriters have always found ways to dance around the specifics of sex to make it seem innocent. Maybe it was the tumultuous time in the late 1960s and early ’70s, but things began to change and country edged ever nearer the cultural mainstream. Whatever the case, Conway Twitty was compelled to push the envelope when he wrote “You’ve Never Been This Far Before.” Combined with his low rumbling baritone, Conway’s no-detail-spared lyrics took listeners step-by-step through a night of passionate lovemaking that proved to be a rapturous event even in commercial terms. The song enjoyed a sustained visit on top of the chart for three weeks in 1973.
3. “Sunday Morning Coming Down”
Rhodes Scholar. U.S. Army Ranger. Janitor. Aspiring singer/songwriter. That was Kris Kristofferson in a nutshell in 1969 when he wrote “Sunday Morning Coming Down” in his dilapidated apartment shortly after his wife had left him. So it’s no wonder he composed a tune about a downtrodden, hungover man drinking beer for breakfast and wandering aimlessly wishing, Lord, that I was stoned. Ray Stevens recorded the song in 1969 and it reached No. 55, but it wasn’t until Johnny Cash put his deep-bass baritone on it in 1970 that it went to No. 1. However, when Johnny was set to perform the song live on his 1971 television show, Johnny Cash and Friends, network suits demanded that Johnny change the lyrics to wishing, Lord, that I was home, in order not to offend family audiences. The Man in Black would not be bogarted, and he performed the song live without excising “stoned,” which helped brand Johnny as a player in country’s Outlaw movement, while earmarking Kris as a force to be reckoned with in the industry.
2.“Okie From Muskogee”
Merle got liberals and hippie-types riled up with this anthem told from the point of view of a small-town man who stood for good old American values. Written by Merle and his drummer Roy Edward Burris, the song looks at the activities one wouldn’t find folks in Muskogee [a city in Oklahoma] taking part in, such as smoking marijuana, burning their draft cards or challenging any sort of authority in general.
Against the tide of mounting protests against the Vietnam War and civil unrest of the 1960s, Merle’s 1969 single might have seemed archaic and out of step. But through “Okie,” Merle became a voice for Middle America, for those who couldn’t quite comprehend the sweeping societal changes in the country. The song surely reflected the cultural divide that separated young and old, liberal and conservative. Merle has often commented that the views expressed in “Okie” weren’t necessarily his. But whatever the aim, it worked. “Okie From Muskogee” hit No. 1 in 1969 and became one of Merle’s most popular tunes.
1. “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels”
When Hank Thompson released “The Wild Side of Life” in 1952, singing about his bride-to-be leaving him for another man, one line in particular struck a chord: I didn’t know that God made honky tonk angels. Songwriter J.D. “Jay” Miller took that and ran with it, quickly writing the answer song “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels.” The lyrics blame unfaithful men for creating unfaithful women, saying too many times married men think they’re still single, that has caused many a good girl to go wrong. Kitty Wells took a stand for women by recording and releasing the song, a controversial move for a female artist at the time. Some radio stations banned the song and prohibited Kitty from performing it on the Grand Ole Opry. Still, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels” launched Kitty’s career and became the first No. 1 country hit for a solo female artist. It also helped break down the walls for many female voices to follow, including Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline, Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.