This year marks the 25th anniversary of Garth Brooks’s “We Shall Be Free.” In 1992, the controversial song received limited airplay on country radio thanks to its progressive stance on a multitude of issues including racism, marriage equality, indigenous rights and the environmental protection. Brooks has since said he released the track in response to the Los Angeles riots of 1992, which broke out after the acquittal of the four LAPD officers who were videotaped beating Rodney King.
Fast-forward to 2017 and racial tensions are still running high in America (especially in the wake of the violent alt-right gathering in Charlottesville). Although it may seem stereotypical to lump radio-friendly country music together by themes of Southern identity and patriotism, there’s some truth to genre’s history of conservatism: A 2004 Gallup poll found that 60 percent of country fans identify as Republicans.
When country artists offer songs or views that contradict a long-standing narrative or opposing political viewpoint, it can come as a shock to fans. The backlash over the Dixie Chicks’ criticism of George W. Bush in 2003 remains one of the most famous examples. More recently, Jason Isbell took some fire for his latest album, The Nashville Sound, with songs like “White Man’s World” and “Hope the High Road” addressing gender inequality, indigenous rights and white privilege.
But when fans see their musical heroes singing and speaking about contemporary issues, it can also be educational, inspirational and unifying. Here are 10 of the most progressive country songs of all time.