Wild Country: Atomic Cowboys

by Max Sparber

The atomic bombs was a problem. It was  a problem for the world, because suddenly one country had an almost unlimited capability for destruction. But it was a problem for America too.

Our place in the universe had shifted. We suddenly wielded a power that previously had only been assigned to God, and we had used it already in a terrifying demonstration, the morality of which is still unsettled.

Popular culture did what it does: It wrestled with the idea of the bomb. It borrowed the name of the Bikini Atoll, which was the location of bomb tests, for a swimsuit. Slim Gaillard sang of an Atomic Cocktail, while horror movies produced giant monsters, created in the nuclear fallout of the bomb.

Country music wrestled with it too. Since rural white gospel was (and remains) a strong influence on country, many musicians explicitly interrogated the morality of it, or used the power of the atom to remind us of the power of God. Country has also long been a genre with a love for a good novelty song, so some attempted to use the bomb in a jokey way.

However they approached the subject, to modern ears the songs are very weird. Perhaps this was unavoidable — the bomb was just too big a subject to address in a three-minute song, and too challenging a subject for the musical equivalent of a hot take.

Still, these are fascinating artifacts of country history, and now, steeped in nostalgia, they have acquired a strange coolness, especially as they have proven to be popular accompaniments to films set in the atomic age (the documentary "Atomic Cafe" in particular), providing a dose of authentic atomic-age surreality.

Here are some of the weirdest:

"When the Atomic Bomb Fell," Karl and Harty (1946)

This mandolin-soaked, close-harmony song is terrifyingly explicit about the experience of the bomb, starting by lovingly describing the destruction of a Japanese city. If the song sounds upbeat, it's because Karl and Harty side with the official justification: That it ended the war sooner, saving U.S. soldiers' lives. "It's the answer to our fighting boys prayers," they sing, repeatedly.

This isn't meant as a metaphor, either: The song's second verse starts with the aphorism "There was no atheist in a foxhole," and then goes on to describe terrified soldiers beseeching God for an end to the war; Karl and Harty then explicitly state that they think the bomb that struck Hiroshima was a literal answer to that prayer.

"Jesus Hits Like the Atom Bomb," Lowell Blanchard (1950)

Radio host and performer Lowell Blanchard is not impressed by the atomic bomb. "Everybody's worried about the atomic bomb," he sings dismissively. "But nobody's worried about the day my Lord will come."

Most of the song is spoken like a rhymed sermon, shruggingly reviewing the history of the bomb and then telling listeners that there's no real reason to worry. After all, Jesus is coming back, and the Biblical descriptions of his return sound awfully familiar. He'll hit — great God amighty — like an atom bomb.

"Old Man Atom," The Sons of the Pioneers (1950)

Beginning with a whistled recreation of the sound of a falling bomb and leading into the Sons of the Pioneers chirruping out the names of places hit by atomic bombs over a rollicking accordion, this is not the band at its most sensitive.

But the song is anti-bomb, written by blacklisted reporter Vern Partlow as a sermon from the point of view of the atom. "When Einstein's scared," the sermon tells us, "brother, you'd better be scared."

The song then advocates that people join forces against the bomb, because nobody else will: Scientist are too engaged with the science of the thing, diplomats are too busy splitting hairs, and the military just wants more and better. And the atom itself? Well, "the atom don't care."

"Atomic Sermon '53," Billy Hughes & His Buckaroos (1953)

Despite its name, this song doesn't take the form of a spoken sermon, but instead a lap-steel driven and brightly sung country swing number about atomic panic. Singer Billy Hughes is naked about his terror. "That atomic energy sure scares me," he sings.

Unlike Karl and Harty, Hughes sees nothing Godly about the atomic bomb: He references the Bible and its predictions for the future, and can't seem to find anything about splitting the atom. And that seems to be what scares him the most: that science has moved beyond morality. "You better start thinking about saving your soul or Sam Johnson ain't my name," he sings.

"You think I'm kidding?" he asks, confusingly. "Sam Johnson AIN'T my name."

"The Great Atomic Power," The Louvin Brothers (1962)

Country duo Ira and Charlie Louvin were never afraid to get a little fire and brimstone with their songs, but they start "The Great Atomic Power" on an ambivalent note, asking their listeners "Do you fear this man's invention that we call atomic power, are we all in great confusion?"

But if you think the Louvin Brothers are going to acknowledge the moral swamp that is atomic proliferation, you have not noticed this song's strangely bouncy bass line and cheerful electric guitar. In fact, their vision is positively apocalyptic, asking if listeners are prepared to rise from the ashes of a destroyed America to meet their savior. "Will you shudder, will you cry when the fire rains on high?" they ask, and the answer seems to be "Not if you're a good Christian."


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