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Country music and presidential politics 2004

By Jon Johnson, October 2004

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Asked whether artists shouldn't be prepared for a negative reaction from those who disagree with them if they begin speaking out on political subjects, Titley says, "They should be prepared for the reaction of their audience. They should not be punished, though, by broadcasters and companies responsible for distributing information, particularly political speech. I think there's a distinction. An artist does accept responsibility for an audience not buying their product or walking out of a concert. But broadcasters have a responsibility, too."

Beth Harwell, head of the Tennessee Republican party since 2000, is less sympathetic towards the Dixie Chicks.

"The Dixie Chicks wanted to express their opinion, and I think it's justified for the opposite side to express their opinion. And they did. If we believe in freedom of speech, it goes for both sides of an issue."

A question which frequently emerges is to what degree the audience - and therefore the politics - change in the country music industry during the boom years of the '90s. Titley feels that the audience is split more or less evenly among Republicans, Democrats and independents.

"There was a survey done two years ago by Seacrest Associates, and they determined that the country audience reflected the rest of the nation. It was about a third Republican, about a third Democrat and about a third independent."

Harwell leans toward the theory that the country audience probably started leaning a little more toward Democrats as the audience expanded in the early '90s, but adds that the shift might not have meant much in the long run since the genre's core values remained more or less the same.

"It probably changed, but country music fans are very patriotic," says Harwell. "They believe in their country, they believe in family, (and) there's a real sense here in Tennessee of volunteering and helping out your community - supporting your local church and your local civic organizations."

One of the difficult questions for a recording artist is balancing one's political beliefs against one's career. It's an issue Titley has given much thought to since some of his clients have been politically active on both sides.

"A former client, Kathy Mattea, was fairly active on issues. As a manager it is something you recognize - that you do take a risk when you engage in politics. It is a touchy area."

Asked what advice he might give to a young performer who's interested in being more active politically, Titley says, "I would first tell them to consider the risks, and consider the level of profile you want to have. There are a variety of ways to be engaged. You could engage yourself in specific issues, or you could engage yourself in a very high-profile way. You could also engage yourself with local or state politics. Senate races. House races. Those are equally important."

For her part, Harwell feels that the Music Row Democrats will have a limited impact on the 2004 election.

"We think there are many, many more Republican (country) musicians," says Harwell. "They (Democrats) are welcome to organize any way they want to. (But) people are independent thinkers, and they don't want anyone telling them how to vote. I don't care if it's a local elected official or a country music star. People like to make up their own minds. It's fine for (country music performers) if they want to voice their opinions on who they might support, but I don't think it has a tremendous influence on how people actually think."

One person critical of the close Republican association with country music has been sociologist Michael Ayers of New York's Manhattan College. In his August essay, "How to Lose Cool and Alienate Voters," Ayers took the GOP to task for their choice of music at the Republican National Convention (which consisted largely of country and Christian acts), summing it up thusly in his piece:

"The choice of Brooks & Dunn, Lee Ann Womack and the rest ultimately reflects the GOP's central message: Keep the status quo. Things are just fine the way they are...As much as the GOP is attempting to seem 'hip' and 'fresh' with these multi-platinum artists, none have had any crossover appeal whatsoever, which will translate to no crossover appeal in terms of tuning into their party."

Is that important, though? The acts at the DNC were chosen to appeal to their party's base. And the acts at the RNC were chosen to appeal to theirs. And the bases of the two parties don't necessarily have the same musical tastes.

"Yeah, that's fine," says Ayers. "I had thought that (Republicans) were trying to appeal to a larger audience, though. Honestly, I think they should have gotten no one. They should have just left it to politics because I think there's a message there (in the choice of artists) about their politics."

Harwell says that choosing acts for events such as the RNC is always something of a tightrope walk.

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