When Country Went Right

"You know it's a strange place to be sometimes without a genre," said the Dixie Chicks' Emily Robison when accepting one of several Grammys at the 2006 music award show in Los Angeles. Of course, the Grammy committee was celebrating the reviled trio in no small part because they are in this "strange place." They are continuing to make top-notch music that still sounds country even though they have been in country music exile since lead-singer Natalie Maines made an anti-war jab at President Bush in 2003.

Country music itself is in a pretty strange place, too. It's arguably the only music genre that would dethrone its reigning queens for an off-hand political comment. But many Americans watching the Chicks fall from Country grace were not surprised by the backlash. Country music has conservatism in its DNA, right?

Not quite. Country music married into the conservative movement -- it wasn't born there. Country music's roots are as much populist as reactionary. Always fiercely allied with working people, the earliest country stars were old enough to have campaigned for populist champions like Tom Watson; FDR was celebrated in songs of the Depression; and Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash were feted by liberals for speaking up for the downtrodden in the '60s. Country music only became synonymous with mainline conservatism -- indeed, only became consistently political -- in the late '60s, a shift that not only helped buoy Richard Nixon into the White House, but reshaped the media landscape. The wars of the Dixie Chicks are the legacy of these years, but so are Rush Limbaugh, Bill O'Reilly, Fox News -- the conservative noise machine itself. The idea of values-based marketing to conservatives began with country music.

In the accepted history of today's conservative chattering classes, William F. Buckley is believed to have kicked off an intellectual resurgence by founding the National Review in 1955. Other publications and think tanks followed, creating a battalion of intellectual warriors championing conservative ideas. This history misses two critical pieces: entertainment and marketing. Popular audiences don't read policy papers -- they want to be entertained. And the mass media required to reach popular audiences must be sustained by advertising. Before Limbaugh and O'Reilly could serve up entertaining conservative punditry, a marketing segment had to be created that would pay to hear conservative pronouncements by buying the products of advertisers.

If one person can be credited with discovering that market, it is arguably Merle Haggard, who stumbled upon it with his 1969 hit, "Okie from Muskogee." Haggard claims the "Okie" character, who mocks hippies, anti-war protestors, and student activists, was a parody. But if Haggard wrote the song in jest, he quickly realized that he had nailed the feelings of millions of conservative Americans who felt forgotten by popular culture. Haggard told Penthouse Magazine in 1976, the song "said something to those people who were called 'the silent majority.' Finally, they were having something said [on] their behalf, and they really came unwound when they heard it said the way they wanted to hear it said."

The marketing potential was immediately obvious. The Wall Street Journal wrote a story in 1970 about the torrent of "backlash songs" following "Okie," quoting an unidentified record executive who explained, "This looks like a hot field & [because] nobody has really appealed to these people's political beliefs before." The Journal diagnosed country's growth as the conservative counterpart to progressive, youth-oriented rock. "Just as rock music often has challenged the values of the 'straight' world and tapped a reservoir of alienation among youth, the patriotic, conservative songs now gaining vogue are tapping growing resentments in Middle America."

Having just squeaked into office by tapping these same resentments, Richard Nixon made overtures to country music stars, and Nashville enthusiastically reciprocated. After Nixon declared October of 1970 Country Music Month, the Country Music Association (CMA) sent the president a custom-made LP, entitled Thank You Mr. President. In his introductory narration, former CMA president Tex Ritter tells Nixon that the disc is "our way of saying thank you for the recognition you, more than any other president, has [sic] given to country music." Ritter begs indulgence as he "takes [Nixon's] words and elaborate -- to sort of try and prove them ... with the music of the people." Ritter introduces each of the 15 songs -- climaxing with "Okie from Muskogee" -- with Nixon quotes interwoven with explanations of how homages to the hard-working farmer, love-rich poor folk, patriotic fighting men, and devoted Christians make the music "the voice of your 'Silent Majority.'"

Nixon responded in kind in March of 1974, making the first-ever presidential visit to the Grand Ole Opry. "I wanted to take this opportunity on behalf of all the American people to thank country music for what it does to make America a better country," he said. "It talks about family. It talks about religion, the faith in God that is so important to our country ... Country music radiates a love of this nation. Country music, therefore, has those combinations which are so essential to America's character." That evening he also made an extraordinary claim about a music so closely identified with its Southern roots: "Country music also has a magnificent appeal all across the country. It comes from ... out here in Middle America."

And he was right. By 1970, over two-thirds of country record sales were made outside the South. What largely united listeners from coast to coast was a longing for a more simple, more stable, and more wholesome time than the present. While country's appeal had much to do with these values, however, overtly political songs were a tiny minority. It would take another generation before Limbaugh and Fox News would turn conservative opining into entertainment.

J. Lester Feder received his PhD in music history from the University of California, Los Angeles. He currently writes about politics and popular culture from his home in Alexandria, Virginia.

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