The country divide

The Washington Post shows how the cultural cold civil war is now in country music:

The stadium was filling up with fans for a late-season pro football game when Margo Price took up her spot at midfield for a pregame sound check.

Two weeks earlier she had scored a best new artist Grammy nomination. Now she was about to sing the national anthem — a slot typically reserved at Titans’ games for some of country music’s rising stars and its biggest names.

Price’s invitation, though, came with a warning.

“I’m sure you’ll be respectful of our anthem and not pull any shenanigans,” the Titans’ representative told her as she stepped onto the field. Price, 35, waited a moment for the team rep to amble away. A button emblazoned with the word “feminist” was pinned to her black leather jacket and glinted in the midday sun. “My reputation precedes me,” she said.

Price’s career — her success and nearly a decade of struggles — isa testament to the way America’s poisonous politics are scrambling country music. Study after study has documented the widening social gulf that separates the major parties. Republicans and Democrats report increasing levels of animosity for those on the other side of the political divide, according to surveys. They have few close friends from the opposing political party. They watch different television shows.

Those same pressures are fracturing one of America’s most distinctive art forms, giving rise to separate musical genres aimed at liberal and conservative fans. “I’m just singing the truth,” Price said. “That’s what country music is supposed to be — three chords and the truth.” Increasingly, though, that truth is shaped by America’s political war.

Price has appeared as the musical guest on liberal bastions such as “Saturday Night Live,” “The Daily Show” on Comedy Central and the three major late-night network talk shows. On Sunday she will learn whether she can add a best new artist Grammy to her accolades.

But she’s entirely absent from country music radio — still the major star maker for Nashville-based musicians who aspire to fill stadiums. And that has made Price all but invisible in certain quarters of the country, including some parts of her adopted hometown. …

Price’s rich country voice caught the attention of Nashville music critics. “Her voice is just unreal. That’s what grabbed me,” said Joseph Hudak, a Nashville-based writer for Rolling Stone. Her writing called to mind country music’s hell-raising, honky-tonk roots. “I killed the angel on my shoulder with a bottle of the Bulleit / So I wouldn’t have to hear him bitch and moan, moan, moan,” she sang to the cry of a steel-pedal guitar.

Price, though, had several strikes against her when it came to landing a recording contract with a major label.

Country music these days is dominated by men, who typically account for about 80 to 90 percent of Billboard’s top 40 country radio hits. Online the situation can be even worse. Spotify’s “Country Gold”playlist of 50 songs often doesn’t include even a single female artist.

Price’s music also didn’t sound like the other hits played on country radio, which mixed hip-hop beats with twangy verse.

Her biggest problem might have been her lyrics. Hit country songs tended to celebrate small-town life. Often, they responded to the growing partisan rancor by emphasizing America’s essential goodness, as Luke Bryan did in his hit “Most People are Good.”

Bryan focused on motherhood and football: “I believe most Friday nights look better under neon or stadium lights,” he sang.

Price was offering a different view of America. She sang about sin and struggle and the sortsof misfits who never felt comfortable in football stadiums. “I’m an outcast, and I’m a stray / And I plan to stay that way,” she sang. Her songs were about small, depressed towns that people longed to escape. These were the very places country music expected her to celebrate.

“You’re so country, but you’re not a redneck,” she recalled one record industry executive telling her. She took it as a backhanded compliment. He passed. Others pressed her to give her song arrangements more of a pop feel. She refused.

Price had been at it for 12 years when her husband prevailed on her in 2014 to sell their car, pawn her wedding ring and spend the money recording a country album. The last song she wrote before she headed into the studio told the story of her life: her father’s decision to sell the family farm, her struggles in Nashville, the death of her son.

“I felt like I was at the end of a rope and if something didn’t happen soon, I was going to break,” she said of “Hands of Time.” “I wrote it as a form of therapy. Not for anyone else, but for myself.”

Months passed with little interest from record companies. Her slide guitar player persuaded an executive from Third Man Records, founded by Jack White, a well-known rock and blues musician, to watch her play at a Nashville bar. Third Man didn’t have much experience with country music, but signed her anyway.

Before the album was even released in 2016, “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” booked her to sing. Just weeks after it dropped, “Saturday Night Live” offered her a slot on the show.

“Are you sitting down?” she asked her drummer, shortly after she got the news. He was stacking boxes at the warehouse job he had taken to pay the bills.

“We’re going on SNL!” she screamed.

