Is Country Music Inherently Conservative?

Culture Watch

At its annual awards show last week, the Country Music Association honored the 2007 inductees into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Considering the association's track record of focusing on album sales and downplaying the genre's frequent political controversies, it perhaps came as no surprise that the CMA's anonymous industry-dominated selection committee this year honored largely apolitical performers Mel Tillis and Vince Gill and broadcaster Ralph Emery. And yet, prominent figures in American music tradition such as left-leaning balladeer Woody Guthrie, author of"Oklahoma Hills" and"This Land is Your Land," remain untapped.

Here Peter La Chapelle, Assistant Professor in the History Program at Nevada State College and author of Proud to Be an Okie: Cultural Politics, Country Music, and Migration to Southern California, analyzes the historical connections between country music and left-wing and right-wing politics.

The notion that country music is, and has always been, politically conservative seems so ingrained in our culture that it passes not just for cliché, but as a truism beyond reproach.

Take for instance the media commentary that followed Dixie Chicks frontwoman Natalie Maines's well-publicized criticisms of President George W. Bush back in 2003.

In the Associated Press's coverage of the controversy, one leading country radio programmer wondered whether Maines had considered the political demographics of her audience, saying that country is “more on the right than on the left and it’s always been that way.”

Even CMT.com editorial director Chet Flippo, a fine writer of country music histories and biographies, found himself buying into the country-is-conservative maxim, criticizing the Dixie Chicks for their comments because they should have understood that country fans “are largely conservative and patriotic—as is well known.”

Flippo may have the patriotism part correct, but his understanding of the historical connections between country music and politics is only partly intact.

True, some of the earliest promoters of country music were from the farthest reaches of the Right, the Ku Klux Klan and car maker Henry Ford who both sponsored old-time fiddling contests, which, for Ford, at least, became a way of counteracting what he believed to be the corrupting black and Jewish influences of jazz.  And yes, there was Nashville patrician and perennial Republican gubernatorial candidate Roy Acuff who lampooned FDR's Social Security plan in his 1939 recording "Old Age Pension."

But much of the genre's history has been connected with politicians and political causes of a liberal or left-of-center nature or, perhaps even more often, with a woolly, anti-elitist, populist politics that eschewed categorization but certainly did not align itself with patricians of any stripe.

This is especially true of the musician activists and musicians-turned-politicians of the 1930s and 1940s.

Though he later threw his lot in with the economically-conservative wing of the Texas Democratic Party, country music's first governor, W. Lee "Pappy" O'Daniel, a former announcer for radio's country-jazz outfit the Light Crust Doughboys, initially ran as an outsider on a populist platform that included old age pensions and an end to the death penalty. O'Daniel punctuated campaign stops with performances of his own band, the Hillbilly Boys.

Similarly complicated was radio hillbilly pioneer Fiddlin’ John Carson, a figure linked philosophically by historians to the Populist Party, especially its economic collectivism but also the segregationist leanings that later cropped among former party members such as Tom Watson.  In the 1930s, Carson, however, championed the liberal Franklin Delano Roosevelt, lauding his efforts for farmers in "Hurrah for Roosevelt."

Perhaps more squarely in the New Deal-liberal camp was Milton Brown and his Musical Brownies, a seminal Texas hillbilly-jazz band that recorded “Fall in Line with the N.R.A," a celebratory ode to FDR and his National Recovery Administration.

Often lost in this discussion too is Woody Guthrie, perhaps the most prominent of American protest singers.  Guthrie--known for his pro-organized labor, anti-segregation, and pro-working man ballads, for his patriotic standard "This Land is Your Land," and for his influence on 1960s folk artists and folk rockers such as Phil Ochs and Bob Dylan--actually started out as a commercial country music artist on Los Angeles radio station KFVD.

While performing on KFVD, Guthrie not only emulated the music and mannerisms of national country radio stars Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family, but even performed advertisements for grocery stores and car lots. Though some might want to peg Guthrie as a "folk singer" by noting that he later turned against the commercialization of music, any distinction between "folk" and "country" would have been artificial in Guthrie's KFVD days when industry and the trade journals used the two terms interchangeably and when Guthrie had no problem broadcasting endorsements.

