Write a good set of patriotic lyrics and your audience will be wiping their eyes with red, white and blue handkerchiefs.
Insert one too many purple mountain majesties, however, and your song will be permanently resigned to a world of glee club finales.
Patriotism and music have long been connected. This weekend, you’ll likely hear time-tested tunes like Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the USA.”
After the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, music saw a resurgence of patriotic lyrics, especially in country music.
An artist’s decision to center a song on national pride can attract fans — and isolate them.
Toby Keith’s controversial “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” was praised by some listeners, but also earned a spot among Blender magazine’s worst songs ever.
When country star Rodney Atkins released his most recent disc, “It’s America,” one country music blog criticized the feel-good title track for promoting “a big happy country utopia that doesn’t exist.”
Will dabbling in patriotism always cost you fans?
No, some Columbus-area songwriters say.
They’ll perform patriotic songs at local showcases July 4. Here are the stories behind their lyrics:
Dale Boswell’s song started with some fans at an Alabama VFW. They asked him if he played anything patriotic. He was working on something at the time.
“They would worry me to death about when I would finish that song,” said Boswell.
The eventual result was “My Soldier Prayer,” a military tribute that stunned the VFW crowd on its debut performance.
“They all stopped and turned toward the stage and just watched hard,” Boswell said.
That was in 2007. Since then, the song has attracted a large following through live performances, as well as an online presence on sites like YouTube and MySpace.
“The e-mails I get are just unbelievable,” Boswell said. “What honors me are the regular people that call me and e-mail me.”
He and his Phenix City band, Strokin’ Dixie, are working to give “My Soldier Prayer” even more national exposure. They’ll perform the tune at the July 4 celebration in Valley, Ala.
“I just wanted to make a statement and stand up for the veterans and fallen soldiers,” Boswell said. “I think it helps heal people.”
“My Soldier Prayer” doesn’t overtly touch on political themes, focusing more on honoring the military.
Boswell said he’s considered a follow-up song on more divisive issues pertaining to veterans’ rights, but he doesn’t know if he wants to go the potentially controversial route.
Musically, it’s often a safer lyrical option to opt for pride over politics. Just ask Mike Matthews, a Smiths Station, Ala., songwriter who will perform his new patriotic song at Thunder on the Hooch.
The tune, “Liberty,” includes classic sentiments like “freedom isn’t free” and “our colors never run.” Matthews hopes the song’s emotional pull will give it staying power.
“Maybe this will come out and be my ‘God Bless the USA,’” Matthews said.
At the very least, he’ll get some applause. Another good thing about writing a patriotic tune: It’s unlikely people will boo references to life and liberty, Matthews suggested.
“It seems like you’ve got to applaud it, whether it’s your style or not,” he said.
The military wives
As a longtime musician, Sarah Hockridge was used to singing about relationship issues. Then, her own relationship hit an issue: military deployment.
“I had never dealt with a deployment before my husband,” said Hockridge, who lives in Columbus with her husband, who is stationed at Fort Benning.
Hockridge wrote “Til You Come Back,” a ballad that deals with the emotional strain of deployment. The slow, quiet tune was a departure from her traditional material, but it generated tears among her audience.
“I was using it to reach out to people who may not have listened to my rock music,” said Hockridge, who performs in Columbus with her band, Ophir Drive.
Hockridge is joined on the Thunder on the Hooch lineup by another military wife, Becca Rae Greene. She’s a musician who has lived in Columbus and now lives in Virginia, where her husband is stationed with the military.
Greene — who goes by Becca Rae on stage — wrote “Wherever You Are (Morgan’s Song)” when her husband (then boyfriend) was deployed in 2004. Her newest song, “One for the Wives,” touches on the strength and sacrifice of military wives.
While the songs exude some traces of national pride, Greene doesn’t consider them patriotic. Instead, they are simply stories about her life — a life that just happens to be largely centered around the military.
“I will never speak publicly about politics, and I would hope that my music would be taken for what it is: stories about my family, friends and what I’m feeling at any particular moment,” she said.
Hockridge, too, knows she’s a songwriter affected by issues like deployment. But she doesn’t want to be known as That Military Wife Who Sings About the Military.
“Being a military wife does not define me as a person or a musician,” Hockridge said.
She doesn’t discourage musicians from approaching patriotic themes.
However, she recommends writing about what’s important to you, instead of focusing your songs on how you think you’re supposed to feel.
Greene notes that in music, sometimes raw emotion is more powerful than persuasion.
“I believe that an artist should write music that makes people feel something, not try to persuade them to think or vote a certain way. I think it’s best to leave the politics to the politicians,” she said.