Country musicians often sing a GOP tune
"Mandolin Mike" on Nashville's Lower Broadway.
Both presidential campaigns have their soundtracks. And on the Republican side, it’s got a twang, with a list of country music artists either endorsing or campaigning with Mitt Romney.
In a black and white western shirt with six-inch fringe on the sleeves, Lee Greenwood has been belting his time-tested hit “Proud to Be an American” in just about all the swing states.
“I’ve been in Ohio and Minnesota and Colorado and in Florida, and we’re probably going to go to Wisconsin and back to Ohio and New Hampshire before we finish this in Sunday and Monday,” he told Marketplace between campaign stops in Colorado.
Greenwood first got political during the Reagan years and says he has since become more aligned with the Republican Party.
“Toured with John McCain, Bob Dole, Sarah Palin,” he said. “I’m a conservative Christian, and I feel it would be out of context if I were on the other side of the aisle.”
Greenwood is in good company on the campaign trail this year with acts like John Rich and Alabama frontman Randy Owens performing at events.
“Look at all of these folks supporting Romney this year,” said John Rumble, senior historian at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “Rodney Adkins, the Oak Ridge Boys, Hank Jr., of course.”
The big names largely sing from the same songbook these days. Who can blame them? Rumble recalls what happened to the Dixie Chicks in 2003 when they criticized President Bush and the Iraq War.
“Their sudden disappearance from radio after all this tremendous success I think really threw not just a bucket but a barrel of cold water on other country artists who might have been vocal about supporting Democratic or Independent candidates,” Rumble said.
Country music fans who flock to Nashville by the busload seem to have no problem with their rhinestone rockers getting political.
“If they were on the stump for Obama, yes. But Romney? No. It’s a good thing,” said Pat Sandrini, a farmer from California’s Central Valley.
From San Angelo, Texas, Wylie Norton says the themes found in country music are what he holds dear.
“God, guns and family,” Norton said.
A few country artists have tried to ride the campaign wave this year, writing music just for the occasion. The first track on a new release from the ever-outspoken Hank Williams Jr. is called "Takin' Back the Country." The timely tune includes this line: “Hey Barack, pack your backs, head to Chicago. Take your teleprompter with you so you’ll know where to go.”
There have been loud and proud Democrats in country music, but they’re generally not the household names. And those who sound potentially sympathetic have sidestepped specifics.
Superstar Carrie Underwood has politely declined to talk politics since disclosing her support for gay marriage this year.
Plenty of artists say they don’t want to alienate any fans. Some can’t afford to, like Nashville street performer Mike Slusser. An Obama zinger might yield a few cheers, but he doesn’t go there.
“It’s a dangerous game –- politics -– because you have to appeal to everybody,” he said.
Mandolin Mike counts himself to be typical of country music fans –- blue collar with traditional values. But he also thinks people consider themselves open-minded.
“I think the main thing about country people is common sense is the value,” he said, adding that common sense isn’t owned by one party or the other.
But for now, common sense is telling most of those in the country music industry to keep their mouths shut if Mitt Romney’s not their man.