Trump, guns and political anthems: How country music went to war with itself

todayNovember 2, 2023 9

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I think what we’re seeing in country music is a direct representation of what’s happening in America,” says Florida-born country singer Brooke Eden. “Before Trump was elected, being a Republican or a Democrat wasn’t this heated. That’s what’s hard right now – the extremism on both sides.”

It speaks to the degree of tension in Nashville that Eden, 34, was one of the few artists who agreed to speak with The Independent for this story. In the build-up to the US election, the toxic culture war gripping country music has reached a painful crescendo, pitting artist against artist in a scene that once prided itself on a family ethos.

For those who haven’t followed the scene closely in recent years, a rousing chorus of Dolly Parton’s “Jolene” sung by adoring fans in joyous, unified heartache, is now just as likely to be drowned out by newer political anthems in an altogether more threatening tenor.

“It is wild, this divide,” the softly spoken Eden sighs. “What we’re missing right now is what made country, country. It’s supposed to be about family, and what we have is a lot of families split two ways. The middle ground just doesn’t exist anymore.”

Even those unfamiliar with country music have likely heard the near-mythical furore that erupted when The Chicks, then known as the Dixie Chicks, called out President George W Bush – a fellow Texan – over the imminent invasion of Iraq.

CDs were burnt, they were blacklisted by virtually every major country radio station, sponsorship deals were pulled, and the group’s three members received death threats.

Many artists since, including country-pop crossover queen Taylor Swift, have cited that moment as the reason why they avoided any discussion of politics in their own careers.

But in the past decade, something has shifted. And for many, that something was Donald Trump.

Trump’s campaign songs have acted as a lightning rod for debate in the country music scene

(Copyright 2023 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

The divisive former president marched the Republican Party to the right, to the delight of large swathes of White America, who felt their voices had been lost and political currency diminished after two terms under Barack Obama.

Suddenly, dams burst and red lines were crossed in one dizzying crisis after another. Mass shootings put gun ownership at the top of the agenda. The murder of George Floyd tore police trust asunder. Fraud, conspiracies and the spread of social media’s poisonous underbelly eroded bonds and carved the US in two.

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First Lady Melania Trump, President Donald Trump former President Barack Obama and Michelle on the East front steps of the US Capitol after inauguration ceremonies on January 20, 2017 in Washington, DC

(AFP via Getty Images)

In 2017, all eyes were on Trump’s inauguration stage, as it became clear the newly elected president was struggling to find anyone with sufficient star power to perform. Arguably the only “big” name was country singer Toby Keith, who caused controversy in 2002 with his post-9/11 song “Courtesy of the Red White and Blue” (which he performed at Trump’s inauguration ceremony).

Meanwhile Garth Brooks, another country star, was forced to defend himself from “disappointed” fans who assumed he would be on the lineup.

Backstage at music festivals, dressing room doors that were once left open are now pointedly closed. “Ten or 15 years ago, everybody would sit in a circle around the table, pull out their guitars and start singing old country songs,” festival producer Rendy Lovelady told Rolling Stone in September. “There was a lot of camaraderie. Whereas now, the camaraderie has definitely lessened. They tend to stay in their own community.”

Many of the most prominent signs of the rift in Nashville have transpired in the past year. Jason Aldean’s single “Try That in a Small Town”, released in May, caused uproar over its heavy pro-gun theme, and a music video that featured a Tennessee courthouse where a Black teenager was lynched in 1927. Scenes from Black Lives Matter protests were projected onto the side of the building. For many, including Aldean’s peers, it went too far.

Fox News was criticised for defending Jason Aldean shooting his ‘Try That in a Small Town’ music video in front of an infamous mob lynching site.

(Fox News)

“I’m from a small town,” Sheryl Crow tweeted, tagging Aldean. “Even people in small towns are sick of violence. There’s nothing small-town or American about promoting violence. You should know that better than anyone having survived a mass shooting. This is not American or small town-like. It’s just lame.”

