The Country Music Industry Is More Liberal Than It Lets On: Will More Start To Speak Up?

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Not long after the Dixie Chicks were exiled from the country universe in 2003 following Natalie Maines’ declaration, onstage in London, that they were “ashamed the president of the United States [George W. Bush] is from Texas,” a group that dubbed itself Music Row Democrats formed in Nashville. At first comprising 20 executives and songwriters, it soon blossomed into the thousands.

The goal of the organization was to help the town, known for its conservative base, elect left-leaning candidates and reveal Nashville for what it really is: a place where a surprising number of progressive liberals work in a musical genre that caters to a core conservative audience.

Fifteen years later, this contrast has never been more apparent. The past year in Nashville -- a city that consistently votes blue -- has transformed the town from comfortably silent to one vociferously at odds with the conservative political agenda.

Last October, the shooting at the Route 91 Harvest festival in Las Vegas rocked the country music community and its pro-gun culture. Five months later, the Country Music Association (CMA) -- the symbolic brain trust of Nashville’s music business -- ran afoul of Music Row’s increasingly liberal power base when it announced that it was installing gay-marriage opponent, National Rifle Association (NRA) proponent and former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee on its foundation board. (He resigned days later.)

In the wake of those developments -- and the local music industry’s reaction to them -- many are wondering if Nashville is finally ready for a political transformation.

“In my time working in music, I’ve witnessed what has felt like a shift from conservative Music Row-slash-country music to seeing artists speak out more on issues that resonate with the left side,” says one industry insider, who, along with several other sources interviewed for this story, requested anonymity given the sensitive nature of the topic. “Artists and the industry realize things have changed,” says the source, adding, “It’s less of a country music thing than it is a generational shift.”

The Music Row Democrats have since disbanded, but in May, a new group formed with the goal of empowering artists and industry workers to speak out where they can, including supplying them with information and support to deal with Nashville’s political dissonance. Twenty-six members of the city’s music industry met at Creative Artists Agency’s downtown office to discuss next steps and form an as-yet-unnamed consortium similar to Music Row Democrats, with Tennessee Democratic party chief Mary Mancini present.

“A lot of immediate focus will be on getting folks registered,” says a publicist who attended the meeting. “The topic of voter registration is so completely nonpartisan, the hope is that stars on every level would agree to do a PSA.”

Chances are, some will. Kacey Musgraves, Brothers Osborne, Maren Morris, Charlie Worsham, Margo Price and Kip Moore are among the artists who have put their beliefs on display, as has country institution Tim McGraw, who supports same-sex marriage and gun control. Likewise, some of the town’s top executives have contributed to liberal causes: For example, according to Federal Election Commission records, Universal Music Group Nashville chairman/CEO Mike Dungan has contributed at least $12,300 to Democratic organizations and candidates between 2004 and 2017, and Big Machine Label Group president/CEO Scott Borchetta gave nearly $3,000 to Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. (Reps for both executives did not respond to requests for comment.) 

That said, local music-industry workers maintain that real change won’t happen until more executives voice their progressive views. “If one label head would talk, the floodgates would open,” says a longtime insider.

Few in Nashville’s music circles have piped up over the past two years, but when they have, the results have been telling. In 2017, weeks after the Route 91 shooting, the CMA Awards attempted to rein in political questions on the red carpet by imposing media restrictions. When met with resistance by local reporters and even awards host Brad Paisley on Twitter, it reversed the decision. And sources say Huckabee’s resignation from the CMA’s foundation board was prompted in part by artists who privately complained to the association. The loudest voice of opposition, however, came from talent manager Jason Owen, the openly gay owner of Sandbox Entertainment and co-president of Monument Records, who sent a letter of protest to the CMA that leaked to the media.

NRA Country, the organization’s link to country-music gun enthusiasts, ran into similar problems after the Route 91 shooting when the genre’s tradition of gun culture felt grossly out of step with nationwide calls for sensible firearm laws. Though NRA Country was previously supported by Florida Georgia Line and Luke Combs, artists began cutting ties in the wake of the Las Vegas massacre and the Parkland, Fla., high school shooting in February. This prompted a redesign of NRA Country’s website that carries no mention of country music acts. (The NRA did not respond to requests for comment.) 

Most recently, in the days following Shania Twain’s comment in April to U.K. newspaper The Guardian that were she not Canadian she would have voted for Donald Trump “because, even though he was offensive, he seemed honest,” the country superstar wound up apologizing on Twitter. Twain got a bit of the blowback that the Dixie Chicks had experienced in 2003, but this time it was opponents of the Republican president who vowed to never listen to her again.

These developments indicate that Nashville’s political climate is indeed changing, but the longtime industry insider notes there’s still one major obstacle when it comes to artists speaking their minds. “They’re scared of radio,” says the source.

Radio remains country’s top tastemaker, and the genre is dominated by the Cumulus and Cox broadcast groups with ownership and listener demographics that lean heavily conservative. (In 2014, for example, Cumulus gave tens of thousands of dollars to Ben Carson’s presidential campaign.)

In 2007, when the Dixie Chicks won five Grammy Awards, two for their unapologetic take on the Bush controversy, “Not Ready to Make Nice,” country radio still kept them off the airwaves despite Bush’s falling popularity. In an interview with the Associated Press at the time, KXNP-FM North Platte, Neb., program director Tony Lama predicted his listeners were “outraged” by the Grammy wins. “This is rural, conservative America,” he said.

Pitfalls also exist in the live sector, such as at the Rock the South country music festival in Cullman, Ala., which is sponsored in part by Vans Sporting Goods, a retailer of AR-15s. The title sponsor of the Bi-Mart Willamette Country Music Festival in Brownsville, Ore., also sells firearms (although it does support limited restrictions). Artists who publicly support gun reform could look hypocritical if they play festivals supported by firearms dealers.

It’s the kind of Catch-22 that makes some skeptical that Nashville will ever truly escape its conservative cage. Political strategist David “Mudcat” Saunders, known for his work to elect Virginia Democrats Gov. Mark Warner and Sen. Jim Webb, has tried for years to galvanize the city’s left-leaning members, but, he says, “Nashville embodies the soul of rural America.”

“I don’t fault artists for choosing to stay out of politics publicly. It can be career suicide,” says Abe Stoklasa, one of few Music Row songwriters who has been vocally anti-Trump.

For those who can’t resist, how best to express one’s liberal views in Nashville is also a quandary. Country singer-songwriter Charlie Worsham, who supports gun control, cautions against taking to Twitter, which he likens to “lobbing a hand -grenade and running," adding:  "It's hard enough to get a unified message into a three-minute song, and it's even harder to get that into a tweet. The system is not designed for us to speak out in a productive way."

Worsham says there's a lot more weight in personal actions and responsibility, such as stopping a fight in a crowd, correcting fans who use racial slurs, or putting time into a non-profit, as Worsham does with his Follow Your Heart scholarship fund. which supports students interested in pursing the arts.

There are also plenty of beneath-the-radar discussions taking place in Nashville, particularly about handling future situations like the Huckabee incident. "The community as a whole is talking, they might just not be talking publicly," says one publicist. "There is a lot of inner-industry communication and bonding in the wake of all of these optically mishandled situations." After all, it was an organic groundswell within the industry that led to Huckabee's resignation before his appointment took effect.

Time will reveal whether real change has come to Nashville. If it does, Worsham predicts it will be gradual. “Maybe it’s not a big op-ed,” he says. “Maybe it’s a thousand small gestures.”

This article originally appeared in the June 2 issue of Billboard.