Country Music’s Culture War Is Playing Out on the Inauguration Stage

The historical tensions plaguing the genre are more heightened than ever in the wake of the Trump administration.
JT
Chicago, US
January 20, 2021, 4:44pm
​Florida Georgia Line (Credit: John Shearer)
Florida Georgia Line (Credit: John Shearer) 

On January 13, exactly one week after insurrectionists stormed the Capitol building resulting in five deaths and hundreds of arrests, and hours after Donald Trump became the first president in United States history to be impeached twice, the outgoing commander-in-chief awarded country stars Ricky Skaggs and Toby Keith the National Medal of the Arts in the White House. As Trump leaves office today, the Biden administration's inauguration will feature performances by country icon Garth Brooks, who said of the booking, "The message [Biden's inaugural committee is] pushing is unity, and that's right down my alley, man." Tim McGraw and Florida Georgia Line's Tyler Hubbard will also play the inauguration, debuting their new song "Undivided": a call for bipartisanship and national unity with lines like "When we gon' start to see from someone else's eyes?"

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While these are just a few examples of the genre's surprisingly ubiquitous role in recent events, they prove that country music has always been a reflection of political struggle and will continue to act as a staging ground for the culture wars. This isn't unique to this genre; rappers like Kanye West, Lil Wayne, and Lil Pump endorsed Trump, and experimental "indie" artists like Ariel Pink and John Maus attended the Stop The Steal rally that turned into the Capitol riots. But the tensions animating country music have never been more heightened, especially as left-leaning artists finally feel compelled to not "shut up and sing" but combat the conservatism that's been endemic of the industry for decades. 

Country music isn't a monolith but it's always been political. Its roots were partly taken from Black musical traditions like blues, gospel, and slavery-era spirituals, but in the 1920s it was marketed by Ralph Peer as "hillbilly music" performed by white artists as opposed to "race music." (This is despite the fact that the first performer introduced at the Grand Ole' Opry was DeFord Bailey, a Black harmonica player who was also the first performer to have his music recorded in Nashville.) In the 20th century, country became increasingly partisan at the hands of its white performers: artists like Minnie Pearl, Tammy Wynette, Webb Pierce, and George Jones campaigned for segregationist George Wallace. Richard Nixon capitalized on this rightward shift as part of his "Southern Strategy" to appeal to white resentment of civil rights. He declared October 1970 "country music month," the Country Music Association made a pro-Nixon album in 1972 called Thank You Mr. President, and he invited several performers to the White House. 

As the genre was marketed as conservative and several of its stars campaigned for Nixon and his Republican successors, artists like Loretta Lynn subverted this with songs like 1975's pro-birth control hit "The Pill" while Johnny Cash played his anti-war song "What Is Truth?" at the Nixon White House in 1970. Despite several artists rocking the boat with left-leaning sentiments in their music, the country mainstream for the following decades was markedly conservative or, if not, completely apolitical. Look no further than the post-9/11 Toby Keith "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue" era of country music when The Chicks, then under their old band name and enjoying a sustained period of commercial successes, were effectively blackballed by the industry after they spoke out against the Iraq War and George W. Bush. They were banned from country radio, their CDs were destroyed by angry fans, and the hysterical blowback was felt until their long overdue return and rebranding in 2020. There's a reason people like Senator Ted Cruz have said things like “My music taste changed on 9/11"; as he elaborated to CBS in 2015, “I actually intellectually find this very curious, but on 9/11, I didn’t like how rock music responded. And country music, collectively, the way they responded, it resonated with me.”

However, in the past decade, conservative hegemony in mainstream country music has waned, even as an endless stream of controversies have plagued its establishment. In November 2016, in an event that would foreshadow Trump's election, a performance by Beyoncé at the Country Music Association Awards, where she played her country and zydeco Lemonade single "Daddy Lessons," received racist and sexist fan backlash from viewers. In 2018, the CMA appointed controversial former Governor and right-wing firebrand Mike Huckabee to its foundation's board of directors; Huckabee resigned the day after due to the sizable backlash from progressive artists and industry figures. These struggles also surfaced in 2019, when Lil Nas X, a Black artist inspired by country music, was kicked off the country charts for his world-beating single "Old Town Road." 

