Jason Aldean's right-wing politics are ingrained in the DNA of country music
Many expressed shock in late September when country star Jason Aldean became embroiled in a political controversy. His wife, Brittany Aldean, posted pictures on Instagram of their children wearing pro-Trump and anti-Biden outfits including T-shirts that read "Hidin' from Biden."
When commenters lamented the children being used as political props, Jason Aldean jumped in. "We will teach our kids what we think is right and what we think is best for their future." He called those who believed that 2021 was going well "delusional!" The country star then demanded, "Please tell me one thing that the current administration has done that is positive? Just 1!!!"
The Aldean family has since doubled down, with Brittany Aldean and Jason's sister Kasi Rosa Wicks announcing on Nov. 8 that they would be selling a line of right-wing clothing for three days during the week of the CMA Awards, the genre's biggest award show, and in which Jason Aldean released his new album.
Aldean's public embrace of right-wing politics prompted journalist Marissa R. Moss to point out the irony that while some country stations have stopped playing outspoken, left-leaning women such as Kacey Musgraves and Mickey Guyton, and the industry infamously blacklisted the Chicks for negative comments about President George W. Bush in 2003, Aldean has faced few consequences.
Why the difference? Aldean's recent stances — including the nods to family, the burning sense of political grievance and adherence to a certain vision of a nation and a people under threat — are embedded into the very DNA of the country music industry.
Country music was actually political even before it was a bona fide genre. Figures such as Sen. Tom Watson, D-Ga., and brothers Bob and Alf Taylor, who both eventually served as governors of Tennessee, played old-time fiddle tunes to entertain crowds at their political rallies in the late 19th century.
As the genre emerged on phonographs, first as "old time" music and then as "hillbilly," its promoters often depicted it as a wholesome, family affair, populated by family bands such as the Carters and the Pickards who spun picturesque tales of mountain living in the 1920s.
During World War II, populist Texas Gov. Pappy O'Daniel brought together country's political streak and its embrace of family. He argued that GIs should take after his son Pat — a member of his campaign band — and bring along a banjo or guitar as means of avoiding base-side "booze dives."
This focus on familial wholesomeness hit a fevered pitch by the late 1950s after more than a decade of well-publicized congressional hearings on culture and morality, including organized crime, Communists in Hollywood and comic books. As the folk band the Weavers lost recording contracts after they came under scrutiny for alleged Communist ties, others doubled down on family values to ward off investigations.
Grand Ole Opry comedian Minnie Pearl reminded readers in a 1956 column that country music — rooted in pioneer families teaching their children to play "guitar, banjo, or bass fiddle" — complemented American institutions and culture. The genre spoke "of God and faith; it sings of courage and honor and fundamental decency."
And yet, a dispute between the two major royalty collection agencies, the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) and Broadcast Music, Inc. (BMI) propelled the industry into the spotlight in 1958. ASCAP recruited well-known consumerism critic Vance Packard to argue before a Senate subcommittee that the country music produced by BMI's "hillbilly" artists lowered standards because it was a "neglected lode of cheaply mined music."
Country's backers aggressively defended their genre during the hearings by trumpeting its cultural conservatism: faith and family, deep American roots and to some extent, perceived whiteness. Jimmie Davis, a country performer and former Louisiana governor, called Packard's remarks an "insult to millions of Americans who enjoyed folk music and who gained spiritual comfort from gospel music and songs of faith and inspiration." And Little Jimmy Dickens reminded how his songs reflected the struggles of families and "everyday, hard-working, God-fearing people."
These defenders conspicuously avoided two inconvenient realities — the burgeoning trade in jukebox hits that spoke frankly of cheating, divorce, alcoholism and abandoned families and the genre's deep connections to Black culture through West African instruments such as the banjo and a strong 19th-century fiddling and calling tradition among African American Southerners.
Instead, the message was clear: Country was a wholesome, white middle-class-friendly genre and stood for Americanness, family and God.
