There’s a great piece in RS Country at the moment about mainstream country music’s deafening silence since the events in Charlottesville a couple of weeks back which has echoes of a piece they wrote earlier in the year about its silence on Trump. Winona Dimeo-Ediger writes: “On August 12th, a group of white nationalists carrying torches marched in the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting, “Jews will not replace us” and “white lives matter.” They did not feel the need to obscure their faces. One of these men drove his car into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing an activist named Heather Heyer and injuring many more. President Trump, in a nationally televised press conference, insisted that the neo-Nazis and white supremacist groups included some “very fine people.” Vigils and counter-protests cropped up across the country, and the story has dominated conversations in real life and online.
And yet, if you scrolled through the social media accounts of some of the biggest names in country music, you’d have no idea that it wasn’t just another week in Nashville. Outside of a handful of outspoken young performers, many country stars were sharing pictures from their weekend tour stops or promoting their appearances in the CMA Music Fest ABC television special.
We are, by all measures and accounts, at a pivotal moment in the complex and bloody history of race relations and white supremacy in America – a boiling point that will leave our country scalded if not handled with courage and care. There are not, as the president insisted, “many sides” to the events that occurred in Charlottesville. There are Nazis, and there is everyone else.
So why is it so hard for artists in country music – a genre with a rich history of giving a voice to the downtrodden – to share a few words of sympathy and solidarity; to offer, at the very least, an acknowledgement of the violent, uncertain, increasingly turbulent state of the nation? A simple “Hey y’all, white supremacy is bad” – far less than 140 characters – would suffice.
But country stars still seemingly live in fear of getting “Dixie Chicked.” It has been over a decade since Chicks singer Natalie Maines’ onstage comment about being “ashamed” by George W. Bush got the band blacklisted from country radio, but the specter of bonfires fueled by disowned copies of Wide Open Spaces remains a a constant reminder of what’s at stake if you step out of line. Or speak up.
Last year, the Dixie Chicks embarked on a sold-out world tour, but the abrupt end to their radio days still clearly informs who speaks out about politics in the country landscape, and how. It’s not a coincidence that many of the country artists who have been vocal about Charlottesville are building careers that aren’t completely centered around country radio airplay. Will Hoge wrote a powerful statement on Facebook challenging his fans to “jump off the Trump train” and “walk boldly and proudly onto the right side of history.” Brothers Osborne tweeted that “wearing Nazi regaliais the most un-American thing you could do.” Kacey Musgraves shared a video of the deadly attack and clapped back at fans who claimed her attitude made her sound like (gasp!) a pop star. Even foulmouthed country character Wheeler Walker Jr. has been tweeting up an anti-Nazi storm.
With his single “More Girls Like You” heading toward the country Top 10 and a new album due September 8th, Kip Moore didn’t shy away from confronting racism directly, posting the following message on Twitter the day after the Charlottesville protests turned deadly: “If your parents taught u 2 hate people of color they’re idiots. If you’re an adult & still spewing their hate, that makes u a bigger idiot.”
He followed it up with a much longer post on Instagram, describing growing up in southern Georgia, and being “100% aware of what racism looks like, sounds like, and what it feels like (when you hear it out of another’s mouth).” He urged his followers “to stand up to your friends when you hear them or see them doing racist shit. It starts with each one of us individually if we wanna change what this world looks like.”
All of the country artists who have spoken out against racism deserve credit, but the list of performers who haven’t is telling. Brad Paisley, who took a bold if poorly executed step toward addressing white privilege with 2013’s “Accidental Racist,” and Carrie Underwood, who has publicly expressed support for such controversial social issues as gay marriage, have thus far remained silent. As have Luke Bryan, Keith Urban, Chris Stapleton, Miranda Lambert, Kenny Chesney, Dierks Bentley and Sam Hunt. While these A-listers ostensibly have more to lose by taking a stand, they also have the most influence to effect change and be powerful examples for their fans.
In April, Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s Soul2Soul Tour stopped in Portland, Oregon, just a few hours after a known white supremacist spouting anti-Muslim hate speech threatened two women of color on a light rail train and then slit the throats of three men who stepped up to help, killing two of them. News of the attack had just begun to spread, and the city was in shock. Toward the end of the show, McGraw gave an emotional performance of his imploring “Humble and Kind,” supported by images from the song’s diverse, multicultural music video. The crowd sang along to every single word, not skipping a beat when the smiling faces of a Muslim woman wearing a hijab and a Sikh man in a turban appeared on screen.
It wasn’t a bold political statement, but at that moment, in front of that crowd, it felt like one.
McGraw and Hill have been quick and vocal about condemning the neo-Nazi actions in Charlottesville. McGraw dedicated multiple Instagram posts blasting “the violent white supremacist attack on freedom and respect.” After President Trump’s unhinged Trump Tower press conference, he shared a quote from Abraham Lincoln, the implications of which were clear: “Nearly all men can stand adversity, but if you want to test a man’s character, give him power.”
Without even mentioning Trump’s name, McGraw’s posts stirred up a hornet’s nest in the comments section. While plenty of fans voiced support and gratitude for McGraw’s message, others were quick to assert that Heather Heyer’s death was “entirely her own fault,” that McGraw was disrespecting his own race, that Black Lives Matter is the real racist group and, of course, that he should “shut up and sing.”
It’s easy to say that country singers don’t bear any political responsibility, that their job is only to entertain us with fun songs that take our minds off current events. But there are very serious consequences to the genre’s post-Dixie Chicks policy of isolationism. When the issue is as cut and dry as racism and bigotry, artists shouldn’t refrain from getting “political” for fear of losing some close-minded fans – fans they’d be better off without.
Politics, privilege and race relations are complicated issues, but denouncing racism, white supremacy and fascism is very easy. This is not about conservatives vs. liberals, or North vs. South. This is about taking a stand for what’s right at a critical moment. Now more than ever, silence equals complicity.
Woody Guthrie’s guitar famously bore the words, “This machine kills fascists.”
In 2017, the country music machine shouldn’t coddle them.”