Appointing former Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee to a charity post provoked outrage among country music producers and fans. (Kiichiro Sato/AP)
Late last month, the Country Music Association’s charitable wing, the CMA Foundation, appointed culture-war icon Mike Huckabee to their board of directors. Alas, the former Arkansas governor’s good fortune barely carried into March. After widespread outcry, Huckabee resigned after only 24 hours, writing an essay titled “Hate Wins,” in which he blamed the incident on “irrational vitriol” for his “religious or political views.”
The most high-profile objection to Huckabee’s appointment had come from openly gay manager and label owner Jason Owen, whose Sandbox Entertainment agency handles superstars such as Faith Hill and Little Big Town, as well as the estates of Johnny Cash and Hank Williams.
“This man has made it clear that my family is not welcome in his America,” Owen wrote in an email to the CMA and its foundation, which promotes school music programs. “I will not participate in any organization that elevates people like this to positions that amplify their sick voices.”
The CMA has long been expressly apolitical. It has never endorsed a candidate or taken a stand on a policy proposal, even those relating to music or music education. In November, the organization tried to muzzle political statements and questions at its annual awards show.
Huckabee, meanwhile, has never been so decorous. He has claimed that same-sex marriage is comparable to incest and polygamy, ruefully conflated the Supreme Court’s 2015 decision on the matter to its infamous 1857 Dred Scott ruling, and remains a steadfast supporter of embattled anti-gay Kentucky clerk Kim Davis. Huckabee may be a longtime advocate for music education and the National Endowment for the Arts, a eulogist for George Jones and the host of a television show from Nashville, but these and other statements — including his recent dismissal of businesses who cut ties with the NRA as “cowardly” — certainly violate the CMA’s own cautious positioning.
More and more, however, that positioning is a hindrance to the organization. The Huckabee affair is the CMA’s second 24-hour course correction in the past five months. When the CMA instructed reporters to “refrain from focusing … on the Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like,” artists’ protest led them to rescind those guidelines the following day. The ceremony, held soon after the horrifying massacre of attendees at a Las Vegas country festival, ended up full of jokes and songs about contemporary politics.
Maybe incidents like these will finally convince the CMA that neutrality is an impossible goal in a moment when the president himself has targeted whole countries and ethnicities for retribution. Such an aversion to politics and conflict is also unreflective of the genre’s history: Country music has always thrived on and reflected cultural division.
Modern country was born when soldiers from rural America returned from World War II and flocked to cities and colleges, thanks to a booming manufacturing sector and the G.I. Bill. Suddenly displaced, these men and their families sought out down-home comforts, including their beloved roadhouse bars and twangy sounds. A new breed of country musician emerged simultaneously, embodied by Ernest Tubb and Hank Williams. These performers used drums and electric instruments to be heard over the rowdy new venues, and their lyrics eschewed familiar pastoral and family themes. No more mama’s-Bible and green-green hills: honky-tonk music, as it became known, was all about whiskey-scented heartbreak and workingmen’s sorrows, the personal tolls of an uneasy new life apart from the land.
The country industry evolved with its audience. The major record labels’ first Nashville offices opened in the early 1950s, and soon the genre’s whole financial and promotional apparatus settled in “Music City.” Country music has been uneasily contradictory ever since: a tradition- and authenticity-obsessed genre mostly contained to a single cosmopolitan city, with its reigning popular styles forever swinging between glossy, commercial sounds and rougher-hewn ones.
The genre has produced no shortage of politically explicit statements on current events, whether Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” about the liberating effects of birth control, or Garth Brooks’s blandly utopian “We Shall Be Free.” Toby Keith’s post-9/11 anthem “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue,” inaugurated country’s Fox News era, which recently bottomed out with the confusingly titled anti-Colin Kaepernick song, “Take a Knee … My Ass!” by Neal McCoy. But most country songs are ultimately about the way life should be lived, which means they are political even when anodyne. The country audience doesn’t only seek escape, it seeks validation — and always has.
Among the many powerful messages during last month’s West Virginia teacher’s strike, one woman was photographed holding a handmade sign that borrowed Johnny Cash’s most famous couplet. “Students, Because You’re Mine, I Walk the Line,” it read, alongside a black-and-white portrait of the legend. There is no better illustration of the political efficacy of country music across generations. The CMA was right to belatedly release Mike Huckabee, but next they should embrace figures who speak proudly and forcefully for the many listeners who rely on this music for sustenance and inspiration in threatening political times. That would be a gesture worthy of this complex, perennially divided music.