Back in February, music historian J. Lester Feder published an article in the American Prospect entitled “When Country Went Right.” As Feder would have it, country music wasn’t always as “conservative” as it is today. Once upon a time, it seems, country music was a left-leaning, “populist” American art form. Then Richard Nixon, taking his cue from George Wallace, invited country-music stars to join him on the 1968 campaign trail and was fêted, in turn, by the Country Music Association at the opening of the new Grand Ole Opry House in 1974. “Once fiercely allied with working people,” claims Feder, country music “married” into the conservative movement and never looked back. It is certainly true that, in recent decades, mainstream country music has become increasingly identified with Republican politics, and that the music’s fealty to its hillbilly and blue-collar origins has all too often been compromised by Nashville’s craven appetite for popular acceptance (and the sales figures it generates). It is also a fact that, before the 1960’s, to the extent that it was political at all, country music and its fans were firmly Democratic. But the true story of country music’s migration from the Democratic Dust Bowl to the Republican Tar Pit is a tad more complicated than what Feder chose to reveal.
First of all, if I may follow Feder’s lead and speak of country music as populist art, we will do well to remember that populism has always been Janus-faced. Since the golden days of William Jennings Bryan, populist movements have generally championed the downtrodden factory worker, farmer, or middling small-business owner against the interests of “elites”—usually Eastern bankers, railroad magnates, establishment politicians, or, more recently, pointy-headed intellectuals. Frequently, this defense of the “real producers” of wealth against the bloodsuckers who exploit them has taken the form of egalitarian political and economic positions. On the other hand, the “populist persuasion” (as Michael Kazin has called it) has generally been culturally and morally conservative, and especially so in the South. The most enduring motifs in country music have always been those of kinship and homestead, heartbreak and the hope of a better world in the hereafter. If country music has sometimes raised its blue-collar hackles in class-conscious anger or celebrated those it believed to be the political champions of ordinary folk, it has far more often been deeply apolitical, or, when political, atavistically so. This is perhaps because of the powerful strain of Calvinist religiosity so prevalent in the Appalachian Scots-Irish, whose balladry and fiddle playing have been the wellspring of country music since its commercial inception in the 1920’s.
Nevertheless, during the Great Depression, when country music was still in its infancy (and when the distinction between “country” and “folk” music had not yet been firmly drawn), the populist impulse often found expression in lyrical laments for the poor farmer’s plight in hillbilly songs with a political bent, such as Vernon Dalhart’s “Farm Relief Song,” first recorded in 1929, or Bob Miller’s “Those Campaign Lyin’, Sugar Coated Ballot-Coaxin’ Low Down Farm Relief Blues.” Some of Woody Guthrie’s Dust Bowl ballads also possess an enduring populist pathos, though his best-known composition, “This Land is Your Land,” vies with “We Are the World” for sheer, unadulterated banality. Yet Guthrie, who first achieved commercial success on country radio, borrowed the melody for that folk anthem from a gospel song, the Carter Family’s “When the World’s On Fire” (1930), and I would argue that the finest country songs of the Depression era are those derived from the apolitical gospel tradition. Consider, for example, Alfred Brumley’s haunting “I’ll Fly Away” (1929), whose vision of liberation from a life of earthly toil has been taken up again and again by country and bluegrass singers: “When the shadows of this life have gone, I’ll fly away; / Like a bird from prison bars has flown, I’ll fly away.”
If country-music fans in the 1930’s voted overwhelmingly Democratic, that is hardly surprising. After all, most of them were Southerners, and Southerners had always voted Democratic. It is equally true, however, that FDR was enormously popular in the South. In such songs as W. Lee O’Daniel’s “On to Victory, Mr. Roosevelt” or Billy Cox’s “The Democratic Donkey is in His Stall Again,” country singers celebrated FDR, scion of the Eastern elite, as a populist hero. But the real story here is not about populist aspirations fulfilled in the warm embrace of an invalid who understood the heartbreak and misery of the landless and the unemployed. To be sure, FDR was a master of smooth and all-embracing populist rhetoric. In his First Inaugural Address, he proclaimed his salvific mission to cleanse the temple of American civilization of the predatory capitalists who had profaned it: “The money changers have fled from their high seats in the temple of our civilization. We may now restore that temple to its ancient truths . . . social values more noble than mere monetary profit.” Of course, as numerous critics of the New Deal have shown, FDR’s true mission was not to drive out the money changers but to invite them to sit down and break bread with the Pharisees of Labor, and to offer a desperate American people sanctuary in exchange for their self-reliance. This bargain with the devil culminated in the proclamation of the Social Security Act, a secular vision of the Promised Land that seduced millions who should have known better.
