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Rednecks & Bluenecks The Politics of Country Music

By Chris Willman

New Press, 302 pages, $16.95 paperback

Reviewed by Michael Sudhalter, September 2007

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The cover of "Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music" is deceiving; it features prominently a picture of left-of-center Willie Nelson performing along with conservative Democrat/lightning rod Toby Keith. Above it, is a small picture of the Dixie Chicks, the book's main focus.

The book should really be titled after a phrase that's used several times in it: "Dixie Chicked: A Polarizing Time In Country Music." Willman uses Dixie Chicked as a verb, and a synonym for being blacklisted. The book, originally out in hardcover in 2005, focuses on the differences between two different camps in country music and spends little time showcasing the co-existence of artists like Nelson and Keith.

Willman oversimplifies the artists into categories: those who speak out versus the majority who won't, conservative performers versus liberal songwriters, corporate-ordered country music versus grassroots alt-country. For sources on the matter, Willman goes to the extremes as well as the middle. He interviews Ronnie Dunn, a conservative who apparently knows as much about Wahhabism as he doesn't about boot scootin' and alt.-country hero Steve Earle, a left-of-center artist and fierce Bush critic, who wrote "John Walker Blues" about the American Taliban. Willman also writes about how artists like Keith and Darryl Worley capitalized on the timing of the war to release flag-waving songs.

Unfortunately, the book isn't an eye-opener. At least for those who followed the brief Keith-Natalie Maines spat. Country singers raised in the conservative south stumping for George Bush; songwriters who spent years paying their dues lean to the left. You have the right-wingers talking about national security and values and the lefties saying how Republicans don't represent the interests of the working class. No big surprises.

Willman also gives us a history lesson about how country music represents working class people and that the south was almost entirely Democratic at one time - until Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan changed that with political strategies.

One of the most interesting parts of the book is the introduction of the Music Row Democrats. Many group members thought they'd be the only ones to show up to the first meeting, but they were pleasantly surprised that others shared their views. Interestingly enough, the MRDs are made up of songwriters, record executives and former stars. No current stars were mentioned as being part of the organization.

Another interesting observation is the history of country legends like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard, who expressed maverick views at various times, both left and right. But they got away with it because of the fans' respect for their stature in the genre.

This book takes the reader back a few years to a politically charged time, where you either loved Bush or hated him. It seems things have settled down with Bush now a lame duck, the moderate John McCain running on the Republican ticket and Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama competing for the Democratic nod. And most importantly, all seems to be a little more apolitical again in the world of country music.