Kenny George Band
As with many reporters these days, Issac Weeks is dealing with some hot-button topics. For the past few months, Billboard magazine has tasked him with digging into thorny subjects currently affecting the mainstream country establishment centered in Nashville. The going has been slow.
“I think you’re going to see some pretty drastic changes in the way that people tour, maybe the way crowds are gathered, where they are gathered,” Rich told Billboard. “I think there are a lot of changes coming. I think more [safety] measures are going to be taken, because obviously there are people in the world who are becoming more and more and more aggressive and they are basically hunting these situations to find them. The reason bad guys do stuff like this is to shut us down, and by ‘us’ I mean your everyday American who celebrates the freedom to hold these music festivals, or the rights to enjoy our lives together.”
Indeed, Rich was one of few prominent country artists willing to give substantive comment on the impact of the tragedy. Luke Combs — who also played earlier that night in Las Vegas, and who will play the Township Auditorium in Columbia on Dec. 7 — has toed the more typical line, offering passionate condolences to the victims, such as during an impromptu performance on Jimmy Kimmel Live, without digging into concrete positions on gun control or public safety.
Weeks has run into similar reticence to speak on record in approaching another story he’s working on, one concerning a prominent Nashville publicist accused of sexual assault.
“From what I have fast come to discover, I think nobody wants to state an opinion on anything one way or another,” Weeks posits. “It’s almost like the old Michael Jordan joke, about, well, ‘Republicans buy sneakers, too,’ so that was his reason for never coming out in support of Democrats in North Carolina races. Most mainstream country artists, they’re not really doing anything explicitly Republican.”
“It’s very much like they kind of want to come off as the uncle with a lot of opinions who never actually votes,” he continues. “You can’t get anybody to really go on the record about anything. I think it’s just something weird about Nashville all together. I have heard of artists, musicians around here, born and raised in Tennessee, who literally stop interviews if they are asked if they prefer sweet or unsweet tea, because they’re like, ‘That’s too hot button.’”
As with the rest of the nation’s public discourse, a feeling of tense political division has gripped country music. This was especially apparent during last month’s Country Music Awards. Officials initially attempted to hand down strict rules keeping reporters from asking attendees about “the Las Vegas tragedy, gun rights, political affiliations or topics of the like,” before backing down in response to staunch criticism from media outlets and musicians alike, including hosts Carrie Underwood and Brad Paisley.
Then, during the ceremony itself, increasingly popular country outlaw Sturgill Simpson, not invited to the CMAs despite winning the Grammy for Best Country Album in February, busked outside the arena, streaming the performance online and donating the money thrown into his case to the American Civil Liberties Union. Set up by a member of the sizable crowd, he delivered a mock acceptance speech:
“Nobody needs a machine gun, and that’s coming from a guy who owns quite a few guns,” Simpson offered. “Gay people should have the right to be happy and live their life any way they want to and get married if they want to without fear of getting drug down the road behind a pickup truck. Black people are probably tired of getting shot in the streets and being enslaved by the industrial prison complex. Hegemony and fascism is alive and well in Nashville, Tennessee. Thank you very much.”
From his experience, though, Weeks says that the political divisions in Nashville don’t fit into the red-blue binary that this CMAs saga suggests. He points to Jason Isbell, who despite being embraced by many outside country music’s regular listener base for recent songs affirming the challenges facing black and female Americans, still gets pushback from much of his audience when tackling such subjects.
“I think a lot of it boils down to you’ve got a guy with a country accent from Alabama who has had a drinking problem and stuff — ‘Of course he’s a Republican!’” Weeks explains. “So everybody gets upset when he goes, ‘It’d be nice if Clinton won.’”
And it isn’t simple on the other side of the spectrum either.
“I’m not bragging, but I went to the Kid Rock Fish Fry a couple of weeks ago,” Weeks reflects, adding that the October event took place while the singer was still making a show of running for senator. “He gave this whole rambling speech. You’d think that he’s only saying things that his fans want to hear. And up to a certain point you’re right. During the course of it, he made a joke, like, ‘Why is everything so gay these days?’ But then he followed it up like two seconds later with, ‘Look, if they want to get married, I don’t care.’”
Many in the crowd were none too pleased with this concession.
