Country and the City

It was getting close to curtain time on “Country’s Biggest Night,” as the Country Music Association Awards bills itself. But music writer-cum-political reporter Chris Willman still hadn’t taken his place among the 150 other journalists covering the event in the media center backstage at Madison Square Garden, where the CMA’s were being presented outside of Nashville for the first time in their 39-year history.

Willman, a Los Angeles-based staff writer for Entertainment Weekly and author of a timely new book, Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music (New Press, New York, 2005), missed having his picture taken and press credentials made up for the show. And although he had managed to talk his way past the police outside, the security guards and CMA functionaries just inside the Garden press entrance were not about to grant him access without credentials to the media center or ten-gallon dignitaries just up the escalators.

More than simply a show biz coup in which a booming but still largely regional industry was making a splash in the media capital of the world, the CMA’s Gotham sojourn had a political component as well. Mainstream country music has long been associated with conservative politics, and both the genre and the ideology have had a surge of popularity since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 whipped up the kind of patriotic passions and nostalgia for the good old days that can sell songs and mobilize voters.

Beyond being a media mecca, New York is also the cultural and political capital of Blue State America (not unrelated traits, to many Red Staters), so holding country music’s main event here, hyped with a weeklong “Country Takes NYC” celebration, was like planting a Confederate flag in a Union foxhole. Combined with last year’s Republican National Convention, it was like a Red-on-Blue one-two punch. Country’s platinum duo Brooks & Dunne embodied the link between the two events, hosting the CMA’s after having headlined the RNC.

Eventually, Willman finally did make it to the media center, after a polite but firm young woman from the CMA came downstairs and escorted him up. But even then he was told that, unlike scores of credentialed local reporters who couldn’t tell Charlie Rich from Charlie Pride, he would not be allowed back in if he left.

Ironically, it had been Willman’s unparalleled access to country’s biggest stars, highest-ranking executives, and other Nashville insiders that produced Rednecks & Bluenecks’ main attribute: direct interviews with stars on all points of the political spectrum. The book quotes the likes of Toby Keith and Kix Brooks’s partner Ronnie Dunn on the right, and Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks and Steve Earle on the left, talking at length and with unusual candor about their politics, their music and the relationship between the two.

“I dig being the flag-waving redneck,” Keith acknowledges in a chapter titled “Courtesy of the Red, White and Formerly Blue,” a play on the title of Keith’s post-Sept. 11 anthem, “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American),” which cheered on the bombardment of Afghanistan. (“Soon as we could see clearly/Through our big black eye/Man, we lit up your world/Like the Fourth of July.”)

Keith is equally frank—and quite correct in his interpretation of the First Amendment—when discussing the backlash against the Dixie Chicks after Maines told a London audience in March 2003 that the Texas trio were embarrassed to be from the same state as George W. Bush. “All that freedom of speech guarantees you is that your government won’t execute you for running your big mouth,” Keith tells Willman. “So when people say stuff and then it blows up on ‘em, and they go ‘Hey, this is America, I can say what I want to say,’ listen, nobody said you couldn’t say what you said. But they don’t say that there aren’t consequences or repercussions because people have their American right to dis you.”

In a chapter about a Nashville organization known as the Music Row Democrats, formed in late 2003, Willman gives equal time to veteran songwriter, producer and erstwhile Democratic political strategist Bobby Braddock: “I can’t see that it’s such a hard sell trying to convince Christians to follow the prince of peace, to convince Christians that it’s wrong to kill a bunch of innocent people in a war that those people did nothing to provoke,” says Braddock, an MRD cofounder whose writing credits include “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” one of country’s all-time greatest hits.

The events chronicled in Willman’s 273-page book took place during the years following the terror attacks of Sept. 11, 2001 up to Bush’s re-election in November 2004 – his popular majority the second time around could be viewed as indicative of the growing importance of country music, which had a robust 11.2-percent increase in album sales that year.

And while the book does provide some historical perspective, Willman ignores scholars like Aaron Fox, Barbara Ching, Diane Pecknold and others whose recent works have tried to place the language, themes, instrumentation and marketing of country music in literary, social, political and class contexts. Also absent are the voices of ordinary fans and amateur musicians, whose political views—or rhetoric, at least—may not have been shaped by commercial forces. The author himself acknowledged he had initially hoped the book would be more expansive, though his ambitions were curtailed by the desire to keep it timely.

Still, the book Willman did end up writing is nonetheless an invaluable resource if for no other reason than to document the reflections of some of Nashville’s biggest hit makers, who, whether they want to acknowledge it or not, do play a role in politics. Rednecks & Bluenecks is also a lively, informed read. The book contains in-depth accounts of some of country’s recent headline-grabbing events, including the Dixie Chicks backlash, the independent release of an anti-Bush song, “I’m Takin’ My Country Back,” and the controversy over Chely Wright’s support-the-troops hit, “Bumper of My SUV,” which Wright said she wrote after the Marine Corps sticker her brother had sent her drew the middle finger of a woman in a minivan driving her kids to private school in an upscale suburb.

