As I mentioned last week, country music has long associated itself with troubling symbols of racism, most notably the Confederate flag. However, over the last few decades country acts have tried to distance themselves from the flag (for example, Alabama featured it prominently on their early album covers, but have now banned it from being used in their promotional material), and some are now trying to raise awareness of the obstacles people of color face in this country (the most recent example being Micky Guyton’s excellent “Black Like Me”). Unfortunately, there is one notable holdout still clinging to the stars and bars: The 90s country/Southern rock band Confederate Railroad.
The band had a brief run of success back in the early 90s with songs like “Jesus And Mama,” “Queen Of Memphis,” and “Trashy Women,” and while they haven’t had any radio presence to speak of in twenty-five years, they remain a draw on the local concert circuits. Their radio hits drew on the usual country tropes of God, family, and having a rowdy good time, and fans and industry folks alike were too blind and clueless to consider the implications of the band’s name and logo (a train adorned with a pair of Confederate flags).
Thankfully, things are a different story now: The ignorance that tolerated this sort of imagery in the past has evaporated, and a movement has emerged over the last couple of years to remove Confederate names and monuments from public spaces. In Alabama, the University of Alabama recently took down its memorials to students who served as Confederate soldiers, and the cities of Birmingham and Mobile removed monuments of Confederate soldiers as well. (In Virginia, the city of Richmond is in the middle of the fight to remove a statue of Robert E. Lee as well.) People are raising their voices on a range of such topics, from renaming army bases named after Confederate officers to banning Confederate flags from NASCAR races. Confederate Railroad took a few lumps for their branding last year, when the group was prohibited from playing the Illinois state fair due to their name and logo, officially stating that state resources could not be used “to promote symbols of racism.”
Lead singer Danny Shirley blamed the cancellations on political correctness run amok, and some media members (including our fellow Kyle over at Saving Country Music) leaped to the group’s defense with the usual First Amendment and history-erasing arguments. In this particular instance, the group made have had a case to stay on the program had they chose to pursue it, given the fact that this was a state-run fair. This post, however, isn’t about whether or not Confederate Railroad should be able to play at a state fair last year. It’s about whether or not they keep their current band name with its loaded meaning. They should not.
Here’s how I see it:
- The hate vs. heritage debate: This is a false dichotomy, as there are elements of both wrapped up in the Confederate flag. While the banner was indeed the national flag for the Confederate States of America during the nation’s brief existence, it’s worth taking Killer Mike’s advice and investigating exactly what the CSA stood for:
The [U.S.] constitution, it is true, secured every essential guarantee to the institution while it should last, and hence no argument can be justly urged against the constitutional guarantees thus secured, because of the common sentiment of the day. Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error…
Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth. —Alexander H. Stephens, CSA Vice President, March 21 1861, as part of his “Cornerstone Speech”
One of the primary principles of the Confederacy’s founding was the belief that black people were inferior to white people. If that’s not hate, I don’t know what is.
So now the question becomes this: Do we banish the flag as a symbol of hate, or should we let people fly it as a symbol of their heritage? Society has been leaning towards the former option as of late, which brings us to…
- The “political correctness” question: Whenever some symbol of the Confederacy is taken down, its defenders, such as Shirley above, consistently whine about “political correctness” and how they can’t speak their minds because too many people will be offended. They simply don’t want to be burdened with the task of being careful with their words.
Here’s the thing: Oxford defines political correctness as “the avoidance of forms of expression or action that are perceived to exclude, marginalize, or insult groups of people who are socially disadvantaged or discriminated against.” Or, as one of my former colleagues thoughtfully put it, “You call it political correctness; I call it being considerate of others.”
“PC culture” is essentially society deciding as a whole that certain words and symbols are no longer acceptable in civil discourse because people who have been historically marginalized find them demeaning, hateful, or otherwise offensive. Not using these terms makes the world a more welcoming place for those who aren’t targeted by these words/symbols, and the burden it places on those who have not been historically marginalized (read: white men) is minuscule compared to the centuries of systemic oppression represented by things like the Confederate flag.
So yes, if people want to take down symbols of the Confederacy because of its ties to slavery and oppression (and that’s been the clear message society has sent with the recent takedowns of Confederate flags and monuments), we should respect their feelings and remove those symbols, whether they be statues, facility names, or band names.
- The “erasing history” argument: Frankly, this argument doesn’t hold water to me. Taking down a Confederate flag or a statue of Robert E. Lee isn’t going to magically erase the Civil War from our history books. The Civil War remains a watershed moment in American history, and students will learn about it for as long as there any American history classes.
I think General Petraeus makes the point most saliently when discussing Robert E. Lee: “…Remembering Lee’s strengths and weaknesses, his military and personal successes and failures, is different from venerating him.” We don’t fly flags or build statues to highlight the failures of a person or an organization; we do it because we wish to honor them and their achievements. (I fly the flag of the Baltimore Orioles because of their three World Series wins, not the decade of futility that was the 2000s.) Taking down a symbol isn’t a declaration that we want to forget about what about the symbol stands for; it’s simply means that we do not want to celebrate it any longer.
- The branding issue: I understand that by changing the name of Confederate Railroad, it makes it harder for fans to identify the group, especially when the group has used the name for this long. However, I believe that the arguments for removing a symbol of hate are too strong to let the fear of brand loss stand in the way. Besides, there are other ways to identify a band than by their name: If a concert bill screams “The guys who brought you “Trashy Women!”, 90s-era country fans will know who they’re talking about.
Shirley claims that “we were looking for a name that says we play Southeastern music,” when the group started. In that case, it wouldn’t take that much of a change to satisfy both society and your needs: Call the group “Southern Railroad” (Southern Rail is already taken) or “Chattanooga Railroad” or “Savannah Railroad” or something along those lines. That will still convey the idea you want about your music, while also not glorifying the CSA or offending anyone.
It’s a free country of course, and there’s no law that states the group absolutely has to change their name. If they don’t, however, they will likely continue to be pushed further into irrelevance by people who do not want to be associated with their group, and their name will wind up being the anchor that eventually drags the band’s career to Davy Jones’s locker.
Do the right thing, Confederate Railroad. It’s not too late.
One thought on “Why Confederate Railroad Should Change Its Name”
Keep the name. “Confederate” merely means an associate that’s part of a group. Ever here of the “Articles Of Confederation”? It helped form this country. Hell the USA is a confederacy. Should we break THAT up? Regarding the flag on the train, simply swap it. Use the “Don’t Tread On Me” one.
Keep the name. The triggered snowflakes who got retroactively butthurt by it were not going to buy albums or attend shows anyway.
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