CHAPEL HILL, N.C. - With acoustic guitar and gentle voice, James Taylor crooned “America the Beautiful” to a hushed hometown crowd of thousands Monday night - a fervent but soft-spoken pitch for Sen. Barack Obama.
Four days earlier, country music wildman Hank Williams Jr. handled the same chore for Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin in Elon, belting out the national anthem in a gut-bucket baritone, mixing in songs about whiskey and harangues against the media.
It’s a musical choice as stark as the presidential choice waiting at the ballot box. As Election Day nears, Republicans and Democrats are revving up the faithful using musical stars who bring ready-made personae and libraries of hits.
Taylor’s association with Democratic politics, for example, dates to the 1979 “No Nukes” concert in Madison Square Garden. And a lot of Obama supporters don’t mind hearing “Sweet Baby James” one more time.
Maybe it boosts a campaign, maybe it doesn’t. No research suggests that a musical act can sway a voter either way, said Tom Carsey, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill political scientist.
But it does bring attention.
“I think they’re hoping that the popularity of these artists at least gets their fans to look at a candidate in a new light,” Carsey said.
Pop stars, for all their baggage, can sound more genuine. They don’t have to campaign. They have legions of fans eager to feel a union beyond fandom.
“I feel a kinship,” Taylor said on the soccer field at UNC-Chapel Hill, “not only that we’re here in Chapel Hill and Tar Heels, but also that we have been summoned to serve in this campaign and make an effort in our country. ... It’s really time for us to get back to work. I am proud to be among you as a member of your community in supporting Barack Obama.”
He joked about writing “Sweet Baby James” in 1903. He tipped his hat and showed his bald head. He smiled gently and wondered how the world got to the point where government is frowned upon. It was political theater set to artful guitar picking.
Musicians have long lined up to plug candidates. Woody Guthrie campaigned for Franklin Delano Roosevelt in 1944. Both Lynyrd Skynyrd and the Allman Brothers Band backed Jimmy Carter for president in the mid-1970s. In the movie world, Gov. Pappy O’Daniel saw his flagging campaign saved by the Soggy Bottom Boys in “O Brother, Where Art Thou.”
Even at their most partisan, musicians speak in voices a candidate cannot. They display a folksy tone that’s out of bounds for a business-suit candidate for president.
“Let me tell you something, this ain’t my first trip to North Carolina,” said Williams last week, decked out in a Carolina Panthers jersey with his nickname, Bocephus, stenciled on the back.
“You come on back, you hear, Hank?” shouted a fan.
“But one of the biggest shows,” he said, “is the one I’m doing today, for my people, the United States of America. That’s us.”
Amid all the politicking, and the McCain-Palin song he wrote to the tune of “Family Tradition,” Bocephus told the crowd that the Country Music Hall of Fame will never, never get his daddy’s guitar or squirrel shotgun.
Any rally brings out the raw partisan, no matter who’s playing guitar.
Overheard at a souvenir stand in Elon: “You don’t have any signs that say Obama, Yo Mama, do you?”
Flashiest T-shirt in Chapel Hill, which featured a large musket: “Blunder-Bush. From Biggest Surplus to Biggest Debt.”
But there’s nothing like a star to lend an event some character, to turn it from a sea of faces to a sea of red state/blue state craziness.
You’d expect to see six shirtless young men at a Hank Williams Jr. show, the letters P-A-L-I-N painted on their chests.
“You’re my girl, Sarah!” screamed Elon student Doug Carpenter, who represented the group’s exclamation point, his fists clenched.
You’d also expect to see thousands waiting politely for more than an hour at a James Taylor show in Chapel Hill. The only stand-out in the crowd was Brian Mack of Chapel Hill and his 5-year-old son Emerson, both waving flags for Obama.
“It’s the first time in my life I’ve ever been to a political rally,” he said. “I’m a registered independent. But this year, it’s different.”
Either way, Republican or Democrat, everyone goes home singing.
Here are other musicians who have either endorsed or strummed and sung for their favorite candidates:
Black Eyed Peas frontman will.i.am