Meanwhile, left-leaning country artists have been awarded for imbuing their songs with liberal messages. Critical and commercial darling Kacey Musgraves won the 2014 CMA Song of the Year for the live and let live, pro-gay and pro-weed anthem "Follow Your Arrow," while her peers like Miranda Lambert, Maren Morris, Little Big Town, Brandy Clark, and others have scored hits with inclusive and feminist songwriting. While Brad Paisley and L.L. Cool J's clumsy, awkward, and counterproductive, if well-intentioned, "Accidental Racist" garnered ridicule in 2013, other songs like alt-country mainstay Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit's 2017 song "White Man's World" were much more effective at dissecting race and privilege. Country-pop superstar Taylor Swift, after staying mostly silent and apolitical until well after the 2016 election, finally spoke out against Trump's bigotry and ignited get out the vote efforts in her home state of Tennessee, while The Chicks returned in 2020 with their first album in 17 years, Gaslighter, which tackled emotional abuse and feminist themes, debuted at Number 3 on the Billboard 100. 

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Because of these trends, it's not a shock that 2020 proved to be a flashpoint for these polarized forces with a confluence of COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests, and the presidential election. When live music and venues worldwide shuttered for months due to the pandemic, country artists like Chase Rice and Chris Janson were among the first to make headlines for non-socially distanced and often maskless concerts this summer. Kid Rock's Nashville bar lost its beer permit for near capacity, maskless bar service in June, where emerging country superstar Morgan Wallen was arrested for disorderly conduct in May. As the police killing of George Floyd sparked nationwide, months-long protests across the country artists like Kane Brown, Mickey Guyton, Chris Stapelton, Tyler Childers, Dolly Parton, Morris, Blake Shelton, and many, many, others spoke out in support of Black Lives Matter. As Travis Tritt, Trace Adkins John Rich, Kid Rock, Florida Georgia Line's Brian Kelley, and several others voiced their support for President Trump's reelection, many more like Swift, Morris, Margo Price, Trisha Yearwood, and The Chicks publicly endorsed Joe Biden. 

When Biden was confirmed as the winner of the 2020 election on November 7 and masked people took to the streets to celebrate, Morgan Wallen wasn't pleased. "The hypocrisy is unreal," Wallen wrote on Instagram after sharing a video of revelers in Washington D.C. "...If it's OK for us to party in the streets with no 'social distancing' then we can book shows right now." On November 10, Jason Aldean shared a meme on Instagram appearing to question the election results. After the insurrection, the wives of Aldean and Florida Georgia Line's Brian Kelley both posted disinformation that "antifa" supporters had stormed the Capitol and Kelley signaled her support for "the patriots who fight for our freedom every day." Morris responded on Twitter, "...how do some singer’s wives conveniently not know the difference between marching for racial injustice and Nazis breaching our Capitol because their guy didn’t win?"

As of press time weeks after the Capitol riots, few of Trump's loudest supporters in country music, like Aldean, Kelley, Tritt, Trace Adkins, Keith, and Kid Rock (whose employee at his Nashville bar was arrested for storming the Capitol), have not condemned or even commented on the Capitol riots. The country music mainstream's default to apolitical silence when conservative posturing fails is especially cowardly here. With liberal country stars and inauguration performers Brooks, McGraw, and Hubbard advocating for unity following their performances, there's no expectation that their peers who believe the election was stolen and the rioters didn't warrant an explicit disavowal will heed their call. Around the election, Hubbard said he briefly unfollowed his bandmate due to their differing political views. "I called him and told him that I had unfollowed and not to take it personally," Hubbard said on CBS This Morning. "That's actually continued to unite us as opposed to divide us."

If country music is really committed to being a vessel for inclusion and change, where Black artists like Kane Brown and Mickey Guyton can climb the charts and get nominated for Grammys, how will solemn calls for unity with their successful peers who are too cowardly to condemn literal Nazis and seditionists be good for them and the future of the genre? There were no calls for unity after The Chicks were blackballed from the industry and no appeals to common decency when Keith's warmongering dominated the country charts. How can there be unity without contrition and accountability? The problems plaguing country music won't go away despite how many ham-fisted calls for everyone to get along hit the country charts, and these political fights will continue to simmer, and even erupt. 

Follow Josh Terry on Twitter.