Turns out it doesn’t matter if you’re Kid Rock or Jason Isbell or an aspiring artist looking to make a go of it right here in Columbia — navigating politics in today’s country music is no easy task. Free Times caught up with a few local artists to ask how they manage it.
Alternative to What?
Kenny George definitely feels the political tension in today’s country scene. The Aiken guitarist leads his eponymous band through thoughtful songs that bound with wide-eyed Americana grit, suggesting both the brazen authenticity of old-school outlaws and the wider possibilities of today’s more diversified roots-rock frontiers.
“The politics of country music is very similar to the [larger] political environment right now,” he says, speaking to partisan assumptions that are layered onto the divide between the so-called pop- and bro-country dominating mainstream radio and the growing contingent of alt-country stars led by the likes of Isbell and Simpson.
“There’s definitely that assumption there, that one side of the genre is one way and one side is the other. That was something I noticed after the Sturgill thing [at the CMAs], a lot of people on social media, Twitter and Facebook, who were like, ‘I don’t necessarily disagree with what he did, but he might have just isolated this much of his fan base, who lean this way or that way.’ Which is always tricky, bringing politics and music together.”
The Kenny George Band’s sound sparkles and beams in a way that would appeal to many an indie rock fan. But while this would seem to open up the group to a crowd who lean more to the left, George explains that their current position as a small band in a small state playing mostly small towns makes alienating any portion of their audience risky.
“Most of the places we go, we’re playing a lot of other small towns,” George explains. “It’s never been like, ‘Oh, you’re going to see a Kenny George Band show, you must be leaning left or leaning right.’ But where we are, just population wise, the majority is leaning right, and that’s easy to tell. And that’s OK, man. I usually just don’t poke that bear.”
Lexington’s Nick Clyburn Band carves out a similar niche, albeit with a more sizable dollop of amiable Southern rock charm. The group’s leader has never been one to push for pointed political messages — within the songwriting or away from it.
“There’s things that need to be said,” Clyburn offers. “I believe that people have the right to stand up in what they believe in, and they should if they want to take a stance. At the same time, I feel that it’s fair to say that people who don’t want to take a stance shouldn’t have to take a stance. It’s about the music, for me personally. It’s not really something I think about. I do follow politics, but I don’t have any specific agenda or message I’m trying to convey within my music. And I don’t feel that it’s something that’s holding me back.”
That’s not to say that things don’t get complicated for Clyburn. One standout song from the band’s 2016 EP Treading Water is called “Afghanistan,” an earnest evocation of his desire while serving abroad as a Marine to return home and pursue his “big dreams” for a career in music. Referencing a divisive conflict and his own military service, the tune sometimes stirs heated reactions in his listeners.
“If I hadn’t used the word ‘Afghanistan,’ I don’t feel like anybody would really feel that way, you know?” Clyburn reasons. “‘Afghanistan,’ it’s a bold title. The song, ultimately, it has no political stance. All it is about is a journey home.”
Because he hails from a small Southern town and has a military background and a voice rich with luminous twang, he knows that some people will make assumptions about him before they even listen. But he’s content to write songs that show who he is and hope the audience will appreciate them.
“Everybody has their stereotypes, man,” Clyburn says. “Everybody’s going to have their own perception. But if they stick around they’ll find out.“
Floating the Mainstream
Lexington’s Erick Florence is new to the local country scene, having started to play shows after one of the bars he frequented for karaoke asked him to get a guitarist and play a proper gig. He’s been singing and writing songs since July, logging about 20 dates thus far and prepping an album for release in the near future. The softly swaying pedal steel and fiddle of his single “Front Porch Dancin” should pique nostalgia for fans of the mainstream country dial back in the ’90s.
Florence readily accepts that most fans of the music he makes probably lean toward the right politically. The values expressed by mainstream country music largely line up with his own, he says, so he doesn’t feel much conflict.
“I could see where some artists feel like there’s a pressure to coincide with concurrent ideals out of the perceived country viewpoint,” Florence tells Free Times. “I don’t feel those pressures. I grew up in the South. Lived in South Carolina my whole life except living in Nashville for two years for college. Most of those ideals that are perceived by country music are ideals that I was raised with, it was just part of my lifestyle. You support God, mama and Uncle Sam. And that’s the way that you live in this life.”
