Twenty years ago, hijacked planes crashed into New York’s World Trade Center Towers, the Pentagon outside Washington, D.C. and a Pennsylvania field on Sept. 11, 2001, leaving 2,977 people murdered and nearly 6,000 more wounded in the worst terrorist attack on American soil in history.
Americans reacted with a myriad of emotions — shock, horror, anger, sorrow and fear — but many also rallied together in unity and a show of support for the American military and each other.
Country music artists were among the first to put that range of complex emotions into song. Two country releases in particular seemed to capture the yin and yang of American reactions to the tragedy: while Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American)” seethed with righteous anger and intense patriotism with lines like “We’ll put a boot in your a–/ it’s the American way,” Alan Jackson’s “Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning)” focused on those who reacted in quieter ways, with lines such as “Did you go to a church and hold hands with some strangers/ Stand in line and give your own blood?/ Did you just stay home and cling tight to your family/ Thank God you had somebody to love?”
Here, Billboard looks back at some of the country songs inspired by “that September day,” as Jackson sang.
“Where Were You (When The World Stopped Turning),” Alan Jackson
For most country fans (and many non-country fans), Jackson put into words the horror, confusion, sadness and fear so many felt as we watched the events of 9/11 unfold and tried to understand the inexplicable. Apolitical, plainspoken and befittingly measured in tone, Jackson’s finest work provided comfort by acknowledging there were no easy answers, but that we weren’t alone in our questions. He didn’t call for war or retribution, he simply called for us to try to love each other. “I know Jesus and I talk to God. And I remember this from when I was young/ Faith, hope and love are some good things He gave us/ And the greatest is love,” he sang. After debuting the song on the Country Music Association Awards less than two months after the attacks, Jackson went on to win the Grammy for best country song, as well as CMA honors for song of the year. – Melinda Newman
“Where The Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly,” Aaron Tippin
Tippin penned this song with Kenny Beard and Casey Beathard more than two years before the 9/11 attacks, though never recorded it. Two days after 9/11, Tippin went into the studio to record the track and soon after, sent it to country radio. With patriotic lines like “There’s a lady that stands in a harbor for what we believe/ And there’s a bell that still echoes the price that it cost to be free,” and Tippin’s straight-forward rendering, “Where The Stars and Stripes and the Eagle Fly” reached No. 2 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart in January 2002. Tippin donated the song’s proceeds to the American Red Cross. – Jessica Nicholson
“Courtesy of the Red, White & Blue (The Angry American),” Toby Keith
Keith’s saber-rattling, polarizing tune took no prisoners as he tied his father’s military service and love for country with the U.S. invading Afghanistan as payback for 9/11. Calling for justice in no uncertain terms, Keith sang, “When you hear mother freedom start ringin’ her bell/and it feels like the whole wide world is raining down on you/brought to you courtesy of the red white and blue.” The bellicose tone was off-putting to many, especially as he sang, “‘Cause we’ll put a boot in your ass/It’s the American way,” and yet Keith’s battle cry topped Hot Country Songs, resonating with those who found its ferocious tone warranted and welcome. – M.N.
“America Will Survive,” Hank Williams, Jr.
Williams re-wrote the lyrics to his signature 1982 hit “A Country Boy Can Survive,” refashioning it with patriotic lines like “We’ve had enough and we’ve drawn the line/Our flag is up since our people went down.” He first performed the song during CMT’s Country Freedom Concert, which aired Oct. 21, 2001, and later included it on his 2002 album The Almeria Club Recordings. “America Will Survive” peaked at No. 45 on the Hot Country Songs chart. – J.N.
“Grand Central Station,” Mary Chapin Carpenter
Carpenter wrote the ethereal song after the first anniversary of 9/11, inspired by an interview she heard with an iron worker who was among the first to pick through the rubble at the Twin Towers. At the end of his grueling shift, he would go to New York’s Grand Central Station, believing the souls of those who had perished would follow and be set free. “He’d find himself just going to Grand Central Station and standing on the platform and thinking whoever wanted to go home could catch the train home,” Carpenter told NPR in 2004. The gentle, acoustic song captures an ordinary man “working on the pile” with extraordinary dreams of reconciliation for the lost spirits. – M.N.
“This Is America,” Oak Ridge Boys
This piano-driven track was included on the quartet’s 2003 album Colors, a project filled with songs about family and patriotism. The Oak Ridge Boys members Duane Allen, Joe Bonsall, William Lee Golden, and Richard Sterban wrap their signature harmonies around lines dedicated to fighting for freedom, seemingly inspired by the aftermath of 9/11: “This threat to our freedom has renewed our will to fight/ Our battle cry is victory, we know we’ll do what’s right.” The song was written by Allen’s wife, Norah Lee Allen. – J.N.
“Have You Forgotten?,” Darryl Worley
Worley sent this pro-war song straight to No. 1 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs in 2003. In the mid-tempo track, written with Wynn Varble, he asks those who question the justification for invading Iraq if they have forgotten the 9/11 attacks, namechecking the Towers, the Pentagon, the Pennsylvania field crash site and Osama Bin Laden. Worley debuted the song at the Grand Ole Opry in January 2003 after performing for U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan and Kuwait a month before, after which he released a studio version. – M.N.
“This Ain’t No Rag, It’s a Flag,” The Charlie Daniels Band
Charlie Daniels wrote this song in response to the 9/11 tragedy and included it as a bonus track on the band’s 2001 album Live!. Daniels had planned to live debut the song at CMT’s Country Freedom Concert in Nashville in October 2001, which honored rescue workers who aided people on Sept. 11, but the concert organizers were hesitant about its lyrics, particularly this line: “This ain’t no rag it’s a flag/and we don’t wear it on our heads.” In response, Daniels declined to perform at the show and made the song available for purchase on his website. Country music fans responded, and the song reached No. 33 on Billboard’s Hot Country Songs chart. – J.N.
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