Monday night's American Music Awards included a tribute to Merle Haggard and, notably, to a group of patriotic songs associated with Haggard, from the anti-pacifist "Okie From Muskogee" and "Fighting Side of Me" to the more recent elegy to veterans, "Me and Crippled Soldiers." R&B and rock-and-roll may have provided the soundtrack for Vietnam in much the way big bands did for World War II, but country music is (for now) first to the turntable with musical takes on the Persian Gulf War.
Besides Waylon Jennings's "The Eagle," there's fellow Highwayman Johnny Cash's "Goin' by the Book," which mixes Armageddon lyrics with excerpts from speeches by President Bush. Veteran Donna Fargo has revived "Soldier Boy," the '60s Shirelles hit, as has a singer named Boston Dawn, whose brother is stationed in the gulf. Another dual revival is Bill Anderson's update on T. Texas Tyler's "Deck of Cards," in which a soldier justifies transforming his deck into a Bible "since we can't display our religion in public here."
Billboard's Nashville correspondent also reports on patriotic efforts of unknown singers such as Donna Mason's "Military Wives" ("Until Hussein is buried in his lonely desert sand/ Together we're united hand in hand"), Bob Ellis's "Shiftin' Sands," Tommy Vale and the Torpedos' "Iraq and a Hard Place" and Karen Jeglum Kennedy's "Just You and Me Now, Mom."
While heavy metal and rap are reportedly the choice of younger military people (with fighter pilots favoring metal after perhaps too many viewings of "Top Gun" and "Iron Eagle"), new rock broadsides have been slow in appearing, suggesting that many musicians are still digesting information about a war that seemed to erupt suddenly despite five months of increasingly unyielding confrontation. Much the same thing happened in Vietnam, where American involvement was gradual, as was the growth of the anti-war movement and the most audible and widespread anti-war music in modern history. That is likely to change once the ground war begins and greater American and allied casualties bring the war home with greater immediacy. In the meantime, some radio stations are turning to Elektra/Nonesuch's "Civil War" soundtrack, not only for its haunting fiddle theme, "Ashokan Farewell," but also for the somber "Sullivan Ballou Letter," a last communication home from a Union soldier killed soon after its writing.
The musical arena most likely to provide fireworks is rap, where acts such as Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions have been mixing music and political messages for some time now. There are reports that PE's "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos" is a favorite among African American soldiers in Saudi Arabia and it's likely that we'll eventually be hearing songs addressing the disproportionate presence of black troops overseas and unresolved home-front issues such as racism, poverty, homelessness and educational inequality.
Score One for the Crew Controversial rappers 2 Live Crew remained in the news. On Jan. 17, a Broward County, Fla., jury took only 12 minutes to acquit the rock group Too Much Joy of charges it performed an obscene act by singing six songs from the Crew's "As Nasty as They Wanna Be" album during an adults-only show last August in the same Hollywood, Fla., club where the 2 Live Crew was arrested for performing some of the same songs. Too Much Joy, a little-known band from New York, performed the songs specifically as a political protest centered on First Amendment rights.
The 2 Live Crew was acquitted of similar charges after a much-publicized trial last October. Florida officials refused to drop the charges against Too Much Joy even after the October decision, but after this second acquittal did drop "promotion of obscenity" charges against club owner Kenneth Gerringer. A June District Court ruling that the album is obscene, the basis for the arrests, is being appealed.
After a day and a half of testimony, the six-member jury didn't take long in its deliberation: Juror Sharon Rogerwitz, 55, said: "We knew the verdict immediately. There wasn't any dissension among us. What took the longest was that a couple of people had to go to the bathroom and we had to wait for them." Another juror, Richard Renner, noted that "the nature of the trial had a lot less importance after the war broke out."
The Fort Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel reported that Broward County Sheriff Nick Navarro has spent more than $100,000 in public funds in his efforts to ban "Nasty" songs, not including the Too Much Joy trial. "What kind of overzealous, repressed government spends so much money on such a pointless non-case?" asked Joy member Jay Blumenfield. "It was very moving to actually see a cross-section of people make a civilized and just decision. They also asked for our autographs after the trial, which is always nice."
As for Navarro, he dismissed the setback as "just the decision of six people," adding that he would continue to arrest anyone singing songs from the "Nasty" album. "I'll do what I have to do. It's the law." Incidentally, retailer Charles Freeman, who was convicted of having sold the legally obscene album, has closed his E-C Records store, citing financial problems that predated his legal problems.
The 2 Live Crew's legal battles brought another mid-January victory when a federal judge in Nashville ruled that the rap group's parody of "Oh, Pretty Woman" did not infringe Acuff-Rose's copyright on the Roy Orbison-William Dees hit. The judge found the "Pretty Woman" parody to constitute "fair use," particularly since the writers and publisher were credited, a royalty payment was made and no devaluing of the copyright had been proved.
Finally, with a new live album recently released, the 2 Live Crew joined farces with metal mavens Motley Crue on what was to be the title tune for the upcoming film "Hangin' With the Homeboys." But Elektra apparently refused to let the Motleys record with the 2 Lives and the metal band was pulled off the song, which is now being recut as a solo project by Luther Campbell and Co. Look for a 2 Live Crew-Ice Cube-Too Short date in Washington in mid-March.