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Country music and presidential politics 2004

By Jon Johnson, October 2004

Politics and country music have been linked for decades. Although most artists through the history of country music have tended to avoid discussing politics in great detail for fear of alienating their fans with other political affiliations, a political thread has always run through country music.

Anti-communist songs were a thriving sub-genre in country music in the '40s and '50s. West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd released an album of fiddle music in 1978. Country and bluegrass bands have long been a staple of political rallies in the south.

And President Nixon appeared (and even performed on piano) at the opening of the then-new Grand Ole Opry House in March 1974.

Most famously, Roy Acuff ran for governor of Tennessee as a Republican in 1948. Acuff lost the race (at that time the Solid South was still solidly Democrat), but nonetheless managed to pull in more votes than any other Republican had in previous elections.

Though less well-known today than Acuff, W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel was far more successful in his political aspirations. An important figure in the early history of western swing as the manager, announcer and occasional lyricist of the Light Crust Doughboys, O'Daniel was elected governor of Texas in 1938 and 1940, then defeated Congressman Lyndon Johnson in a special Senate election in 1941.

Country artists are lining up on both sides of the aisle in this year's race between President George W. Bush and Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts.

The Dixie Chicks are participating in an October tour including artists like Bruce Springsteen to raise money for groups to spend to defeat the President. Emmylou Harris, Rodney Crowell, Raul Malo of The Mavericks, Allison Moorer and Steve Earle are also vocal about the need to elect Kerry.

On the Republican side, a slew of performers have gotten involved in the Bush campaign including Trick Pony, Brooks & Dunn, Sara Evans and Mark Chesnutt.

In most cases, the support comes in the form of singing, not actually giving speeches on behalf of a particular candidate.

Much has been written about Natalie Maines' comment to a London audience in March 2003 on the eve of the Iraq war ("Just so you know, we're ashamed the President of the United States is from Texas").

The damage to the Dixie Chicks' career was obvious, though, and subsequent explanations and even an apology from Maines did little to help. Record sales - which had been strong a few weeks earlier - began dropping off, as did radio airplay as radio stations around the country began removing the group from playlists.

(A spokesperson for the Dixie Chicks declined a request for an interview for this article).

Perhaps the most important new player in country music political circles - and one which formed as a direct result of the Dixie Chicks incident in London - has been the Music Row Democrats, an organization claiming about 1,300 members organized in December 2003 by "a group of Nashville music industry leaders who were fed up with feeling as if they had to apologize for being Democrats, particularly when they knew that Republican policies were negatively affecting the lives of the working class people who make up much of the audience for their music," according to a statement on the group's website, musicrowdemocrats.com.

One of the co-founders of Music Row Democrats (along with Bill Carter, Don Cook, and Tim DuBois) is Bob Titley, manager of Brooks & Dunn and a longtime fixture in the Nashville musical community.

Somewhat ironically, Titley's primary clients, Brooks & Dunn, are prominent Republicans and made several personal appearances at Republican events, most recently the Republican National Convention in New York City.

Asked whether they talk politics, Titley says, "We talk about it. But, you know, they're great guys. They aren't extreme partisans. We'll have some good-natured debates, but I respect that they're committed to their views."

Regarding the origins of the Music Row Democrats, Titley says, "I think there's a sense of collective shame in the community that the Dixie Chicks crisis happened and that no one rose to their defense. We wanted to have some kind of collective voice that could (react) if the circumstance rose again. Once we started having meetings there was so much energy and so much fellowship that you could actually talk to your neighbor about politics."

Asked if he was surprised by what Maines said onstage and the reaction, Titley replies, "I wasn't particularly surprised by what they said, particularly considering where it was said. I won't say I was 'surprised' by the reaction. I was alarmed by the reaction. My understanding is that it was a reaction that was very much engineered in that there was a group called FreeRepublic.org who organized call-ins to radio stations. And the radio stations reacted to that in feeding this idea of the boycott of music."

"You have an accumulating number of episodes where the marketplace, dominated by large distribution companies and broadcasters, is punishing political speech."

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