Two young boys, one black, one white, watch as mindless violence destroys their world and, ultimately, takes their lives. A news headline? An action movie? Urban rap?
No. A country song, "Cherokee Highway," performed by a middle-of-the-road group called Western Flyer. It's an examination of racism, sandwiched in between juke-boxy stuff like "She Should've Been Mine" and "Friday Night Stampede" on the band's small-label debut album.The song won't be officially released until Monday, and the video is currently being shot in rural Sumner County, Tenn. But already, "Cherokee Highway" is well traveled.
Western Flyer was invited to perform the song at Martin Luther King Jr.'s Birthday Bash in Atlanta in January, where the performers were introduced by Coretta Scott King. They are the first country band to play the commemoration. King Week coordinator Wanda Rylander said the song "promotes what Dr. King's philosophy is all about, and that is nonviolence."
Danny Myrick, Western Flyer lead singer, said he hopes the song will help defuse "the attitude of intolerance that breeds violence on both sides."
The song takes place along Cherokee Highway in Mississippi in 1961, when 10-year-old playmates Kevin, who is white, and Willie, who is black, witness the killing of Willie's father as a Ku Klux Klan cross burns in the yard. Kevin runs to enlist the aid of his own father, whom he finds washing blood from a white sheet. In retaliation, Kevin's house is next to burn, and though his parents escape, Kevin is trapped inside. Willie runs inside after his friend, and when the smoke clears, no one can tell the two small bodies apart.
The chorus: "The blood still runs down Cherokee Highway, a senseless river filled with all they've shed."
It's been three decades since Loretta Lynn made a point of contrasting heartland country life-styles with hotbed urban issues in the plaintive tune "One's On the Way," about unplanned motherhood. A lot has happened since then to unify the audience.
"I think the listener has changed," Myrick said. "In my situation, I didn't grow up necessarily out in the country. I think people in rural areas don't have to face things as much, like knowing someone personally with AIDS. Now, country listeners come from different backgrounds and different walks of life. Country music has reached the cities."
Myrick, 30, was too young to recall the overt racism of the early 1960s setting of "Cherokee Highway," though he said he's been shown vestiges of it in his birthplace of Laurel, Miss.
"What I grew up with was more of an attitude, like singing "Jesus Loves the Little Children" in church, with `red, yellow, black or white,' then seeing a difference between these attitudes in real life," he said.
The great-grandson of a slave owner, Myrick was "curious about the reaction" he'd get from his family for such a powerful song, but to his relief, "They've been great."
Myrick also was concerned about how African-Americans would react to a song fraught with burning crosses, white Klan sheets and other unsettling images of racial hatred, but so far, his black friends have been enthusiastic about the tune.
"If there's any progress to be made, maybe some black leaders will go the no-violence route," Myrick said.
"I think our band tends to be more conservative than liberal, except on this issue," Myrick said, adding that he thinks the message is even more effective coming from average, nonactivist types. "We're just your typical country-type people."
Overall, cultural separatism is no longer the theme, even in benefit-oriented Nashville, as country artists drop regional, "safe" causes and espouse mainstream ones. Three tunes from 1994 seemed to set the tone for current Nashville activism:
- Martina McBride's incendiary "Independence Day," about domestic violence.
- Collin Raye's anguished "Little Rock," about alcoholism, which gave rise to Raye's public service announcements for Al-Anon and Ala-teen.
- Reba McEntire's dramatic "She Thinks His Name Was John," about AIDS.
"We think country music may offer a real barometer for the mood of the nation," said a recent issue of "The Woodhull Report," a media clearinghouse newsletter for domestic violence that cited McBride's song.
Then there are Garth Brooks' many activist songs during the1990s, including "The Red Strokes" and "The Thunder Rolls" about domestic violence, and especially "We Shall Be Free," an upbeat tune that promoted tolerance for gay lifestyles as well as ethnic and racial differences.
Earlier country songs have dealt with racial issues, from Merle Haggard's tale of interracial love, "Irma Jackson," to "Willie and Laura Mae Jones" and "Reuben James." And now there's "Cherokee Highway."
"I wrote `Cherokee Highway' with Tony Wood, and we wrote the song with no intentions where the band was concerned," Myrick said. "But Ray Pennington (head of Western Flyer's label, Step One) loved it, and said we needed to get it out there for people to hear it. There's already been a lot of radio stations that have played it as an album cut."
One of country music's first non-safe stabs at current social relevance was Conway Twitty's "Saturday Night Special," years ago, about gun control. It fell flat when radio backed away from a cause unpopular with many gun-owning country fans.