Country Artists Fight Back Against Rising Tide Of Bullies

Brian Jamie
Kane Brown

When Capitol Nashville released Carrie Underwood's "Love Wins," the song provided background music for a Disney #ChooseKindness PSA designed to provide a counter balance to bullying.  

The message is just one piece in a landscape with an increasing number of anti-bullying stances in the country genre. Kane Brown -- whose sophomore album, Experiment, is due Nov. 9 -- laid out bullying tactics he encountered as a kid in "Learning," a powerful track on his self-titled debut. Kelsea Ballerini's new single, "Miss Me More," heralds her own personal rebound from an emotionally abusive boyfriend, and three emerging young acts -- Jessie Chris, 21; Dylan Brady, 20; and Sahara Rain, 15 -- all have incorporated anti-bullying platforms into their public efforts.

The topic is timely. The agenda and behaviors of President Donald Trump -- whose public actions have included mocking a disabled person, dismissing female reporters and scapegoating immigrants and minorities -- will figure into the narrative during this week's midterm elections on Nov. 6. First lady Melania Trump's #BeBest campaign calls attention to cyber-bullying. And the rash of recent mass shootings led to studies indicating that bullying victims are twice as likely to carry firearms to schools as their classmates.

"Not many people really understand," says Rain, a Florida native whose anti - bullying song "Sticks and Stones" was produced by A-list guitarist Biff Watson (Chris Young, George Strait). "Even teachers that I know and I love don't understand completely how bullying has changed and gone from verbal and physical bullying like when my dad was a kid. Now it's so much more than that. Bullies have an advantage. They can go online, completely anonymous, and just ruin somebody's life. I think it needs to be talked about more than it is."

Brady and Chris are in full agreement. With that in mind, they both have visited schools to perform and speak. They share their own bullying stories and chat one-on-one with kids as a result. Key in their presentations is assuring those students who are being abused now that better days are ahead. The mere fact that the artists can climb onstage is an example of that kind of resilience.

"Because of the bullying I went through, I suffer from anxiety and depression and horrible stage fright," says Chris, who has addressed roughly 70 schools in 2018 and hopes to make 100 by year's end. "I couldn't speak in front of people, let alone sing in front of people anymore, so I've come a long way from that point. But it was bad. It really tore me apart."

Musicians are often targets. Vulnerability is at the heart of any creative endeavor, and because the value of art is subjective, a bully can demean someone's work and never believe their assessment is wrong.

Brady's situation was exacerbated by Tourette's syndrome, a neurological disorder that expresses itself in physical tics or, for some patients, uncontrollable verbal outbursts. He was bullied over being a musician -- not for his condition -- but Tourette's contributed to the inferiority issues that the bullying triggered.

"The five things that make it heightened are anxiety, fatigue, illness, excitement and nerves," says Brady, whose upcoming EP is being produced by Rascal Flatts guitarist Joe Don Rooney. "Every day, I was nervous and anxious going to school, and so I would be ticking more, so something I'd deal with every day was the pain of my tics."

Bullying, according to StopBullying.gov, is the repeated abuse of power to intimidate or demean the weaker person in a relationship, and it can be expressed in numerous ways. It has a rich history in country music, woven into such songs as Dolly Parton's schoolyard tale "Coat of Many Colors," Johnny Paycheck's workplace fantasy "Take This Job and Shove It" and Martina McBride's interpersonal dramas "Independence Day," "Concrete Angel" and "A Broken Wing." One could argue that the volume of songs about country pride is a direct response to artists feeling that mainstream media has dismissed the genre for decades.

Brown's "Learning," in which he documents being beaten by a stepfather and ridiculed by classmates for his biracial heritage, is a powerful modern example. And he suggests that treatment is part of what has made him a bit mysterious as an adult. He can be guarded in interviews, he says, as "a protection thing."

The nature of most journalism requires reporters to drop in for short bits of time with a subject, and that works against the kind of relationship Brown needs to overcome his childhood programming.

"If you do get to know me, I'll tell everything to you, like my whole life," he says. "I don't want to tell that to the wrong people."

Domestic violence and domineering romantic relationships are subsets of bullying. Ballerini's new single, "Miss Me More," details her personal resurrection from a relationship with an ex-boyfriend who insisted on controlling her appearance and her friendships, and it has made her a role model for fans who have been known to confide in her about their own relationship stories at meet-and-greets.

"I definitely have had a lot of young girls -- or a lot of girls my age and a lot of older girls, too -- just like with ‘Peter Pan,' come to me and be like, ‘Oh, I've dated a Peter Pan' or ‘I've been in that relationship where I kind of lost myself,' " she says. "It's a common thing."

That bullying issue is part of what's at the heart of the election on Nov. 6. The slaughter of Jews in a Pittsburgh congregation; the Nazi march in Charlottesville, Va.; and the alleged abuse at the center of the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court controversy are all examples of bullying behaviors that have become more prevalent in public discourse. Voters will be making a statement, at least in part, on that topic.

"It's not OK for anybody to be mean to anyone, and it goes for any celebrity across the board," says Chris, who will be recording a duet with New Kids on the Block's Danny Wood on Nov. 7. "Kids are watching, and there's so much junk on the internet and TV that kids are learning from. We need more artists and politicians in the world who are good role models to the kids who are watching their every move."

Bullying behaviors inspired Underwood to write "Love Wins." And the inspirational phrases she voiced in the Disney #ChooseKindness campaign  underscore the values behind country's heightened awareness of bullies.

"There's so much negativity out there," she says. "There's a million different ways you can be mean, and we just need to build each other up and be more tolerant and more kind and think about other people's feelings."


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