Coun­try pol­i­tics in the age of Trump

The Washington Post Sunday - - MUSIC - BY EMILY YAHR emily.yahr@wash­post.com

nashville — Coun­try singers are faced with a co­nun­drum when it comes to Pres­i­dent Trump: As part of the most con­ser­va­tive­lean­ing mu­si­cal genre, shouldn’t they have some­thing to say about what may be the most po­lar­iz­ing Repub­li­can ad­min­is­tra­tion in his­tory?

As mul­ti­ple pub­li­ca­tions re­cently pointed out, the an­swer has been a re­sound­ing “no.” Nashville stars re­main un­usu­ally silent about their po­lit­i­cal thoughts, as they did be­fore the elec­tion. A few artists de­clared them­selves pro-Trump; one deemed Trump “crazy”; a hand­ful tweeted pos­i­tively about the Women’s March, and some, like Toby Keith, per­formed at in­au­gu­ra­tion ac­tiv­i­ties but avoided tak­ing sides. The ma­jor­ity of singers, how­ever, don’t want to touch the topic, as it’s the eas­i­est way to en­rage and/or alien­ate fans.

A few days after the in­au­gu­ra­tion, Rolling Stone Coun­try ar­gued, “Why It’s Time for Coun­try Stars to Speak Up About Trump.” At the other end of the spec­trum, some lis­ten­ers just want singers, to bor­row a phrase from the Dixie Chicks, to “shut up and sing.” Bill­board re­ported that Nashville artists still fear get­ting “Dixie Chicked,” or black­listed from the in­dus­try, for hav­ing an opin­ion.

So, how do the coun­try artists feel? What do they think is their role in this di­vi­sive po­lit­i­cal era, es­pe­cially when they might have the ear of coun­try fans in ar­eas that largely voted for Trump?

“I wish that more coun­try artists would speak out — be­cause we are from those lit­tle towns. Ru­ral Amer­ica needs a voice in this coun­try,” said singer-song­writer An­galeena Pres­ley, a mem­ber of the Pis­tol An­nies trio with Mi­randa Lam­bert and Ash­ley Mon­roe. “I mean, we write songs that they re­late to. Be­cause we are them.”

Pres­ley, a na­tive of eastern Ken­tucky, par­tic­i­pated in the Women’s March and says some in her fam­ily — many of whom voted for Trump — see her as a “lib­eral hip­pie chick.” But she doesn’t judge any­one based on their vote or val­ues.

“I would never be this Trump sup­porter-bash­ing per­son . . . . A lot of Trump sup­port­ers, I think they want change. And in ru­ral Amer­ica, it’s tough,” she said. “I can un­der­stand why they want some­thing dif­fer­ent. For me, I be­lieve in hon­esty, I be­lieve in equal­ity, I be­lieve in choices, I be­lieve in free­dom over your own body, over what you think. So it’s re­ally hard to get be­hind some­one who doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily ex­hibit those val­ues, or any­where near them.”

Other artists say that even though they rec­og­nize that they’re in a unique po­si­tion where they have a plat­form, they don’t al­ways re­gard that in­flu­ence as a pos­i­tive.

“I’m in a place where peo­ple are go­ing to lis­ten. That’s re­ally scary,” Texas-based singer Granger Smith said dur­ing an in­ter­view at the Coun­try Ra­dio Sem­i­nar (CRS) in Nashville.

“But I don’t need to tell peo­ple what I think. I’m a mu­si­cian. What does my opin­ion mat­ter over any­body else’s? I’m a firm be­liever that if I live a life with in­tegrity and hon­esty and cred­i­bil­ity . . . that’s enough of an ex­am­ple that I don’t have to start talk­ing about what I think about pol­i­tics or the lat­est ex­ec­u­tive or­ders in the White House.”

At CRS, mul­ti­ple artists echoed the sen­ti­ment. As break­out crooner Wil­liam Michael Mor­gan put it, “I’m a coun­try singer — no one wants to hear me talk about pol­i­tics.”

