The increasingly liberal politics of country music
When Kid Rock hinted he was running for Senate while stumping for Republican hopeful John James in 2017, the media went crazy. While it’s far from the first time a musician has attempted a transition to the political sphere – rapper Waka Flocka Flame announced his candidacy for President in 2015 and pop artist Clay Aiken ran to represent North Carolina’s 2nd congressional district in 2014 to name just two others – it is one of the first times a country artist has done so.
Kid Rock has since backtracked, claiming his announcement was never anything more than a publicity stunt and issuing an apology to anyone who invested in the possibility. But the permeation of politics into country music has already begun, and is, fascinatingly enough, inextricably linked with the genre’s recent shift to what is commonly called “pop” or “stadium” country.
Country music is undeniably associated with rural America. Analyses of the relative popularity of country music in each state, calculated using YouTube data from Google trends and Spotify, show that Spotify’s country playlists are the most popular in the Dakotas, Montana, Iowa, and Kentucky (it’s worth noting that this particular study only looks at this data per capita, so the states that contain higher absolute populations of country listeners like Tennessee and Texas are slightly underrepresented). The same data shows that Tennessee, Arkansas, and Georgia produce the highest number of country artists per capita.
These are all traditionally conservative states. It comes as no surprise, then, that traditional country musicians have voiced homogenously conservative political opinions. Charlie Daniels, best known for his hit song The Devil Went Down to Georgia, has voiced his opposition to former President Obama multiple times. Hank Williams Jr. has turned several of his more famous songs into titles supporting Republican candidates (We Are Young Country became This Is Bush-Cheney Country and Family Tradition became McCain-Palin Tradition). Trace Adkins even went as far as to tell Newsmax in 2012 that he doesn’t “like the direction Democrats want to take this country.”
But times are changing. Where just a decade ago the Dixie Chicks were blacklisted after singer Natalie Maines offhandedly criticized President George W. Bush, we now see country icons like Tim McGraw being incredibly outspoken in support for social issues like same-sex marriage and gun control. Kacey Musgraves won the 2014 Country Music Association Award for Song of the Year for her song Follow Your Arrow, despite its positive references to pot and alternative lifestyles. Maren Morris, Brothers Osborne, Kip Moore, and Keith Urban are also among the artists who have put their liberal beliefs on display. Even prolific country legend Toby Keith, who many assume is conservative, has recently come forward with more liberal beliefs. While he doesn’t feel at home in the Democratic Party because of his staunch support for our troops, he has publicly stated his disdain for American conservatives as well (Keith is a registered Independent).
Almost more striking than the transition in artist stances is the shift in the politics of top Nashville executives. Federal Election Commission records show that Universal Music Group 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.
Enjoying country music is still wrongly scorned by coastal elites (read my piece on that here), but it won’t stay that way for long. As country blends with pop tradition and melody, the artists we listen to are diversifying their political stances to appeal to more than the traditional rural fan base. Nashville is sliding left, and that phenomenon’s potential impact on rural America is immense.