When Elton John flatly denied the rumor that he was performing at Donald Trump’s inauguration, he fired off a suggestion for the president-elect: “Why not ask … one of those f—ing country stars? They’d do it for you.”
It was an easy shot to take. Country singers, traditionally a conservative group, seem like the obvious choice of entertainment for a GOP president. But nothing is obvious about this controversial presidential inauguration. While a number of country artists are indeed performing around Washington over inauguration weekend, they’ve nearly all faced criticism.
“It used to be beyond safe for any country artist to play for a Republican candidate, and certainly a Republican president,” Chris Willman, a country music journalist and author, told McClatchy. “So, what’s different this time? I think it’s clear we haven’t seen a Republican president as polarizing even to Republicans as Trump.”
The most high-profile country star at inauguration is Toby Keith, the Oklahoma native famous for politically charged songs such as “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” the post-9/11 anthem with a promise to U.S. enemies: “We’ll put a boot in your ass, it’s the American way.” Keith, like other artists scheduled for the inauguration, has been slammed on social media — look no further than the responses to his tweet supporting Cody Alan, a popular country TV host who recently came out as gay. (“You do know that the VP of man’s inauguration you’re about to perform legit discriminates against LGBT Community right?” one Twitter user asked.)
Keith — once a registered Democrat until, he says, the left “kind of disowned” him — defended his choice. “I don’t apologize for performing for our country or military,” the singer told Entertainment Weekly. “I performed at events for previous presidents [George W.] Bush and Obama and over 200 shows in Iraq and Afghanistan for the USO.”
It’s a no-win situation for stars, as superstar Garth Brooks was criticized by some fans for turning down the invitation. Brooks explained in a Facebook Live chat he was asked to perform (and previously told TMZ that “It’s always an honor to serve”). But tickets were going on sale for his concert dates in Cincinnati around inauguration weekend, and he decided to see how many would sell. When five nights sold out, it created a scheduling conflict. Still, Brooks offered best wishes for the outgoing and incoming presidents. “Let’s stay together,” Brooks urged. “Love, unity, that’s what it’s all about.”
Other singers are doubling down on the “It’s not political!” mantra. Texas-based Randy Rogers is performing an acoustic set at the Black Tie & Boots inaugural ball on Thursday with other Texas artists and received backlash when the gig was announced. “Calm down, everybody. We are playing an event for the Texas State Society in DC. It’s grand, historic and an honor,” Rogers wrote on Twitter and Facebook. His publicist emphasized that the ball, which has taken place for decades regardless of the president-elect’s affiliation, is bipartisan.
“God Bless the USA” country singer Lee Greenwood (whose wife, a former Miss Tennessee USA, worked with Trump when he owned the Miss Universe Pageant) will join Keith at the Make America Great Again! Welcome Celebration on the Mall on Thursday, along with the Frontmen of Country trio. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Greenwood said that it’s “in bad taste” to say no to an inauguration slot.
“This is not political, this is basically about the change in power,” Greenwood said, adding he’s had “a few naysayers” but mostly a positive response from his fans. “We have a new president-elect, and we’re going to support him.”
Darryl Worley, a performer at the Great American Inaugural Ball on Friday, reiterated that his attendance is about support for the troops. “This particular event has nothing to do with politics — for me. I don’t believe that’s why I was asked to do it,” he told Billboard. “I do know where I stand on the issues, but this is to celebrate and honor the military.”
Meanwhile, Alabama (originally rumored to play an “opening day” party that is no longer happening) sang Tuesday night at a private dinner for Trump and earned a praise-filled tweet from the president-elect. Rascal Flatts lead vocalist Gary LeVox signed on for the Veterans Inaugural Ball on Saturday, along with songwriters Wendell Mobley and Neil Thrasher, in partnership with a Nashville charity. “Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy” duo Big & Rich (John Rich won Season 11 of Trump’s “Celebrity Apprentice”) will headline the Great America Alliance’s inaugural gala with Cowboy Troy on Thursday, as well as the Recording Industry Association of America event on Friday.
“We’re thrilled to be performing in our nation’s capital during this historic moment in time,” Rich said in a press release. “A Presidential Inauguration is a uniquely American event, so we are honored to be a part of it and hope to help make it a memorable event.”
The straightforward statements and denials of politics all feed into the muted reaction from the country music community over the election. While a few singers like Justin Moore and Jimmy Wayne expressed Trump support, others stayed quiet; Blake Shelton disputed headlines that said he endorsed Trump. (“I haven’t [endorsed] ANYBODY for president,” he sternly tweeted.) At the Country Music Association Awards, one week before Election Day, co-hosts Brad Paisley and Carrie Underwood poked fun at both candidates.
In an article for the Guardian, Jonathan Bernstein wrote about the surprising political silence from Nashville. “Fear of professional fallout — whether from recording artists, songwriters or industry professionals — has caused a near paralyzing climate of behind-closed-doors political silence in Music City,” Bernstein wrote. “Such a fear of political expression is altogether new in country music, a genre that’s typically not been shy about its partisan allegiances.”
Overall, he theorized, “In 2016, perhaps for the first time in the history of country music, the risks of merely supporting a presidential candidate firmly outweigh the rewards.”