NASHVILLE — Country singers are faced with a conundrum when it comes to President Trump: As part of the most conservative-leaning musical genre, shouldn’t they have something to say about what may be the most polarizing Republican administration in history?
As multiple publications recently pointed out, the answer has been a resounding “no.” Nashville stars remain unusually silent about their political thoughts, as they did before the election. A few artists declared themselves pro-Trump; one deemed Trump “crazy”; a handful tweeted positively about the Women’s March, and some, like Toby Keith, performed at inauguration activities but avoided taking sides. The majority of singers, however, don’t want to touch the topic, as it’s the easiest way to enrage and/or alienate fans.
A few days after the inauguration, Rolling Stone Country argued, “Why It’s Time for Country Stars to Speak Up About Trump.” At the other end of the spectrum, some listeners just want singers, to borrow a phrase from the Dixie Chicks, to “shut up and sing.” Billboard reported that Nashville artists still fear getting “Dixie Chicked,” or blacklisted from the industry, for having an opinion.
So, how do the country artists feel? What do they think is their role in this divisive political era, especially when they might have the ear of country fans in areas that largely voted for Trump?
“I wish that more country artists would speak out — because we are from those little towns. Rural America needs a voice in this country,” said Angaleena Presley, a singer-songwriter and member of the Pistol Annies trio with Miranda Lambert and Ashley Monroe. “I mean, we write songs that they relate to. Because we are them.”
Presley, a native of eastern Kentucky, participated in the Women’s March and says some in her family — many of whom voted for Trump — see her as a “liberal hippie chick.” But she doesn’t judge anyone based on their vote or values.
“I would never be this Trump supporter-bashing person. . . . A lot of Trump supporters, I think they want change. And in rural America, it’s tough,” she said. “I can understand why they want something different. For me, I believe in honesty, I believe in equality, I believe in choices, I believe in freedom over your own body, over what you think. So it’s really hard to get behind someone who doesn’t necessarily exhibit those values, or anywhere near them.”
Other artists say that even though they recognize that they’re in a unique position where they have a platform, they don’t always regard that influence as a positive.
“I’m in a place where people are going to listen. That’s really scary,” Texas-based singer Granger Smith said during an interview at the Country Radio Seminar (CRS) in Nashville.
“But I don’t need to tell people what I think. I’m a musician. What does my opinion matter over anybody else’s? I’m a firm believer that if I live a life with integrity and honesty and credibility . . . that’s enough of an example that I don’t have to start talking about what I think about politics or the latest executive orders in the White House.”
At CRS, multiple artists echoed the sentiment. As breakout crooner William Michael Morgan put it, “I’m a country singer — no one wants to hear me talk about politics.”
Tim Rushlow, the lead singer of the group Little Texas, which performed at Trump’s inauguration, feels similarly. He received a wave of criticism after he accepted the inaugural gig (he also performed for Trump and the first lady’s first dance), though he insists there was nothing political about his appearances.
“I didn’t look at it as a Republican or Democrat. I looked at it as an American,” he said, adding that he was “honored” to be invited.
“I’m not a politician, I’m not a priest,” he continued. “I’m just an entertainer who wants to help people forget about their problems for an hour while I sing my songs. If I do that, then mission accomplished, you know?”
In the aftermath of the inauguration, Rushlow said, police had to patrol his home after threats were sent to him on social media. Through it all, he tried not to let any of the backlash get under his skin. He’s determined that his takeaway from the whole experience will be to spread a message of positivity.
“The funny part is the people that hate, I don’t hate them,” he said. “I’m not here to tell somebody that they’re wrong for living the way they live. I’m just here to say, why can’t we look at things and go let’s agree to disagree, but let’s agree on one fact: We’ve got a great country. How can we continue to make that happen?”
Agreeing to disagree is one thing, though in this deeply divided climate, artists are more at risk than ever to upset fans — it seems like there’s no middle ground. Singer Craig Campbell, a self-described “hardcore Republican conservative,” pointed out that these days, people will pounce on any opinion that they don’t like.
“If you have views and beliefs and morals and you want to say ‘This is how I feel about it,’ then you should be able to say it,” Campbell said. “I just hate that there are mean people in the world who think that just because you disagree with them, then you’re a terrible person.”
Historically, this was not always the case in country music, which has had a wide range of beliefs. For example, in the late 1960s and early 1970s, Johnny Cash sang “What Is Truth” in support of youth protesters during the Vietnam War while Merle Haggard recorded the troop-supporting “Okie From Muskogee.” They were at opposite ends of the political spectrum, yet the two stars were best friends.
“No one was asked to choose between Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard fandom, just because they had differing political perspectives,” said Peter Cooper, senior director, producer and writer at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “There was a great diversity of perspective in the songs that doesn’t seem to be allowed, on a popular level, within contemporary country music.”
Now, a lot of singers agree that the smart career move is just to not say anything at all.
“Everyone’s got an opinion,” said singer-songwriter Dylan Scott. “And as soon as you give your opinion, somebody’s going to hate your opinion and not buy your music.”