Aldean told CBS this week that he was unaware of the courthouse’s history: “But I also don’t go back 100 years and check on the history of a place before we go shoot it either.”

He added: “Honestly, if you’re in the South, you could probably go to any small-town courthouse, you’re going to be hard-pressed to find one that hasn’t had some sort of racial issue over the years at some point.”

“Try That in a Small Town” was intended to be a comment on “the lawlessness and the disrespect for cops and just trashing cities… I’m just not cool with that,” he said.

Jason Aldean in the video for ‘Try That in a Small Town’

(Jason Aldean/YouTube)

Just three months after Aldean’s single, newcomer Oliver Anthony dropped “Rich Men North of Richmond”, with lyrics complaining about taxes, “welfare cheats” and obese people. Fans of the song included prominent Republican figures such as Kari Lake and Marjorie Taylor Greene, and controversial podcast host Joe Rogan.

Yet in a teary-eyed video shared amid the controversy, Anthony said it was “aggravating” to see conservative news pundits try to align themselves with him.

“I hate to see that song being weaponised,” he said. “I see the right trying to characterise me as one of their own, and I see the left trying to discredit me, I guess in retaliation. That s***’s got to stop.”

(Oliver Anthony/Youtube)

Politics in country music is nothing new. In the twenties, Henry Ford, the antisemitic car manufacturer, saw what was then known was “hillbilly music” as a whiter, more moral alternative to jazz. In 1968, American-Canadian country singer Hank Snow endorsed racist presidential candidate George C Wallace. Johnny Cash once played his protest song, “Man in Black”, in front of President Nixon. What does seem to have changed is the country music community itself.

“All we’re seeing in the news is people fighting, because they’re the loudest,” Eden says. “It’s hard – I have friends and people I look up to on both sides, and it’s really difficult to watch the hate that’s happening.”

Some of country music’s biggest stars – from Dolly Parton to Luke Combs – have tried to call for peace. “Everything is so contentious and heated, and that’s always been super frustrating to me,” Combs told The Independent last year. “I think what makes our country great is people’s ability to have their own opinions and have the ability to disagree. Right now, everyone is just so hot about everything. And that adds to the tension that was going on.”

Luke Combs despaired over the tension in the country music scene

(2022 Invision)

The famously non-partisan Parton, queen of country and its self-styled fairy godmother, steadfastly refuses to wade into political issues. “I try to stay out of that politicking because I’m not interested,” she says. “I worry about human beings, humanitarian issues… I worry about civilisation.”

But for Eden, who came out as queer just over two years ago, the political and personal are intrinsically tied together. Shortly after being signed in 2015, she fell in love with her radio representative (they’ve since married), in what she describes as “a very different landscape for the LGBT+ community”.

“There were people who came out in country music before me who pretty much got excommunicated from the country music family,” she explains. “So I had people in charge of my career telling me I wasn’t allowed to come out. And that was extremely difficult. I’d never been in love like that before, and before we met I thought something was broken inside of me. And here I am, 26, having these feelings for the first time and not allowed to talk about it.”

Country singer Brooke Eden: ‘I’ve seen what love and conversations can do’

(Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved)

Eden pretty much “shut down”, even as her career was taking off, feeling as though she’d been forced to trade her integrity and authenticity in for success. “That was really difficult,” she says, “because how can you be an artist if you’re not allowed to sing your truth?”

Fortunately, the reaction when she did come out was “much better” than she anticipated. “I received a lot of love and support,” she says. Even her family, whom she says are “extremely conservative”, have changed their stance on gay marriage, albeit after “many conversations and a lot of tears”.

“I think facts help,” she says. “It’s been really beautiful to watch their opinions change and their stances change on things. When I first came out to them, it was not met with love and support. And now they’re our biggest cheerleaders. I’ve seen what love and conversations can do, and that’s what makes me have hope. But you have to be willing to do the hard work.”

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Written by: Soft FM Radio Staff

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