Tribeca Review: Rebel Country


I hate country music. I make no secret of it and I’m pretty sure that if you ask most people their thoughts on country music, they’ll probably say they hate it too. Country music has a very distinct image in the popular consciousness, one that isn’t exactly favorable. But, like most genres, the country is vast with various subgenres. Even then, country music isn’t exactly static, with the definition of “country music” changing constantly. It’s this perspective that Rebel Country decides to focus its 78-minute runtime on. 

Rebel Country is a documentary that isn’t afraid to be honest about the state of country music today. It points out its successes, but also the myriad of flaws within it. It looks at the genre from both a modern mindset and when it first started over a century ago as hillbilly music. This is a documentary that I would show to people who don’t like country music. It won’t change your mind about the genre, but it will give you a deeper understanding and appreciation of how it isn’t what you think it is. The mere fact that I could say I enjoyed learning about country music from this documentary speaks for itself.

Review: Rebel Country

Rebel Country
Director: Francis Whately
Release Date: June 10, 2024 (Tribeca Film Festival)

One of the first things Rebel Country attempts to do is to define what a rebel is. This concept of a rebel has shifted across several generations but Rebel Country and the various people associated with country music who appear in the documentary conclude that a rebel is someone whose beliefs are counter to the dominant culture. In the 50s, a rebel in the world of country music was someone who sang about taboo subjects like alcohol, and crime and wasn’t afraid to be associated with those subjects. The 80s had people who savored and lived by those vices and used those excesses to define themselves. But a rebel in the world of country music today has nothing to do with any of that. A rebel today is someone who is black, gay, or an outspoken woman. 

Rebel Country delves into the history of country music and points out the similarities between the early genres of colored music and hillbilly music and how they’re virtually identical. From there, we slowly begin to see how this modern incarnation of country came to be, mostly through ties with Republicans and how institutions in Nashville push forward an idea of what country music is, aka, what sells a lot to the largest possible demographic. Rebel Country challenges these notions by pointing out a variety of different artists and how their music addresses some of the prejudices associated with the genre.

The documentary doesn’t try to deny any of the negative associations with country music and how that perception was fostered. It owns up to the fact that the vast majority of country music is a parody of what would have been genuinely considered edgy decades ago. Actual country music and artists who are edgy by breaking the mold or addressing uncomfortable subjects are shunned and ostracized. The documentary brings up the Dixie Chicks and Lil Nas X as examples of artists who were kicked out of Nashville for reasons that range from hypocritical to illogical. At the same time, the subjects that talk about this modern-day rebel imagery acknowledge that they’re a small minority given how entrenched Nashville and country music fans are in their ways, but they’re hopeful that things could change and people can become more open-minded to different artists. 

Most of the artists that contribute to Rebel Country aren’t no-names either. These are people with legitimate hits and some even have connections to long-lasting country music dynasties. Jelly Roll, Lainey Wilson, and Sam Williams are given prime spots to speak their minds about the state of country music and why they’re considered rebels. Sometimes it can come across as a bit self-congratulatory how each artist praises the other, and that’s when the documentary is at its weakest, but when it’s focusing on smaller artists and how they’re genuinely considered rebels due to their non-traditional roles in country, it’s fascinating. I’ve never heard of some of these artists like BRELAND or Blanco Brown, but I find them to be compelling subjects because of how much they challenge the status quo. 

Again, the biggest thing that Rebel Country has going for it is that it doesn’t try to shy away from more difficult subjects and is upfront about it. Yes, country music did spawn from a questionable segregationist mindset. Yes, country music has heavy ties to Republicans thanks to Nixon but not every country music artist is a Republican. Yes, modern-day country music is incredibly narrow and resistant to change. And yes, these rebels are trying their best to alter that perception, but it’s going to take them time to be as popular as artists like Luke Combs or Morgan Wallen. They’re niche and maybe they’ll become more popular, but maybe they won’t. Maybe Nashville will recognize these different artists because of their talents rather than how well they fit into this slim definition of what a country music singer should be, but maybe they won’t. Who can say?

All I can say is that I started off watching Rebel Country firmly thinking that country music was not for me. I didn’t like the connotations associated with it and the country artists that I do like were from decades ago. Modern-day “Bro Country” is not for me. However, when I finished Rebel Country, I felt more vindicated in my beliefs because the documentary affirmed that these negative associations do exist and are hurting the chances of newcomers listening to, as Nixon put it, this, “uniquely American genre.” But I’ve also become more open to it thanks to the artists Rebel Country showed off. I may not be adding them to my Spotify playlist anytime soon, but I can respect them as artists and what they represent to the future of the genre. 



Through multiple interviews, a deep introspective look at the root of country music, and the acknowledgement of the genre's flaws, Rebel Country managed to make someone like me who hates country interested in it.

Jesse Lab
The strange one. The one born and raised in New Jersey. The one who raves about anime. The one who will go to bat for DC Comics, animation, and every kind of dog. The one who is more than a tad bit odd. The Features Editor.