By David Scarlett, with Sarah Wyland
If you want to hear patriotic songs, whether openly saluting the military or just extolling the virtues of everyday life in America, country music is a great place to start. The tunes that made it on our list of the 20 Greatest Country Patriotic Songs are by some of country’s most influential artists, and these patriotic tunes are among their most enduring. For those counting, we even included two extra songs! In no particular order, here they are:
Dierks and his co-writers were inspired by the shooting that wounded Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords along with 12 others and killed six. The song is about the hard times our country has seen and faces today but leaves the listener with hope of what is to come if we all band together as one.
“One of the best parts of being a traveling musician is getting to meet people from all over the country and hear about what’s happening in their lives and their towns… the struggles and the joys,” Dierks said. “They’re the inspiration for this song. The lyrics speak to the challenges we’ve had as a country, but hopefully the song leaves you feeling inspired and optimistic.”
“It’s America” paints a picture of nostalgic America, listing out things like lemonade stands, Chevrolets, apple pie and flags flying. The track was a last minute addition to Rodney’s 2009 album, which went on to be titled It’s America. The timing for the song was perfect and Rodney cut it at the very last minute.
“We were in the middle of everything with the economy, presidential election, folks losing jobs, some tough times in our country,” Rodney said. “This song reminded me about the simple things in life that I cling to when times are good or bad. That’s what this album is about, and this song fit that profile perfectly about our country. I love singing about hope, that’s what this song is about at its core. I couldn’t be more proud.”
Jason plays tribute to the states in between coastlines in “Fly Over States.” The song centers around a man who overhears a conversation between two businessmen in first class on a flight from New York to Los Angles pondering why someone would want to live in Small Town, USA. Jason sings about the reasons from Santa Fe to the plains of Oklahoma that make rural America as beautiful as the big cities. “You get down there and check it out and you realize it’s pretty cool,” Jason said of the song.
“If You’re Reading This” (2007) co-written and performed by Tim McGraw
When Tim McGraw performed “If You’re Reading This” at the 2007 Academy of Country Music Awards, there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. The song is a tribute to fallen soldiers and takes the form of a letter, meant to be read only if the soldier didn’t return home. Co-written with Brad and Brett Warren of the Warren Brothers, the track was inspired by an article the three men read about war casualties. After Tim’s performance at the ACM awards, one hundred relatives of soldiers who died in the line of duty appeared onstage under a banner that read ‘Families of Fallen Heroes.’ An emotional Tim rightly received a standing ovation from his fellow country artists.
Written just days after the attacks of 9/11, this tune makes no bones about it—Toby was fighting mad. Written partly as a tribute to his war veteran father, the song summed up the feelings of a lot of Americans who wanted a very forceful response to an assault by terrorists on innocent men, women and children. It became a rallying cry for our troops and a thorn in the side of people like Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks who called the song “ignorant” and Peter Jennings of ABC News, who uninvited Toby to be part of a patriotic television special after reading the lyrics of “Courtesy.” While Toby doesn’t describe himself as a very political guy, he is a “very patriotic” guy. “If you believe in it enough, it’s worth fightin’ for,” he’s been quoted as saying. “And if you’re not gonna fight for it, then you deserve to be dictated to, you know—and I’m not willing to do that.”
Often called the “unofficial National Anthem,” in 2003—the 20th anniversary of its release—online voters named this powerful song the “most recognizable patriotic song” in the nation. And, after nearly 25 years, the song Lee wrote to show his appreciation for his country and his willingness to defend it still routinely brings crowds to their feet at the opening strains of the first chorus. While cynics may describe it as jingoistic, there are a good many citizens who, to this day, cannot hear its heartfelt championing of America’s virtues without getting misty.
Inspired by the American military involvement in Afghanistan and Iraq, this song is based on the military, but it’s really about family and how important it is for those serving in far-away conflicts to know that loved ones are thinking about them…and how important letters are and always have been in doing that. “I went to Ft. Hood,” recalls John Michael. “And I met a father there who told me, ‘I lost my son.’ And they thanked me for the song. It’s just one of those special songs.”
