[19 October 2008]
The night Barack Obama accepted the nomination to be the Democratic candidate for president, I was DJing a post-convention party with his acceptance speech projected on the big screen. After much deliberation, I had decided to start my set off with Yo La Tengo’s “Big Day Coming”, an upbeat song that expressed the tension, hope, and anticipation of the convention and upcoming election (“Won’t Get Fooled Again” by the Who was another close contender, but I held onto that for the following week’s Republican convention). As Obama stepped away from the podium and was joined by his wife and his running mate, I waited to see what song the Democrats had chosen as the backdrop for this historic moment, the nomination of the first black candidate for the presidency.
Their choice? “Only in America” by Brooks & Dunn, the second single from the duo’s 2001 album, Steers and Stripes. The choice of a country song was odd; the choice of this particular song was downright bizarre.
In a lot of ways, it’s a solid choice: the song is full of things like dreams and hope, and Obama is clearly both pro-dreams and pro-hope, particularly if that hope is audacious. And simply by virtue of being a country song, it may have helped ease the racial anxieties of some voters, assuring them that while Obama might be black, he’s a good ol’ boy from Illinois at heart, making it a better choice than, say, Gil Scott Heron’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”.
What made it a strange choice was that the Dems weren’t the first party to use the song. The Grand Ol’ Party had already deployed the song at their 2004 convention, playing the tune after Dick Cheney finished his speech and using it as a sort of unofficial “Hail to the Chief” throughout the campaign. Brooks & Dunn, both registered Republicans although neither has openly endorsed McCain, actually performed the song at Bush’s first inauguration. On top of that, McCain has been featuring Brooks & Dunn’s “That’s What It’s All About” at many of his rallies. And let’s be honest, when you think about the duo who brought us “Boot Scootin’ Boogie”, you’re more likely to think red state than blue.
At a first glance, country music seems traditionally allied with the sort of down-home, small-town ethics and values touted by the Republicans at their St. Paul hoedown. Clearly this is part of the note Democrats were hoping to strike with their song choice. But the politics of country music has never been a simple red or blue. A genre that grew up with close ties to American folk music, country couldn’t help but pick up a bit of early folk music’s populist streak. While to an extent, the cowboy imagery and characters prevalent in a lot of country songs are inherently apolitical, speaking to a time and place located permanently elsewhere, outside any current political situation, the working class characters that also populate the genre often espouse a politic that seems more in line with the economically compassionate aspects of the Democrats, even if it retains the cultural conservatism and small town values of the Republicans.
Brooks & Dunn
The populist roots of country had their most visible moment in 1985 under the guidance of Number One Cowboy, Willie Nelson. Teaming up with Neil Young and John Mellencamp (and later, Dave Matthews), Nelson, whose political views on issues ranging from biodiesel to national security to marijuana legalization (anyone want to guess where Willie comes down on that one?) are all over the map, launched Farm Aid, an organization dedicated to helping save small family farms. After the initial Farm Aid concert in 1985, Nelson and Mellencamp lobbied Congress to pass the Agricultural Credit Act of 1987, a bill designed to prevent foreclosure on small family farms. Just last month in a letter written by Nelson, Young, Mellencamp, and Matthews, Farm Aid expressed its opposition to the Bush administration’s initial bailout bill proposal, claiming it doesn’t do enough to protect the mortgages of small farmers from foreclosure.
Of course, Nelson has not always been so opposed to the administration’s policies. He re-entered the country music charts in 2003 after a long dry spell by dueting with Toby Keith on “Beer for My Horses”, a hang ‘em high call to arms against the perpetrators of the September 11th attacks. Or possibly cattle-rustlers. It’s tough to tell. Incidentally, from what I can determine, yes, horses drink beer and seem to enjoy the grainy flavor. Keith’s militaristic politics had already been on display in his 2002 hit, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)”, which featured the jingoistic line, “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Nothing ambiguous there. Keith also found himself embroiled in a political feud with the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines, who had come under fire for her statement to a London audience, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” Following Maines’ statement, Keith used a backdrop at many of his shows with a Photoshopped image of Maines and Saddam Hussein. Maines responded by sporting an “FUTK” (which stands for exactly what you think it does) T-shirt at the Academy of Country Music Awards show, where the Dixie Chicks were booed and lost Entertainer of the Year to Keith.
Keith wasn’t alone in his negative response to Maines’ statement. The band was vilified in the country music press, received death threats and lost many of its fans, with some fans going so far as to bulldoze a pile of Dixie Chicks CDs. In an interview, band member Martie Maguire said, “We don’t feel a part of the country scene any longer, it can’t be our home anymore.” With many stations banning the Dixie Chicks and fans boycotting their album, the girls got unexpected support from a member of the country music community who’d served time on both sides of the culture wars: Merle Haggard. “I don’t even know the Dixie chicks, but I find it an insult for all the men and women who fought and died in past wars when almost the majority of America jumped down their throats for voicing an opinion,” Haggard wrote on his website. “It was like a verbal witch-hunt and lynching.” Haggard followed up this statement by releasing “That’s the News”, a scathing criticism of media coverage of the Iraq War.
Haggard’s early entry into the political sphere came with 1970’s “The Fightin’ Side of Me”, an open threat to members of the anti-war movement. The song followed up on Haggard’s 1968 anti-hippie anthem, “Okie from Muskogee”, which railed against activists like Abbie Hoffman who draped themselves in the American flag to claim dissent as patriotic in an “I, Too, Sing America” stance. Sweeping the Country Music Awards that year, the song made it clear that whatever the hippies were singing, it certainly wasn’t America. “Fightin’ Side of Me” went even further than the satirical “Okie”, putting the word out to peaceniks that they were cruisin’ for the proverbial bruisin’ when they spoke out against the war. The outspoken peaceniks in question at the time included Johnny Cash, who had made repeated trips to visit the troops in Vietnam. Commenting in front of a sold-out audience at Madison Square Garden on whether or not those trips had made him into a hawk, Cash said, “No, that don’t make me a hawk. No. No, that don’t make me a hawk… If you watch the helicopters bring in the wounded boys, then you go into the wards and sing for ‘em and try to do your best to cheer them up so that they can get back home, it might make you a dove with claws.” Haggard and Cash may have found themselves on different sides of the issue, but the two remained friends and artistic collaborators throughout the Vietnam War.
Unlike Heart’s reaction to the Republican’s unauthorized use of its song “Barracuda” to follow Sarah Palin’s convention speech (“Barracuda” being the Alaska governor’s less-than-flattering high school nickname), or for that matter, Bruce Springsteen’s reaction to the Reagan campaign’s appropriation of “Born in the USA”, Republican Kix Brooks seemed sanguine about the use of his song by the party in opposition. “Seems ironic that the same song Bush used at the Republican Convention last election would be used by Obama and the Democrats now,” Brooks said in an official statement. “Very flattering to know our song crossed parties and potentially inspires all Americans.” Dan Cook, the song’s co-writer, was a little more excited than Brooks. Cook is the founder of Music Row Democrats, a Nashville-based Political Action Committee that backs Obama.
While incorporating country music into a campaign may seem like easy shorthand for small-town values, politicians may want to wade carefully through the ambiguities of country music’s shifting politics, lest they end up backing the wrong beer-fueled horse. After all, one-time Bush supporter Toby Keith hopped across the aisle this past summer, declaring himself a lifetime Democrat and speaking positively about Obama. Maybe he’ll sing “Get Drunk and Be Somebody” at Obama’s inaugural.