Guthrie began to take a public stance on political issues after noticing how O'Daniel's successes had prompted other hillbilly musicians to run for office in the hopes of getting elected "on one good greasy string."  Guthrie's first forays involved promoting a state "Ham and Eggs" pension plan measure and supporting center-left New Dealer Culbert L. Olson's bid for governor of California in 1938. By the time he left Los Angeles in 1939, Guthrie advocated "Production for Use," a plan in which idle factories would be seized by the state and returned to production as a means of reducing unemployment.

A committed political activist, Guthrie ultimately bequeathed commercial country music such standards as “Oklahoma Hills,” popularized by his cousin Jack Guthrie in the 1940s and reaching number seven on the charts for honky-tonker Hank Thompson in 1961, and “Philadelphia Lawyer (Reno Blues),” fodder for a popular early Rose Maddox cover as well as a recent duet by Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson in line with the pair’s series of bandit odes.

But recognition of Guthrie as a country artist has been slow. Though Marty Stuart raised the issue of Guthrie's induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame at a 2003 tribute to the singer-songwriter in Nashville, he remains untapped.

Country music's gender politics have similarly resisted being a singular domain of conservatism, even amid the restrictive 1950s. The country music subculture of Los Angeles, a dynamic spawning ground in the postwar era, not only produced Jean Shepard who sang about how "women ought to rule the world" in a 1953 recording, but also Carolina Cotton who was noted in the trade press for being a honorary sheriff, a rodeo queen, an "expert at wrestling and judo," and "a crack shot with a .45 or rifle."

Forgotten too is the left-of-center Southern California country-rock scene of the 1960s that I survey in the final chapter of my book,  Proud to Be an Okie, as well as the larger Southern California folk-rock milieu that Domenic Priore discusses in his recent book, Riot on Sunset Strip.  Gram Parsons and Chris Hillman, members of the 1968 incarnation of the Byrds who would break away to form the straight-country band the Flying Burrito Brothers, borrowed motifs from country songwriting tradition such as a  general suspicion of official authority and the genre's traditional "aunt" and "uncle" terminology to sing out against the Vietnam War.  Drawing from bluegrass and the Bakersfield steel guitar sound, Parsons and Hillman also sought to reconcile the countercultural hippie heroes of their lyrics with the hillbillies, drifters, working poor, and other outsiders who have always had a place in country song.

Perhaps the national amnesia about country's liberal, populist, and leftwing roots will fade as artists as varied in politics and style as Merle Haggard, Iris DeMent, Willie Nelson, the Old Crow Medicine Show, Butch Hancock, I See Hawks in L.A., Bobby Braddock, Tom Snider, Nanci Griffith, Steve Earle, and Allison Moorer sing out against the Iraq War, or other more mainstream artists such as Tim McGraw and Tracy Lawrence bemoan its consequences. 

But when will the genre's dominant institution, the Country Music Hall of Fame, begin to acknowledge the genre's historical political diversity?

Fan Will Harnack has launched a website to get the Burritos' Parsons, a central influence on the multi-platinum Eagles, inducted into the Hall of Fame.

But perhaps the larger tragedy is that someone as central to American music history, politics, and the genre as Woody Guthrie still has not been inducted.

Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame found room in its house to induct Guthrie, who remains an inspiration to outspoken country and rock performers across the political spectrum, back in 1988.

Perhaps it is time for the Country Music Hall of Fame to reconsider.


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Michael T. Bertrand - 11/15/2007

I just wanted to say that we at H-Southern-Music (www.h-net.org/~smusic/) have enjoyed reading the Peter La Chapelle piece and the responses it has generated. The essay has sparked a lively discussion on our list. The consensus seems to be that historically country music has reflected a variety of political positions. Please feel free to visit our site (www.h-net.org/~smusic/ and contribute to the discussion.

