Last week, Garth Brooks revealed an alternate version of the music video for his 1992 single “We Shall Be Free,” an inspirational song from his album The Chase that features the sort lyrics rarely heard on country radio: progressive. The newly unearthed clip, which Brooks debuted on his Facebook Live chat “Inside Studio G,” had been updated from its original version in 2002 and incorporated footage from 9/11 alongside cameos from celebrities like Al Gore and Michael J. Fox. Brooks had never released the updated video, but decided to do so after seeing a renewed interest in the song, which turns 25 this year.
The song itself promotes a message of inclusivity, with declarations that the song’s titular freedom can only come, “When the last thing we notice is the color of the skin,” or, “When we’re free to love anyone we choose.” While it would be surprising to hear that message on country radio now, it was especially taboo in the early ’90s, with Brooks himself recently telling People, “I didn’t think it would be controversial but when this song first came out, it was not welcomed with opened arms.”
Though stereotypes would have casual listeners believe that country is conservative through and through, Brooks is far from the genre’s only artist to explore progressive messages in his music. Fellow pillars of the genre like Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton have pushed the political envelope in their music, as have relative newcomers like Kacey Musgraves and Eric Church.
Here are 10 country songs — both classic and contemporary — that show off the genre’s progressive side.
“We Shall Be Free” by Garth Brooks
Brooks wrote this song with Stephanie Davis in the aftermath of the L.A. Riots in 1992. Its message was polarizing enough that some radio stations refused to play it, and as such the song failed to crack the top 10 on the Hot Country Songs chart, a first for Brooks at that time.
“Follow Your Arrow” by Kacey Musgraves
Musgraves’ excellent breakout single “Merry Go Round” first got her on country listeners’ radars, but it was fellow Same Trailer, Different Park cut “Follow Your Arrow” that really got people talking. The simple inclusion of the laid-back, LGBT-friendly line, “Kiss lots of girls if that’s something you’re into,” got Musgraves attention well outside of the traditional country audience and turned the song into something of a progressive anthem (and, let’s be honest, those weed references didn’t hurt, either). The song, co-written with Brandy Clark and Shane McAnally, went on to win Song of the Year at the 2014 CMA Awards.
“All Kinds of Kinds” by Miranda Lambert
The opening track of Lambert’s 2011 release Four the Record, “All Kinds of Kinds” listens, at first, like a simple song about quirky characters. Lyrics about “Thomasina” the cross-dressing congressman and his pill-popping wife, however, reveal a deeper message about inclusivity and the difficulties we all face trying to “keep the world spinning.”
“The Pill” by Loretta Lynn
No list of barrier-breaking country songs would be complete without “The Pill,” Loretta Lynn’s bold 1975 ode to birth control (aka “the song that launched a thousand prescriptions”). Not surprisingly, the Back to the Country song was banned from a number of country radio stations, but still managed to become the highest-charting pop single of her career. On top of that, Lynn is purported to have told a Playgirl interviewer in 1975 that a number of rural physicians told her of seeing an uptick in requests for birth control since the song was released.
“Girl Crush” by Little Big Town
Little Big Town made accidental headlines in 2014 with “Girl Crush,” a Pain Killer single that, remarkably, drew controversy from lyrics that some listeners misinterpreted as being about a lesbian romance. A lot of that controversy proved to be hearsay, however, and the song went on to take home two trophies at the 2016 Grammys.
“Goodbye Earl” by Dixie Chicks
The Dixie Chicks are no strangers to voicing their progressive beliefs, although when Fly single “Goodbye Earl” came out in 2000 — three years before the trio would get blacklisted from country radio after speaking out against the Iraq war during a concert in London — that side of the band may not have been as apparent. The anti-domestic violence message of “Earl,” though, made it one of the genre’s most enduring female empowerment songs, one that would echo in future tracks like Miranda Lambert‘s “Gunpowder and Lead” and Carrie Underwood‘s “Blown Away.”
“Humble and Kind” by Tim McGraw
Humility and kindness are universal virtues, but this Lori McKenna-penned Tim McGraw single took on new meaning in the midst of the 2016 election season. McGraw performed a powerful rendition of the Damn Country Music song at the 2016 CMA Awards in front of a backdrop showing love in its various incarnations, a move that celebrated inclusivity and diversity less than a week before Election Day.
“9 to 5” by Dolly Parton
There are a lot of country songs about hard work and battling “the man,” but this 1980 tune from Dolly Parton encouraged women to lean in well before anyone knew who Sheryl Sandberg was. “Tumble outta bed and I stumble to the kitchen, pour myself a cup of ambition” became a rallying cry for working women everywhere, with its accompanying film — complete with a misogynist mega-villain — passing the Bechdel Test with flying colors.
“Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth” by Willie Nelson
While the Dixie Chicks suffered the consequences of speaking out against the war in Iraq, Willie Nelson managed to emerge unscathed after releasing “Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth,” a 2004 protest song that the outlaw country legend wrote in response to the escalating events in Iraq. Nelson pulls no punches in the song, which includes lyrics like, “How much oil is one human life worth, and whatever happened to peace on earth?”
“Kill a Word” by Eric Church
Eric Church teamed up with Rhiannon Giddens for this thoughtful Mr. Misunderstood track, which begins as light inspirational fare and concludes as an anthem against hate speech of all kinds. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Church shared that the rhetoric of the 2016 election inspired him to choose the song as a single, saying, “I would have regretted not putting out ‘Kill a Word,’ and let this season pass not knowing if I would get a chance again where it was this relevant, this timely.”