Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Music News, Concert Reviews

Nashville’s blue wave: 15 years after the Dixie Chicks, country artists make a liberal political shift

Listen to all these celebrities. They’re out here stumping for lefties, crusading for border families, waving rainbow flags and preaching tolerance and equality.

Listen to what they’re singing on the radio: “Love wins.” “Vote ’em out.” “Can’t we all get along?”

It’s even more prevalent in the press and social media. They’re musing about gun control, pushing back against offensive symbols and calling out misogyny and homophobia.

These limousine liberals, huh? Just another echo-chamber election cycle in Hollyweird?

Thing is, this isn’t coming out of California. This is the new sound of Nashville.

Fifteen years after the Dixie Chicks were vilified for criticizing President Bush, more country artists have shifted back to the left side of the aisle. From Eric Church blasting the NRA to Willie Nelson campaigning against Ted Cruz to Taylor Swift breaking her long political silence to endorse a Democrat for Senate in her adopted home state of Tennessee, there’s a new blue hue settling over Music Row.

Threads of progressiveness have long coursed through country music’s fringes. Today, though, huge stars are dipping their toes in the dialogue. And their attention might stick well past Election Day.

“The social statements that you’re seeing are born out of the daily whirlwind of chaos,” said veteran songwriter Radney Foster. “You may see more of those types of songs that people want to do, and get away with. That’s just having your finger on the pulse.”

• • •

Foster knows exactly why artists are afraid of crossing their conservative fan bases, because he has experienced the fallout firsthand. At the time of the Dixie Chicks controversy — singer Natalie Maines telling a British audience, “We’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas” — a song he wrote called Godspeed was slated to be their next single. It torpedoed.

“Do you want to get on some right-wing radio guy’s radar? Because that's what killed the Dixie Chicks,” he said.

Funny thing is, country music has always had a progressive streak. Joe South’s Games People Play railed against hate and hypocrisy. Merle Haggard sang about interracial love on Irma Jackson. Loretta Lynn’s birth control ode The Pill was a feminist anthem. Garth Brooks addressed the environment and religious intolerance on We Shall Be Free.

Woke issue songs aren’t easy to pull off in any genre, much less a populist one like country. For example, Dierks Bentley (Different for Girls), Keith Urban (Female) and Chris Janson (Drunk Girl) have all tried their hands at Songs Respecting Women, with somewhat clumsy results. (Possibly because all three are, y’know, men.)

But even the most generic songs show A-list artists are thinking hard about liberal ideals like inclusion and allyship. “I believe you love who you love / ain’t nothing you should ever be ashamed of,” Luke Bryan sings on Most People Are Good. “Politics and prejudice / how the hell'd it ever come to this?” Carrie Underwood sings on Love Wins. Even Kenny Chesney evokes the memory of Los Angeles police beating victim Rodney King (“Can't we all get along?”) on Get Along.

“You can only expect so much from a commercial medium,” said Rhiannon Giddens, a Grammy-winning folk artist who collaborated with Church on Kill a Word, a 2016 song blasting hate speech and rhetoric. “It’s an art form, but it’s an art form that’s really geared toward making money. There’s only so much of a message that can survive that.”

Church is one guy who could give it a real shot. Last fall he played the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas, site of one of the deadliest mass shootings in U.S. history. The event thrust the divisive gun-control debate straight to the heart of the country community.

“Something broke in me that night, and it still hasn’t healed,” Church told Rolling Stone this summer.

A gun owner and Second Amendment supporter, he began questioning why groups like the NRA have such influence — not only in Washington, but in Nashville. And he realized he had to say something.

“Right’s right and wrong’s wrong,” he told Rolling Stone. “Why can't we come together and solve one part of this? Start with the bump stocks and the gun shows. Shut a couple of these down. I do think that will matter a little bit. I think it will save some lives.”

If Vegas was one turning point, Parkland was another. After the February shooting that killed 17 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, artists like Tim McGraw, Faith Hill and Jennifer Nettles came out in support of students’ #NeverAgain gun legislation movement. Brooks teared up in a video urging people to participate in March for Our Lives rallies. Members of Little Big Town marched in Sioux City, Iowa.

If any of these artists suffered blowback for speaking out, it was nowhere near the same level as the Dixie Chicks.

“I think the country community is receptive to what people want to say,” said Dave Haywood of Lady Antebellum. “We’re growing to be a more honest format, for sure, a more genuine format that allows people the freedom to speak their mind and their truth.”

• • •

Here's another way to look at Nashville’s blue wave: There’s no conservative countermovement rising to meet it head on.

Unlike the aftermath of 9/11 and the Iraq War, which brought songs like Toby Keith's Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American) and Darryl Worley’s Have You Forgotten?, fewer overtly conservative songs are reaching a mass audience. To the contrary: Neal McCoy’s anti Colin Kaepernick screed Take a Knee, My Ass was met largely with derision.

Endorsing right-wing political figures, too, can be perilous. After Luke Pell tweeted his support for Supreme Court then-nominee Brett Kavanaugh in September, the replies were so severe that the singer and Bachelorette star deleted the tweets.

