Ken Burns' epic "Country Music" series is airing on PBS, and the documentary devotes a whole lot of time to the Vietnam War era and how the growing divisions in the United States were reflected in the music.
Country music's fans then included a lot of World War II veterans, and many artists unquestionably accepted the government's rationale for the war and recorded songs that gave full-throated support to the boys fighting overseas.
The military draft during Vietnam had so many exemptions that the nation ended up taking a disproportionate number of troops from the working classes, setting up a divide that carries over to this day. Country artists loved the troops and recorded some of the powerful songs about the war.
1. Johnny Cash, "Singin' in Vietnam Talkin' Blues"
The Man in Black recorded this folk music-style tale of playing for the troops in 1971. Johnny and his wife June Carter Cash had achieved spectacular fame after they went to Folsom Prison (against record company wishes) and recorded a legendary live album. They went on to host a television variety show.
"Singin' in Vietnam Talkin' Blues" is featured in "Country Music."
2. Johnnie Wright, "Hello Vietnam"
Written by the great country songwriter Tom T. Hall, "Hello Vietnam" was a No. 1 country single in 1965 and the biggest solo hit ever for Johnnie Wright, who was married to singer Kitty Wells and had previously been part of the country duo Johnnie and Jack.
"Hello Vietnam" achieved true immortality when Stanley Kubrick used it as the opening theme in the 1987 movie "Full Metal Jacket."
"Hello Vietnam" is featured in "Country Music."
3. Loretta Lynn, "Dear Uncle Sam"
Loretta Lynn wrote "Dear Uncle Sam," which became a No. 4 single in 1966. From a career perspective, it's important because it was only the second of her original compositions to reach the charts and came almost six years after her self-penned debut single "I'm a Honky Tonk Girl."
Lynn would become one of country music's most important songwriters over the next decade, and "Dear Uncle Sam" is the record that proved to Nashville that she should be allowed to write her own material.
In "Dear Uncle Sam," a young military wife pleads with the government that she needs her husband more than the war effort does. The song ends with a telegram: "Dear Uncle Sam, I just got your telegram/And I can't believe that this is me shaking like I am/For it said I'm sorry to inform you."
"Dear Uncle Sam" is featured in "Country Music."
4. Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town"
"Ruby" is the song that signaled Kenny Rogers' move from the psychedelic rock of "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" to the country music that would define the rest of his career. The 1969 release was a hit all over the world.
For such a big hit, the song is pretty dark. A paralyzed wounded warrior watches his wife get dressed and made up for a night on the town. He understands her needs but begs her not to leave him alone. She can't ignore the night's siren song, and our hero is left to face the night alone.
"Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town" is featured in "Country Music."
5. Jan Howard, "My Son"
Jan Howard dreamed that her son would be killed in Vietnam, so she wrote and recorded this Top 15 hit about her memories of his childhood and the fear inspired by her dream.
She sent a copy to her son, U.S. Army Cpl. James Van Howard, but he was reported killed in action before he could tell his mother what he thought of the record.
"My Son" is featured in one of the documentary's most powerful segments, in which Jan Howard describes her reaction to war protesters who knocked on her door. The program also details her feeling that her younger son's suicide was directly caused by his older brother's death in the war.
Johnny and June Cash took a particular interest in helping Jan through her crisis, and the program details their support of their friend.
6. Mother Maybelle Carter, "I Told Them What You're Fighting For"
Tom T. Hall wrote "What We're Fighting For," which became a No. 4 hit for Dave Dudley in 1965. The song is a defense of the Vietnam War, written from a soldier's perspective and included in a letter home to his mom.
Maybelle Carter was enjoying a solo career resurgence in the 1960s, and she adapted the lyrics and performed the song from a mother's perspective in 1966.
The lyric flip is a bit awkward, but Carter conveys the worry and heartache a mother experiences when her son is at war and makes the song work. The record is notable for the way she sings "Koh-rea" in the purest hillbilly style.
7. Stonewall Jackson, "The Minute Men Are Turning in Their Graves"
Navy veteran Stonewall Jackson (not a nickname, it's on his birth certificate) was outraged by war protesters and let them have it with both barrels in 1966 when he recorded "The Minute Men Are Turning in Their Graves."
Written by the great songwriter Harlan Howard, the song announces that "Washington and Jefferson are crying tears of shame" at the sight of Americans who want to stop the war. The song hit No. 24 on the charts.
8. Ernest Tubb, "It's for God, Country and You, Mom (That's Why I'm Fighting in Viet Nam)"
God bless Ernest Tubb, a man who had recorded songs that supported the troops all the way back to World War II, but there was no way a 51-year-old Tubb could convincingly say he was willing to fight in 1965, and the song just barely scraped the bottom of the charts.
That doesn't make "It's for God, Country and You, Mom (That's Why I'm Fighting in Viet Nam)" any less of a classic war song. A soldier writes home to his family and describes how his buddy died in battle.
9. Wilburn Brothers, "The War Keeps Dragging On"
By 1971, even the staunchest country artists were beginning to have doubts. The Wilburn Brothers' recording of Larry Whitehead's song didn't make the charts, but it did question whether so many troops should be dying in Southeast Asia.
10. Merle Haggard, "I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me"
Merle Haggard got famous writing songs about men stuck in prison, so he had the context for writing a great song about prisoners of war. Released at a time when much of the country was trying to ignore or forget the Vietnam conflict, "I Wonder If They Ever Think of Me" shot to No. 1 on the country charts and became one of his most beloved songs.
The song opens with a verse that suggests Merle is revisiting his skill at writing prison songs. That continues through the first chorus, until the big reveal in verse two: He's writing about a POW. "I wonder if they know that I'm still living/And still proud to be a part of Uncle Sam/I wonder if they think I died of hunger/In this rotten prison camp in Viet Nam."
In addition to being one of country music's greatest songwriters, Merle was one of its finest singers. The way he delivers the phrase "died of hunger" and how his voice cracks on "Viet Nam" is some of Haggard's greatest singing in a career full of amazing performances.
Special Thanks to the Vietnam War Song Project channel on YouTube. It's an invaluable resource for anyone who cares about the history of the war.