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Country music and presidential politics 2004

By Jon Johnson, October 2004

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"A lot of them express interest in supporting us," says Harwell. "(For instance), Sara Evans had sung for us at our state dinner. A lot of country music stars are big fans of George W. Bush."

Asked if she ever contacts artists to ask if they would be able to make an appearance at a particular event, Harwell says it's done less frequently. "We have done that in some instances. The problem is that they tour a lot, and weekends are valuable to them. So for them to sing a song or two for us at a dinner on a Saturday night is asking them to give up a weekend."

One of the most frequent country performers at Bush campaign events is Ricky Skaggs. Skaggs has been one of the most successful country and bluegrass performers of the past two decades, during which time he's also been one of the more outspoken conservative voices in country music.

However, his latest endeavor, Your Country Your Vote (yourcountryyourvote.org), is a non-partisan effort (albeit one which is mainly being conducted by conservative musicians) to get out the vote in 2004. Other artists lending their support to the effort include Randy Travis, Billy Dean, Darryl Worley and Josh Turner.

"There are a lot of Americans who think their vote doesn't count - 'why should I even vote? Nothing's going to change....' And that's the very reason to vote. If you don't like the way things are going, vote! A lot of people do a lot of bellyaching and a lot of complaining, but if you don't vote, then you really don't have a right to complain. So we're trying to get people to register and to vote. This is an important election this year, and I just think that people need to vote."

Skaggs is well aware of the suspicion some will view his efforts due to his longstanding ties to the GOP. Titley, for instance, says, "Obviously, most of the artists are associated with a conservative viewpoint, but generally any of those efforts have some degree of partisanship to them. But as I told someone else, we need to encourage everybody to vote. We just hope they'll study the issues and be knowledgeable about the issues."

Skaggs replies, "This whole campaign that we're doing, we're trying to keep it in a non-partisan arena, though people know that I (am) Republican, so (some) people see it as trying to gather up votes for President Bush."

"This whole campaign is kind of different," continues Skaggs. "The thing that's different is that I'm not out bashing John Kerry. I'm sure he cares for America, and I have no reason to disbelieve that. It's just that his politics and my politics are different. I don't agree with everything the Republicans do, either."

The presidential race looks like it will go down to the wire. Current polls (as of late September) show President Bush leading in every southern state. Some - Georgia, Alabama, Kentucky - are probably lost causes for John Kerry no matter what he does. However, he still appears to be competitive in other southern states (Virginia, Arkansas and Florida).

And Titley makes a good point: That the south - and country music audiences - are more complex and diverse than people often give them credit for being. Thanks to vast changes in communications in the last two decades, the sorts of regional differences once common are no longer as pronounced.

"You've got cable TV, you've got the internet everywhere, and you've got a lot of migration," he says. "So the regional distinctions that people think about are not as profound as they used to be."

"Also, I don't think people in Tennessee and North Carolina really want to be like Mississippi and Alabama. There are several different souths. It's not just one monolithic beast."

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