Jerrod Niemann just released a song called Old Glory. Inspired by conversations with soldiers on USO tours, the song feels conservative to the core, a red-blooded ode to the American flag and the sacrifices made to protect it. Some lyrics sound like right-wing dog whistles (“I'm built to stand my ground,” “don’t tread on me or my memory”), but Niemann said he intended the song to be nonpolitical.

“It was kind of like investigative reporting,” he said of the songwriting process. “I did it 100 percent for our military, and that covers Republicans, it covers Democrats, it covers everybody. Obviously, people are going to interpret music however they want to, and that’s the beauty of it. I truly did this as more of a wakeup call for me and how I felt.”

It begs the question, though: What if a country artist wrote a song titled Old Glory in support of Kaepernick? Maybe someone like The Voice runnerup Meghan Linsey, who in 2017 received death threats after kneeling while singing the national anthem at an NFL game in Nashville?

“It’s a very touchy subject, and it’s just in the way you approach it,” Niemann said. “If they approached it from a compassionate angle that a lot of people could understand and connect with, it might actually be more of a unifier than a divider.”

The line shifts with circumstance. Darius Rucker has never written anything close to a political country song. But his rock band Hootie and the Blowfish has an old song called Drowning that calls out racial bigotry in his home state of South Carolina: “Why is there a rebel flag hanging from the state house walls? / Tired of hearing this s--- about ‘heritage, not hate’ / time to make the world a better place.” Hootie and the Blowfish still play Drowning live.

But the rules for rock and country are different. Rucker’s early heroes were Michael Stipe and R.E.M., who consistently stumped for liberal causes, and he liked hearing them speak their mind. He has to pick his spots more carefully.

“It was so different when we were coming up,” Rucker said. “You didn’t see your favorite band on TV. You didn’t see them on your phone. You heard their records. You read Rolling Stone magazine when they were on the cover. You didn’t hear everything they said. There was no 24-hour news cycle where you could see everything somebody says on TV.”

Politicizing every song might not be the healthiest way to have a debate, Niemann said. But hearing from both sides is necessary “to hold everybody accountable.”

“I wouldn’t pretend to know how it feels to be part of an oppressed society or group of people that want to be heard,” Niemann said. “What I’ve learned is the reason people think they hate a certain group of people, or hate a certain thing, they just fear it because they’re not familiar with it. Once you are around someone and have some dialogue, it’s amazing to see how much we’re all Americans. We all want the same thing at the end of the day.”

• • •

Mary Chapin Carpenter didn’t come out with a stump speech. Instead she walked up to the mic at Clearwater’s Capitol Theatre in October and opened her fall tour with a protest song.

God is all around, Buddha’s at the gate

Allah hears your prayers, it’s not too late

We believe in things that make us all the same

Why shouldn’t we? Why shouldn’t we?

When she sang the line “We had heroes once, and we will again,” the crowd cheered.

“I’ve always been allergic to that notion that some people have that if you’re in the entertainment business, you therefore are disqualified from speaking about what you believe in, culturally, politically, whatever it may be,” Carpenter, a Brown graduate and longtime Democratic supporter, said in an interview. “When people say ‘Shut up and sing,’ that kind of phrase is so demeaning to me.”

Carpenter said there’s “an enormous number of people who would consider themselves Democrats and independents and left-leaning in their politics” in country music, even if they don’t feel they can say so publicly. Foster agrees, pointing to a younger crop of artists like the Brothers Osborne (who have campaigned for Tennessee Senate candidate Phil Bredesen) and Kacey Musgraves (who has a booming LGBTQ fan base).

Some vocal artists — Jason Isbell, Sturgill Simpson, Maren Morris, Cam — are following paths set forth by quasi-outsiders like Carpenter or Willie Nelson, who in September headlined a massive rally for Democratic Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke. There he debuted a new song titled Vote ’Em Out: “The biggest gun we’ve got is called the ballot box / So if you don’t like who’s in there, vote ’em out.”

Taylor Swift shared a similar message in October, urging her 112 million Instagram followers to register to vote. While no longer a country artist, Swift is still a Tennessee voter, and she endorsed Bredesen for Senate due to his opponent Marsha Blackburn’s record on women’s issues and same-sex marriage, which she wrote “appalls” her. Musgraves, Morris and Cam were among those who liked the post.

In the years since the Dixie Chicks controversy, Foster has kept busy inside and outside the Nashville system, writing for other artists and himself. He has penned a few protest songs condemning hate speech (Not in My House) and fascism (All That I Require). And this summer he cut a Spanish version of Godspeed — the same song the Dixie Chicks once recorded — with proceeds going to RAICES Texas, which works with separated families along the Mexican border.

“We have a current administration that decided if they’re just cruel enough, people will quit coming,” said Foster, who grew up in a bilingual house in a Texas border town. “And that’s a fallacy. I just felt like somebody ought to speak up.”

Because in the end, he said, songs last longer than the outrage of the day.

“I don’t want my grandkids someday to say, ‘Papa, what did you do when they were putting children in cages at the border of the United States of America? We read about it in history class.’ I want to be able to tell him something,” he said. “There’s things that are more important than selling another ticket.”

Contact Jay Cridlin at cridlin@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.

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