‘Country music has become apolitical’: why have acts kept quiet on the election?

Perhaps for the first time, Nashvilles country musicians have determined that the risks of supporting a 2016 president candidate outweigh the rewards

Election seasons typically go the same way in country singer Radney Fosters tree-lined neighborhood in Nashville, where hes lived since the early 80s. Neighbors argue about their preferred candidates at potlucks. They put out yard signs: in 2012, Obama and Romney signs could be found in many of Fosters neighbors front lawns.

This year has been different. Its October, and theres not a single political sign in the yards of any of my neighbors, its pretty remarkable, says Foster. Everyones scared to touch it. Its so toxic.

Silence has come to define the current climate throughout the world of country music, a genre that has historically aligned with the Republican party for the past half-century.

In 2016 that allegiance feels as flimsy as ever, but a wide range of factors, namely the harshly polarizing nature of Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, have made the 2016 election a taboo topic of conversation in Nashvilles country music industry.

Everybody seems to be wanting to talk about it, but theres no public discourse, says songwriter Bobby Braddock, who has written hits for Tammy Wynette and Nancy Sinatra. Everybody is so interested in doing business and making a dollar.

Fear of professional fallout whether from recording artists, songwriters or industry professionals has caused a near paralyzing climate of behind-closed-doors political silence in Music City.

Such a fear of political expression is altogether new in country music, a genre thats typically not been shy about its partisan allegiances. Twelve or 16 years ago, artists would say, Im for Bush. Ill get on stage with him and Ill do everything I can to support him, says Dave Moody, member of the country group the Moody Brothers and current president of an independent record label in Nashville.

Ive always seen the political as a two-way street, says Moody, whose group has campaigned for Democratic governors, toured the campaign trail with George HW Bush and played at Ronald Reagans White House.

The politicians are using the performers and getting the endorsements, but at the same time its an opportunity for the artists to showcase themselves in front of a bigger audience than they would on their own, he says. In 2016, perhaps for the first time in the history of country music, the risks of merely supporting a presidential candidate firmly outweigh the rewards.

Radney Foster. Photograph: Beth Gwinn/Getty Images
Nashvilles long been a Democratic stronghold in deep-red Tennessee, but despite the citys liberalism many estimate that the country music industry still slightly favors Trump. A recent informal survey conducted by the trade publication
Country Aircheck showed that 46% of the industry professionals who participated favored Trump compared to 41% who supported Clinton, with 13% supporting Gary Johnson.

What Im hearing is that even with the reservations about Trump, the male members of the industry still feel that hes one of us, says Don Cusic, professor of country music history at Nashvilles Belmont University.

Trump presents a specific paradox for country music. On one hand, he represents the genres historic party of choice, and has found a unique way to effectively communicate with the country demographic. Trump sticks to one-to-two-syllable words, like a country song, says Cusic. He speaks the language of the country audience.

On the other hand, Trump, a billionaire New Yorker whose campaign has harshly alienated women the majority of country music fans presents himself as one of the least country music-friendly presidential candidates of all time. Most country fans dont have a billion dollars, and havent lost a billion dollars, says Cusic.

Clinton has largely avoided any appeals to the country music world during her campaign. Her tenuous relationship with the genre dates back as far as 1992, when she gave an interview with 60 Minutes in response to her husbands rumored infidelities.

Im not sitting here, some little woman standing by my man like Tammy Wynette, she said, referencing the 1968 classic Stand By Your Man. (I happen to be a country-western fan, Clinton said in a subsequent apology to Wynette.)

Country legend and former Reaganite, Merle Haggard, endorsed Clintons bid for president during the primaries in 2007, releasing a song called Hillary. The chorus went as followed: This country needs to be honest/ Changes need to be large/ Something like a big switch of gender/ Lets put a woman in charge.

One of the only interactions Clintons candidacy has had with country music came in late 2014, when a Super Pac called Stand With Hillary released a transparently pandering country song meant to highlight Clintons working-class appeal.

