The Conservative Evolution of Country Music
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
This President's Day weekend we turn our attention to President Nixon and his role in courting country music into the conservative camp. We begin this story with songs from the album "Thank You, Mr. President," a record you've probably never heard of because it was made just for President Nixon. Take a listen.
(Soundbite of "Thank You, Mr. President")
Unidentified Man #1: (Singing) That's all this old world needs. That's all this old world needs, a little more truth and no more lies and only rain falling from the skies. That's all this world needs.
Unidentified Man #2: (Singing) We fired our guns and the British kept a coming. There wasn't quite as many as there was a while ago. We fired once more and they began to running, down the Mississippi to the Gulf of Mexico.
Unidentified Man #3: (Singing) 'Cause that's what you do when you're poor folks. And we wasn't nothing but poor folks. My mom and my dad was poor folks. My brother and my sister was poor folks.
ELLIOTT: Those songs are on the album "Thank You, Mr. President," a compilation that the Country Music Association made for President Nixon in 1972. Music historian Lester Feder studies the intersection of music and politics and stumbled on this recording while he was doing research at the National Archives. Welcome.
Mr. LESTER FEDER (Music Historian): Thank you. Good to be here.
ELLIOTT: Now, before we talk about this album, "Thank You, Mr. President," take us back to the era when country music and conservative politics were not bedfellows.
Mr. FEDER: Sure. Prior to the late '60s, country music wasn't especially political. There was occasionally political songs, but it wasn't thought of as allied with one particular movement and certainly not the conservative movement. The South, where country came from, was not solidly conservative. Of course it was a Democratic region. FDR had been very popular and those policies had been very popular. And as the South and lower middle class whites across the country moved to the right in the '60s, thanks in part to the civil rights movement and other factors that were going on at the time, country music moved with them.
ELLIOTT: What happened? Who was the first conservative politician to use country music?
Mr. FEDER: Well, the first candidate for national office who used country music as part of his campaign was George Wallace, who was Alabama's governor, a very famous segregationist. But he was a Democratic candidate for president, first in '64, and he took the practice that was used, and all Southern politicians had country performers come out just to gather people at their rallies. And so he took that national.
But what made his use of that different was, the lower middle class whites that he was trying to reach outside the South were listening to country music. So he told one of his aides the people who like country music are going to elect me president.
ELLIOTT: I remember his last run for governor of Alabama. And one of the major songs of that campaign was Tammy Wynette's "Stand by Your Man."
Mr. FEDER: Sure. Sure. Sure.
ELLIOTT: Now, of course, George Wallace lost the 1968 race to President Nixon, but he still got the attention of a block of voters and gave Nixon quite a scare.
Mr. FEDER: Well, absolutely. Nixon's victory was dependent on prying away Southern whites, working class whites, middle class whites that had traditionally voted Democratic. And those were the same voters that George Wallace was going after. So he knew that in 1972, when he was going to run for reelection, if Wallace ran again, it would be a major problem for him because he still that votes - those votes to win. So in the intervening years, he reached out to the South, to those middle class, working class whites, through the same means that George Wallace had. And he took a page right out of his playbook and courted country music.
ELLIOTT: So how did the voters respond and how did the country music world respond?
Mr. FEDER: Well, there was a very important turning point in 1969 that really brought a lot of factors together, and that was the release of Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee." Merle Haggard had created this character, he says in parody, but this character lashed out at hippies, at the counterculture, at the anti-war movement, and it got a very earnest reception on the part of country music fans.
(Soundbite of song, "Okie from Muskogee")
Mr. MERLE HAGGARD (Singer): (Singing) We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee. We don't take our trips on LSD. We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street. We like living right and being free.
ELLIOTT: That was Merle Haggard's "Okie from Muskogee," one of the songs included on the album "Thank You, Mr. President." Now, this was the record that you came across in the archives. Were all the songs on this this political?
Mr. FEDER: No. Most of the songs on this album were about the same things that most country music songs were about - families, work, those sorts of traditional themes. What Merle Haggard did was crystallize the values contained in the song and for the community that was listening to it and put a political point on it. And what it revealed was that there a giant market among people from all parts of the country for a kind of entertainment that gave voice to the conservative sentiments that were not heard in the marketplace of ideas at that time.
