Country music has become a sonic proxy for American nationalism.
When Donald Trump signed an executive order to enhance border security, he called on the Department of Homeland Security to hire 10,000 new Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and 5,000 new Border Patrol agents. And where did they go to find new ICE and CPB recruits? Country-music festivals.
In August 2017, DHS sent recruiters to set up booths at country-music fairs and country music festivals in the country’s heartland. At WeFest, a country-music festival in Minnesota, Border Patrol commissioners set up a booth and handed out job applications. As Customs and Border Patrol Commissioner Ronald Vitiello told CBS News, “We’re looking for people who are looking to do important work on behalf of the country and protecting America.”
Then, while campaigning for Republican Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn at a rally in Nashville last year, Donald Trump said, “I love country music,” before going on a familiar tirade about a supposed influx of dangerous Mexican immigrants.
What Trump failed to note was that without Mexican culture, the beloved American genre might never have existed. We take for granted that country music sounds white, looks white, and in many ways, is white. But country music’s origins are far from white, and the perceived whiteness of American country music was a deliberate construction by the recording industry during the Jim Crow era.
In the 1920s, early forms of country music were born out of honky tonk, which was adapted mostly from ragtime but also heavily influenced by Mexican ranchera music. At the height of its popularity, Western swing music was associated with acts like Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys, but that signature sound of the 1930s was actually largely adapted from Mexican musical styles, incorporating sounds that are common in mariachi music: stylized violin or fiddle elements, various string instruments, and lots of horns. This all makes up what’s known as the big-band sound, banda in Spanish.
The iconic Western-swing pianist Knocky Parker once described the Texas-swing genre as “a mixture of Mexican mariachi music from the south, with jazz and country strains coming in from the east.” To this day, the Mexican song “El Rancho Grande” is still a go-to for American swing bands, with its boisterous orchestral use of fiddles and trumpets.
Most of the elements borrowed from Mexican musical styles go unnoticed in rock and country music. But when the Last Bandoleros, a San Antonio band that’s been touring since 2014, play their sets, some fans are surprised by the button accordion on stage.
“All of us are third generation in Texas. We’re American and we’re Mexican,” said Emilio Navaira, the band’s drummer. Emilio and his brother Diego, who plays bass, are the sons of Tejano music superstar Emilio Navaira, who was famous for creating boisterously multicultural Tejano or Tex-Mex music. Jerry Fuentes and Derek James, play guitar.
The band says they don’t ever make a conscious decision to play up a Latin twinge to their music. As fans of the Beatles and Van Halen, they take cues from classic rock. What makes their sound unique in the contemporary country-music space is a noticeable incorporation of Mexican sounds. They often tour with a guest button-accordion player, Percy Cordona, buttressing their sound with vibrantly Norteño embellishments.
Taking note of their fanbase, Fuentes noted that their Latino listeners bring with them an intrinsic understanding of the influence of Tejano sounds, because, whether it was through country ballads or corridos, the sounds are what they grew up listening to at home—whether that is north or south of the border.
In his book Segregating Sound, historian Karl Hagstrom Miller recounts how in the 1920s, Southern music—then a diverse mix of cultures and sounds—was classified into distinct genres, each marketed at a distinct racial or ethnic group.
Before this classification, created as a way to sell more records, both black and white Southerners played an assortment of styles, including blues, ragtime, minstrel songs, and string-band music. Suddenly, the blues were black, and country music was white—all because the recording industry engineered decided it was. Eventually, “race music” and “hillbilly music” were so distinct in the American zeitgeist that the audiences of each rarely crossed what Miller calls the “musical color line,” which is still around today.
Fuentes likens the myth of white country music to the myth of the American cowboy. “The original cowboy was the vaquero!” he says. While the image of a cowboy may invoke the Marlboro Man, the American cowboy didn’t really exist until after Mexican vaqueros brought their ranching techniques up to places like Texas, Idaho, Nevada, and the Western coast.
In fact, much of American Western culture—the boots, the hats, rodeos, and, yes, the music—come from Mexico and Mexican culture. There’s even speculation that the “blue yodel,” that all-American arrangement of the vocal cords made famous by Jimmie Rodgers, actually comes from “el grito,” an essential element in Mexican mariachi music. After all, Texas itself was part of Mexico once.
Even with the rise of bands like the Last Bandoleros working to reclaim the genre, country may never become detached from the divisive grip of nationalistic political ideology. The band is reluctant to bring the politics of their existence to the forefront of their presence on the public stage.
Emilio said they all have their political beliefs, but when they play music, they try not to get political at all. In their audience, he notes, one will find an array of fans on different points of the political spectrum. “What’s awesome about it,” Emilio said, “is that it breaks those walls down.”
He hopes they can break down the musical color line by letting music be “the ultimate equalizer.” Audiences at their shows, he says, might stand on the far right or far left of the political spectrum, but they always manage to get along over beers and a good set.
The music industry would do well to take note of country’s Mexican roots. With Latinos becoming a powerful voting block, appealing to Latino audiences is something that both the Republican Party and the country labels have a vested interest in. Country is already gaining popularity among Hispanic Americans: According to research by the Country Music Association (CMA), country music experienced a 25 percent increase in Hispanic listeners over the last 10 years. Among Hispanic millennials surveyed by the CMA, 39 percent said that they were country fans.
The Last Bandoleros says that they’re aware, and more importantly, their label is aware, of these key demographic statistics, but that they have not received any pressure from executives to play up their Latin sound or cater to a Latino audience. “They definitely don’t push any of that on us, but they’re certainly excited about that growing market,“ Diego said.
University of Michigan musicologist and cultural historian Nadine Hubbs is the author of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music. In her latest project, Country Mexicans, she examines the complicated relationship between country music and its Mexican-American listeners. Over the last year and a half, she has interviewed several Mexican-American country-music fans, and says she’s found that the Mexican-American country fans she spoke with were not associating country music with conservative politics per se. Rather, folks she spoke to found country music to be relatable to their own cultural values, like loyalty to one’s family and a diligent work ethic.
“I think it’s a misinterpretation to say that those equate to conservative values, especially in a Mexican or Mexican-American context,” she says. “They thought that country music was relatable because they shared the kind of values that they heard in song.” As one listener phrased it to Hubbs: That ethos usually entails working hard, without necessarily ever getting rich.
“The thing that has brought us the most success is our roots,” Diego, the bassist said, adding that their Latino fans are particularly excited by the presence of the accordion at their concerts.
Nationalist ideology has drawn the lines between this nation and others, and it has dictated what or who is allowed to cross those lines. For too long, the reigning presupposition has been that country music was confined to a politics of closed borders, but country music wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the transcendence of cultural and national border lines.
Hubbs pushes back on the idea that Mexican-Americans use country music as a form of assimilation into white American culture. “It’s not that they can belong via country music, but rather, country music belongs to them,” she said. “Country music is really their music.”