The harshly divisive nature of the current election presents particular problems for an industry that, over the last decade, has worked to mainstream its national image and attract an increasingly younger demographic that expands the genres historically rural, southern conservative base. (A 2011 study revealed that nearly half of all country musics estimated 95 million fans in the US are under 44 years old.)

Country music has become publicly apolitical, says Braddock. Ten or 12 years ago, youd hear a lot of super patriotic, rightwing subject material on the radio. You dont hear that now. There are a lot more young people listening, and I no longer think of the music as conservative or ideological.

When major stars have expressed any degree of political opinion, near immediate blowback has ensued. Whether you love him or hate him, he says what he thinks, and he has proven that you dont always have to be so afraid, Blake Shelton said of Trump in Billboard, before adding: I probably wish there was another option, but theres not.

Hillary might make as good a president as anybody ever has, Dolly Parton said to the New York Times in June. By August, her opinion on the candidates had been modified to I think theyre both nuts.

George W Bush shakes hands with country singer Kenny Chesney. Photograph: Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images

Sometimes an artists true feelings might slip out, but most are clarifying their support, says Moody. Dolly realizes that half of the world doesnt agree with whichever side she picks. Why would you want to alienate essentially half of your fan base?

With not a single mainstream country star expressing unambiguous support for Clinton, the genre appears to publicly lean slightly towards Trump at first glance. Blake Shelton, Justin Moore, Loretta Lynn, Kenny Rogers, Larry Gatlin and Aaron Lewis have all expressed admiration for the candidate.

Country musics relationship to national politics can be traced to George Wallaces third-party campaign in 1968. Country mainstays Hank Snow, Tammy Wynette and Minnie Pearl all opened for the Alabama governor throughout his political career. They were thrilled to be part of the whole political process. Finally, a politician was paying attention to them, says Cusic.

Although Cusic notes that many country stars quieted down after falling on the wrong side of history with Wallaces segregationist campaign, Jimmy Carter, George HW Bush and George W Bush enjoyed strong connections to country music throughout the next several decades.

During the height of countrys kinship with George W Bush in 2003, the Dixie Chicks stirred controversy when singer Natalie Maines protested the Iraq war by claiming onstage that the group was ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas. Before long the groups music had been pulled from country radio, effectively derailing their mainstream success for good.

Nearly everyone interviewed for this article cited the Dixie Chicks as a primary reason so many singers are still scared to speak their minds politically. The one thing the Dixie Chicks taught the industry is boy, you go against the prevailing political belief and youre off the radio, says Cusic.

Surprise Beyonc appearance at Country Music Awards.

The biggest country star to release socially conscious music during this election season is Eric Church, whose current single, Kill a Word, is a subtle condemnation of hate speech. We thought it would be a crime not to put that song out with whats going on right now, says Arturo Buenahora, whos served as executive producer on each of Churchs five albums.

The song also features vocals from singer Rhiannon Giddens, a committed activist-musician whose origins are in traditional roots and folk music. Given what the song is trying to say and what the climate of the country is right now, having a black female singer on the song is a strong choice, because thats part of what the songs trying to do: its trying to tear down walls, says Giddens.

Im normally not a very political boy, says Radney Foster, who recently released All That I Require, a historical critique of fascism that might be countrys most directly political take this election.

Foster admits that being an independent artist who no longer gets played on country radio makes it much easier to speak out, but hes also experienced firsthand the consequences of being outspoken in country music. The first single the Dixie Chicks released after their antiwar statement was Fosters Godspeed, which ended up being one of the least successful singles of the trios career.

Its very hard, because Ive got fans who fall in both camps, he says. Sometimes youve got to do stuff thats more important than your paycheck. This has honestly gotten so far under my skin that its more important to me than losing a gig or a fan.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/music/2016/nov/03/country-music-election-politics

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