This was the title cut of Billy Ray’s debut album, which eventually sold approximately 14 million copies worldwide. The song is a tribute to the sacrifices of all veterans of war and was recorded after Billy Ray met a Vietnam veteran who later died. Not surprisingly, “Some” has been embraced by veterans’ groups and has also been featured as the plot line in Billy Ray’s former “Doc” TV series. As a truly personal tribute, some rescue workers at “ground zero” in New York later got “Some Gave All” tattoos in memory of their lost friends.
As Chely tells it, this song was based on an actual event that happened when she was driving down a Nashville street and received an obscene gesture from a fellow motorist because of the United States Marines sticker Chely had on her vehicle. Chely, who describes herself in the song as “not Republican or Democrat,” is a patriot through and through, having visited and performed for troops around the world on numerous occasions.
She comes by her commitment to supporting the troops honestly. As the lyrics say, See, my brother Chris, he’s been in for more than 14 years now/Our dad was in the Navy during Vietnam/Did his duty then he got out/And my grandpa earned his purple heart on the beach of Normandy/That’s why I’ve got a sticker for the U.S. Marines, on the bumper of my SUV.
The song generates standing ovations wherever she plays it. She may never have fired a weapon in combat, but Chely continues to serve her country.
This song was written before 9/11 and, like “American Child” by Phil Vassar, it is all about celebrating the freedom and opportunity to be found in America where anything is possible…from becoming president to going to prison. But after the attacks in September 2001, things changed. “In times like these, songs take on special meaning,” declared Kix a couple weeks after the attacks. “Songs like these really hit home right now. Everybody is looking for a flag to wave.”
The video for this song sums it up very nicely as Phil looks at his own young daughter with immense gratitude that she, too, was born an American child. This very well-crafted tune is patriotic in a way that honors the sacifice of a grandfather killed in combat while also gently counting the blessings provided to Phil, his own child and millions of others in a country where dreams can grow wild born inside an American child. Very powerful and moving.
While Merle doesn’t mince words when he says he feels that people in positions of leadership are making mistakes, he makes it clear in this tune from the Vietnam era that he doesn’t mind people standing up for things they believe in, but running down the country is a different thing entirely. There were then, and still are today, plenty of folks who think Merle got it right when he said a lot of people fought and died to give us the American way of life. We can disagree about specifics without trashing the country. Amen, Merle.
This was a song Waylon carried with him for years and rediscovered after the 1984 Olympics inspired him to write a patriotic song and he found himself dissatisfied with his attempts. After another listen, he knew “America” captured what he’d been trying to say. “It wasn’t just flag waving,” wrote Waylon in his autobiography. “It was talking about the ideals we had fought for and the blunders committed in their name and the honor that lay behind our national character.” Unlike some patriotic songs, this one admits that America isn’t perfect, but professes a tender love for what’s right about the country, what’s unique in all of history and what’s worth preserving.
Never one to tiptoe around a subject he’s passionate about, Charlie proclaims his love of America to anyone within shouting distance. In this foot-stomping up-tempo number, he admits that every now and then Americans will criticize each other, but when it comes to being attacked by someone from elsewhere, Americans will rally together.
“Once you get past the superficial part of the people of this country,” he proclaims, “we all have one thing in common. We are Americans and damn proud of it, and when you mess with one of us, you mess with all of us. God Bless America.” With the song’s re-release following the 9/11 attacks, a whole new generation of listeners heard and embraced Charlie’s sentiments.
This is a hugely powerful song in the voice of a fallen soldier being returned to his parents and to his final resting place, Arlington National Cemetery, a place he had visited as a child with his father to see his grandfather’s grave.
The song was hugely popular and was steadily climbing the charts when Trace got word that some military families had some issues with it. So, without a moment’s hesitation, Trace had his record label stop promoting the song because—in spite of the many people who loved the tune—the last thing he wanted to do was cause a military family any discomfort.
“Ragged Old Flag” (1974) written and performed by Johnny Cash
This is simply a beautifully eloquent tribute to the ideals that are America and the flag that represents them. Johnny carefully crafted the lyrics in such a way that a ragged flag on a courthouse square is battered, torn and scarred from the battles she’s been in, but still flying high. And as an old man on a park bench details the flag’s imperfections to a stranger, he re-discovers his own pride in America and sums it up like this: “And she’s getting thread bare, and she’s wearing thin, but she’s in good shape, for the shape she’s in. ‘Cause she’s been through the fire before and I believe she can take a whole lot more.”
