This week, the 54th Country Music Association Awards are taking place. To many, this is the biggest night in country music, honouring the best in the genre, as well as hosting performances from various artists. Like most huge nights, the social media promotion has been injecting all the hype it can into this event: there have been video packages of interviews with the stars, there have been memories shared from historic CMA nights, and the official Twitter account for the awards has been counting down to the night for the past week with ‘reasons to watch’. However, at seven days to go, honky-tonk, went honky-wrong.
#7: “No drama, just music”. Intended to mean the show was an escape from the realities of 2020, some took this to be a request for artists to not discuss the 2020 US Election, or even the Black Lives Matter protests still ongoing across US cities. Nashville based music journalist Marissa R Morris said on Twitter that she took the most issue with the word “drama”. Whilst she agreed with the sentiment of escaping to music from the likes of the pandemic, she pointed out that the other issues are not “drama”, but democracy and justice, requesting country music to “stop hiding from the “drama””.
Musician and composer Sara Bareilles retweeted Morris, adding that “this is the equivalent of putting your hands over your ears and screaming “lalalalalalalalala””. In other genres of music, this would have been seen as misjudged, but in country music, this call to avoid “drama” – as much as the CMAs can state that it was meant to imply escapism through music – also carries huge connotations. In the mainstream country music community, the general trend has been if you’re not Republican, you stay quiet, or you’re out.
This was most prominent when it came to the Iraq War in the early 2000s. ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)’, the lead single from Toby Keith’s 2002 album Unleashed, was a reaction to the 9/11 attacks in 2001, the event that sparked the war. Filled to the brim with patriotic references, the song is a cry to arms. “Justice will be served, and the battle will rage / This big dog will fight when you rattle his cage” isn’t exactly subtle; Keith is definitely not a pacifist.
Future Republican presidential candidate Ted Cruz even stated days after the 9/11 attack that he preferred country to rock because of its patriotic roots. In an interview with today.com in 2004, the president of Nashville-based Bullseye Marketing Research said that he worked with 32 radio stations and had “not seen any of these test anti-war songs.” The ties between country music and patriotism, usually associated with Republicanism, were there for everyone to see. But what happened to artists brave enough to stand against the red wave?
Just before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, Texan Natalie Maines, a member of The Chicks (formerly Dixie Chicks), stated that she did not endorse the war and that she was “ashamed” that President George W. Bush was from Texas. She also forged a feud with Toby Keith, stating that ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue’ was “ignorant” and “makes country music look ignorant”. Fans were infuriated, beginning a boycott of The Chicks’ music which they didn’t bounce back from until 2010. Videos of fans burning their CDs spread. The cost of country musicians speaking out against warmongering patriotism became very clear.
From this point onwards, the country music community either sided with the Right, or they were scared into silence. Almost ten years later, when asked by David Letterman about her political leanings, then-country starlet, Taylor Swift said that it wasn’t her place as a 22-year-old to tell people how to vote. She said she voted but would not state who for. As she developed into a pop star, this came back to bite her. In 2016, an election that called for powerful voices to step forward to speak out against Republican nominee Donald Trump, she stayed silent. Even when she was endorsed by a white supremacist group, who lorded her as an Aryan queen, she said nothing. Now she was no longer a country star, her silence was extremely loud.
However, in 2018, ahead of the US mid-term elections, Swift finally broke her political silence, not only urging fans to register to vote but also stating that she would not be voting for Republican Tennessee Senate incumbent Marsha Blackburn. She cited how the senator’s voting record in Congress appalled and terrified her. Instead, she endorsed the Democratic candidate Phil Bredesen. Whilst she inferred that she didn’t agree with Bredesen on everything, he most closely represented her pro-LGBTQ+, anti-racism views. This statement seemed to be a watershed moment for Swift, leading her to release politically-enlaced ‘You Need to Calm Down’, ‘Miss Americana & the Heartbreak Prince’ and ‘Only the Young’, and she very publicly endorsed the Joe Biden and Kamala Harris bid for the White House.
This year also saw her fully explain her reasoning behind staying silent for so long; she was always told to not end up like The Chicks. This just proves how significant that moment in 2003 was to politics and country music. Swift’s apparent public political awakening also came at a similar time as her contract switch to Republic Records, away from country label Big Machine Records, a step that has also caused riffs over music ownership. It would not be farfetched to suggest that Swift’s silence was maybe not her own doing, but a gag order from her bosses.
Promisingly, country music has become more progressive and more open to other political ideas. Throughout the 2010s, Kacey Musgraves’ prevalence in the country music scene grew, but not through lyrics about trucks, beer, and good old American patriotism. Instead, her lyrics cover topics of LGBTQ+ acceptance, the questioning of religious sentiment, and safe sex. She is the opposite of Toby Keith.
Stars such as Martina McBride have been talking about their relief over Trump being voted out of office. There are, then, figures in country music who are trying to break the stigma. Back with their new album Gaslighter – their first album in 14 years – The Chicks also removed the word ‘Dixie’ from their band name due to its reference to the Mason-Dixon line that separated slave-owning and non-slave owning states. Lady A (previously known as Lady Antebellum) tried a similar move by removing ‘Antebellum’, but it semi-backfired when it was met with a legal challenge from African American activist, and blues singer, Anita White, who used the same stage name. In hindsight, it may have done more damage than good for the cause they were trying to advocate for, but it does represent at least a changing awareness in country music for its association with right-wing values.
That being said, country music does still carry the heavy weight of Republican ties. Toby Keith performed at the pre-inaugural “Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration” before Trump’s inauguration in 2017. He played ‘Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue’, as well as other patriotic songs such as ‘American Soldier’ and ‘Made in America’. Just this week, country musician Jason Aldean posted an Instagram story that alluded to the fact he believed the conspiracy theories accusing the Biden campaign of rigging the recent election. Projecting this to a follower count of three million, who are probably already in the same political camp but are looking for legitimacy from a powerful platform, this is dangerous.
It is not simply the fact that country music’s political leanings don’t match my own that makes this so worrying. What is scary is its continuing suppression of opposers and its path of stoking fear into artists who don’t agree with the genre’s politics, worrying what might happen lest they deviate from the status quo. It’s frightening. Maybe what it needs is for someone on the biggest night in country music’s calendar to stand up against racism and the current Republican rampage against democracy, to speak out about the “drama”. And if they’re shunned? Well the rest of us will welcome them into the banished corner trailblazed by The Chicks with open arms.
Words by Sarah Jewers
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