Country Music executives Jason Owen and Whitney Pastorek led a push to oust former Gov. Mike Huckabee from the Country Music Association Foundation board of directors, citing his support for the National Rifle Association and his views on LGBT issues. Huckabee, now a TV host, was out within a day of his appointment to the board.
Owen, whose agency manages artists including Faith Hill, Kacey Musgraves, and Midland, railed against Huckabee’s support for the NRA in a letter of opposition, calling his association with the pro-gun group “harmful and damaging,” and declaring, “I will not participate in any organization that elevates people like this to positions that amplify their sick voices.”
Owen also criticized Huckabee’s views on gay marriage and other LGBT issues, making it clear he was personally insulted by the “grossly offensive” appointment. He and his husband are fathers to one boy and are expecting twins. Owen said his companies and clients would withdraw all support from the CMA Foundation if Huckabee was not removed.
The CMA Foundation is a nonprofit that supports music education programs nationwide. Huckabee was appointed to the board based on his prior experience with education reform in Arkansas. He has also lobbied with the National Association of Music Merchants Foundation for music education programs and backed funding the National Endowment for the Arts based on programs that assist kids in poverty to learn a musical instrument.
Pastorek, a CMA member best known as the manager for Sugarland’s Kristian Bush, also cited Huckabee’s pro-gun views in a broadside against him. After nothing his background in education, she concluded: “I find his choice to spend the past ten years profiting off messages of exclusion and hatred (not to mention the gun lobby) to be disqualifying.”
As with Owen, Pastorek’s opposition is not shocking. A former journalist from Los Angeles, Pastorek — in addition to her day job — is the Democratic Party social media strategist in Davidson County, TN (encompassing Nashville). Until March 1, she was a candidate for a state house seat; her announcement asked people to donate to Planned Parenthood Action and the ACLU instead of her campaign.
Huckabee pulled no punches in his resignation letter: “If the industry doesn’t want people of faith or who hold conservative and traditional political views to buy tickets and music, they should be forthcoming and say it.”
Huckabee’s letter elsewhere overstates the case that politicization of the arts is a new development, as a glance at any Hollywood awards show would reveal. But he is correct to note that country music is becoming a victim of larger societal trends.
For virtually all of its history as a popular music, country has been a voice of cultural conservatism. Unlike the bohemian sensibility of rock music, country was more likely to extol the virtues of God, family and America.
Country springs from places with an affinity for gun culture — not only hunting, but also military service. Indeed, Johnny Cash, Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson, and George Jones are just a few of the country legends who were also veterans.
Country music, however, was not always a voice of political conservatism. After all, country music was often the preferred choice of Southern Democrats, who were not always the political conservatives that the lazy conventional wisdom would suggest.
Johnny Cash opposed the Vietnam War (while playing for and sympathizing with the troops), supported Native American causes and was renowned for playing prison concerts and supporting prison reforms. Merle Haggard wrote counter-counterculture classics like “Okie from Muskogee” and “Fightin’ Side of Me,” but celebrated an interracial relationship in “Irma Jackson” and criticized the Nixon Administration. Loretta Lynn may be a supporter of President Trump, but she penned an ode to “The Pill” in the mid-1970s that was largely blacklisted by country radio. Willie Nelson is famously and habitually pro-marijuana.
Nevertheless, country was pushed rightward by the larger forces polarizing American politics. After the New Left gained traction in the late 1960s, it set about alienating cultural conservatives from the Democratic Party. Although Democrats will say this was a mater of racial and sexual politics, it was also evident in their increasing hostility to religion and their dovishness on foreign policy.
Institutions that were once more heterodox and bipartisan would be driven toward one ideological pole or the other over time. This is what happened to country music, because this is what happened to its audience. This is also what happened to the NRA, which was a far more bipartisan group prior to the Democrats’ big embrace of gun control in the 1990s.
Accordingly, it is not surprising that the Dixie Chicks’ career could have been derailed by their opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Nor is it surprising that the NRA created an organization called NRA Country, which supports sponsors concerts and promotional campaigns on behalf of a raft of country artists as part of the association’s efforts to expand its membership.
While country music continues largely as a voice of cultural traditionalism, it is again being tested by the recent rash of mass shootings.
Kasey Musgraves (an Owen client) received the social media mob treatment for suggesting more firearms as a possible answer following the Pulse nightclub shooting. Rosanne Cash, a long-time gun control activist, has claimed that the NRA “funds domestic terrorism.” Tim McGraw (an Obama voter) and Faith Hill (as noted, an Owen client) have voiced support for “common sense” gun control measures. Brad Paisley led an effort to get the CMA Awards to drop guidelines telling journalists not to ask about last year’s Las Vegas shooting.
Moreover, a number of up-and-coming artists in country and Americana have become more overt supporters of gun control, including Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price and Will Hoge (whose “Thoughts and Prayers” is an ill-advised sneer unlikely to persuade the unconverted). Like McGraw and Hill, Simpson and Price usually note that their issue is with the availability of “weapons of war” and that they are gun owners (Simpson is also a veteran).
This sort of talk suggests that like many in showbiz, they may not understand an AR-15 is not a uniquely deadly weapon and that its military history makes it a tested and reliable technology. Simpson declares “nobody needs a machine gun,” in apparent ignorance that virtually no one in America owns one.
It also suggests that these artists may be too naive to realize that increasing polarization may well force them over time into one of those painful “binary choices” we have heard so much about recently. This will be much less of problem for an artist like Brantley Gilbert, who may not partner with NRA Country, but has the Second Amendment tattooed across his entire back. He already seems committed.
Country music faces a particular challenge today, because of its historical concern with traditionalism. Should country ever completely capitulate to social progressivism, it will lose not only its core audience, but also its distinct sense of self. It will travel further down the road to becoming pop music with a fiddle — a road that ostensibly drives even someone like Simpson to wish he could follow Watchmen’s Dr. Manhattan to Mars.