Country music artists are hardly united in their support of the war in Iraq — but you’d never know it from listening to the radio.
While Toby Keith, Darryl Worley and Charlie Daniels have scored hits with patriotic, war-themed songs, others such as Willie Nelson, Merle Haggard and Nanci Griffith released anti-war, or at least questioning, songs that went nowhere.
“Country radio does enough research that they understand listeners are supportive of the military in Iraq and just don’t want to get involved with those songs,” said John Hart, president of Nashville-based Bullseye Marketing Research.
“I work with 32 stations, and I have not seen one test any of these anti-war songs.”
Patriotic tunes on the wane?
But the patriotic tunes that were everywhere at the beginning of the military campaigns in Afghanistan and Iraq have slowed. John Michael Montgomery’s touching “Letters from Home” is the only current chart hit with a war theme, and it is neither an angry call to arms nor a love letter to America.
Hart believes the flag-waving songs reached a saturation point. He also says the continuing hostilities in Iraq and recent prison abuse scandal may have tempered the enthusiasm expressed early in the conflict.
“I think right now the labels and radio feel they have come to a line in the sand where they need to slow down,” Hart said. “And the artists are hesitant to release anything right now that they think might be overkill.”
Patriotism is a strong undercurrent to this week’s Country Music Association Music Festival, which runs Thursday through Sunday in Nashville.
In addition to donating tickets to soldiers in the 101st Airborne Division at Fort Campbell, CMA will also hold a reunion of entertainers who performed for troops in Iraq last December. Guests at the Friday event include Worley, whose “Have You Forgotten” remains a conservative rallying cry, as well as liberal comedian and author Al Franken and “JAG” actress Karri Turner.
Franken said the backlash against the Dixie Chicks after lead singer Natalie Maines criticized President Bush on a London stage last year had “a chilling effect on what people felt they could or couldn’t say” in country music.
“And that’s too bad,” Franken said. “I think people should be free to express their politics.”
Worley, too, cited the Dixie Chicks’ incident.
“They made a pretty strong statement about the president, and we haven’t heard much of them on country radio either. There is a silent majority in this country, and it is a whole lot stronger than people might think.”
No place on the radio for alt-countryCountry artists are regarded as more conservative than those in other genres, but there are exceptions. Alt-country icons Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Rosanne Cash and Lucinda Williams lent their names to a petition by the protest group Musicians United to Win Without War. Respected songwriters Rodney Crowell and The Mavericks’ Raul Malo have been frank about their opposition to the president. A new group called the Music Row Democrats formed this year to give a political voice to country songwriters, musicians, producers and record executives.
Still, the few country songs that have express reservations about Iraq have failed to click.
Worley believes some of that has to do with the artists releasing them, noting that veteran singers such as Nelson and Haggard have had trouble cracking the charts with any kind of song in recent years.
But market researcher Hart thinks it is more than that. He says an anti-war song by a hot contemporary artist would fizzle as well because of the conservative tilt of country audiences.
“I’ve been in country music since 1972, and I think every conflict is that way,” said Hart, a Vietnam veteran. “Every time we bomb somebody it’s ‘Hell yeah!’ Let’s kick their ... ’ That’s where country music is coming from.”
Singer Kenny Rogers, whose group The First Edition had one of the most poignant hits of the Vietnam era with “Ruby,” a dark tale about a crippled Vietnam veteran whose woman is cheating on him, says the political climate today is much different than in the 1960s and ’70s.
“People are afraid to write about it, and people are afraid to play it,” Rogers said. “Everybody is so afraid now to be politically correct.
“I don’t know of a successful song that has said ‘We need to stop this,”’ he said. “But I do think if one were written well and had an honest thought process behind it and was not strictly politically driven, radio would play it.”