Tim Rushlow, the lead singer of the group Lit­tle Texas, which per­formed at Trump’s in­au­gu­ra­tion, feels sim­i­larly. He re­ceived a wave of crit­i­cism after he ac­cepted the in­au­gu­ral gig (he also per­formed for Trump and the first lady’s first dance), though he in­sists there was noth­ing po­lit­i­cal about his ap­pear­ances.

“I didn’t look at it as a Repub­li­can or Demo­crat. I looked at it as an Amer­i­can,” he said, adding that he was “hon­ored” to be in­vited.

“I’m not a politi­cian, I’m not a priest,” he con­tin­ued. “I’m just an en­ter­tainer who wants to help peo­ple for­get about their prob­lems for an hour while I sing my songs. If I do that, then mis­sion ac­com­plished, you know?”

In the af­ter­math of the in­au­gu­ra­tion, Rushlow said, po­lice had to pa­trol his home after threats were sent to him on so­cial me­dia. Through it all, he tried not to let any of the back­lash get un­der his skin. He’s de­ter­mined that his take­away from the whole ex­pe­ri­ence will be to spread a mes­sage of pos­i­tiv­ity.

“The funny part is the peo­ple that hate, I don’t hate them,” he said. “I’m not here to tell some­body that they’re wrong for liv­ing the way they live. I’m just here to say, why can’t we look at things and go let’s agree to dis­agree, but let’s agree on one fact: We’ve got a great coun­try. How can we con­tinue to make that hap­pen?”

Agree­ing to dis­agree is one thing, though in this deeply di­vided cli­mate, artists are more at risk than ever to up­set fans — it seems like there’s no mid­dle ground. Singer Craig Camp­bell, a self-de­scribed “hard­core Repub­li­can con­ser­va­tive,” pointed out that th­ese days, peo­ple will pounce on any opin­ion that they don’t like.

“If you have views and be­liefs and morals and you want to say ‘This is how I feel about it,’ then you should be able to say it,” Camp­bell said. “I just hate that there are mean peo­ple in the world who think that just be­cause you dis­agree with them, then you’re a ter­ri­ble per­son.”

His­tor­i­cally, this was not al­ways the case in coun­try mu­sic, which has had a wide range of be­liefs. For ex­am­ple, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Johnny Cash sang “What Is Truth” in sup­port of youth pro­test­ers dur­ing the Viet­nam War while Merle Hag­gard recorded the troop­sup­port­ing “Okie From Musko­gee.” They were at op­po­site ends of the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum, yet the two stars were best friends.

“No one was asked to choose be­tween Johnny Cash and Merle Hag­gard fan­dom, just be­cause they had dif­fer­ing po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tives,” said Peter Cooper, se­nior di­rec­tor, pro­ducer and writer at the Coun­try Mu­sic Hall of Fame and Mu­seum. “There was a great di­ver­sity of per­spec­tive in the songs that doesn’t seem to be al­lowed, on a pop­u­lar level, within con­tem­po­rary coun­try mu­sic.”

Now, a lot of singers agree that the smart ca­reer move is just to not say any­thing at all.

“Ev­ery­one’s got an opin­ion,” said singer-song­writer Dy­lan Scott. “And as soon as you give your opin­ion, some­body’s go­ing to hate your opin­ion and not buy your mu­sic.”

MARK HUMPHREY/AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

An­galeena Pres­ley, a singer-song­writer and mem­ber of the Pis­tol An­nies trio, says she wishes more coun­try artists would go pub­lic with their po­lit­i­cal views. “Ru­ral Amer­ica needs a voice in this coun­try,” she said. Some of her peers, how­ever, have taken dif­fer­ent stances. “I’m a coun­try singer — no one wants to hear me talk about pol­i­tics,” artist Wil­liam Michael Mor­gan said.

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