BOB GARFIELD: This is On the Media. I’m Bob Garfield. As Appalachian Elizabeth Catte told us, no story is simple, even if the stereotypes are deeply rooted. Take country music, which is all but synonymous with red state America and conservatism. But it wasn’t always so. J. Lester Feder is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News and the author of a study of country music's political roots, ranging from 1920 to 1974. Back in October, after a Las Vegas country music concert was the venue for a murderous shooting rampage, we spoke with him about the stereotypes of country music fans that so permeated the coverage. Feder explained to me how a melting pot of blues, bluegrass and folk went through a commercial segregation process that gave us country music as we know it today.
J. LESTER FEDER: It was really simple. It was about race. The record companies created what were called “race records” to sell to black people and what were then called “hillbilly records” to sell to white people of the South. Really, it’s after World War II that Nashville emerges as a kind of capital of country music and a very tightly-controlled stream from production to what then became popular. In the late 20th century, radio was king. If you didn't make it on country radio, which was controlled by a handful of very large corporations, you couldn’t make it in mainstream country. And that largely remains the case today.
BOB GARFIELD: But not necessarily the other politics. Country music's first political marriages were not with conservatism, right? They were kind of New Deal-ish, which is lefty.
J. LESTER FEDER: Well, at the time, white Southerners were Democrats. Southern politics, the politics of federal government and public assistance, had a lot of support among the white South. It was really only in the 1960s where the conservative movement used a lot of the anger and frustration over the civil rights movement to turn a lot of white Southerners against what became big government, where you had the federal government stepping in to desegregate. But that became a national phenomenon by the middle or late ‘60s, and some of the most violent backlashes were happening in places like Boston, where forced busing was highly controversial.
And, in that time, you saw a brand of white Southern conservative politics being nationalized, and the biggest force for that was Alabama Governor George Wallace who was a segregationist Democrat who ran for president four times, both as an Independent and as a Democrat, and really transformed the politics of race in America.
[CLIP/LAMAR MORRIS SINGING ”WALLACE IN THE WHITE HOUSE”]
J. LESTER FEDER: He was finding audiences in places like Wisconsin, in what we call the Rust Belt now. That 1968-1969 period was really transformative, both for the politics of race in America and also for the politics of country music.
BOB GARFIELD: We’ve been talking about 1968-1969, which happened to be the year when this song was released.
[CLIP/MERLE HAGGARD SINGING ”OKIE FROM MUSKOGEE”]:
We don't smoke marijuana in Muskogee;
We don't take our trips on LSD
We don't burn our draft cards down on Main Street
‘Cause we like livin' right and bein' free.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: Merle Haggard, “Okie from Muskogee.” Tell me about that song.
J. LESTER FEDER: So Haggard says that he initially wrote that song as a joke. The story that Haggard told about it is that they were on their tour bus going through Oklahoma. They were smoking weed. They went past the sign for Muskogee. Somebody said, I bet they don’t smoke marijuana in Muskogee, and then they wrote the rest of the lyrics.
MERLE HAGGARD SINGING:
Like the hippies out in San Francisco do.
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
J. LESTER FEDER: And when he started performing it, it got this explosive reaction. What he had written as a parody became an anthem.
BOB GARFIELD: The song became a sensation, and then what happened?
J. LESTER FEDER: So he then followed that song up with a song called “The Fighting Side of Me,” which was a very direct attack on people protesting against the Vietnam War. And that sounds much more like it was intended to be anthemic.
[CLIP/MERLE HAGGARD SINGING “THE FIGHTIN’ SIDE OF ME”]:
They’re walkin' on the fightin' side of me.
Runnin' down a way of life
Our fightin' men have fought and died to keep.
If you don't love it, leave it
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
J. LESTER FEDER: That song was also very popular. And other people in the industry realized that there was a real marketing opportunity here.
BOB GARFIELD: The historian Diane Pecknold observes that it wasn’t so much that country music moved to the right but that the right moved toward country music.
J. LESTER FEDER: I think that's right. The Nixon campaign in ’68 did run some furtive country music advertisements it was considered too tacky to do too publicly but that was happening a little bit under the radar. After the election, Nixon was the first to issue a declaration in honor of country music. He was the first president to visit the Grand Ole Opry when he was trying to save his skin during sort of the height of the Watergate scandal, trying to use it as a way of substantiating the claim that the Republican Party spoke for the heartland and the Democrats did not.
But there was a real hunger in a lot of parts of America for representation, and country music did offer a landscape that was talking a lot about old-fashioned values. But it wasn't uniform, and, and one of the most interesting examples was the Loretta Lynn song called ”The Pill,” which was talking about the liberation that it gave for women because they had access to birth control.
[CLIP - LORETA LYNN SINGING ”THE PILL”]:
All I've seen of this old world
Is a bed and a doctor bill
I'm tearin' down your brooder house
'Cause now I've got the pill
[MUSIC UP & UNDER]
J. LESTER FEDER: So there was some complexity in it but it was one of the few places in popular culture where people who were scared of that kind of change really could gather.
BOB GARFIELD: After the presidential election, there was a whole lot of handwringing by the political class and the media about how we could have so missed this phenomenon. Looking back, you, you could make an argument that all anyone had to do was turn on the radio. Is country music the, the pulse of a nation?
J. LESTER FEDER: Well, I think it’s a hugely influential cultural sphere, you know, as much, if not more so, than -- than a lot of pop music that gets a lot more attention. Whether it would have signaled Trump coming, I was not aware of a tremendous swing in country music politics leading up to that election or really a tremendous swing in country music politics in the last 20 years. That said, it is one of, if not the most, popular form of music in America on radio, and it would be a huge mistake not to pay attention to it.
BOB GARFIELD: Lester, thank you.
J. LESTER FEDER: My pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: J. Lester Feder is a world correspondent for BuzzFeed News.