The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People often assume all country singers have conservative views. This year has proved — yet again — that’s not the case.

Maren Morris, seen performing at the Country Music Association Awards in 2019, recently released a protest song called “Better Than We Found It.” (Mark J. Terril/AP)

In late September, Garth Brooks started trending on Twitter when Politico reported that he was one of the celebrities approached to star in the Trump administration’s advertising campaign to “defeat despair” about the coronavirus pandemic. Even though the article did not say he actually agreed to participate, social media erupted. “Seeing Garth Brooks is a Trump supporter has broken my heart this morning,” one tweet read, echoing many more.

Another flood of Twitter users responded to such tweets by emphasizing that he had only been invited to be in the ads. But for some, his affiliation was suddenly solidified as fact. Never mind that Brooks — who has not endorsed anyone — performed at President Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2009 (he declined to perform at Trump’s, citing his tour schedule); is a longtime supporter of LGBTQ rights; and is married to Trisha Yearwood, who introduced Michelle Obama at her Nashville book tour stop last year. To many people, anyone associated with country music is always and immediately inextricably linked with Republicans and conservative views.

But in the months leading up to this year’s presidential election, some country music singers and Nashville organizations have pushed back on that idea and challenged the genre’s stereotypes, from performing at the Democratic National Convention to speaking out forcefully on racial injustice and the Black Lives Matter movement. Some participate behind the scenes: Superstar couple Tim McGraw and Faith Hill recently donated to Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden’s campaign, according to Federal Election Commission filings.

In August, the Chicks (who dropped the “Dixie” from their name this year for the word’s association with the Confederate South) became the rare country group to sing at the DNC; they performed the national anthem on the night that Biden accepted the nomination. While the Chicks have always been liberal — the group was famously shunned from country radio after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President George W. Bush in 2003 — it was still unusual, as country singers have traditionally performed at the Republican convention.

The Chicks also returned this year with “Gaslighter,” their first album since 2006. They have two nominations at the CMT Music Awards, airing Wednesday night in Nashville with pandemic protocols in place — it’s the first country music award show this year to recognize the group’s return or their new album.

“I feel like they continue to speak their truth, and that has never changed,” said Leslie Fram, CMT’s senior vice president of music strategy. She pointed to the Chicks single “March March,” for which the music video features people through history marching for civil rights “But there are a lot of people that haven’t let go of the past.”

The Chick perform that national anthem on Aug. 20, at the Democratic National Convention. (Video: The Washington Post)

CMT, a cable channel owned by ViacomCBS with sister networks including MTV, VH1 and BET, is not the kind of Nashville outlet that would care about the Chicks’ political leanings. The network is a progressive voice in the format, particularly for gender equality in country music on the radio (women currently receive about 10 percent of airplay) as well as on tours and streaming services. This year, it launched a 50-50 airplay rule, in which female artists are guaranteed to make up half the videos. On Wednesday’s award show, Sugarland’s Jennifer Nettles will receive the inaugural CMT Equal Play Award, given to an artist who is an advocate for women and diverse voices.

Earlier this year, shortly after the death of George Floyd, CMT joined the other Viacom channels on social media in supporting the Black Lives Matter movement and condemning police brutality. They also participated in a multinetwork blackout to symbolize the amount of time that a police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck.

As the country became engulfed in a reckoning about racial injustice this year, the country music industry has faced painful truths about its own complicity: The genre, which has its roots in music from Black artists, is overwhelmingly White with little diversity — and leaders in the industry realized it’s far past time to correct the imbalance. And although country music singers have a reputation of staying quiet about current events, this year, a number of them spoke out.

How the country music industry is responding to George Floyd’s death — and facing its own painful truths

In September, singer-songwriter Tyler Childers produced a powerful statement in a six-minute video released along with his new album, “Long Violent History.” Childers, a Kentucky native, asked his “White rural listeners” to try to understand the perspective of protesters and Black people who live in fear of the police.

“What if we were to constantly open up our daily paper and see a headline like ‘East Kentucky man shot seven times on fishing trip,’ and read on to find the man was shot while fishing with his son by a game warden who saw him rummaging through his tackle box for his license and thought he was reaching for a knife?” he said. “We can stop being so taken aback by Black Lives Matter. If we didn’t need to be reminded, there would be justice for Breonna Taylor, a Kentuckian like me, and countless others.”

Elsewhere, the Grand Ole Opry released a statement promising to “re-examine our organization’s diversity and inclusion practices,” and wrote, “Racism is real. It is unacceptable.” Dolly Parton voiced her support in a Billboard interview (“Of course Black lives matter. Do we think our little white [behinds] are the only ones that matter? No!”) while Chris Stapleton told CBS News, “I feel like the country that I thought that we were living in was a myth. I think we all got a lot of work to do, as individuals and as a society, and if you don’t think that, I think you’re not looking.” Country artists including Florida Georgia Line, Tenille Townes and Dan + Shay wrote emotional social media posts about social justice, while Brothers Osborne and Lindsay Ell posted about going to a Nashville rally against police brutality.

And when the genre’s stars stayed notably quiet, people noticed. Mickey Guyton, one of the few African American singers signed to a major country label, told Rolling Stone in June that she was surprised by some of the bigger country stars speaking out, and equally surprised by the ones who were silent. “It’s sad that it’s scary for people to publicly denounce racism,” she said. She also tweeted a similar thought, and Maren Morris replied, “They think it’s polarizing their fan base or is ‘political’ which it is 100% … not.”

This month, Morris released a protest song called “Better Than We Found It”: “When lines of tomorrow are drawn, can I live with the side that I chose to be on? Will we sit on our hands, do nothing about it? Or will we leave this world better than we found it?” she sings. The music video features the family of Daniel Hambrick, a Black man shot and killed by Nashville police two years ago. Morris included a spoken word message to her 7-month-old son, and said he was born “the year the world stopped turning.”

“People are dying, a global pandemic has shut our world down, and people are more afraid, angry and distant than ever. I don’t know how it got like this, but I will acknowledge my part in it,” Morris said. “I have to do better. I will do better for you. Our education must grow alongside our empathy.”

While Morris has made no secret who she’s voting for (on Tuesday she posted an Instagram story of Willie Nelson’s song “Vote 'Em Out”), some country singers are hesitant to be quite as direct — but it’s not difficult to read between the lines.

“America stands for so many beautiful things and I hope (and vote) that it continues to evolve and grow to be a place where EVERYONE is protected, respected, and given equal rights and opportunity,” Kelsea Ballerini wrote on Instagram this week after she cast her ballot, admitting that, “embarrassingly,” it was the first time she ever voted. “Left the polls feeling really empowered by exercising my right and showing up for what I believe in and the change I want to see. I encourage everyone to do the same.”

Read more:

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