As for contributing to this dialogue, could it be possible that the (negative) perceptions of country music held in the national mainstream -- and I am interpreting “inherently conservative” as shorthand for insular, intolerant, and incorrigible -- are related to the belief that the largest consumers of the music are working-class white southerners? Just a thought. Or am I simply being paranoid?

michael t. bertrand
moderator, h-southern-music

David Lion Salmanson - 11/14/2007

Che Guevara? What label is he on? But seriously. I love Buck Owens. And Loretta Lynn, Hank Sr., Patsy, etc. etc.. I do own Gene Autry and Roy Rogers compilations. I do pretty good on the Bluegrass front too. The point isn't that Guthrie's politics is influential, it's that his musical style was influential - to different people in different ways. So if you listen to Guthrie, and then Buck Owens and the Beach Boys, and then Dwight Yoakam, you here a lot of continuity. I'm not a big Guthrie fan when it comes to his singing, but that style of nasalized delivery was within the of what country was in the 30s into the 50s. Incidentally, I don't own any Woody Guthrie. I do have the Guthrie/Leadbelly tribute album that came out on Folkways a decade or so ago. Willie Nelson does a great "Philadelphia Lawyer".

Vernon Clayson - 11/14/2007

Oddly, Mr. Salmanson, I have old phonograph records from the 20s, 30s and 40s, even the 50s, that my mother collected. I took over since then. She was well-rounded in her collection as there are records by Souza, Caruso, Jolson, and the early CW musicians, did you ever hear of Vernon Delhart or Carson Robinson, yep, got some. Jimmie Rodgers also, Gene Autry, even Elvis. I don't believe she considered their politics, who had time for such trivial drivel in those days, people were too busy scrabbling for a living, music was an outlet for the little leisure time they had. I don't think that the banjo picking style on a guitar would have appealed to her as it did to the rather well-to-do rebels of the 60s who seemed to believe their struggles equated to the struggles Guthrie wailed about and only marginally endured. And I bet you admire Che Guverra.

David Lion Salmanson - 11/13/2007

And the Carter family sounds good to you, Vernon? Regardless of what you think of his voice, his use of Banjo fingering on guitar led to both Buck Owens and the Beach Boys in a fairly straight line.

But back to the main point of the article. Country music's audience has never been easily classifiable despite radio programmers and record labels attempts to do otherwise. How conservative was Loretta Lynn's The Pill? Or Buck Owens covering Johnny B. Goode as his first single after pledging only to sing country music? You don't need to go to the 30s to find progressive elements in country or its audience. Farm Aid anyone?

Vernon Clayson - 11/13/2007

To call Guthrie a country singer wouldn't it be necessary that he be an actual singer? It's a stretch to call his nasal bleat singing as his range seems to be a minor octave delivered slighly off key and accompanied by a slightly out of tune guitar. He was a Grandma Moses in music, interesting in its own crude style but hardly good music. If people want him in a museum, build a folk art and music museum, one displaying childlike paintings by the elderly and dreary music by the tone deaf.

vaughn davis bornet - 11/12/2007

I wonder if it is an imposition to ask the author to comment on the historical authenticity of the Guthrie movie, or make any other comments of interest. I just saw it on cable and am curious. Apparently the lead who played Guthrie was much praised at the time.

Vaughn Davis Bornet

Tim Lacy - 11/12/2007

Great piece. It's quite timely for me. Last week I reflected on Porter Wagoner's death and RFD-TV at my weblog: http://history-and-education.blogspot.com/2007/11/entertaining-country-thoughts-on-rfd-tv.html.

I didn't realize this at the time, but now that I look at the end of my piece, it's clear that politics were in the back of my mind. - TL

Jim F Baldwin - 11/12/2007

Where should Melanie be honored? The rock and roll hall of fame hasn't inducted her for whatever reason. Melanie fans are working hard to get the halls attention. http://LetHerIn.org

Melanie now lives and records in Nashvile. Some think she is country. I guess she could be considered country in a way. She has recorded many songs with a country twist. As for politics, Melanie is Libertarian. Would that be considered by Country Music hall of fame as acceptable? Libertarianism is fast taking root in the south. Consertive or liberal? Country and rock swings both ways.
Thanks for the read.
I enjoyed it,
Jim Baldwin
Spokane Washington