Image Source: Wikimedia
Country music fans can be a fickle bunch, especially when politics are concerned. Over the years, some outspoken country stars have been encouraged to “shut up and sing,” while the political opinions of other musicians are respected and/or overlooked. And then there’s Willie Nelson, whose activism is as much a part of his life as singing and songwriting.
Along with Neil Young and John Mellencamp, Nelson helped organize the first Farm Aid concert in 1985. Since then, Farm Aid has raised more than $57 million for farming families across the U.S. But for Nelson, who turned 87 in April 2020, Farm Aid is just the beginning when it comes to activism.
He’s also a leader in the national fight to legalize marijuana, advocates for the use of biofuels, and helps organize political rallies to support his favorite presidential candidates, typically Democrats. He even sings about his favorite causes, notably in “My Medicine,” a pro-marijuana collaboration with the rapper Snoop Dogg.
Over the years, Nelson has garnered his fair share of controversy while also enjoying a positive relationship with activism. When he headlined a 2018 fundraising concert for then-candidate Beto O’Rourke, fans took to social media to criticize the country superstar for his liberal leanings. For his part, Nelson responded with “I don’t care.”
Others can attest, there’s a real possibility of backlash from enraged country music fans when artists bring politics into the spotlight. Thus, it’s easy to see why Nelson’s peers don’t always join him in the political arena.
Country Music: The Backbone of America
In recent years, there has been plenty of discussions surrounding politics in country music — specifically, that it’s no longer an integral part of the genre. Nelson, of course, enjoys superstar status thanks in part to his rebelliousness in everything from his singing style to personal principles. He’s not afraid to create music that makes a difference in the world, and he’s not alone among country superstars.
Politics and personal principles also defined much of the songwriting of Johnny Cash, a frequent collaborator with Nelson. Cash was never afraid to sing about what was close to him, from his wife June to his faith in God to his distaste for injustice. In fact, one of his most political songs, “Ragged Old Flag,” was written in response to the resignation of President Nixon.
If Cash is any indication, modern country music was built on politics and activism. Yet when a musician sings about an important cause, they face the possibility of a career nosedive stemming from fan backlash. Just ask the Dixie Chicks.
Female Activists in Country Music
Unfortunately, a singer’s gender seems to make a real difference when it comes to how activism is perceived in country music. Few know this better than Natalie Maines, lead singer of the Dixie Chicks. In 2003, Maines famously told concert goers in London that, “we’re ashamed that the president of the United States is from Texas.”
Her words were spoken less than two years after 9/11, and they ignited a firestorm of hate against the Dixie Chicks, culminating in death threats against Maines and her bandmates Martie Maguire and Emily Robison. The Dixie Chicks lost their superstar status virtually overnight.
While they had a successful comeback attempt upon the 2006 release of the Grammy-winning “Taking the Long Way,” the Dixie Chicks never fully recovered. “Taking the Long Way” was itself a response to the controversy and backlash of their earlier statement, but its favorable critical response didn’t bring every fan back.
In speaking out in an activist capacity, the trio follows in the footsteps of their contemporary, Loretta Lynn, who released her controversial single “The Pill” in 1975. At the time, women’s reproductive rights was a highly contested issue, and the pros and cons of birth control weren’t often discussed. Until Lynn’s tune, birth control certainly wasn’t mentioned in the realm of country music.
Activism and Misinformation
In the modern era of music and media, everything you could possibly want is accessible at the touch of a few buttons. While that gives music fans an almost infinite number of options, it also means that misinformation may be rampant. For example, a photo of two unmarried country music stars out in public together may result in rumors and misinformation.
Unfortunately, fake news can spread quickly, and in many cases, people may not know that they’re spreading misinformation. The spreading of incorrect or misleading information doesn’t always have malicious intent.
Take the 2019 rumors about the health of Kenny Rogers, for example. Rogers spoke out against rumors that he had been diagnosed with a fatal form of bladder cancer, calling them “wild misinformation and speculation.” Interestingly, the reports may have been more accurate than Rogers led fans to believe: He died from natural causes under hospice care in March 2020.
Activism has always been a part of country music, but it’s not always looked upon in a positive light. That hasn’t stopped some of country music’s most vocal stars from standing up for what they believe in, however. Whether it’s worker rights, birth control, or gun ownership. Natalie Maines, Willie Nelson, and many others will continue to keep politics alive in country music in 2020 and beyond.