In print and otherwise, the wry, soft-spoken Willman cannot conceal that his own politics are somewhere left of center—the initial idea for the book was to focus on country’s liberal wing. But he manages to avoid undercutting the book’s credibility and readability by suppressing any disdain toward all but the most extreme ideologues. When he does disapprove, it’s with a wit usually reserved for obvious disingenuousness or hypocrisy, not political beliefs.

Willman also serves up some tough advice to Democrats hoping to improve their results in 2008:

“At least one commentator said that to better understand the electorate, if not to pander to it, John Kerry should have spent less time listening to Eminem (who he claimed, not entirely credibly, as a favorite while on the election trail) and more listening to country,”; Whether his successors will be wise enough to listen in—to figure our how to better reach across the aisle, or to pick up pointers on which populist formulas could be appropriated to better whup the other side—remains to be seen.

Given the persistent Blue State coolness to country—the New York Metropolitan area, the largest consumer market in the nation, doesn’t demand a country radio station—odds are the Democrats won’t listen. That much was evident in the media center itself on CMA night.

Typically, reporters are a pretty boisterous, wisecracking bunch, especially when cooped up and made to wait between official sound bites, when the grumbling can be audible and intense. Yet there was barely a snide remark exchanged during the show’s lulls, and there was a palpable sense that the whole country thing was so foreign to many of the local reporters present that they literally didn’t know what to say. That or they were bored beyond words, which also seemed possible, given the show itself and the fact that so few people were actually watching the broadcast on the media center’s monitors. Likewise, except in a few cases, including Country Music Hall of Fame inductee Glen Campbell, few reporters asked questions when award winners and luminaries availed themselves on the media center’s small stage.

“The media crowd seems more subdued than it does at the Grammys,” noted David Hinckley, a critic-at-large for the New York Daily News, who was covering the CMA’s.

“And I think there are people who are probably here for a lot of different reasons. A lot of them are probably still doing the fish-out-of-water story. You know, its sort of the odd spectacle: a dolphin shows up in New York Harbor and frolics around for a week and everybody goes to see it. ‘That’s interesting. What’s it doing there?’ Whereas, at the Grammys, you know exactly what you’re there for, and everyone has an opinion on who’s going to win the Best Hard Rock category—more inside gossip, more informed.”

The media center set-up for the CMA’s was like those for other big awards shows: a room somewhere back stage with rows of tables and data ports facing several television monitors and a platform for post-award photo-ops and questions.

Strangely, the Fourth Estate didn’t get to see the commercials that accompanied CBS’s live broadcast of the show. The monitors would simply fade to black while the sound went down during the breaks. What was frustrating about that was, the commercials were probably the best indicators of just who the Country Music Association and CBS thought their audience was. It certainly wasn’t clear from the space between the commercial breaks, with mixed-genre onstage pairings of Elton John and Dolly Parton, Bon Jovi and the country rock act Sugarland, and LeAnn Rimes and James Gandolfini, the New York broadcast’s obligatory cartoon Mafia emissary.

(For the record, the big winners were Lee Ann Womack for both album and single of year; and Keith Urban, a native of Australia, where American country music is hugely popular, for male vocalist and entertainer of the year.)

When Kix Brooks and other country music officials announced in October 2004 that the show would be in New York, Republican Mayor Michael Bloomberg was right there with ‘em, donning a Stetson and warbling, “Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be mayors.” Bloomberg again took center stage during the show itself. “A great art form has found a welcoming home, here in America’s favorite town,” the mayor assured us, before introducing Garth Brooks, who came out of official retirement to give a live performance over the sound of honking taxi cabs from an outdoor stage in Times Square.

After two hours in the media center, I felt like hailing a cab myself. So I took my leave of the Garden, where tickets to the CMA’s cost $250, and headed to Hank’s Saloon in Brooklyn, a bar the corner of Atlantic and Third Avenues where flames are painted on the exterior walls, and they move the pool table at night to make room for live music. Hank’s, where Sean Kershaw and the New Jack Ramblers play rowdy sets every Sunday night, is part of a vibrant live New York country scene that includes dozens of bands and venues, mainly in Brooklyn and Manhattan.(www.brooklyncountry.com is one of the best sites for citywide listings and band links.)

Sean and another of Brooklyn’s country impresarios, Alex Battles, had been planning to host their own, anti-CMA’s at Hank’s, where they would watch the show on the bar T.V. with the sound turned down and shout rude things. Alex, who makes up a one-man operation known as the Whisky Rebellion, is a proud iconoclast who wouldn’t trade New York’s gritty, egalitarian brand of country for all the glitz in Nashville. And sure enough, there he was at the bar in his customary beat up straw hat, dirty jeans, and state of inebriation. After the show, he and picker Matt Wissler led exhilaratingly sloppy versions barroom standards, from Hank Williams’ “Your Cheatin’ Heart” to “Friends in Low Places” by Garth Brooks, who sold more than 100 million records before officially retiring.

As for Sean, he was conspicuously absent. He had been at a Country Takes NYC event at Gracie Mansion the night before and somehow wrangled another invitation uptown tonight, said Alex, rolling his eyes in mock disdain. “He’s at the CMA’s.”

Steve Strunsky is a writer based in Jersey City. He is also the lead singer of the Lonesome Prairie Dogs.

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