The hearings themselves ended somewhat anticlimactically with the subcommittee finding little evidence that BMI fostered a monopoly or manipulated the public's taste. Legislation seeking to rein in BMI fizzled later that year.
Yet the controversy had a long-lasting impact. It fueled a deep-seated defensiveness in the country music industry. Just months after the hearings, the Country Music Association, the genre's largest and longest-lived trade organization, emerged to promote the genre's labels and send delegates out to work with new broadcasters. The CMA also helped fight off rock-and-roll as it rose to threaten country's market share, "circling the wagons" against foes, as one observer later put it.
The CMA soon fostered ties with national politicians as well. Sen. Estes Kefauver (D-Tenn.), who was not part of the royalty hearings but had come to symbolize the age of congressional inquiry with his leading role in earlier hearings, was a natural ally. He had previously enlisted Grand Ole Opry members George Morgan, Billy Grammer and Hank Snow to perform at campaign stops. And by the early 1960s, he was the CMA's point man for copyright legislation and for ensuring passage of a national "Country Music Week" resolution each year in the Senate. Right before his death in 1963, Kefauver even urged President John F. Kennedy to mark the week with a presidential proclamation. That ambition had to wait until the 1970s, when Richard M. Nixon declared October Country Music Month.
Although politicians ranging from Nixon on the right to Sen. Glen Taylor, D-Idaho, a left-wing radio singing cowboy, used the genre to signal their connection to the common people, the industry apparatus developed a public posture whereby its stars avoided political positions to avoid alienating segments of its audience. Ernest Tubb, for instance, self-censored when he shared his misgivings about Nixon with fellow performers but not the press when that president visited the Opry. Producers coached others to sideline or delay potentially political releases, including Merle Haggard with his interracial love song "Irma Jackson."
But this was far from a uniform policy. When former CMA president and recording star Tex Ritter ran unsuccessfully in the Tennessee GOP primary for Senate in 1970, many fellow performers endorsed and performed for Ritter. Johnny Cash even served as his finance chairman.
Most problematically, the industry and fans conveniently turned a blind eye to performers politicking on behalf of forceful reactionary politicians or causes. Most famously, the Opry refused to condemn more than a dozen members — including Pearl, Snow and Grammer — who endorsed or performed in conjunction with the campaigns of ardent segregationist George C. Wallace. The king and queen of the genre, George Jones and Tammy Wynette, even hosted a fundraiser for Wallace, what the press called a "Wallace Woodstock," in the aftermath of his near assassination in 1972. Neither the CMA nor the record labels uttered a peep.
But that courtesy didn't always extend to performers who took positions on the other side of the spectrum — as the Chicks learned in 2003 when singer Natalie Maines noted her embarrassment over George W. Bush being a fellow Texan during the lead-up the to Iraq War. Radio conglomerate Cumulus Media banned the top-selling group and the members confronted protests and even the smashing of their CDs.
At its root, this divergence owed to the industry's history. Country has always had its left-leaning Willie Nelsons and its right-leaning Toby Keiths. Labels and the CMA, on other hand, have regularly opted to circle the wagons against foes, often with culturally conservative displays of faith, family and Americanness. Favoring the conservative side of the equation almost seemed a part of the industry's DNA.
Some have pondered whether the industry might be changing as it seeks to reshape its image in the wake of recent scandals surrounding sexual harassment, the deliberate suppression of women artists from radio airplay, the de-charting of gay Black artist Lil Nas X and the use of the n-word by white star Morgan Wallen, who was banned from attending the CMA Awards this year.
Doors however are already beginning to reopen for Wallen, so perhaps it isn't any wonder they never really shut for the more established Aldean. Perhaps Aldean is only embodying the industry's greatest historical fears and its most basic values?
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Peter La Chapelle is author of "I'd Fight the World: A Political History of Old-Time, Hillbilly, and Country Music" (University of Chicago Press 2019). He is professor of history at Nevada State College in Henderson, Nev.
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