During and after World War II, the popularity of country music began to reach well beyond the Sunbelt, spread by fiercely patriotic GIs and the millions of Southerners who migrated off the land and crossed the Mason-Dixon line in search of work. As this slow-motion diaspora unfolded, a subtle process of what has been called “Southernization” occurred among the nation’s working classes. As labor sociologist James N. Gregory has documented, by the early 1960’s, native-born Southerners accounted for as much as 20 percent of the blue-collar labor force in key industrial sectors outside the South: auto and aircraft manufacturing, trucking, the steel and rubber industries, and the construction trades. To Northern cities such as Detroit, Akron, Chicago, and Columbus, and to Los Angeles, San Diego, and Bakersfield, Southern laborers brought with them not only conservative cultural and moral values, but their religion, their love of stock-car racing, and their music. Bobby Bare’s plaintive 1964 ballad “Detroit City” articulates the powerful nostalgia for the South that these laborers left behind:
’Cause you know I rode a freight train north to Detroit
And after all these years I find I’ve just been wasting my
So I think I’ll take my foolish pride
Put it on a southbound freight and ride
Back to the loved ones
The ones I left behind.
But most of them never did return; they remained and spread their influence beyond the “Little Dixies” where they first congregated. Over time, country music became the musical voice, not just of the South, but of the American working classes, which, in turn, became increasingly conservative during this same period, years before the “right” turn that Feder describes.
This sociological and demographic development, though it is only one of several factors, strongly contributed to the eventual embrace of Republican politics by country music and its growing congregation of listeners. Equally important were changes in the agenda of the Democratic Party and the dawning perception among significant numbers of its traditional blue-collar constituency that the interests of the working man were no longer the party’s first priority. Big Labor was increasingly seen as bloated and corrupt, its politics virtually indistinguishable from those of a federal bureaucracy committed to a radical civil-rights agenda that seemed to threaten blue-collar job security as well as the integrity of working-class neighborhoods. Opposition to federally mandated busing and massive welfare taxation were rampant among Northern blue-collar Catholics, who needed no instruction from Southerners to recognize that their traditional way of life was in danger. By 1968, with George McGovern’s embrace of campus flag-burners—not to mention feminist bra-burners—the Democratic abandonment of its traditional base was a fait accompli. Into this electoral breach stepped Governor Wallace, achieving significant Northern victories in his 1964, 1968, and 1972 bids for the presidency, flanked by country-music stars such as Tammy Wynette and Webb Pierce.
Country music was a barometer of the changes transforming the American political and social landscape in the 1960’s and early 70’s. When Merle Haggard recorded “Okie From Muskogee” and “The Fightin’ Side of Me” (both in 1969), the response was overwhelming. What Nixon was calling the “Silent Majority” found its anthem in “Okie,” for, by then, country music was no longer just hillbilly music; it had been discovered by millions of middle-class Americans as well, hard-working suburbanites for whom the drug-induced excesses of rock music had no appeal. Appalled at the televised spectacle of the “free love” generation running amok on college campuses spewing anti-American hatred, they felt vindicated by Haggard’s reactionary anger, just as their resentment of those who refused to work found an outlet in Guy Drake’s 1970 hit, “Welfare Cadillac.” The swelling ranks of country-music fans also supported the war in Vietnam, if only as a matter of national pride. Arguably, though, they were duped by the so-called domino theory, just as their predecessors had been by the Social Security scam of the 1930’s, and duped yet again by Nixon’s adoption of the populist rhetoric of Wallace, shorn of its blue-collar bellicosity.
Certainly, after 1968, country-music fans and evangelical Christians have been the core constituency of a Republican populism, which, though it draws upon millions of blue-collar voters, is largely a middle-class phenomenon. This is a cultural and moral, rather than economic, populism combined with a traditional Republican emphasis on deregulation, the “free market,” and reductions in Big Government. As readers of Chronicles are well aware, however, under the Reagan and Bush administrations, the federal government has continued on an expansionist course, while the evangelical moral agenda has amounted to little more than pious window dressing. Nonetheless, Nashville has been only too happy to supply the soundtrack to this supersized cozening of the American people. The list of Nashville luminaries who have performed at Republican election rallies, or provided endorsements and/or contributions to Republican candidates, is a long one, but includes (just to name a few) Darryl Worley, Tanya Tucker, Sara Evans, Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack, Travis Tritt, Alabama, Loretta Lynn, Ricky Skaggs, Lee Greenwood, Reba McEntire, George Jones, George Strait, Hank Williams, Jr., and Wynonna Judd. (For the reader who does not follow country music, every singer on this list is a top-drawer country act.)