The New York Times called her the “next big thing out of Nashville.” A New Yorker staff writer described listening to her as “an uncomplicated joy, with awe laced through it.”

Country music radio programmers were less impressed.

“I have never heard a Margo Price song that I thought was a mass appeal runaway hit,” said Nate Deaton, the general manager of a station in San Jose. Country hits often offered up a dose of nostalgia. “There’s a lot of people in big cities that came from small towns,” he said, “and there’s an awful lot of us that never lived in small towns, but nonetheless there’s an appealing nature to it.”

R.J. Curtis, the executive director of the Country Radio Broadcasters trade group, echoed that assessment. He was a fan of her music and had even attended one of her Nashville shows. “But programmers just don’t know what to do with her,” he said. “Man, we’re missing out.”

Country music has for decades accommodated different sounds and styles — the Bakersfield Sound, Outlaw Country, Urban Cowboy country and alt-country among others. What united them was a working-class sensibility that rose above politics.

In the early 1970s Johnny Cash recorded “What is Truth” in support of Vietnam War protesters even as his close friend Merle Haggard was singing “The Fightin’ Side of Me”slamming them. The two stars could still share a stage.

By 2003, though, the rules had changed. With U.S. troops massing on the Iraq border, Natalie Maines, the lead singerof the Dixie Chicks, told a London audience that she was ashamed that George W. Bush was from Texas. At that moment, the female trio was one of the biggest acts in country music.

Sixteen years later the Chicks are both a band and a verb. To be “Dixie-Chicked” is to be excommunicated from mainstream country music radio. The Chicks were the victims of a rally-around-the-flag backlash — they criticized the president on the eve of a major war.

These days the divide in country music has become more obviously partisan, reflecting the political division among its main supporters: white Americans. Mainstream country music has little patience for messages that fail to celebrate small-town America or tilt even remotely anti-Trump.

Liberal country music fans, meanwhile, want assurances that their favorite singers are sufficiently to the left. “White people are the only race that’s politically divided right now,” said Lilliana Mason, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland and author of “Uncivil Agreement,” a book about political identity and America’s growing divide. “Because the partisan divide is so deep you have to define what kind of white person you are.”

For left-leaning country singers, like Price and Sturgill Simpson, there’s pressure to signal to their fan bases that they are on their side. In 2017, Simpson let loose an epic anti-Trump rant that made Maines’s criticism of Bush seem tepid by comparison.

“He’s a fascist . . . pig,” Simpson said of Trump outside the Country Music Awards in Nashville. All Trump supporters, he added, were “bigots.”

Simpson had won a Grammy earlier that same year for best country album, but, like Price, was rejected by mainstream country music radio. A few years ago there was an expectation that stars such as Simpson and Price might bring a new sound and sensibility to country music.

Instead, they became their own subgenre and today are often classified as “Americana” artists, a subset of roots music aimed largely at liberals. Americana music isn’t always easily defined, but the Milk Carton Kids, who opened this year’s Americana awards show in Nashville, took a stab at it in a song:

A country song that’s a little too political / A feminist anthem that’s a bit too literal / Your lyrics are biblical / Your Twitter feed is liberal”

The same pressures that were splitting the country were now fracturing country music.

“Country music is taking collateral damage because so many people these days want blood,” said Kyle Coroneos, who runs the website Saving Country Music. “In previous eras no one thought about this stuff, just like we didn’t think about our neighbors’ politics.”

Midway through her recent set in Washington, Price launched into “All American Made,” a song about the divisions in the country and the title track to her second album.

Price and her husband wrote it together several years ago, and last summer Price updated the song for the Trump presidency.

“I wonder how the president gets any sleep at night / And if the folks down by the border are making it all right,” she sang before a crowd of about 2,000 people in Washington who let out a cheer. To anyone who might have been offended, Price explained that she wrote the song during the Obama administration. But no one seemed to care.

A few weeks later Price was back in Nashville for a pre-Grammy party. She mingled awkwardly with the guests and then cut out early. On her way to dinner, she and her husband made a quick detour to get a look at a billboard that Spotify had put up congratulating her on her nomination.

“Who dat?” she called out laughing when she spotted her face staring back at her. The Nashville skyline glittered in the distance.

The next morning she gathered with her band to rehearse before she jetted out to Los Angeles for the Grammys and a spot on “Jimmy Kimmel Live.”

