Monday, May 04, 2009

Rednecks and Bluenecks

The amazing thing about Chris Willman’s Rednecks and Bluenecks is how much has changed since he wrote the book following George W. Bush’s second election victory. At that time, Democrats seemed in disarray and even the staunchest supporters of the party were struggling to get over 2004’s loss to a newly re-elected President Bush. Flash forward to early 2009 and the fortunes of America’s two main political parties have done a complete flip; now it is the staunchest of Republicans who are trying to cope with what happened in the last election.

The remarkably swift turnaround in the fortunes of the two parties makes much of Rednecks and Bluenecks outdated, but the book retains value as an interesting snapshot of the politics of country music at a volatile time in America’s political history. Country music in the early 2000s was well into a musical decline (a decline that has yet to bottom out) that saw it overwhelmed by singers and producers willing to kill its traditions if that would sell more music to the soccer moms chosen as its target audience. Country music went pop and producers created, and discarded, dozens of young singers in an attempt to move product. Tradition, musically or otherwise, did not seem to be much of a concern in Nashville, Tennessee.

However, Chris Willman found in 2005 that conservative politics still dominated the country music industry, despite all the new blood in the city, and that liberal country music stars and executives felt vastly outnumbered by their conservative counterparts. Some of the more liberal recording artists and producers, in fact, told Willman that they feared being too open and outspoken about their politics in an industry within which they were such a small political minority – the same reaction, of course, experienced by conservative entertainers based on either coast of America.

Willman interviewed major country music artists and executives from both sides of the political spectrum, paying a bit too much attention, in the process, to the Dixie Chicks blowup that ended with the Chicks abandoning country music for good. That incident is a good example of the disconnect between country music fans and some country artists but it ended as a media circus milked for profit by those on both sides of the argument - and is not necessarily what it appears to have been on its surface.

Willman points out that the political split between country music artists was influential in creating the alt-country genre, a genre greatly influenced by liberal singers who were at one time part of the hardcore country music family. These days, singers like Rodney Crowell, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, Roseanne Cash, and others like them are no longer part of country music’s mainstream and have been joined in the alt-country movement by younger artists who share the same politics. Mainstream country, watered down though it may be, is still known for its core values and the conservative singers who best represent those values: Alan Jackson, Brooks & Dunn, Toby Keith, Merle Haggard, Johnny Cash, etc. Though as rockers like Keith Urban, rappers like Cowboy Troy, and teens like Taylor Swift continue to invade country music, it will be interesting to see whether conservative artists will be overwhelmed by this influx of non-country invaders who are likely to be less conservative than those they replace.

Country music is in the midst of an identity crisis, nothing new about that. Haggard and Cash have themselves straddled both sides of the liberal/conservative line for decades, proving that it can be done successfully. Rednecks and Bluenecks, however, focuses largely on a generation of country music artists that is not being replaced by likeminded singers and pickers. Country music is no longer country and one has to wonder how long it will be before the conservative voice of country music becomes the genre’s new minority. Rednecks and Bluenecks may have snapped a picture of country music’s last hurrah.

Rated at: 3.0


  1. You can put me down as believing that all art is political, but even it that context it's impressive just how political country music is, and how closely identified it is with one particular political viewpoint.

    But do you really think Johnny Cash should be included as part of the mainstream conservative section of country music? Didn't country stations burn his records and ban his music after "Man in Black"?

    Just so you know the country music I do listen to tends towards Patsy Cline, Early Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash. None of the current stuff I hear comes anywhere close.

  2. C.B., I probably wasn't clear by only saying tha Cash straddled both sides of the line. Like Haggard, both conservatives and liberals want to claim them as their own. Cash, IMO, was more often a liberal singer than a conservative one, going all the way back to his days working with Dylan and ending with his "American" recordings - but, in between, he sang a lot of stuff that pleased conservative thinkers. I think he and Haggard got away with it because they both had a patriotic image.

    Do you remember that old Cash song called "The One on the Left Is on the Right" or somesuch thing? He just never seemed to offend anyone.

    Your taste in country music is solid - FM radio and videos killed real country music a long, long time ago. It's still out there but you have to know where to look for it - Texas is a good place to find it, BTW. But these days, I'm more partial to bluegrass music than to country music - love the acoustic sound and the great harmony involved.