Endorsements are just the tip of the iceberg. Most of these stars are promoted by a miniscule band of Nashville producers who are themselves, with a few notable exceptions, Republican stalwarts. Moreover, most of the more than 2,000 country-music radio stations nationwide are owned by a few media conglomerates, including Cox Radio, Cumulus, and—the most powerful—Clear Channel, which also controls a huge share of the “conservative” talk-radio format (Limbaugh, Beck, and Hannity, among others) and is a well-known contributor of “soft money” to Republican campaign coffers. Clear Channel is widely believed to have conspired with Republican operatives to orchestrate the boycott of the Dixie Chicks after the March 2003 debacle in London, when radio stations from coast to coast refused to provide the Chicks airtime. Little conclusive evidence has emerged either to confirm or deny these persistent claims of behind-the-scenes shenanigans. Clear Channel executives, of course, claim that the stations’ DJs acted independently in response to hordes of angry country-music fans who had “spontaneously” risen from their Barca-loungers by the tens of thousands to demand the silencing of Natalie Maines. Well, if you believe that, I’ve got a piece of oceanfront property in Arizona that might interest you. It is doubtful that Clear Channel DJs have ever acted independently.
Over the course of many decades, then, populist sentiment has been shamelessly exploited by both wings of the American political duopoly, which, like the vampires they are, require periodic infusions of populist blood to maintain their factitious vitality. What has changed in country music since the 1960’s, however, is that Nashville’s insatiable appetite for profit and respectability has driven a marketing agenda focused on capturing an ever-larger share of the middle-class consumer demographic. Thus, it has been willing to sacrifice its rural and blue-collar fan base in quest of a more lucrative suburban audience, one far more likely to drive SUVs than pick-up trucks. That this has coincided with GOP electoral strategy since 1968 is, you might say, a happy coincidence for both. Country music’s transformation is perhaps best symbolized by the 1974 relocation of the Grand Ole Opry from the hallowed Ryman Auditorium in downtown Nashville to a site adjacent to a theme park, Opryland, just down the road from Andrew Jackson’s Hermitage. Before the theme park was shut down in 1997 and rebuilt as a shopping mall, country-music fans and their families could take a cruise on the General Jackson Showboat or a wild ride on the Rock and Roller Coaster, stuff themselves silly on corn dogs, then enjoy a show at the new Opry House. There, they could (and still do) listen to performances by traditionalist entertainers, chuckle over folksy Martha White radio commercials, and find themselves reassured by the illusion that country music is still, well, country. Meanwhile, by the mid 90’s, the real action was unfolding in huge concert venues and stadiums across the country, where the likes of Garth Brooks and Shania Twain were strutting their stuff before adoring new metropolitan fans who hadn’t the faintest idea that what they were listening to was about as country as MTV. And those same neophytes were buying up CDs in numbers that made Nashville record-company executives wet their well-pressed trousers with sheer delight.
Today, the country-music airwaves are dominated by youngsters who grew up listening to the Eagles and Southern rock, and, though they profess their admiration for Hank and George and Loretta, their music is often little more than pop music with a twang—the perfect soundscape for Republican campaign rallies. For the traditionalist who dares to tune in in the hope of hearing an oldie such as Lefty Frizzell’s “I Can’t Get Over You to Save My Life,” there ain’t no satisfaction to be had. Instead, he will find that the wailing steel guitars of the past have all been buried beneath a sonic wall of synthesized, guitar-driven, neo-honky-tonk dreck. Of course, there are still some authentic country singers who somehow make the charts. George Strait has, astonishingly since the late 1970’s, continued to produce a splendid New Traditionalist country sound. More recently, Lee Ann Womack has proved that honky-tonk angels still cheat. (Listen to her 1998 “I’d Rather Have What We Had,” and get your hanky out.) And then there’s the young Gretchen Wilson, who sometimes sounds like a girl truck driver jacked up on little white pills, but whose recent duet with Merle Haggard, “Politically Uncorrect,” is about as country as it gets. These are exceptions to the Republican rule in Nashville, however, where anything that might upset the soccer moms is generally verboten.
It is likely that, for the foreseeable future, Nashville’s low-rent rendezvous with the Republican Party will continue. After all, the party and the producers are stalking the same demographic. But there are some signs of revolt. Back in 2004, a group of Nashville producers and performers formed an organization called the Music Row Democrats and supported the failed Kerry bid for the presidency. Somehow, they were under the impression that Kerry would, if elected, prove to be a more reliable advocate of the concerns of “ordinary Americans” than George W. Bush has proved to be. (Such delusions suggest either rank ignorance or desperation.) Still, there are Democrats in country music—a sizable number, in fact. Emmylou Harris, the queen of traditionalist singers, regularly campaigns for Democratic causes, as does Rodney Crowell, one of Nashville’s best songwriters. Willie Nelson, a long-time associate of Jimmy Carter, does his thing for the farmer, while the Bush-obsessed Steve Earle badmouths the Republican “fascists” at every opportunity. (According to Republican speechwriter Mike Long, Earle “was a great musician until he decided to become the pet monkey of the New York cocktail scene.”) Toby Keith himself, whose “Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue” (2002) promised to “put a boot” in the posterior of terrorist coddlers, claims to be a lifelong Democrat. But even if Nashville were to sue for D-I-V-O-R-C-E and get herself a blow-dried Democratic bedmate, it’s hard to tell whether much would change.