Columbia’s Sabin Sharpe has been around a little longer, leading his namesake band for about four years, displaying a savvy knack for the kind of whiskey-soaked balladry that could easily find a home on the mainstream country dial — in fact, his single “Empty Bottles” recently entered rotation on Columbia’s 97.5 WCOS. And for a guy who is clearly set on making such an ascension, he’s surprisingly willing to speak with nuance on heated political topics, commenting on the shooting in Las Vegas and adding that while he supports the Second Amendment and the right to defend oneself, that having “a deer rifle to go deer hunting is different from being able to own a 50-caliber machine gun.”
“I enjoy guns and blowing things up,” he says. “But I don’t agree with somebody going and shooting everybody up. That’s just crazy.”
Figuring out when to speak his mind and when to hold back is tough.
“I’m still trying to deal with my fan base and get my name out there and get my music out there,” Sharpe reasons. “Some things I can talk about, but then some things, I could talk about and boast my opinion and my fans hear it or see it, and they’re like, ‘Oh, he likes this, well, I’m not going to listen to your music, you moron.’”
Speak Your Mind
Columbia’s Paisley Marie sees herself as a folk singer as much as a country artist, offering lyrics rich with poetic honesty, swept along by her buoyantly Southern croon. When she touches on more sensitive subject matter, she’d rather present a situation that makes her listeners think than present a definitive position.
“Anytime I write a song, I like it to be a little bit controversial because I feel like that’s what really hits people,” she says. “And it can split it down the middle. But most of the time, I feel like people gravitate towards stuff that’s real as opposed to stuff that’s just surface-level cliches. I have [a] song that’s called ‘I Don’t Go to Church,’ and while that’s not necessarily political, I was really nervous to release that song. It’s about comparing a relationship to your faith in religion.”
“I’d rather spark a discussion with the song than give my opinion,” the singer reasons. “I’d rather open it up for people to interpret it and discuss it, if it is something political. I want to bring up the topic, and have it be out there for other people to discuss.”
But even for her, an artist who consistently weaves weightier themes into her songs, there’s still some pushback.
“I have Woody Guthrie’s little sign on one of my old guitars — ‘This Machine Kills Fascists,’ she recounts. “And somebody actually wrote me on Facebook, because I had that picture up of me playing that guitar, and they were like, ‘You might not want to use this picture to promote your music.’ And I was like, ‘Well, why not?’ And they said, ‘Oh, with the political climate, nobody really wants to hear about stuff like that.’ And I took it into consideration. I got kind of upset at first because I was like, ‘Who is in support of fascism that doesn’t like the sign?’”
And when exploring prickly subjects, being a woman can makes things more complicated.
“I don’t mean to defensive about it,” she says. “I always try to be really objective when I speak about being a woman because people don’t mean things the way they come across a lot of times. But I feel like [some] people definitely don’t respect it whenever I sing a song like that, the ones that I write that have more meaning to them.
“Whenever I don’t want to say something that I’m feeling, whenever I stay quiet about it, it’s because I don’t feel like I have the authority to speak on it,” the songwriter adds. “But being a musician gives me that authority, because it’s my music and it’s what I want to say.”
When it comes to the styles he plays, Columbia’s Todd Mathis is more all over the map, moving past his time leading the gritty country-rock of American Gun to explore other ends. His gleaming collection of romantic songs, Love in the City, tilts toward Wilco and Big Star, but he’s also released some bracing protest songs in recent years — such as the blistering anti-Stars and Bars tune “Fuel That Flag.” He’s not chasing fame, content to release music he’s passionate about and play local shows, but he still practices discretion with his political fervor.
“As an artist, sometimes it’s better to stay in the middle,” Mathis says, referencing Scene From Another…, the most recent release from his sound collage project, Interruptions of the Mind. “The full thing, which I haven’t told anyone, is Scene from Another National Tragedy. It’s supposed to be the soundtrack from one of the shootings.
“Sometimes as an artist, I don’t necessarily go all out. Because I don’t want people to go into it with a preconceived notion. … Let them get what they want out of it. But on the other hand, if I really have something I want to say — like the flag or the death penalty or gun rights, the things I really feel strongly about — then I’m going to say, ‘Go ahead, let’s go watch the divide. You’re either going to like it or you’re not.’”
Arts & Entertainment Editor of Free Times