This song looks at the often-ignored side of a soldier’s service to his or her country—the loved ones left behind to keep the home fires burning. Inspired by scenes of the soldiers shipping off to fight in Iraq and Afghanistan, the song struck an especially poignant chord with John, whose own son was getting ready to join the conflict not long after the song was recorded. It’s been hugely uplifting to family members who’ve heard the song and realize that the sacrifices they’re making and the service they’re providing by doing without their military loved ones are appreciated. And they absolutely should be.
While not a patriotic song in the traditional sense, this song, written by Alan shortly after the 9/11 attacks, may in fact be the ultimate patriotic song. It addresses and validates all the emotions, thoughts and concerns that Americans felt after that horrific day. Whether he’s asking, “Did you dust off that bible at home or go out and buy you a gun,” Alan reveals how well he knows the rest of us by examining the effects on our national psyche the day so many were brutally taken from us. He ends each chorus as he ends the song, with the reminder that the greatest gift God gave us is love. It’s nothing short of a masterpiece, and Alan brought honor to the entire country music industry through writing it and offering it to people who might otherwise never have listened to country music—people who needed healing.
It’s hard to find a more passionate supporter of our military than Darryl. And after a USO tour of Afghanistan over the 2002 Christmas holidays, he knew he had to do something to fight for our service men and women the way he saw them fighting for us. So he and buddy Wynn Varble, who, like Darryl, thought a lot of Americans were settling back into a pre-war mindset, decided to write a song to remind all of us why we’re fighting.
The first performances of the song were on the Grand Ole Opry stage. “At the first Friday night show, they started applauding in the middle of the song,” recalls Darryl. “It startled me so much that I forgot a line. Every performance of it that weekend got ridiculous ovations. On the televised Grand Ole Opry show on Saturday night, people actually stood up at the beginning of the song and remained standing throughout the whole performance. They cheered and cheered and cheered. I’d never seen anything like it.
“By Monday morning, the label was getting phone calls from all over the country,” he continues. “Everyone was trying to get the song. So we put together a meeting as quick as we could. We set up a recording date right then. And it’s been like a whirlwind ever since.” The song was a career record that wound up spending six weeks at No. 1.
“In God We Still Trust” (2005) written by Kim Nash, Bill Nash and Rob LeClair and recorded by Diamond Rio
The reception to this song was curious, to say the least. It’s not overtly patriotic in a pro military or pro war sense, but it’s absolutely patriotic in its call to preserve America’s spiritual heritage and tradition. From the first performance, and at numerous shows thereafter (possibly even to this day), audiences rose to their feet and began cheering before Diamond Rio reached the first chorus. Yet the tune received precious little radio airplay. It’s obvious by the audience response that a lot of people embraced the song’s message—that a large and vital portion of America’s essential cultural fabric is being systematically eroded with the removal of any references to God. As might be expected, the song has its critics. But, there’s no denying that many thousands of country fans see things the way Diamond Rio does.
This tune was written about two-and-a-half years before the 9/11 attacks. But after that terrible day, Aaron knew it was time to finally record it and get the single out. And, lest anyone question his motives, Aaron made sure that proceeds from the song went to the American Red Cross. The song, like others of the period, lauds America’s virtues—freedom, hard work and the “lady in the harbor.” It was the kind of message a lot of fans wanted to hear from a man who has embodied patriotism throughout his career. “This song is an opportunity to speak to people,” said Aaron at the time. “And I hope it will help our country heal.”
This song shows a side of Toby’s patriotism that a lot of people might have been surprised to see after having experienced the in-your-face righteous indignation he showcased in “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” in 2002. But “American Soldier” is simply the story of a family man who’s just trying to “Be a father, raise a daughter and a son, Be a lover to their mother, everything to everyone.” And, along with that, he straps on his boots and serves his country, knowing he’s got what it takes to do his duty, no matter what the price. This quiet strength is comforting in a way that an angrier song can’t be—even though they can both have their place at one time or another. But, as Toby states so simply, the bottom line with both tunes is that, because of American soldiers, we can sleep in peace tonight.
What do you think?
Leave us a comment below and let us know what songs you think we missed and tell us which of the songs we did list really strike a chord with you.