Gone Country: Should country stars get political?

On Jan. 21, when up to 50,000 people attended the Women’s March in Austin and hundreds of thousands of people gathered in Washington, D.C. for the same purpose, social media was lit up with #WomensMarch tweets, posts and photos. Protesters and marchers took to the internet to share their views on the day and what it meant to them.

Margo Price performs at the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 4, 2016. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Margo Price performs at the Willie Nelson Fourth of July Picnic at Austin360 Amphitheater on July 4, 2016. Photo by Erika Rich for American-Statesman

Another group of people who shared their views on that day’s events: country music stars.

Once you think about it, it doesn’t seem so far fetched. Entertainers are people, too, with lives and thoughts and political views. But in today’s ever-polarizing political climate, some of the voices of the “shut up and sing” school of thought have become more prominent. We want our entertainers to entertain and not proselytize, the thought process goes.

Country stars used to be shunned for expressing atypical political views. Almost 14 years ago, when Dixie Chicks lead singer Natalie Maines spoke out in London against President George W. Bush’s stance on Iraq, the trio was quickly made a pariah in Nashville. On top of the radio silence they received from DJs, the trio received death threats for their views and got involved in a longtime feud with Toby Keith, who rose to stardom off of his uber-patriotic songs in the wake of 9/11.

Now, following the inauguration of Donald Trump as America’s 45th president, many country stars are becoming more and more politically active. The tweets and Facebook posts referenced above are just a drop in the ocean of country stars expressing their views.

Some, like Americana singer/songwriter Jason Isbell, express their views with a dry sense of humor. Here’s a tweet from him following news of President Trump’s proposed immigration ban:

Margo Price, who tweets and posts regularly about political news and who used her November 9 NPR “Tiny Desk” concert as an opportunity to mourn the election results, also had this to say about the immigration ban:

And this, on deleting ride-sharing app Uber from her phone, in the wake of that company’s dropping of surge prices near JFK Airport in an effort to capitalize off of a cab driver’s strike:

Here’s Natalie Maines on Twitter, joking about Sean Spicer’s “alternative facts” explanation of Trump’s inauguration crowd size:

And here she is again, in a bit of a deja vu moment:

Maren Morris, who has also spoken out on gun control following last year’s shooting in Orlando, is also angry at the “shut up and sing” mentality foisted upon women in country music:

marenmorristweet

 

 

 

 

 

The stars who are expressing their frustration are historically in good company. Johnny Cash was always a mouthpiece for “the poor and the beaten down, living on the hopeless hungry side of town.” Merle Haggard sang about how he was happy to be an “Okie from Muskogee” when he was disheartened by protests of the Vietnam War. Willie Nelson has a new song coming out bemoaning the states of politics in America. And the Drive-By Truckers, who have long been political, released country’s most liberal-leaning album of the last decade (decades?) last year in “American Band.”

But now, with the ability to shoot off an opinion at the touch of a button, many country stars (and entertainers in general) are encouraged and expected to have a point of view on the politics of the day. If the Dixie Chicks were at their peak popularity today and not in 2003, they would be just as viciously attacked if they didn’t say anything about the president. Gone are the days of being judged solely on your artistic merits. Now, every entertainer is judged on their artistic merits and if their politics line up with those of their fans. It’s becoming increasingly hard to divorce the two.

And many media outlets are expecting country stars to speak out.

The very act of playing a presidential event is in itself considered political. When Lee Greenwood, historically a Republican who has played at the inaugurations of Ronald Reagan, George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush, was selected to play Trump’s inauguration party, he got grilled by an overeager Rolling Stone Country reporter eager to catch the “God Bless the U.S.A.” singer in a series of “gotcha” questions:

“President-elect Trump’s campaign was ruthless and controversial. Did you have any reservations about performing for him?
Well, no, because I’m not really performing for him. The Inaugural Committee chose entertainers to come and entertain the crowd.”

Texas’ own Randy Rogers Band had to issue a reassurance tweet when news broke that they were playing a pre-inauguration party in D.C. that routinely features Texas artists and has been in effect for decades. And everyone just assumed it was a given when Toby Keith was selected to perform at the inauguration.

A recent article from Rolling Stone Country argues “Why It’s Time for Country Stars to Speak Up About Trump.” But what that article fails to realize is that while artists like Margo Price, Jason Isbell, Drive-By Truckers and Maren Morris are infusing the genre with more liberal politics, many of the members of country’s old guard are either savvy enough to remain apolitical, like Dolly Parton, or they supported Trump in the first place, like Charlie Daniels, Ronnie Dunn or Travis Tritt.

There’s a reason most of the country artists you see speaking out liberally about politics are either indie artists or young artists: they can afford it. Most of their fans expect them to have those views anyway. And whether they’re entertainers or not, everyone’s got an opinion on everything these days, and it’s easier to share those opinions than ever. Country stars are people, too, whether you agree with their politics or not. If you’re a liberal country music fan or a conservative country music fan, just keep in mind to consider the source of those political views. Don’t let Margo Price’s political views detract from the fact that her debut album is amazing. Don’t let Charlie Daniels’ stance on Hillary Clinton blind you to his fiddle playing. Besides, it’s not news when Toby Keith or Lee Greenwood play a Trump inauguration. Call me when the Drive-By Truckers do. That’ll be news.

Gone Country aims to thoughtfully explore the country music genre and where it’s headed, with a focus on national trends and buzzworthy news of the week. For info about album releases and concerts, check out this week’s Country Music Roundup.

Questions, comments, suggestions? Let me know on Twitter @jakeharris4 or through email at jharris@statesman.com.


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