The One On the Right Was On the Left…

The political puzzle of country music


The surprise tour of last year—a surprise, that is, to anyone whose worldview froze around 1970—was the series of concerts Bob Dylan did with Merle Haggard. In the last big culture war, Dylan was the guy who sang "You fasten the triggers/For the others to fire/Then you set back and watch/When the death count gets higher." Hag had a snappy number where he "read about some squirrelly guy who claims that he just don't believe in fightin'/And I wonder just how long the rest of us can count on bein' free." Put them together, and you get—

Apparently, you get kismet. In Rednecks & Bluenecks, an engaging expedition into the politics of country music, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Willman watches the pair play a date in Los Angeles. When Haggard asks everyone to sing along with his vintage hit for hippie-hating hardhats, "Okie from Muskogee," more than a few fans do, and "the singer reacts with mock alarm: 'This is Bob Dylan's audience! You're not supposed to be smoking—I mean singing—along with that!'"

Even in 1970, Dylan was alienating his fan base with an album filled with pop-country covers; Haggard, meanwhile, had just written "Irma Jackson," an ode to a thwarted interracial romance. But if the singers don't fall on opposite sides of the so-called culture war, it wouldn't be entirely accurate to suggest they're sitting on the same side either. Like most people, they don't really fit into any rigid camp. Dylan has had an uneasy relationship with the left since he moved away from protest songs in the early '60s, and he sounded downright reactionary on 1979's brimstone-filled Slow Train Coming; in the liner notes to one '90s CD, the man who introduced the Beatles to marijuana declared, "give me a thousand acres of tractable land & all the gang members that exist & you'll see the Authentic alternative lifestyle, the Agrarian one." Conservative hero Haggard has a history of singing Guthriesque songs about economic hard times, and more recently he's taken to praising hemp and speaking out against the Iraq war, the Patriot Act, and the Bush administration. (In Rednecks & Bluenecks, he declares the president one of "the top three assholes of all time," right next to Hitler and Nixon.) But he's a populist, not a liberal, and is as hard to pigeonhole as Dylan is: In "Where's All the Freedom," one of two antiwar songs on his most recent album, he includes "can't show the Ten Commandments anymore" in a litany of lost liberties.

Haggard has also spoken kindly of both Toby Keith and the Dixie Chicks, who between them seized a genre that had grown terrified of controversy and dragged it back into the culture wars. Keith's 2002 hit "Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue," beloved and despised for the line "we'll put a boot in your ass, it's the American way," pissed off liberal listeners who saw the song as a calculated slice of jingoism rather than an honest reaction to the 9/11 attacks. (Peter Jennings barred Keith from an Fourth of July TV special rather than tolerate hearing the song on the air.) Early the next year, the Dixie Chicks unleashed some genuine jingoism when singer Natalie Maines issued a mild rebuke to George W. Bush at a concert in London. Her precise words were "we're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," which doesn't sound very unpatriotic to me—they didn't say they were ashamed that they're from Texas—but that didn't stop Team Red from picketing their concerts, smashing their CDs, urging stations to boycott their music, and, out on the fringes, firing off some violent threats. If you wanted to reinforce the cliché that country is the soundtrack to Red America, you didn't have to look any further than the airplay Toby Keith got and the airplay the Dixie Chicks didn't.

But of course it isn't as simple as that, as Willman's interviews with the industry's songwriters, performers, and business executives demonstrate. It isn't just that Nashville has a liberal minority—though they're there, from Rodney Crowell to Tim McGraw to George Jones, who made a rare presidential endorsement in 2004 when he came out for Journey fan Wesley Clark. It's that country music, like the country itself, doesn't divide easily into simple stacks of red and blue. Even if you clearly fall into one political party, that doesn't mean you buy the whole agenda. Take Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn, a devout Republican whose interview with Willman initially sounds like it could have been cribbed from The Weekly Standard—he denounces Wahhabism, recommends a Bernard Lewis book, and even works in a worried reference to the Chinese. Then he drops this bombshell: "right now, religion scares me to death. Historically, it's probably the cause of more deaths than any other force on the planet." He goes on to defend his song "Holy War," a track that raised eyebrows by conflating the fundamentalists of America and Afghanistan.