ELLIOTT: Okay, let's listen to a little more of this record. In particular, there's this interesting bit of narration from Tex Ritter, who was a past president of the Country Music Association.
(Soundbite of "Thank You, Mr. President")
Mr. TEX RITTER (Country Music Association): Country music, which in reality is the voice of your silent majority, can sing about the troubles of the present with as much love of country as in the past. And country music can break the enormity of war down to the very personal. Billy Myes(ph) tells us a story in song about one man in Vietnam.
Mr. BILLY MYES (Singer): (Singing) I can see the lights of Albuquerque. He doesn't stand a chance, I heard the medic say. Bend close by my side, I heard the chaplain pray. Then just like a miracle, the pain faded fast away. And I swore once more that I could see the lights of Albuquerque.
ELLIOTT: Why was Nashville busy cultivating a role in national politics?
Mr. FEDER: I think it was because there was this mutual self-interest. It was as if Nixon and country music were two people who suddenly discovered they had a lot in common, and definitely there were advantages to working together. Nixon knew that he could get political support. The Country Music Association knew that they could get more attention. Nixon had done a bunch of things to raise the profile of country music. He had declared 1970 - October of 1970 country music month. He had had several performers, country performers, to the White House, including Merle Haggard.
So I think there was a lot of interest there. It shouldn't be underestimated though that there were also political beliefs that Nixon did embody for them too. And 1968, which was the first year that country musicians in any numbers came out with endorsements for president, they all endorsed either Wallace or Nixon. So there was also that element to it as well.
ELLIOTT: What were some of the other songs on the album?
Mr. FEDER: Well, perhaps the one that most people would know well would be Loretta Lynn's "Coal Miner's Daughter."
(Soundbite of song, "Coal Miner's Daughter")
Ms. LORETTA LYNN (Singer): (Singing) In the summertime we didn't have shoes to wear. But in the wintertime we'd all get a brand new pair from a mail-order catalog, money made from selling a hog. Daddy always managed to get the money somewhere. Yeah, I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter. I remember well, the well where I drew water.
Mr. FEDER: I think the important line in this song is where she says I'm proud to be a coal miner's daughter. The idea of cultural pride had very particular importance at this moment. It was a year James Brown had come out with I'm black and I'm - "Say it Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud." And it was a statement of identity that had political consequences. And many of the other songs on here that talked about farming, for example, had that same way of celebrating a lifestyle that people had felt was looked down upon by the cultural elites, by the counterculture, by anti-war protestors as a way of resisting that and giving an alternative conservative voice.
ELLIOTT: Now, was this album every released to the public?
Mr. FEDER: No. In fact only two copies exist to my knowledge - one at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum and the other one at the National Archives in the Nixon collection.
ELLIOTT: You know, as a historian and someone who looks at the intersection of music and politics, what does this reveal to you? Anything new?
Mr. FEDER: Absolutely. It showed that the assumption that many people have, that country music has always been conservative and is necessarily conservative, isn't true. It's something that happened over time and people had to work on it actively in order to make it happen.
ELLIOTT: Now, in talking about politics and country music we have to have a discussion about the Dixie Chicks.
Mr. FEDER: Of course.
ELLIOTT: You know, famously chastising President Bush over the Iraq war and paying a steep price for it in the country music world. But you know, just last weekend, they're getting - picking up a Grammy for Best Album of the Year. Is there any sign that country music is ready to make room for both blue and red bandanas?
Mr. FEDER: Well, I think you need to distinguish country music as a musical style and country music as a marketing category. Country music as a marketing category, I think, remains conservative as it's ever been. The country radio stations still refuse to play the Dixie Chicks, heeding the 21 percent of listeners who have told pollsters that they don't want to hear them anymore. But country music as a musical style is much broader than that and I think the Dixie Chicks' success really show that. You see a flourishing also of the alt-country and the Americana movements and it may be that over time this will become its own genre that has its own political significance.
ELLIOTT: Lester Feder is a historian based in Alexandria, Virginia. He writes about music and politics. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. FEDER: Thank you.
ELLIOTT: And happy President's Day.
Mr. FEDER: Thank you. Same to you.
(Soundbite of "The Star-Spangled Banner")