Dunn: Is country music going woke?

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Linda Dunn

We generally view country music as being the music of rural white conservatives, but there are some warning signs that this form of music may be growing a little too “woke” for many of them lately.

This recent year’s Country Music Awards (CMA) ceremony had 5.8 million same-day viewers of performances that included Kelsea Ballerini performing with drag queens from “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”

Ballerini also gave a speech about Nashville’s school shooting that hinted at a need for sensible gun control laws.

And if any more proof that Country is going “woke” is needed, Country Music Television pulled Jason Aldean’s “Try That In A Small Town” video and banned it from their airways.

Why? Because its lyrics allegedly “glorified gun violence and conveyed traditionally racist ideas.” There were also concerns about the usage of the Maury County Courthouse in the background, where a Black teen was lynched in 1927. (There were no historical markers to alert producers that this might not be the best possible setting for a music video of this nature.)

But before conservatives get too worked up about how country music is changing, maybe we should first stop and ask ourselves how it ever became the music of conservatives in the first place.

Was it a natural evolution? Or was it part of a political game plan?

Until the mid-20th century, Country music wasn’t viewed as political for the simple reason that it wasn’t.

President Nixon courted Country music into the politically conservative camp as part of his political campaign to win conservative Southern voters — who were mostly Democrats in the pre-Civil Rights era. After his election, he invited Country music performers to the White House, promoted their music, and declared October, 1970 “Country Music Month.”

Nixon even appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in 1974 and promoted Country music as belonging to “Middle America.”

The CMA repaid Nixon’s promotion of their music with an album entitled Thank You, Mr. President. (Only two copies of which are known to exist.)

From the Nixon era forward, Country music — at least the marketing side — was married to the conservative movement.

If you weren’t part of that, then you were an Outlaw Country Singer like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings — one of those who opposed the “machine” of Nashville’s music industry and its “codified” norms of sound, style and even appearance and behavior at a time before modern technology offered alternate ways to reach a large audience.

After 9-11-2001, it seemed our whole country became jingoist. [Jingoist: An extreme form of patriotism that often calls for violence toward foreigners and foreign countries.]

When the Dixie Chicks publicly criticized President George W. Bush and his plan for the imminent invasion of Iraq, America’s conservatives canceled them.

It was at about 14 years before the Chicks released another album.

Country music’s commercial interests have, for a very long time, intentionally cast a public image of fans as white, heterosexual, male supremacist conservatives, wrapped in a Confederate flag and drowning in watered-down beer served at a NASCAR race.

This has been slowly changing as singer-songwriters found ways around corporate headquarters’ gatekeepers.

Garth Brooks and Shania Twain were initially viewed as interlopers. Over time, they managed to redefine what country superstardom meant and, eventually, other performers followed their lead in making flashier shows and music videos.

Black artists like Kane Brown and Daniel Breland became popular on social media. Mickey Guyton, the first black female country artist signed to a major label, was nominated for four Grammies and sang the national anthem at the 2022 Super Bowl … but she still received little radio time or corporate support.

Most recently and dramatically, a relatively unknown singer-songwriter, Oliver Anthony, hit the No. 1 spot with “Rich Men North of Richmond,” a song that expressed the frustrations of many working-class Americans.

Republicans figured he was “one of them” and the song was referenced in the first question asked at the televised Republican Presidential Candidates debate. Anthony apparently found this both annoying and ironic, saying he’s politically “straight down the middle” and “wrote that song about those people (referring to the GOP Presidential candidates) .”

“North of Richmond,” for native Virginians like Anthony, refers to the suburbs of Washington, DC, where the rich and powerful live who make decisions that control our lives in ways both big and small.

Maybe Country music is getting too “woke” for some conservatives. But for the rest of us, it looks like it’s finally getting back to its roots and reflecting the views of all Americans, not just Conservative ones.

Some of us consider that a positive sign.

A lifelong resident of Hancock County, Linda Dunn is an author and retired Department of Defense employee.