By and large, country music isn’t considered one of the more dangerous genres of music. While controversies have poured out of the worlds of rock and rap over the years, mainstream country music is usually seen as pretty tame stuff.
But there have been times when even country stars pushed the envelope and tested their creative limits, often with plenty of backlash across Nashville.
Here are some of the most controversial country songs to come from popular artists, many of which have become beloved favorites.
‘Girl Crush’ by Little Big Town
In 2015, Little Big Town’s song “Girl Crush” was a massive hit with everyone who heard it — except for a few powerful critics. The sexy song, which was about a woman who found herself obsessed with the woman who took her man, was pulled from a few country radio stations after listeners complained it “promoted the gay agenda,” according to the Washington Post. Lyrics like “I want to taste her lips, yeah, ’cause they taste like you” didn’t fly with more conservative listeners but they helped the song top the Billboard country chart and win two Grammys.
‘Follow Your Arrow’ by Kacey Musgraves
Kacey Musgraves has long been one of Nashville’s more acclaimed stars but that’s without much help from country radio stations. One of her most popular songs, “Follow Your Arrow,” was banned by some stations upon its release in 2013 because of its outright endorsement of homosexuality and marijuana use.
“Kiss lots of boys / Or kiss lots of girls / If that’s what you’re into,” Musgraves sang in the song, which she co-wrote.
The track was named one of the top 50 country songs of all time by Rolling Stone in 2014.
‘Goodbye Earl’ by Dixie Chicks
The Dixie Chicks were the hottest act in country music at the turn of the millennium but their 2000 song, “Goodbye Earl,” didn’t get as much airplay as it should’ve. The song was about two women who decide to kill one of their husbands for repeatedly abusing her. The whole vibe of the track was comedic but country radio stations weren’t laughing, with more than 10% of the top stations refusing to play the song. As a result, it was the band’s first single to not crack the top 10 of Billboard’s country chart.
‘Travelin’ Soldier’ by Dixie Chicks
The ladies from Dixie Chicks found themselves embroiled in a far bigger controversy a few years after “Goodbye Earl” when promoting their new song, “Travelin’ Soldier.” In March 2003, singer Natalie Maines told a crowd in London that the band was embarrassed to be from the same state as then-President George W. Bush. “Travelin’ Soldier” topped the country chart but it would be the last Dixie Chicks song to crack the top 20, as the comments effectively got them banned from country radio across the board.
It was undoubtedly a great song but many program directors felt that playing anything by the band was a political statement, making “Travelin’ Soldier” an unlikely source of controversy.
‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)’ by Toby Keith
In 2002, tensions in America were extremely high as memories of 9/11 were still fresh. Several country artists wrote songs capitalizing on that. Toby Keith was one such artist who left his emotions on his sleeve with his hit single, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue.” The song pulled zero punches and included lyrics like, “You’ll be sorry that you messed with the U.S. of A. / Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass / It’s the American way.”
The song was ripped by critics, including Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines, who called it “ignorant.” ABC also cut Keith from a TV special when he insisted on performing the song.
‘Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’ by Kris Kristofferson
Kris Kristofferson is widely regarded as one of the most gifted songwriters in country music history and he certainly angered conservative fans with some of his lyrics. The most notable example came with his 1969 classic, “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down.” The song was a sad, first-person account of a man waking up with a hangover on a city street and immediately wanting to get wasted again to numb his pain. The most controversial lyric was one where the narrator sang, “I’m wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.”
In 1971, Johnny Cash performed the song with Kristofferson in attendance on his ABC variety show and refused to cut the lyric, despite pleas from the network.
‘Man in Black’ by Johnny Cash
Speaking of Johnny Cash, the legendary singer sparked more controversy in 1972. That year, President Richard Nixon invited Cash to perform at the White House, probably expecting an enjoyable night of classic country hits. However, Cash got very political with his song choices and included among them the song “Man in Black,” which had a vehement anti-Vietnam War message.
