Will Obama Bring Change To Country Music?

Dan Gibson | November 25, 2008 11:30 am

I know what you were thinking on the night of Nov. 4: What will this definitive Obama victory mean for the state of modern country music? Thank goodness pop critic David Browne is on the case, and presenting his findings in The New Republic.

While a few country stars (John Rich, Gretchen Wilson and Hank Williams Jr.) did make a pitch for John McCain this year, by and large the genre’s headliners seemed to stay out of politicking. Still could John Rich’s campaign song “Raising McCain” have doubled as a death knell for country’s popularity? It sort of defies logic, but…

In an election full of culturally symbolic moments, here was another: the sight of two country stars, from two different generations, looking testy yet powerless–visual proof that among the many losers in last week’s elections was country music itself…

Obama’s world–as seen in his base and in the post-election map–is far more eclectic. As E.J. Dionne wrote recently, the rise of Obama denotes “the future majority … the majority of a dynamic country increasingly at ease with its diversity.” It’s there in Obama’s iPod, which is said to include everything from John Coltrane to Sheryl Crow and Jay-Z.

This trend can’t be terribly good news for country music, which has ridden the people’s-music wagon for most of this decade. The GOP and Nashville hitched themselves to each other as far back as the Nixon years, when Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard (both of whom had personal lefty leanings) were invited to perform at the White House. But it was Ronald Reagan, always eager to welcome Western iconography, who embraced the music more wholeheartedly than any previous president. In 1983, he hosted a reception for country singers at the White House in which he said the music was “one of only a very few forms that we can claim as purely American,” and its fans had a “deep-seated love of country, freedom, and God.”

I don’t know if Reagan’s endorsement did much for the music’s popularity overall, or that it can be said that Nixon kicked off country’s Outlaw movement, but to say that country music is screwed now that a Democrat will be entering the White House frankly makes no sense at all. Sure, Obama dominated the Electoral College, but a) 59 million people voted for McCain and b) some country listeners might have even crossed over to the Obama side. (Crazy!) Even if we assume that country’s audience is limited to Republican voters (which we can’t), an audience that large would be enough to fuel the biz until Sarah Palin’s 2012 bid for the Presidentcy. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this year’s ballot didn’t have a “check here if you would prefer country artists to stop aiming toward just the red states” box, right?

Still, Browne’s ready to take on country’s inability to find listeners outside the chew tobacco/operate a backwoods still demographic.

It’s easy to sound fuddy-duddy about all this; country shouldn’t remaining stuck in a Hank Williams Sr. past and needs to adapt to its larger and more suburban base. But is the solution a slew of country hits that sound like little more than Chevy ads without the accompanying visuals?

Current darling and new-media-savvy heartthrob Taylor Swift is the embodiment of Nashville’s crossover dreams. An attractive, blonde-tressed 18-year-old who writes much of her own material, Swift is equally at home singing with Def Leppard and the Jonas Brothers. (Yes, she’s really done both.) Her new single “Love Story,” channels downbeat alternative and pop singers past. (Am I the only one who hears more Suzanne Vega than Reba McEntire in that voice?) Her second album, Fearless, is the number one album in the country right now–on the pop chart. It would be easy to see Swift’s success as a sign of Nashville’s ongoing domination over the charts, but aside from a dash of fiddle or banjo in her songs, there’s nothing especially “country” about that much of her music. It’s so pop that it’s an anomaly.

The so-called real country may find itself as isolated as that huddle of red states in the electoral map.

Yes, apparently Taylor Swift has simultaneously become the problem and the solution, as some imaginary country music landscape where a long-dead icon still haunts each release is being reshaped by someone bold enough to mix in pop music. I have no idea where Browne has been, but Swift’s hardly an anomaly–you’d think he’d remember this big star a while back who made records that were more soft rock than country and sold a gazillion records. He went by the name of Garth Brooks. Country certainly has its ups and downs, and it occasionally tips its hat to the traditional sounds that critics outside the Nashville fold generally prefer, but accessibility to those outside the Bible Belt has been a part of the industry’s plan for some time, regardless of who’s sitting in the Oval Office.

Then again, if political magazines want to start paying music writers to write indecipherable think pieces about life in the Obama nation, I’m always available. I have some interesting thoughts about how the inauguration will affect sales of Bruce Springsteen records, if anyone’s got some spare money in the editorial budget.

Country First? [The New Republic]