"Help the next one in line/Always stay humble and kind."
When Tim McGraw and historian Jon Meacham rolled out a short tour to promote their Random Hill book Songs of America: Patriotism, Protest, and the Music That Made a Nation, it seemed inevitable that McGraw's performance would include his poignant tale of military sacrifice "If You're Reading This." Unexpected, however, was his choice for the finale: "Humble and Kind," a laundry list of adult wisdom that Lori McKenna penned for her children.
And yet, as the United States prepares to celebrate its independence on July 4, "Humble and Kind" seemed most appropriate as a closer for the recent show at Atlanta's Coca-Cola Roxy Theatre. At a time when the 2020 election looks to be a choice between finance and character, "Humble" came with the oblique approval of late President George H.W. Bush. Meacham, his biographer, had played the song for the commander in chief, who was suffering from Parkinson's. But Bush found the strength to type a one-word description of the song: "Beautiful."
"It's not a song of protest or patriotism," McGraw tells Billboard Country Update. "But it is a song of hope and belief in a better future through giving back, and to me, that was a fitting way to wrap up the spirit of the night."
The book Songs of America is a follow-up to Meacham's Soul of America, a well-researched effort that places the nation's current red/blue divide in the context of previous crossroads, including the Civil War, the emancipation of the slaves, the explosive protests of the 1960s and the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Today's polarized politics produced a White House that has accumulated more than 10,000 lies and misstatements in two-and-a-half years, according to The Washington Post; has antagonized immigrants by separating families and imprisoning innocent children in unsanitary conditions; and has frustrated allies while emboldening dictators around the globe.
Where does this mess lead? Both sides of the aisle are fearful of what the future could hold, and it's in that context that Songs of America and Soul of America shed some hope.
"Chaos is not the exception," Meacham told the Atlanta audience. "Chaos is the rule. What matters is what we do when we're confronted with it."
For musicians, that has historically meant exploring what it means to be an American. Sometimes the result is a flag-waving anthem, such as Lee Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A."; at others, it's a song that questions government's failures, such as Bruce Springsteen's "Born in the U.S.A." McGraw considered both 1984 singles in the Atlanta show, emphasizing the dichotomy between two different interpretations of the American experience.
"Patriotism and protest music are two sides of the same coin," he said. "They both propel us forward."
Both ends of that spectrum were represented as the Songs of America event unfolded. It included a musical history lesson with McGraw's truncated version of Johnny Horton's "The Battle of New Orleans." It featured an inspection of racism through the inclusion of "Dixie" in Elvis Presley's "An American Trilogy." And it offered a discussion of protest's role in the States as McGraw ran through Buffalo Springfield's "For What It's Worth (Stop, Hey What's That Sound)" and Merle Haggard's antecedent "Okie From Muskogee."
Invariably, patriotic songs do not appear when the country is complacent with its place in the world. Instead, they're typically inspired by conflict, fear and turmoil. The Tin Pan Alley piece "Over There," Johnny Cash's "What Is Truth," Sam Cooke's "A Change Is Gonna Come," Julia Ward Howe's "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," Irving Berlin's "God Bless America," Woody Guthrie's "This Land Is Your Land" and Francis Scott Key's "The Star-Spangled Banner" all emerged from war and/or oppression. Even Greenwood's "God Bless the U.S.A." was a reaction to a Soviet attack on a plane carrying American citizens.
"We consciously picked a lot of songs that came from key moments of discord in our history to highlight their role in shaping how our country moved forward," says McGraw. "We had to leave behind a lot of songs with historical significance, but we are hopeful that the book inspires people to dig in for themselves and to always remember how music and art can reflect the heart of the people throughout history."
Through the mysterious impact of melody and chord structures, music has a way of creating a conversation — whether that's an internal dialogue or one with another person — about reality. And in a post-truth era when reality itself is under siege, the nation's songs are a great vehicle to remember our principles as we consider our future.
"You can listen to a song with which you disagree more congenially, more easily than you can listen to a speech or a sermon from somebody you disagree with," noted Meacham in Atlanta.
Country's American songs will certainly receive more attention in the coming days as the nation pauses to remember its history. And even within the genre, the chaos and tension — the "rub," as McGraw likes to call it — between opposites is significant. Opposition can lead to death in Russia or Saudi Arabia. But in America, citizens are able to express their differences, whether railing against foreign adversaries — as Darryl Worley did in "Have You Forgotten?" and The Charlie Daniels Band did in "In America" — or welcoming foreign-born immigrants, as Willie Nelson did in "Living in the Promiseland."
Even staunch opponents of the Iraq War, Toby Keith and Dixie Chicks, were free to disagree about America, but were actually able to agree on the role of sacrifice in democracy through their hits "Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)" and "Travelin' Soldier." Sacrifice is a key tenet of many patriotic songs, whether it's in Justin Moore's current "The Ones That Didn't Make It Back Home" or in McGraw's "If You're Reading This."
"We have to pay justice — just homage — to the people who fought and died to get us this far, to give us something that's worth defending," said Meacham. "Because what's our immigration problem in this country? Our immigration problem is that people want to come here. So there's something in this nation that continues to be worth preserving."
What exactly is that? Is it a money-focused country willing to trade its morals for wealth and power? Or a land where character and community are the top priority? On this Independence Day, the nation is headed toward an election that will offer starkly different answers.
McKenna didn't necessarily write a patriotic piece when she crafted "Humble and Kind," but its inclusion in the Songs of America presentation raised questions about the soul of a nation: Must our leader possess the traits we aspire to? Do we help the next one in line? Do we even care to be humble and kind?