“Each week we lose a hundred fine young men,” Cash sings in the song.
It had to be a long night for Nixon.
‘We Shall Be Free’ by Garth Brooks
In case you hadn’t noticed, songs with a progressive social message tend to generate controversy in Nashville. Garth Brooks, arguably the biggest star in country music history, found this out firsthand with his 1992 track, “We Shall Be Free.” The song was about all forms of social injustice, including poverty, pollution, racial discrimination and homophobia. The song was the lead single from Brooks’ hit album, “The Chase,” but it didn’t get much airplay thanks to “skittish” radio programmers, according to Rolling Stone.
‘The Thunder Rolls’ by Garth Brooks
The year before he found controversy with “We Shall Be Free,” Garth Brooks ruffled feathers with his smash hit single, “The Thunder Rolls.” More accurately, it was the music video for the track that caused the biggest stir. The song is about a woman waiting at home for her husband and figuring out he’s been cheating on her. The video featured the woman killing the man.
The Nashville Network and Country Music Television quickly banned the video because of the violence in it but the song still became a massive radio hit for Brooks.
‘Old Town Road’ by Lil Nas X
In the past year, “Old Town Road” has become one of the biggest hits in country music history, but some have refused to acknowledge its place in the genre at all. The track, by Lil Nas X and Billy Ray Cyrus, has a sound that more closely resembles hip hop than traditional country but its lyrics are full of classic rural imagery like bull riding, tractors and cowboy hats. The song has gotten more play on pop and rap stations than country stations and Billboard itself barred it from being considered for its Hot Country chart, a decision Slate blamed partly on racism.
‘Rated ‘X” by Loretta Lynn
Country music legend Loretta Lynn seemed to enjoy pushing boundaries and she did so in 1972 with her song, “Rated ‘X.'” The track was just one of Lynn’s songs to get banned from some country radio stations. This track, which Lynn wrote herself, was an honest look at the stigmas women faced after getting divorced at that time.
“Well nobody knows where you’re goin’ / But they sure know where you’ve been / All they’re thinkin’ of is your experience of love / Their minds eat up with sin,” she sang.
“Rated ‘X'” still topped the country chart.
‘The Pill’ by Loretta Lynn
In 1975, Loretta Lynn released another one of the most controversial songs in the genre’s long history. “The Pill” was a funny and frank ode to birth control, sung from the perspective of a woman who was happy to finally be able to control when she got pregnant after years of having babies with her husband.
“This old maternity dress I’ve got / Is goin’ in the garbage / The clothes I’m wearin’ from now on / Won’t take up so much yardage,” Lynn sang in the track, which she co-wrote.
At least 60 country stations banned the song from the airwaves but it was a big pop crossover hit for the singer.
‘You’ve Never Been This Far Before’ by Conway Twitty
Before Loretta Lynn shocked some listeners with “The Pill,” Conway Twitty did it with a song about two people who were in need of their own birth control. His 1973 track, “You’ve Never Been This Far Before,” is still one of the most graphic accounts of sex you’ll ever hear in a country song, especially one that involves a virgin. In the steamy single, Twitty sings to a woman he’s about to bed, “I don’t know what I’m saying / As my trembling fingers touch forbidden places.” The song became a country chart-topper despite being banned by some radio stations for its risqué content.
‘Indian Outlaw’ by Tim McGraw
Like Garth Brooks, fellow ’90s country icon Tim McGraw has been no stranger to controversial material. When he was first getting big in Nashville, McGraw released “Indian Outlaw” and it would become his first single to crack the top 10 of the country charts. The song was a lighthearted look at a Native American man who called himself an “Indian outlaw,” but it faced sharp criticism from actual Native Americans, who pushed for its ban on the radio.
“You’re concerned any time somebody doesn’t like something you do, but you’re never going to please everybody,” McGraw told the Los Angeles Times in 1994.
