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A year of country music controversies has left some fans disappointed — and wondering whether they should keep listening

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 10/13/2021 Emily Yahr
Jason Aldean performs at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. in 2014. (Kyle Gustafson / For The Washington Post) © Kyle Gustafson/FTWP Jason Aldean performs at Nationals Park in Washington, D.C. in 2014. (Kyle Gustafson / For The Washington Post)

This month, after causing an online stir with photos of his toddlers wearing anti-President Biden T-shirts on Instagram, country superstar Jason Aldean doubled down: “I will never apologize for my beliefs or my love for my family and country,” he wrote in a follow-up post. A couple days later, he posted a news story to his 3.5 million followers about California Gov. Gavin Newsom instating coronavirus vaccine mandates in schools. “You gotta be kidding me! People in California should be outraged and people everywhere else better start standing up and speaking out NOW. This is not how America and being free works,” the caption stated.

If you just scrolled through the ecstatic comments below the posts, it would be easy to get the impression that all country fans agreed with this declaration. But if you look closely, especially lately, that’s far from the case.

San Jose resident Gina Marie Urizar has been a country fan for three decades and emphasized that she is in the middle of the road of the political spectrum, but she has been taken aback to see Aldean embrace such divisive rhetoric — especially given that he was a survivor of the Route 91 Harvest festival mass shooting in 2017 and was onstage when the massacre started, and should understand the need for unity. Urizar said she has started deleting his songs.

“I’m definitely looking at country singers a little bit more under the magnifying glass right now,” she said. “I don’t want to be supporting those who are doing more damage to people than good.”

She’s far from the only country fan reevaluating feelings about the genre. The stereotype persists that all country fans are conservative Republicans from small towns in the South and Midwest. But while the genre remains popular in those regions, it also continues to reach fans beyond those demographics, with listeners of many backgrounds and increasing popularity on the coasts. Multiple high-profile acts have been open about their liberal views, such as Brothers Osborne; Tim McGraw and Faith Hill donated to President Biden’s campaign. Outlets such as CMT have made concerted efforts to improve diversity in the format — the network’s CMT Artists of the Year special that aired Wednesday honored Kane Brown and Mickey Guyton, two of the few artists of color signed to major Nashville record labels. “I made it my life’s purpose to show that country music really is everyone’s music,” Guyton said in her acceptance speech for breakthrough artist of the year.

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But in the past year and a half, country music fans have watched as many Nashville stars with large and influential platforms stayed silent in aftermath of the death of George Floyd in police custody, even as celebrities from every other corner of the entertainment industry weighed in on racial equity. Then, as the coronavirus pandemic raged and much of the industry shut down, some country artists defied health protocols to play concerts anyway. In February, the genre’s breakout star Morgan Wallen was caught on video saying the n-word. Though he faced immediate condemnation and some minor consequences (his music was temporarily pulled from the radio and Spotify took his songs off its editorial playlists, for example), he arguably became more popular than ever, with his album “Dangerous” spending 10 weeks at the top of the Billboard charts.

Industry executives are also well aware of the genre’s reputation. On Tuesday, Rolling Stone obtained an email from Universal Music Group Nashville President Cindy Mabe that questioned the Recording Academy’s decision to rule country star Kacey Musgraves as ineligible for the country album category at the upcoming Grammy Awards. Mabe pointed out that country music made national headlines for the controversy surrounding Wallen’s racial slur, but added, “THIS IS NOT ALL THAT WE ARE. Under the surface are the artists that change it all and they are led by the example of Kacey Musgraves.”

Some fans have grown increasingly disillusioned as they watch these situations play out. Christina Boehnke was surprised but gratified when she saw that Maren Morris, one of the few country artists she still listens to these days, condemned Wallen as other Nashville singers stayed quiet or quickly defended him. “We all know it wasn’t his first time using that word,” Morris tweeted after TMZ posted a video of him in February saying the racial slur to a friend. “We keep them rich and protected at all costs with no recourse.”

“What Maren said really hit home,” Boehnke said. “How that wasn’t the end of his career to me says a lot about the country fan base and some of the artists themselves who just didn’t speak out against what he said or did.”

Boehnke discovered country music in college and instantly connected to the lyrics from artists from Kenny Chesney to Easton Corbin about love and heartbreak and life in a small town, which reminded her of growing up in South Dakota. Lately, however, she won’t go out of her way to listen. She can’t relate to the music as much anymore, she said, and has “zero respect” for certain artists that promote “hateful” views.

“I just don’t want to relate to anybody when I can’t get behind their morals and belief system,” she said.

While a number of fans have been discouraged by Wallen’s quick and triumphant comeback with little public reflection (he said in a “Good Morning America” interview in July that he donated $500,000 to Black-founded organizations, then added he hadn’t “really sat and thought about” whether country music has a race problem), they are also not entirely shocked given the overwhelmingly White world of country, which has routinely sidelined singers of color for decades. Wallen has already been warmly welcomed back by multiple stars of the genre, including Eric Church and Luke Bryan, who invited him onstage at their concerts.

Hasan Zia, who lives in Ontario, used to enjoy Wallen’s songs (“I showed his music to my non-country fan friends as an example of how country music is good”) but has taken him out of listening rotation. Zia was disappointed with the TMZ video though not surprised.

“As a POC living in a predominantly White country, racism doesn’t shock me at all,” Zia said. “It does get disappointing and you don’t like to see it, but with country music stars, it really is not a shock.”

Others have felt stung by country stars criticizing pandemic safety. Carrie Underwood saw a lot of backlash when she “liked” a video on Twitter of a conservative commentator comparing mask mandates for kids in schools to child abuse. Travis Tritt slammed vaccination requirements at concert venues, calling such policies “discrimination” that infringe on human rights.

Candy Higgins-Ingram has been a country music fan all her life, but when she looks at the covid-19 vaccination numbers in her county in western Oklahoma — only around 40 percent — she can’t help but think of the potential harm that famous Nashville singers do when they not only don’t encourage vaccination for their fan base but speak out against mandates. She was encouraged to see artists such as Brad Paisley and Darius Rucker star in public service announcements for the shots but was alarmed by Tritt’s words.

“When these people who are public figures use their platforms to push back on things like vaccine mandates or masks in schools, it just gives credence to people running around doing that anyway,” Higgins-Ingram said. “And it’s costing lives.” Higgins-Ingram noted that while country singers can obviously say whatever they like to their millions of followers, she can respond by not buying their concert tickets and merchandise and songs.

Jackie, a San Diego resident who spoke on the condition of anonymity for professional reasons, started to distance herself from the country genre after the 2016 election. She tried to tune in again a few years later, but after Floyd’s death, she found she couldn’t listen in good conscience when so many Nashville singers ignored what was happening in the world.

“I do miss the music, but I am also trying to be more responsible with what media I allow to take space in my brain,” she said. “Some people think you can separate the artist from the art, but I don’t believe you can. I think that someone’s personal beliefs do filter into the art they make, sometimes in really subtle ways, and when you consume that art, it influences you even if you don’t know it.”

Read more:

Country star Jason Aldean used to keep his politics private. Now his toddlers are on Instagram wearing anti-Biden T-shirts.

Carrie Underwood’s account clicked like on an anti-mask tweet. The outraged reaction shows what happens when country stars are silent on politics.

A racist slur, a groundbreaking coming out and country music’s future hanging in the balance


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