Mike Cooley, historian of the conservative movement

IMG_1852So Mike Cooley is a songwriter in my favorite band, the Drive-By Truckers. He’s a rock God. His rhymes are often clunky, but they can be subtly profound as he finds meaning in teenaged male angst, troubled love and loss, and lower-class southern grittiness. In two of his more recent songs, he’s covered topics of interest to historians of the rise of the conservative movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Made up English Oceans recalls Lee Atwater’s influence in Republican politics in the south, and the tendency of politicians to make emotional appeals based on perceived affronts to manhood and loss of power.

Once you grab them by the pride their hearts are bound to follow,

Their natural fear of anything less manly or less natural,

Like gunless sheriffs caught on lonesome roads and live to tell it

How hard it is for meaner men without the lead to sell it.

On the live album, It’s Great To Be Alive!, Cooley’s banter that introduces the song helps the context—

Back in 1980, president Jimmy Carter came to my hometown to kick off his 1980 campaign… and so did the KKK. My little quaint, small town, as charming as it was, got to be on national news, with the president of the united States… and those assholes, and it was a source of embarrassment for a lot of us.

And the KKK weren’t wearing Jimmy Carter buttons. And… a lot changed after that, and a lot didn’t.

It’s a perfect set-up for the song, but also for DBT’s larger description of life a region in economic despair, stripped of jobs by Reagan-era offshoring of industry and TVA downsizing, with only violence and narcotics for consolation. (See: Putting People On the Moon.)

Cooley has a new song, as yet unpublished or unrecorded, called Ramon Casiano. It’s about Harlon Carter, the National Rifle Association executive vice president who engineered that organization’s 1970s shift from a group for hunters to the politically active Second Amendment absolutists that we know today. Carter, it turns out, had killed a young Mexican man (Ramon Casiano) in Texas in 1931 in an incident extremely reminiscent of the Trayvon Martin murder.

The lyrics of this song are not online, so I’m going on a recording of last Saturday’s show at the 40 Watt in Athens, Georgia. I’m sure I’m not getting this exactly right, but this is what I’m hearing:

He [Carter] had the makings of a leader

Of a certain kind of man

Who need to fill the world with guns drawn

[Can’t make this one out]

Men whose triggers pull their fingers

He who would rather fight than win

United in a revolution

Like of mind and like of skin

This puts me in mind of Thomas Brown’s description contemporary Confederate apologists as harboring an “embattled manhood,” but it’s a peek into the sensibility current in parts of the conservative movement that sees the solution to problems—particularly cultural loss—as emerging from the barrel of a gun.

Anyhow, Cooley is on it, which is kind of funny for a guy who threatens to kick the asses of audience members who get out of hand.

And… please accept my apology for turning pure rock and roll into an academic exercise.

[UPDATE: So another new Cooley song is about the Lost Cause. Fans are calling it Surrender Under Protest and it is Track 7 here. Patterson Hood has a new about the police killing of a mentally impaired African American man called What it Means. Last year Hood penned this op-ed for the New York Times on the Confederate flag at their shows and in the south in general. It appears that this new album that they’re recording right now is going to reckon directly with this history. I’m so excited I can barely get off the couch right now.]

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