‘Red Rag Top’ by Tim McGraw
Nearly a decade after the controversy over “Indian Outlaw,” Tim McGraw found himself riling up some listeners again with a new song. In 2002, his single, “Red Rag Top,” got banned from some radio stations because of a passing reference to abortion in its lyrics. The song told the story of two young lovers and, in one verse, the tough decision they had to make when the woman got pregnant.
“We were young and wild / We decided not to have the child / So we did what we did and we tried to forget / And we swore up and down there would be no regrets,” McGraw sings.
The song still hit the top five of the country chart.
‘Okie From Muskogee’ by Merle Haggard
In 1969, America was extremely divided over the Vietnam War and Merle Haggard found himself in the good graces of the pro-war movement when he recorded the song “Okie From Muskogee.” The track was a celebration of people who lived by conservative values and didn’t do things like smoke marijuana or burn their draft cards. Haggard actually co-wrote it as a satirical joke but people ended up taking it very seriously and it became perhaps his most well-known song. In 1990, Haggard told The New Yorker, “Sometimes I wish I hadn’t written ‘Okie.'”
‘Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone)’ by Tanya Tucker
In 1973, Tanya Tucker released a romantic song with pretty tame lyrics — but her age at the time made it controversial. When she recorded “Would You Lay with Me (In a Field of Stone),” Tucker was only 15 years old. Lines like “When the moon is full would you bathe with me” suddenly raised more eyebrows because a young girl was singing them than they would have if a grown woman had. The hit single made Tucker a sex symbol despite the fact that she was still just a kid, putting “horny males of all ages” among her fanbase, according to Rolling Stone.
‘Independence Day’ by Martina McBride
Fans of ’90s country music likely know Martina McBride’s “Independence Day” by heart but some radio stations refused to play it upon release. The 1994 track is a grim look at domestic abuse and talks about a woman and her daughter, who are victims of domestic abuse, and the mother’s decision to burn down their family home in order to earn their freedom.
“I think we had 10 or 12 stations that never played it,” McBride later told the Houston Press of the song. “So it was a fight to get it on the radio.”
Rolling Stone crowned “Independence Day” one of the 100 best songs in country music history.
‘Accidental Racist’ by Brad Paisley
What could go wrong with a song with this title? Brad Paisley is typically regarded as one of country music’s most coveted songwriters because of his sly wordplay and wit, but 2013’s “Accidental Racist,” which featured rapper LL Cool J, wasn’t seen as one of his best. The track involved a conversation about deep topics like racial divisions and slavery between a white man and a black man at a coffee shop. Many people in the black community criticized the song for being tone-deaf and racist itself, which disappointed Paisley.
“The last thing I want to be is racially insensitive,” the singer told Vulture in 2013. “I don’t want to be hurtful to anyone.”
‘That’s My Kind of Night’ by Luke Bryan
The emergence of so-called “bro country” as a popular sub-genre within country music hasn’t been popular with everyone. Still, Luke Bryan has had great success with tracks that could be described as such, especially his 2013 single, “That’s My Kind of Night.” The song, which had lyrics like, “Waiting on you to look my way and scoot / Your little hot self over here / Girl, hand me another beer,” was a huge hit for Bryan but caused a division within the genre.
Chart-topping artist Zac Brown, who has said he’s a fan of Bryan as an artist, ripped the song in an interview with Vancouver’s JRFM radio, calling it the “worst song” he’d ever heard. “If I hear one more ‘tailgate in the moonlight, daisy duke’ song, I’m gonna throw up,” Brown said.
‘Opening Act’ by Mary Chapin Carpenter
The Country Music Association Awards are to country music what the Oscars are to movies, and at the 1990 edition of the show, Mary Chapin Carpenter caused a stir. The singer-songwriter wasn’t nominated for any awards that night but was given a slot to perform during the big show. Instead of playing one of her singles, Carpenter went with “Opening Act,” an unreleased track that threw shade all over plenty of the big artists who were in the house.
