The mid 1900s were a period of unrest and disdain for establishments within society, politics and culture. Through these rising tensions came new music genres and societal ideologies.
Classic country found its roots in telling stories of working-class people and the growing distrust of the government. Artists like Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Patsy Cline, and Loretta Lynn found their voices in this style.
The punk movement of the 70s and 80s grew in the same environment classic country did. Although punk rock took on a heavier sound, it screamed the same message of distrust and anger.
Both saw the struggles of a typical American family and rejected the path laid out for them by society. Punk took a harsher approach through music and protests, while country appealed to an older generation with a softer-spoken version of rebellion.
Punk didn’t end with music — as the genre grew, so did the ideology. Punk became a state of mind and a way of living. The younger generations demanded change and resented the status quo.
“Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash is a prime example of this merger. The song, based on the film “Inside the Walls of Folsom Prison,” was written by Cash while he served in the Air Force.
“Folsom Prison Blues” details the story of an inmate at Folsom Prison who watches a train pass and dreams of catching that train to San Antonio. This song and its success inspired Cash to perform his music in prisons.
Cash was punk for not only performing in prisons, but for sharing his music with an often ostracized group of people who were discriminated against in society.
Punk itself defies definition. No two people have the same perception of what punk is, and that in turn is punk. Monika Sklar wrote in her book “Punk Style” that punk was for the people who felt “disenfranchised by society.”
Classic country is largely based on feeling disenfranchised. Many artists found fame by recounting living in poverty.
One of Loretta Lynn’s top songs, “Coal Miner’s Daughter,” tells the story of growing up with a coal miner as a dad and the love her family shared despite living in poverty.
Lynn sings, “He shoveled coal to make a poor man’s dollar … In the summertime, we didn’t have shoes to wear, but in the wintertime, we’d all get a brand new pair”
This sentiment is also described in Dolly Parton’s hit song “9 to 5.” Parton sings, “What a way to make a livin.’ Barely gettin’ by, it’s all takin’ and no givin.’”
While Parton wrote the song for the movie by the same name, its root inspiration is in how she grew up in poverty in Sevierville, Tennessee.
In an interview with USA Today, Parton said “the mountain people didn’t have any way to pay [a doctor] with money, so you paid [the doctors] with whatever you had, your canned goods or some ham or some whatever.”
Punk and classic country crossed lines in the late 70s with the creation of a new genre of music called Cowpunk. Emerging punk artists found inspiration in country music and used it as inspiration to fuel their own creations.
Two genres that arguably wouldn’t touch the other with a ten-foot pole today once blurred the lines of music and society to create a fresh take on anti-status quo music. Now that’s punk.