Friday, February 16, 2007

Country Music and Politics

J. Lester Feder's article on country music and conservatism in The American Prospect is quite interesting but I feel needs a bit more context. Feder is right that country music started with a more populist politics than conservative. He's also correct about the role of the 1960s in turning country music toward conservatism and the transformative role "Okie From Muskogee" had in tapping that market.

But I think Feder overstates how much of a transformation this was. Country music also had a close relationship with conservatism, if not the Republican Party. Southern populism (as opposed to the Populist Party) always had strong strains of social conservatism and evangelical religion. Moreover, with the brief exception of the early days of the Populists, it was always very racially conservative. So when Feder uses the example of early country musicians stumping for Tom Watson as a way to show that country music has not always been conservative, he forgets Watson's racial views. Watson and other southern populist politicians may have supported economic equality for the region's white people, but that does not exclude connections between the music and conservative ideas of the day. Country musicians may have supported FDR, but they also were staunchly segregationist. Country musician and politician Jimmie Davis wrote "You Are My Sunshine" and ran a populist campaign for Louisiana governor, but he was a virulent racist.

Feder also states that country music appealed to "middle America" because of its yearning for past values, which may or may not be true. Country music did expand its reach outside the South in these years. But much of that came from southerners taking their music with them when they left for California, the Pacific Northwest, or the factories of the North. That started far earlier than the 1960s as well. Among the country musicians to get their starts in the Pacific Northwest, hardly the genre's strongest bastion, were Loretta Lynn, Buck Owens, and Charley Pride. More than a simpler lifestyle, I argue that much of the genre's popularity outside its home region came from homesickness for the old southern home. Part of that is a desire for a simpler time, but it's more rooted in place and geography than Feder admits.

Finally, Feder writes that it was only in recent years that mainstream country music became a place where conservative talking points were repeated in the music. That's more or less true. But country music is a totally different animal than it was 30 years ago. It's not just a move toward the Republican Party within the Nashville establishment--it's also a move away from good music. This article is written with the Dixie Chicks in mind, particularly Emily Robinson saying, "You know it's a strange place to be sometimes without a genre." But it's hardly just politics that has led to this scenario for them. They always existed on the margins of acceptability in mainstream country music. They sold well and that got them airplay but it is not as they ever represented the mainstream of the Nashville establishment. Their music (which I am quite tepid about by the way) is not Brooks & Dunn and therefore you didn't see too much sadness by the music establishment when they were banished from the mainstream.

Anyway, Feder's article is pretty good and worth reading. But there's a lot more to this story than his brief article can explain.