Arts The politics of Bakersfield

Country & Western is red and blue, not that you’d know it by listening to Nashville

You’ve heard it before: Music and politics don’t mix. It’s derived from a similar piece of banality about partisan celebrities. Yes, it’s true that a three-minute single, no matter how catchy, doesn’t bestow credibility to discourse on the nuances of foreign policy. And yet, to claim an art form should remain spotlessly nonpartisan defies both logic and history.

How many California governors have emerged from mediocre Hollywood careers? Too many indeed. And the man who brought us Stuart Smalley is now mounting a Senate bid. Hell, look at the grocery checkout aisles: Newsweek and Time barely peep through the fleshy cascade of Ok!, US, In Touch, and People. How can celebrities not be political? Sometimes it seems they’re all we’ve got.

As for music, well, it has long flirted with social reality. Even if love songs will always outnumber “Fight The Power” ballads, rock, rap and country have argued everything from “give peace a chance” to a foreign policy of “putting a boot in your ass.”

In Rednecks & Bluenecks, Entertainment Weekly’s Chris Willman talks with songwriters, Nashville music executives, and stars to map the political landscape of what he contends is the most mainstream American music genre. While country is often considered as reliably red as a Hummer dealership, the reality, Willman claims, is more complex.

Not that the fan base, and the corporate infrastructure isn’t conservative. It is. But Willman makes a solid case that these politics are not monolithic. Dissident artists such as Kris Kristofferson, Steve Earle, and Rodney Crowell have carved a niche in the genre. Most of Nashville’s major record labels are helmed by an odd pairing of liberal and conservative execs. And such stars as Willie Nelson on the left and Sara Davis on the right keep their music bipartisan while lending their names to respective campaigns. Even more fascinating are icons such as Johnny Cash, whose legacy is like a southern George Orwell, with both sides claiming him as a fellow traveler.

Like the culture at large, country has witnessed an intensity of polarization in recent years. A combination of media deregulation, the “mercenary marketing tactics” of corporate-controlled radio stations, and a wartime climate have made it nearly impossible for certain views to get a hearing within the genre’s mainstream.

Reflecting on this recent cleavage, one longtime Nashville music executive put it this way: “I don’t know how to explain it. `Back then` it was still God and country, but it seemed like a different God and country.”

The apogee of this ideological entrenchment was “the incident” that Willman and his sources refer to endlessly: the purging of The Dixie Chicks from the world of mainstream country. At this point it seems like a blip on the radar screen, but Natalie Maines’ confession to a London audience that George Bush made her ashamed to be from Texas proved a watershed. The trio that was insanely popular just days before returned home to find their CDs destroyed in public displays organized by conservative shock jocks. Chains from Cox to Clear Channel effectively kiboshed any radio play. To other artists inclined toward critical singing, the implications were as subtle as a HUAC hearing.

Willman is astute when he notes that the “incident” stoked so much anger not because The Chicks were women, nor even because they criticized the president. Rather, in a polarized cultural climate where Fox watchers and NPR listeners rarely mingle, The Chicks’ political views came as a surprise. Their middle-age, middle-class fan base naturally assumed they were “on their team,” or at least sensible enough to keep quiet. The realization that a beloved band has opposing views smacked of betrayal, even if The Chicks never took an oath.

Rednecks & Bluenecks:
The Politics of Country Music

By Chris Willman
The New Press
$25.95, 320 pages
ISBN: 1595580174

Without intending to, Rednecks flirts with the theme of Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter With Kansas, last year’s bestseller about how working-class whites migrated to a party that betrays their economic interests. Willman points out that country music has always reflected the dominant values of the Dixiecrat South. Thanks in part to the culture wars and, the legacy of Nixon’s “Southern Strategy,” the region is now firmly within the grip of the GOP. As such, artists tend to keep their politics to themselves or fall into the world of alt country, or “y’allternative,” a genre in which artists don’t rely on mainstream radio play.

At its worst, Rednecks substitutes a cataloguing of political songs and a few bizarre subchapters (the politics of stage banter, anyone?) for real analysis. But mostly, Willman’s wit and refusal to pander make for a nuanced and entertaining piece of pop sociology.

Even if music and politics don’t always mix, the culture of country is uniquely situated to maintain space for dialogue. As Willman writes of Nashville: “People who respect each other sometimes discover they’re ideologically at odds and end up having substantive debates from across party lines, something you don’t often find on the Upper West Side or in Birmingham.”