Rednecks And Bluenecks: The Politics Of Country Music
The subtitle signals Entertainment Weekly writer Chris Willman’s interest in a topic that, while maybe not the hot-button issue it was a year ago, till warrants attention. Why, Willman asks, was Natalie Maines condemned by country fans, radio, and conservative talk-show hosts for the kind of anti-Bush remark that was fully expected from rock figures? And If Kanye West can insist that the president hates black people, where are the country equivalents to assert that tax cuts haven’t exactly helped poor whites either?
But if I came to Rednecks And Bluenecks looking to understand what happened to the Dixie Chicks, one of its surprising effects was to make me feel sorry for Toby Keith, whose Democratic leanings are an open secret in Nashville. He claims he’s just pro-military rather than a caricature of gung-ho jingoism, the kind of moderate Democrat that has all but disappeared from the red states. Willman even argues that Keith’s image and music fits into the outlaw tradition of Willie & Waylon and the boys, representing a shade of “deep purple” that crosses the red/blue political divide (further discussed in a chapter on Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash). I suspect this argument will resonate for about as long as it takes me to hear Keith on the radio, but Willman has a point.
The alt-lineage, he suggests, shares in country’s political ambiguities and inconsistencies much more than those who see it as a heroic left front might allow. Pro-labor sentiments have long been tangled with racist nativism, protest singing with gospel evangelism and supporting the troops. At some point, these co-existing beliefs hardened into contrary philosophies, with the country establishment opting for the right-leading fork and folky renegades taking the high road to lower sales.
Willman argues for at least two historical turning points in this book, one being Vietnam and the Republican “southern strategy” that used the civil rights movement to recruit nervous white Democrats. But there’s another account that suggests reverse swings under Carter and Clinton, presidents who understood the power of country music. Depending on which framework we’re buying (and I’m not sure Willman has made up his mind), the Outlaw movement looks like the last hurrah of an older populism that had consistently crossed up the signals of Left and Right, or a first step in imagining an alt-country that is still working through some of its inherent political and musical ambiguities. At a time when bluegrass can seem inherently progressive, it’s surely true that musical and political values have been forced together to such an extent that we’re constantly in danger of mistaking one set for the other.
When this occurred is probably less important than how, though, and here Rednecks And Bluenecks offers only scattered hints. If country’s apparent conservatism isn’t intrinsic to its musical form or fan base, we should look instead at how its mainstream has been marketed, especially by deregulated and increasingly monopolistic radio programming. It doesn’t seem wildly conspiratorial to insist that what looked like a spontaneous uprising against the Chicks was orchestrated by right-leaning station owners and DJs, and enflamed by phony call-in numbers; nor is it unreasonable to connect the dots, more directly than Willman does, between this incident and other sinister figures in the culture wars such as Karl Rove and Fox News, both of whom make cameo appearances.
A book such as Thomas Frank’s What’s The Matter With Kansas? can help to fill in what’s missing here: how poor whites in the heartlands see themselves identified with powerful interests that deliver nothing (or worse) when in office, but run on a cultural values ticket. If those voters have tended to see NASCAR as their sport of choice, this book helps us understand why country music has come to feel like their natural soundtrack.