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Country First?

How country music lost the election--and why that may be the best thing to happen to the genre in years

Admittedly, it’s difficult to fire up a crowd before a concession speech. Yet on an Arizona stage on election night, there stood Hank Williams Jr. and Big & Rich’s John Rich, alone with their guitars and trying, in vain, to rouse John McCain’s admirers shortly before McCain officially threw in the towel. In an election full of culturally symbolic moments, here was another: the sight of two country stars, from two different generations, looking testy yet powerless--visual proof that among the many losers in last week’s elections was country music itself.

The president-elect himself appears to be superficially acquainted with country; after he accepted his party’s nomination at the Democratic convention, Brooks & Dunn’s “Only in America” rocked the arena. (George W. Bush used the same song during his 2004 campaign, giving Obama’s use of it an ironic punch.) But Obama’s world--as seen in his base and in the post-election map--is far more eclectic. As E.J. Dionne wrote recently, the rise of Obama denotes “the future majority ... the majority of a dynamic country increasingly at ease with its diversity.” It’s there in Obama’s iPod, which is said to include everything from John Coltrane to Sheryl Crow and Jay-Z.

This trend can’t be terribly good news for country music, which has ridden the people’s-music wagon for most of this decade. The GOP and Nashville hitched themselves to each other as far back as the Nixon years, when Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard (both of whom had personal lefty leanings) were invited to perform at the White House. But it was Ronald Reagan, always eager to welcome Western iconography, who embraced the music more wholeheartedly than any previous president. In 1983, he hosted a reception for country singers at the White House in which he said the music was “one of only a very few forms that we can claim as purely American,” and its fans had a “deep-seated love of country, freedom, and God.”

Words like those set the template for the country-GOP lovefest to come. After September 11, the bond between party and music grew even stronger, as a rash of country stars recorded pro-war singles (almost all of them clunky and unlistenable). None of this was surprising; country’s base has long been the rural and suburban whites whose politics were trended conservative.

This time around, though, the impact was felt in the music itself. Much like the Republican Party, country gave into an inflated sense of itself. It reached out to swing voters—in this case, older rock fans who felt disconnected from everyone from Rihanna to the White Stripes. Eager to reach as many people as possible, country became, in essence, pop music. The good news: Plenty of good singles with grabby, sky-high choruses. The bad news: Too many Southern-adult-contemporary ballads and obnoxious power chords.

The makeover can be seen in any of the recent country awards shows--like last week’s Country Music Association awards--in which hammy rock-sound-alike songs and stage moves dominate. (At the CMA telecast, the fact that Kid Rock performed his pointless Lynyrd Skynyrd/Warren Zevon mashup “All Summer Long”--and no one in the audience seemed to mind--said it all.) For every solid Brad Paisley single there’s been an abomination like Lady Antebellum’s “Lookin’ for a Good Time,” a hair-metal banality dressed up with a bare minimum of twang. It’s easy to sound fuddy-duddy about all this; country shouldn’t remaining stuck in a Hank Williams Sr. past and needs to adapt to its larger and more suburban base. But is the solution a slew of country hits that sound like little more than Chevy ads without the accompanying visuals?

Current darling and new-media-savvy heartthrob Taylor Swift is the embodiment of Nashville’s crossover dreams. An attractive, blonde-tressed 18-year-old who writes much of her own material, Swift is equally at home singing with Def Leppard and the Jonas Brothers. (Yes, she’s really done both.) Her new single “Love Story,” channels downbeat alternative and pop singers past. (Am I the only one who hears more Suzanne Vega than Reba McEntire in that voice?) Her second album, Fearless, is the number one album in the country right now--on the pop chart. It would be easy to see Swift’s success as a sign of Nashville’s ongoing domination over the charts, but aside from a dash of fiddle or banjo in her songs, there’s nothing especially “country” about that much of her music. It’s so pop that it’s an anomaly.

The so-called real country may find itself as isolated as that huddle of red states in the electoral map. Country stars were notably absent from the fall presidential campaign, and even when they made the effort, they didn’t make much of an impact. John Rich’s McCain theme song, “Raising McCain,” never caught fire, much like the campaign itself. The kicker, though, was news that emerged just a few days before November 4: Joe the Plumber Wurzelbacher announced he would be pursuing a career in--what else?--country music, complete with a Nashville-based PR firm. Just as we’ve learned that Joe is far from representative of today’s average American, much less average maintenance man, country may no longer be the music for the average, well, Joe.

As dreary as all that sounds, country’s current state may be the best thing that ever happened to it. Much like the GOP and its recent state-of-the-party symposiums, it’s easy to imagine a slew of Nashville professionals gathering in a hotel conference room to discuss the future of the music. Some would want to see the music go more pop, a la Swift; others may want to see the music return to its core identity with just a bit of modernization, since country is no longer the music of the middle for many Americans. (Consider it the equivalent of New York Times columnist David Brooks’ “traditionalists” vs. “reformers” thesis.) In both cases, let’s hope the traditionalists, the ones who can balance the past and the present without severe compromises, win out.

David Browne is a contributor to and the author, most recently, of .

By David Browne