by Chris Willman
New Press, November 17, 2005
This book is a fascinating look at the political makeup of the stars and establishment of country music. Working both forward and backward from the Dixie Chicks' scandal, Willman interviews a whole host of musicians, songwriters, and other country music types to get their takes on where the country music establishment falls on the political spectrum.
Unsurprisingly, most everyone agrees that the majority of mainstream country acts are conservative, while the majority of alt-country/Americana acts are liberal. What's interesting, though, are the nuances to these positions that the interviewees themselves articulate, as well as the ways they have found to put their political differences aside and work and play together, as shown in the cover photo of the very liberal Willie Nelson and the conservative (and, IMO, war-mongering and obnoxious) Toby Keith.
Some of the interviews are surprising, some are typical, some are just frightening. Willman's goal is to let the interviewees speak for themselves, with minimal editorializing, and he does that, although it's clear in his choice of who to talk to and what he quotes them as saying where his loyalties lie. Toby Keith is irritating. Uber-Christian Sara Evans both typical and grinding, as is Ricky Scaggs (who proves the exception to the alt-country rule as a bluegrass musician who is also very conservative). Ronnie Dunn is just plain frightening. To my mind, though, Steve Earle, Roseanne Cash, Nanci Griffith, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and especially Rodney Crowell (i.e. the liberals) come off in a much better light. Of course, that could just be because I agree with them. It isn't coincidental, however, that most of the people making sucky mainstream country are conservatives while the ones making music that is interesting and worth listening to are liberal. As someone (I think Alison Moorer) finally points out, a lot of "star" performers are just plain dumb.
For me, the book's highlight is one of the final chapters, when Willman takes on the political postions of Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. He points out that everyone from right to left claims both of these men as one of their own, but they aren't so easy to pin down. For a take on Cash's positions, he talks to daughter Roseanne Cash, former son-in-law Rodney Crowell, friends Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, etc. The picture that comes out is one of a man who considered his individual positions carefully, who never stopped caring about the "common man," and whose Christian faith did temper his politics. Kris Kristofferson related an anecdote of opening for Cash and riling up the conservative audience with a lot of his own liberal banter. When he went to apologize, Cash wouldn't hear it, saying that Kris had every right to his opinions. I admire that.
Being still alive, Haggard mostly spoke for himself, and was one of the more articulate and admirable folks interviewed. He admitted to being mercurial and having positions that changed over time, but basically came off as another man who thinks his positions out for himself and doesn't subscribe to a particular idealogy. As far as his voting record, I laughed outloud when Haggard pointed out that as an ex-con, he couldn't vote, so he never got used to doing it and never has. That puts a bit of a different spin on things, doesn't it?
All in all, this is definitely a book worth reading, particularly for a country music junkie. Having read it, I was forced to order a few new CDs from BMG, and I've been spinning the Dixie Chicks' Home in the car since the first chapter. Though not much in here is revolutionary, it's interesting to see it all pulled together, and Willman (a writer for Entertainment Weekly) does a good job with the material.