Is Country-Western Music Conservative or Liberal?
Country music is regarded as a bastion of conservative politics and traditional values. But is this accurate? Fact is, and history shows — many of country music’s most revered icons are far more liberal than you think.
The National Finals Rodeo just hit Las Vegas. They’ll be here for the next week. So, the local entertainment scene features attractions appealing mostly to cowboys and cowgirls.
I just attended a country music show at the Suncoast Showroom. Country music isn’t really my thing. However, I recognize the extraordinary achievements and immense contributions made to music and culture by many great singers and songwriters of this exclusive genre of Americana. Indeed, I understand why country music appeals to tens of millions of people — especially those who describe themselves as politically conservative, and particularly those who profess a strong belief in “traditional values.”
Here’s a perfect example: Tonight’s Suncoast show closed with a rousing encore of Lee Greenwood’s famous ode to both faith and country — “God Bless the U.S.A.” I once saw Greenwood perform his song in person while attending the 1984 Republican National Convention, held in Dallas. Greenwood didn’t just write a catchy tune. He penned an anthem for the ages, which is still used to stir the emotions of millions of conservative-minded Americans. To this day, many Republican politicians use the song as a soundtrack during their campaigns. It might as well be the G.O.P. theme song.
A local singer did his best to impersonate Greenwood and recreate the patriotic fervor. He succeeded. To my astonishment, as the song went on, the audience began standing up, one by one. At first, only a few. Then, a few dozen. Next, a few hundred. By the song’s conclusion, almost everyone in the audience was standing, with hands in the air. It was like a religious revival.
This overt politicization isn’t something new. I’m old enough to remember a similar-themed country song with just as powerful a message recorded back in 1969, titled — “Okie from Muskogee.” Written and performed by Merle Haggard, the song was an instant smash hit. The lyrics reflected a conservative backlash to the Vietnam War protestors and liberal counterculture:
We don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee,
We don’t take our trips on LSD,
We don’t burn our draft cards down on Main Street,
We like livin’ right and bein’ free.
In addition to Lee Greenwood and Merle Haggard (who died last year), there’s also Hank Williams, Jr., Charlie Daniels, and younger country stars who are outspoken conservatives. Accordingly, it’s easy to assume country music is the drum parade of the Right. Sure, Leftists and liberals mostly dominate Rock n’ Roll, Rap, R&B, and pretty much every other genre of modern music. But country remains king in the heartland of the “real America.”
There’s just one problem. This conclusion is wrong.
Fact is, and history shows — over the past 50 years or so, most country music icons have been surprisingly progressive on the issues that ultimately came to define them. They defied social norms and blazed new trails, both musically and lyrically. Successful artists tend to be liberal as a natural progression of creativity. The reason is simple. Trendsetters forgo expectation. They challenge audiences, including their fans, to go beyond where they might be comfortable. Repeating the same musical formulas over and over again doesn’t create legends. Sinatra, Elvis, Dylan — all were radically different departures from what came before them. The same holds true for country music.
Consider a few of the more famous country music icons who are/were liberals:
Johnny Cash — One of country’s first “outlaws,” Cash was jailed seven times, drank-hard and lived even harder, and for many years had a serious drug habit. Given his earlier troubles, he came to embrace a strong belief in human redemption and became a champion for penal reform. His concerts for incarcerated prisoners, many on death row, included some of the best performances of his career. “Fitting these gigs in around his relentless touring schedule, the ‘Man in Black’ performed for inmates all over the U.S., always unpaid, and in the process, became a passionate and vocal spokesman for prisoners’ rights,” explained the BBC in a feature story. Later, when he achieved huge crossover success, Cash hosted a nationally-televised variety show. He shocked his core audience by personally inviting musicians associated with the counterculture onto his program where he often performed alongside them. This guest list included — Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Neil Young, James Taylor, and other “hippies.”
Willie Nelson — Arguably the most famous country singer in the world today, Nelson is now in his 80s. After penning several hits but also struggling as a live performer during the 1950s and 1960s, Nelson began to embrace the Leftist look by growing his hair long when such a thing wasn’t done in country music. He became the face and more essentially, the voice, of a new sound known as progressive country. Nelson went on let the world know that he regularly smoked marijuana when such an admission was still considered scandalous. He also organized and performed many times at the annual Farm Aid events and other concerts intended to help causes associated with the Left.
Kris Kristofferson — Like Willie Nelson, Kristofferson has written many of the greatest songs ever associated with country music (many of which enjoyed massive crossover appeal). Born in Texas and once a Rhodes Scholar (he holds a Masters Degree in literature from Oxford), Kristofferson’s political transformation came at a time when America was changing, too. “When I first left the country for school in England I remember getting in all kinds of scrapes in Europe about the United States. I thought they were all mistaken. But the more information I got the more I realized there were things I wasn’t crazy about that my government was doing, and most is the disrespect for international law and treaties or organizations like the World Court and the United Nations. It’s like [peace activist] Helen Caldicott said; there’s only one party in the U.S. and it’s the war party, and it’s in charge of all three branches of the government,” Kristofferson once said in an interview [HERE]. Pretty solid Leftist credentials.
This list could go on. Other country liberals include The Dixie Chicks, Waylon Jennings, Tim McGraw, LeAnn Rimes, Steve Earle, Brandy Clark, and several others. Even country matriarch Loretta Lynn (who now professes to be a Donald Trump supporter) once shocked her traditional audiences when she wrote and sang songs during the early 1970s about birth control and women’s rights. Not every female country singer advised the ladies to “Stand by Your Man.”
The talent of these country icons isn’t just abundantly obvious in the music. Each one has managed successfully to speak and act, and even perform openly onstage as outspoken liberals, yet still somehow to appeal to a much wider traditional conservative base. Performing for masses of people who not only do not share their views but may be offended by them makes for a paradox. They’re the counterweight to Wall Street bankers pumping their Rolex-encrusted fists to the Rolling Stones’ “Street Fighting Man.” Oh, the irony.
The long legacy of Leftist country musicians is clear. However, younger country stars have a critical role to play in progressive politics, too. Sure, it’s great that plenty of academics, scientists, and other so-called “elites” fight for liberal causes. But the ongoing political, economic, and cultural battle isn’t going to be won at a campus protest in Berkeley or on the editorial pages of Mother Jones. Changing minds and gaining support comes one person at a time and is far more likely to be accomplished by a country performer strumming a guitar while playing to a packed house in Paducah.
Past and present, many country music stars are heroes. Regretfully, most haven’t been sufficiently appreciated by liberals not just for what they’ve done, but for the immense personal and professional risks they’ve taken. They risked their careers. Standing up for personal conviction is easy when surrounded by allies. But standing up and fighting for an unpopular cause with family, friends, and peers isn’t so easy. Speaking up for justice to mobs of injustice comes at a price. Doing the right thing when everyone else around you seems to be doing the wrong thing can be dangerous. That’s courage.
Rockers and rappers get most of the credit as social catalysts and cultural beacons. To millions, they are trendsetters, and deservedly so. But the real front lines in the debate of ideas lies in the grimy saloons and on country music stations in music whistled to by coal miners and truckers who drink whiskey every Saturday night and read the Bible every Sunday morning and still shed a tear when the National Anthem gets played. This is where the battle needs to start, must be fought, and ultimately be won.
Let country music’s bravest voices sing to those minds and open up those hearts.