“I don’t have a limousine that stretches three blocks / Ready to take me from door to door / Just like that jackass I’m opening for / He doesn’t know me; I’m his opening act,” Carpenter sang.
Her fellow artists loved it, although the CMA Awards producers had to be nervous.
‘Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth’ by Willie Nelson
Willie Nelson has made a career out of being an iconoclast and he stayed true to that model with this 2003 track. At a time when songs like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” were promoting conflict in the wake of 9/11, Nelson’s “Whatever Happened to Peace on Earth” was vehemently anti-conflict. The track slammed the Iraq War with lyrics like, “How much oil is one human life worth / And whatever happened to peace on Earth?” The song was not a hit on country radio.
‘Maybe I Mean Yes’ by Holly Dunn
In 1991, singer Holly Dunn actually sent a personal letter to country radio and TV stations asking them to stop playing her own single, “Maybe I Mean Yes.” The song, which Dunn co-wrote, was included as a new track on her greatest hits collection, “Milestones,” and it was met with plenty of controversy. Dunn’s song was about a woman playing hard to get with a man who wanted to date her. But with lyrics like “When I say no, I mean maybe / Or maybe I mean yes,” some said it condoned date rape. This led Dunn to pull the track from the airwaves because she didn’t want it to be misunderstood.
Dunn’s “Milestones” is still a favorite of country fans, despite the controversy. Instagram user @gnarvickgt200 shared a snapshot of its cover in 2018, two years after the singer died from cancer.
‘Fancy’ by Bobbie Gentry
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Bobbie's classic self-penned single 'Fancy' was released 49 years ago this week. This Billboard advert used the photograph the LP cover illustration was based on- swipe to see the full ad. The story of the girl that was 'born plain white trash' is one of Bobbie’s best narrative songs, and went on to become her most successful single since 'Ode To Billie Joe'. Recorded at the legendary @fame_recording_studios in Muscle Shoals, and produced by Rick Hall, the LP released the following year earned Bobbie a Grammy nomination for ‘Best Female Pop Vocal’. #bobbiegentry #thegirlfromchickasawcounty #odetobilliejoe #fancy #singer #songwriter #femalesinger #femalesongwriter #femaleproducer #music #womeninmusic #womenincountry #country #countrylegends #CountrySoul #womenofcountrymusic #countrymusic #womenwhorock #southerngothic #americanfolk #beauty #vintage #60sstyle #60sfashion #capitolrecords #rickhall #billboardmagazine #grammys #muscleshoals #famerecordingstudios
Bobbie Gentry was a trailblazer among women country artists, being one of the first to write and often produce her own songs. She penned the 1969 hit “Fancy,” which raised plenty of eyebrows for the gritty story it told. The song was about an 18-year-old woman who is led into prostitution by her mother, with the goal of pulling her out of the poverty that has defined their family. Gentry told After Dark magazine in 1974 that the song was her strongest statement for the women’s liberation movement.
“I agree wholeheartedly with that movement and all the serious issues that they stand for: equality, equal pay, day care centers and abortion rights,” Gentry said.
The Instagram fan page @OdeToBobbieGentry shared this promotional ad for the song and it shows just how bold the singer’s own image was in a genre known for being conservative.
‘It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels’ by Kitty Wells
The oldest song on this list belongs to country icon Kitty Wells, who shattered expectations about women singers in 1952. That year, she became the first solo woman to top the country charts with her frank song, “It Wasn’t God Who Made Honky Tonk Angels,” which was a direct response to Hank Thompson’s own 1952 hit, “The Wild Side of Life.” The song was controversial because it featured Wells blaming cheating men for the so-called bad women that Thompson and other men had sang about for years. Loretta Lynn would later tell the Los Angeles Times that “Kitty Wells was my hero.”
Wells’ music continues to resonate with young listeners, as you can see from this 2019 Instagram post by user @lovelylesage, who proudly put on one of her records.