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Op-Ed: Country Artists Need to Speak Up … But Country Fans Need to Let Them

country artists need to speak up
Drew Angerer, Getty Images

In January, just a few days after Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration, Rolling Stone Country’s Joseph Hudak called on those country artists “who oppose this frightening upside-down version of America” to speak out: “Unlike the liberal pop and hip-hop artists who [are] essentially preaching to their choir, country artists possess … a kinship with rural America, conservatives and Christians, and the ear of many of those who voted Donald Trump into the presidency,” Hudak writes.

“[A] concerned, familiar voice they hear on country radio may be able to relay why this is such a dangerous time and spark dialogue in fans resistant to such bluster,” he continues. “[I]f you oppose the policies (or lack thereof) of this unqualified president and remain silent? Your apathy would make Johnny Cash roll over in his grave.”

"Country music has, for far too long, created a culture of silence when it comes to non-conservative politics and other hot-button issues."

The fact that country stars have remained and are remaining largely silent as President Trump demeans women and minorities, attempts to silence a free press and, most recently, refuses to blame white supremacists, white nationalists, the KKK and neo-Nazis for Saturday’s (Aug. 12) violence in Charlottesville, Va. (among other egregious acts not befitting of the leader of the United States) is … not great. However, it’s encouraging to see some artists — rising mainstream acts, big names in country music’s sub-genres and even a superstar or two — denouncing the alt-right (four for you, Kip Moore; you go, Kip Moore!) and supporting actions such as January’s Women’s March. But to place all of the burden on the artists themselves is unfair.

Country music has, for far too long, created a culture of silence when it comes to non-conservative politics and other hot-button issues: Artists use interviews and social media to share their thoughts on major issues, and fans shut them down, get angry with them and cause them to “clarify” (read: backtrack). They sing songs about birth control, divorce, abortion, being yourself and (gasp!) generally being peaceful and loving toward each other, and radio won’t play them because listeners freak out. Even a song that’s not about a same-sex relationship but vaguely sounds like it is gets you in trouble.

"Country music fans are just as responsible — if not more responsible — for creating that culture of silence."

Nobody wants to be the next Dixie Chicks … and can you really blame them? To think that country music’s famous faces can stop that cycle simply by being more vocal about social and political issues is to forget the other half of the equation: the people to whom they’re speaking. And country music fans are just as responsible — if not more responsible — for creating that culture of silence.

It’s the fans, after all, who are still blacklisting the Dixie Chicks over Natalie Maines’ remarks all those years ago. It’s the fans who caused a stink over “Girl Crush” being played on the radio. It’s the fans who got all fired up when Dolly Parton said she’d “be behind Hillary Clinton” if Clinton became president and reacted so loudly that Parton later amended her thoughts. It’s the fans who drive sales and radio and success. In theory, the artists have the influence, but the fans are really the ones with the power.

"If it’s time for country artists to step up and speak out, it’s equally time for the fans to let them."

It would be unfair to lump every country music fan into this category, of course. There are plenty of progressive- and liberal-minded people who fall into that group (and there are even more, whose views fall on both sides of the aisle, who understand basic human decency and believe that everyone deserves love and respect), and as country music continues to grow in popularity, its fan base is becoming far more varied. On his 15 in a 30 Tour, Sam Hunt has often pointed out, “This generation, y’all don’t pay attention to genres of music; you don’t pay attention to genres of people … You hang out with people you like, not people who look like you.”

But there is still a vocal contingent that helps perpetuate the stereotypes that country music fans are racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. That’s a bad look for the country music community for outsiders looking in. It’s even more detrimental to the country music community itself. If it’s time for country artists to step up and speak out, it’s equally time for the fans to let them.

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