For decades, country music has been a place where artists and industry pros have kept any progressive political or social views to themselves, ever careful not to anger the genre’s traditionally conservative fans.
As Dolly Parton put it in a recent interview on ABC’s Nightline: She “learned a long time ago, keep your damn mouth shut if you want to stay in show business.”
But suddenly, country music is not keeping its mouth shut.
Recent months have seen major artists and industry leaders speak out about LGBT rights and race issues, gun control and sexual harassment in the industry.
And they appear to be gaining some measure of traction, as evidenced when the selection of former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee to the Country Music Association Foundation board brought a backlash from some in the industry who decried his stances on LGBT and gun issues. Huckabee immediately resigned.
“A lot of people are like, ‘Stay out of politics,’“ said T.J. Osborne of the rising country rockers Brothers Osborne. “I don’t care if you agree with me or not or I agree with you or not, we should all be involved in politics because it affects every single one of us. That’s the beautiful thing in this country; we have the ability to have individual opinions and voice them. We want to take advantage of that.”
The list of artists who’ve taken to social media or otherwise espoused potentially controversial views includes many big names. Faith Hill and Tim McGraw, Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood, Brothers Osborne, Cam, Jennifer Nettles, Kacey Musgraves, Meghan Linsey and Katie Armiger have all waded, by varying degrees, into social commentary on polarizing current events.
Though hundreds of miles from Music Row, the Oct. 1 massacre at the Route 91 Harvest country festival in Las Vegas shook Nashville’s music industry as perhaps no other event since the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
In the aftermath of the mass shooting, country power couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill were among those who called for “common sense” gun laws.
“I don’t find it our responsibility to talk politics at all,” Hill said. “But when you’re a parent, it is our responsibility as human beings to try and make the best choices for the future of our children because they will be the ones who have to deal with the choices we make.”
Added McGraw: “Let’s educate one another and figure out a way, because this is wrong.”
A month later, the CMA took heat from the media after asking reporters to avoid questions about the Las Vegas shooting, gun rights or political affiliations on its annual awards show red carpet, or risk losing their credentials and being escorted by security off the premises.
None other than the show’s co-host, Paisley, pushed back, calling the restrictions “ridiculous and unfair.” They were quickly rescinded.
During the show, Paisley and co-host Underwood let loose on President Donald Trump with a parody of Underwood’s hit “Before He Cheats,” titled “Before He Tweets,” that lampooned the commander in chief’s penchant for social media.
“And it’s fun to watch, yeah, that’s for sure, ‘til little Rocket Man starts a nuclear war, and then maybe next time he’ll think before he tweets,” the song went.
The Valentine’s Day mass shooting at Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School brought more calls for action from a host of singers, including Cam, Brothers Osborne and Nettles.
“I wonder how long it will take our government to do anything at all,” Nettles tweeted. “I wonder how loudly the voices of every mother in the country can scream ‘til they do.”
Nettles believes that expectation combined with the proliferation of social media are among the reasons more artists are speaking out.
“I am very interested in being a bridge and inviting conversation,” Nettles said. “That is the only way any of this is going to get resolved. The interesting thing about this country and the way it is set up is that for anything to happen, we have to work together. People need help processing emotion, and that’s what art does.”
Speaking out, however, comes with risk.
Maren Morris, one of country’s fastest-rising stars, also spoke out after the Florida shooting, describing as “an inspiration” Emma Gonzalez, the Stoneman Douglas senior who emerged as one of the leaders in a national student-led push to combat gun violence.
Commenters on her Instagram post accused her of being a “snow flake” and suggested Morris was “going the way of the Dixie Chicks.”
Indeed, getting “Dixie Chicked” has become a verb in the country music lexicon in the years since the multiplatinum-selling country trio by that name spoke out against President George W. Bush’s decision to invade Iraq. Consequences were swift and lasting. Country music’s conservative fan base revolted. Radio stations stopped playing their songs and they were thrust into exile.
The episode had a lasting effect on the industry.
Former country singer and The Voice runner-up Meghan Linsey said, as she set out to begin a career in music, she was sent to media training before the recording studio.
A decade later, she remembers the first thing she was told was “not to say anything about anything controversial.”
Yet, in a show of unity with then-NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s protest against police discrimination, Linsey took a knee after singing the national anthem at Nashville’s Nissan Stadium before a Tennessee Titans game. Now 32, the singer said she knelt because she wanted to be an ally to people who didn’t look like her. The gesture earned her death threats.
“I feel like I did the right thing,” she told The Tennessean later that month. “I don’t have any regrets.”
In early 2018, Linsey was back in the news cycle when she and country singer Katie Armiger spoke with Rolling Stone about sexual harassment in country radio — a conversation Taylor Swift championed in August when she won a lawsuit against a country radio personality for groping her.
On the issue of career risk associated within speaking out, Brothers Osborne, Linsey and Nettles see eye to eye: They’re not worried. Linsey said that many of the people who initially attacked her for her views on social media eventually apologized and they were able to have a dialogue. John Osborne of Brothers Osborne pointed out that he and brother T.J. came from nothing and they aren’t afraid to go back to nothing.
“The last thing you want to be as an artist is a sellout,” T.J. Osborne said. “Speaking up, for any artist, is more selfless than selfish. We only have something to lose by doing it. We’re simply trying to speak up for the people in this demographic who don’t have a voice.”
To be sure, many country artists are still hesitant to share their views publicly. Nettles hopes that will change. She believes those who live in fear of permanently alienating their fan base aren’t giving country listeners enough credit.
“Don’t be afraid of the fans because of what we learned from the Dixie Chick syndrome,” she said. “Trust that if (you) provide and offer an invitation to (your) fans to engage in intelligent and respectful conversation that they can do it.”
An AP member exchange.