From Dunn we move directly to Sara Evans, a family-values Republican who has little to say about foreign policy and a lot to say about the Lord. (She also describes the crusade against the Dixie Chicks as "ridiculous.") And of course there's ass-bootin' Toby Keith, who's actually a Democrat, though he backed Bush in the last election. A strong supporter of the Afghan campaign, Keith has been more ambivalent about the invasion of Iraq, telling the Los Angeles Times in 2003 that "this war here, the math hasn't worked out for me on it" before adding that he's giving the president the benefit of the doubt.

Meanwhile, Willie Nelson and his old sleepover buddy Jimmy Carter chat with Willman about peace and pot. The book identifies Nelson as a Democrat, and that may well be his registered affiliation, but his hippie-populist politics are too independent to make him a Team Blue loyalist—he came out for Nader in 2000 and for Perot in '92. The outlaw movement he spearheaded in the '70s was more politically diverse than its counterculture image might suggest, ranging from the far-left Kris Kristofferson to the Confederate stalwart Hank Williams Jr. Willman paints Williams as a straightforward conservative, but that's not exactly right either: The same album that contains "I Got Rights," a paean to vigilante justice, also includes two tracks about getting stoned. Like Charlie Daniels, who started out singing the redneck-mocking "Uneasy Rider" and now issues jeremiads from Judge Roy Moore territory, Bocephus has changed with the times.

And then there's the whole "alternative country" movement, where the musicians are presumed liberal and where Republican fans feel as marginalized as a Democrat on Music Row. Its chief representative in this book is Steve Earle, who really is ashamed to be from Texas. (His exact words: "I'm from an awful fucking place called Texas.") Earle told Rolling Stone in 1986 that "in some areas" his politics were "somewhat to the right of Attila the Hun," but like an inverted Charlie Daniels he has moved to the angry left, namechecking Emma Goldman in one song and mocking Condi Rice in another. He's surely the only major country-music figure to open a track with a snippet from an Abbie Hoffman speech.

Alt-country emerged in the '90s, but the idea of a purportedly progressive counterpart to the more conservative country mainstream goes back to the artificial segregation of "folk" from "country" in the '40s and '50s. Willman is usually a pretty sharp analyst, but he stumbles when he tries to distinguish the two genres' politics: He weakly suggests that folk is urban and country rural, and that it's easier for a city dweller to think in terms of "cooperative problem-solving." (Tell it to the Grange!) I'd argue that the most important reason for the divorce was the postwar red scare, which made the phrase folk music radioactive in certain circles. The second most important reason was the snobbery of the hard-core folk fans, who liked to pretend the music they loved wasn't "commercial." It's hard to say that with a straight face if your favorite singer is pitching Goo Goo Clusters at the Grand Ole Opry.

That isn't the book's only flub. I can forgive the author for misidentifying John Kerry as an opponent of the Iraq war—we all had to guess a bit when that guy talked about his platform—but what possessed Willman to claim the U.S. has repealed "nearly all governmental media regulation"? (Howard Stern would be surprised to hear it.) But such gaffes are rare. Willman knows this music well, and he is an inquisitive and generally impartial reporter with an ear for a good anecdote. My favorite comes when the left-wing singer-songwriter Todd Snider remembers his first face-to-face encounter with Garth Brooks. "The first thing he did when we met was to read me a poem," Snider says. "The first thing Steve Earle did when we met was to ask about my distribution, and then he answered his cell phone."

Does any of this matter? Most country songs aren't remotely political, and I doubt most fans care how their musical heroes vote. A peacenik who appreciates Harlan Howard's songwriting isn't going to stop enjoying "I Fall to Pieces" just because the same guy recorded a concept album called To the Silent Majority, With Love. Likewise, a Republican who hates Steve Earle's views can still acknowledge that the five albums he released from 1995 to 2000 are one of the best artistic winning streaks in pop history. So why care at all?

There are plenty of possible answers to that, but the most important is that it's impossible to peer closely at the politics of Nashville and maintain the easy stereotypes that drive the culture war. If there's a moral to Rednecks & Bluenecks, it's that most people don't fit into simple categories of blue and red, onstage or off. Not Toby Keith, not Natalie Maines, and certainly not Dylan or Haggard.