From there her schedule was a sprint. She was five months pregnant, working on a new album and had live shows planned through April.

Price suggested the band add a new Tom Petty song to its set. Her husband pulled up “You Don’t Know How it Feels” on his phone, picked up his harmonica and began to play along, feeling his way through the song. The band joined in. Price copied the lyrics on a piece of paper.

Petty’s music had been one of her first loves. As a teenager in rural Illinois she taped “Mary Jane’s Last Dance” off the radio and sang it into her hairbrush. “He was singing to a girl in Middle America who was maybe a little poor or a little different,” she told Rolling Stone when Petty died in 2017. His music, she said, “defied genre . . . defied politics.”

But it was getting harder and harder for stars, such as Price, to pull off that trick. Recently, her management team had encouraged her to do a dual interview with a big mainstream country artist. “It will be good exposure,” she recalled them telling her, an opportunity to introduce her music to a new group of fans who might not otherwise hear it.

Price shot down the idea.

“I don’t respect his art,” she explained later. “It’s not anything personal.”

These days, Price said, she was eager for her own “mental sanity” to edge away from country music. “Sonically I want to do something different, and I want to reach more people. Country music was a good way to get my foot in the door, but . . . when you venture out of country music you have more freedom to say what you want, and country music radio isn’t doing me any favors.”

Sometimes, Price mused, that she should have been “born in an earlier era.”

As it was, she was playing almost 200 dates a year. She wasn’t a country music megastar, selling outstadiums across the South and Midwest. But she could fill a theater with 2,000-3,000 die-hard fans in Brooklyn. More and more, when she looked out at the crowd, there were people singing along to her lyrics as if she was singing about their lives too.

In several cases, the divide is self-inflicted. The Dixie Chicks were the first, but not the last, to alienate their audience not just by taking positions their audience didn’t agree with, but being vocal about it, as if their First Amendment rights are more important than their audience’s First Amendment rights.

Taste of Country reports on one of those issues:

Big & Rich singer John Rich makes no secret of his staunch support for the Second Amendment, and he is calling on fellow country stars who have advocated for gun control measures to speak to him on the issues and “give me a solution.”

Rich spoke to Fox News after learning that Florida Georgia Line singer Tyler Hubbard and Dierks Bentley have both joined TOMS’ founder Blake Mycoskie’s End Gun Violence Together campaign, which calls on citizens to visit the TOMS website and send a postcard to their elected representatives demanding that they take action on universal background checks. TOMS says that’s a measure 90 percent of Americans support, and both Hubbard and Bentley posted to social media in support of the campaign.

Telling Fox News that he had previously worked with both artists and has nothing but respect for them, Rich says he’d invite them to a friendly debate over the facts.

“The issue with gun control, you look at it and you go, ‘These maniacs, these vicious people are taking a weapon and shooting people with it,’ he states. “And then the flip side of that is, right now, I’m in New York City and back in Nashville is my wife and my two little kids. And if somebody breaks into my house, which rifle would you suggest I tell my wife to grab? Which one should she grab? The one that gives her the best chance at protecting her and my kids or the one that doesn’t? Those are the types of questions I would like to ask them.”

Rich cites himself as a responsible gun owner who does everything by the book. “I have my firearm and my concealed weapons permit to defend myself against the crazy guys,” he states. “You realize there’s three or four hundred million guns in the United States right now. You can’t get ’em. They’re already sold, they’re already out there. They’re grandfathered in. So I would ask those artists, ‘What laws would you propose?’… Give me a solution, I never hear the solution of what it would be.”

Rich fears more gun control laws could be a slippery slope to the type of mandatory assault weapons buyback program suggested by Congressman Eric Swalwell (D-Calif.).

“Somebody literally knocks on your door in the future and says, ‘Mr. Rich, we’re here to purchase all your weapons.’ … This is where this can lead to.”

TOMS’ End Gun Violence Together campaign focuses on enforcing existing gun laws that impose mandatory background checks on sales of every gun in the U.S by closing the gun show and internet loopholes that allow buyers to get around those laws. Mycoskie launched the campaign in the wake of the mass shooting that killed twelve people at the Borderline Bar & Grill in California in November.

Lady Antebellum and Little Big Town singer Karen Fairchild also accepted Hubbard’s challenge to join him in supporting the program, while other country stars including Tim McGrawFaith HillCamRosanne Cash and more have expressed public support for various gun control measures.

I am reminded of a country song:

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