Following Las Vegas, country musicians struggle to find their free speech footing

Following Las Vegas, country musicians struggle to find their free speech footing

Photo illustration CW / MK Holladay

Last month, country artist and southern outcast Sturgill Simpson stood outside the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville as the Country Music Awards roared on inside, lacking one of its not-so-obvious key players. 

Simpson, whose album “A Sailor’s Guide to Earth” won the 2016 Grammy for Best Country Album, took to the streets for an evening of busking, political commentary and advocacy – he was gathering funds for the American Civil Liberties Union. He’s known for his ingenious music and his social media presence that’s controversial within the country music community. Meanwhile, inside the arena, an unusually large elephant in the room brought tension to the jubilee, one that’s typically devoid of any strong political chatter. Sturgill knew his feelings would be more welcome outside on the street.

As he livestreamed his street performance on Facebook, his message was one laced with political meaning as he discussed issues like gun control and civil rights. Inside, the cumbersome elephant was the too-recent memory of the October shooting at the country music festival in Las Vegas that resulted in 59 deaths and a heavy discomfort within the country music community. 

“Nobody needs a machine gun,” Simpson said in the Livestream. “Coming from a guy who owns quite a few guns.”

For an industry whose followers usually avoid taking a stance on controversial issues, the fall of 2017 was a rocky road as country artists decide whether or not to make their voices heard. The Country Music Awards themselves stepped in, barring the media from questioning artists about Las Vegas, gun control or any other hotly political topics. After singer Brad Paisley tweeted, “I’m sure the CMA will do the right thing and rescind these ridiculous and unfair press guidelines,” the CMA did just that. But, their retraction was too late – they couldn’t avoid criticism from the media, who incited this blatant ban on political speech as being unfair. 

Many country music artists like to avoid controversial issues, especially in the wake of a tragedy and in a polarized political climate. But, should they? Some artists felt their right to speech has been infringed upon since the Las Vegas tragedy, and they’re pushing back. 

Rosanne Cash, country singer and daughter of the legendary Johnny Cash, responded with an op-ed in The New York Times titled “Country Musicians, Stand Up to the N.R.A.” In the piece, she calls on country musicians to use their platform to rally for stronger gun control laws, despite any backlash they may receive.

‘My humanity and my citizenship are inextricably entwined,” Cash said in a comment to The Crimson White. “I won’t be bullied into silence because I will not abdicate my most important First Amendment rights – the right to my Voice. I can’t ‘shut up and sing.’ It’s anatomically and spiritually impossible.”

The bullying to which Cash refers can be felt throughout the country industry, down to its lesser-known and smaller acts. Natalie Kilic, a senior majoring in public relations and the president of the UA chapter of Country Music Association EDU, an organization that prepares students for careers in the music industry, said some artists may not want to speak out if they think their speech could perturb a large portion of listeners.

“I think I see country artists avoiding super controversial issues like the Second Amendment just because their opinions may not be the same of a lot of the demographic that’s listening to them,” Kilic said. “There are people who are listening that are from all walks of life.”

As country artists avoid such topics, they may take up less controversial causes. Sweet Tea Trio, a country band comprised of three Alabama women, just had a big year – they opened for Bon Jovi, and their Facebook presence has climbed to almost 25,000 likes. Bandmembers Victoria Camp, a native Tuscaloosan, Savannah Coker, a UA alumnae, and Kate Falcon make it a point to communicate with fans, but they use their platform to promote more positive relics rather than divisive issues.

“We use our music to influence others in a positive light,” Camp said. “We are all about girl power and empowering young women to embrace life, and showing people love and impacting lives at each show is our ultimate goal.”

Sweet Tea Trio are also big fans of another fierce country trio: the Dixie Chicks, notorious for their 2003 diatribe when they spoke out against President George W. Bush. Their case is one that proves while political speech in country music is nothing new, it can lead to artists’ ostracization from the country world. Like the aforementioned Simpson, the Dixie Chicks became country outsiders as a result of their political opinions. 

“I think country artists have to be more careful if they have a more liberal viewpoint,” Kilic said. “Regular artists, they’re not going to get as controversial a response as country artists are.” 

Emmett Grundberg, a freshman marketing major, said that while country artists have the right to speak out about issues, it’s not necessarily their responsibility to do so.

“At the end of the day their primary concern is making popular catchy music that lots of people can enjoy that doesn’t necessarily take a strong stance on any particular side then I don't think we should have high expectation for political activism for those kind of artists,” Grundberg said.

Grundberg said avoiding activism could in part be a business decision.

“I would say that country music right now is basically its own brand of pop music that’s geared to rural middle America,” he said. “And that’s by and large the demographic that voted the current administration in office. And I guess for them to speak out about political issues would be alienating a large portion of their fanbase."

Kilic said that although artists may not want to talk about politics, having a strong social media presence is an important part of getting your name out there. With the ability to reach fans in an instant through social media, artists, including those within the increasingly broad country genre, have an opportunity to project their speech, political or otherwise.

“I think it’s important for anybody with a platform to use their voice to speak out about what they believe in because I don’t think you should squelch their freedom of speech because under the eye of the law, we’re equal and we have the same First Amendment rights,” Kilic said. “It’s not fair to expect them to use their platform. They are where they are because they worked hard and followed what they wanted to do. It’s important for them to be able to and feel like they’re able to.”

As the curtain opened on this year’s CMAs, hostess Carrie Underwood announced that “this year is a politics-free zone,” even as the nation still toiled in the aftermath of Las Vegas. Outside, Simpson proved that country music and politics don’t have to live apart. 

“Hegemony and fascism is alive and well in Nashville, Tennessee,” Simpson said. “Thank you very much.” 

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