Staff Columnist

Country music caucus is wide open in 2020

The working girls; from the movie Nine to Five,Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda

†on stage to present the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie during the show at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
The working girls; from the movie Nine to Five,Lily Tomlin, Dolly Parton and Jane Fonda †on stage to present the Emmy for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Limited Series or Movie during the show at the 69th Primetime Emmy Awards at the Microsoft Theater in Los Angeles on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2017. (Robert Gauthier/Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The nexus of country music and politics caught national attention this month when the radio conglomerate Cumulus Media reportedly refused to air an interview between syndicated host Blair Garner and Democratic presidential candidate Pete Buttigieg.

Critics said that was a cynical and partisan decision, meant to avoid subjecting country music fans to the musings of a gay Democrat. If that’s true, it was a mistake. Country music is more politically diverse than many people recognize.

We know there are several country fans in the Democratic race.

Buttigieg has previously said the first dance at his wedding was “When You Say Nothing At All,” by Keith Whitley.

At least four candidates selected country anthems as walkout music during the Iowa Democratic Party’s hall of fame event last month in Cedar Rapids, as documented by Time reporter Lissandra Villa.

U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren chose “9 to 5,” Dolly Parton’s song from the movie with the same name honoring working women. That was a good fit for a campaign concerned with women’s and workers’ rights.

John Delaney walked out to Johnny Cash’s “I’ve Been Everywhere,” a nod to his aggressive event schedule in Iowa.

U.S. Rep. Eric Swalwell played “Caught Up in the Country,” by Rodney Atkins. That was an appropriate selection for the candidate who later became the first to end his campaign — the song spent more than a year on the Billboard country charts, but never really took off, peaking at No. 20.

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And U.S. Rep. Tim Ryan picked “Old Town Road” by Lil Nas X, the country-rap fusion sensation that was blocked from country charts this year and has since become one of the most successful singles of all time in any genre.

Country music is associated with rural and working-class identities, and the genre is dominated by white artists. Conventional wisdom suggests the genre leans overwhelmingly toward conservative politics, but that’s not quite right.

The leaders of the 1970s outlaw movement often were openly liberal, both in their lyrics and their public statements. Last year, Willie Nelson campaigned in support of Beto O’Rourke in his U.S. Senate challenge in Texas.

After a shooter killed 58 people during a Jason Aldean performance at the Route 91 Harvest festival in 2017, some musicians called for gun control policies.

A few popular songs in recent history have subtly affirmed gay rights, such as “Most People Are Good” by Luke Bryan and “Follow Your Arrow,” by Kacey Musgraves. By the way, Garner and another top country media personality, Cody Alan, are gay.

Fifty-one percent of American adults listen to country music, according to the Country Music Association, and that figure is growing. Surprisingly, country fandom is well distributed across regions, ranging from 60 percent listenership in the near southeast, to 46 percent in the far northeast.

Country must be countrywide, as Brantley Gilbert told us in his No. 1 hit from 2011.

If industry leaders insist on shutting down political discourse like they did with the Buttigieg interview, they will doom the genre to demographic irrelevance. The country music caucus is on, and we should all celebrate it.

• Comments: (319) 339-3156; adam.sullivan@thegazette.com

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