Mon, Aug 21, 2006 - Page 13 News List

Singing the red-state blues

Conservatism has long had the upper hand in country music, but a group of Democrates on Nashville's Music Row are trying to change that equation

By Theo Emery  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , NASHVILLE, TENNESSEE

Darrell Scott, a songwriter and member of Music Row Democrats, at a recording session in Nashville, Tennessee earlier this month. Democrats in the country music industry are frustrated with their genre's reputation for being conservative.

PHOTO: NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE

Country music videos flashed on a television set at the Idle Hour, a bar in Nashville's Music Row where a Crock-Pot of beef stew simmered for hungry musicians.

Sitting at a table in early August, Bobby Braddock, the longtime songwriter, lamented the conservatism of the US country music industry that was demonstrated when the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks became a target of fury three years ago after saying she was ashamed that her band and President George W. Bush shared the same home state.

Asked whether his recent song Thou Shalt Not Kill will have airplay, Braddock said, "Oh, never."

"Something political will not get played on country radio unless it's on the conservative side," he added. "If you show both sides, it's not good enough. It's got to be just on the right."

Country music, the genre of lonely hearts and highways, lost jobs and blue-collar woes, has become a cultural battleground. Conservatism is widely seen as having the upper hand, a red-state answer to left-leaning Hollywood.

Democrats on Music Row, the country music capital here, have grown frustrated with that reputation. A group of record-company executives, talent managers and artists has released an online compilation of 20 songs, several directly critical of Bush and the Iraq war.

The price for the set is US$20, with most of the proceeds going to the group, which calls itself Music Row Democrats and is using the money to support local and national candidates who share its values.

Bob Titley, a former manager of Brooks & Dunn and a co-founder of Music Row Democrats, said he has no illusions that the songs will shoot to the top of the charts. Rather, he hopes to use them as fundraisers and to change the image of country as strictly Republican music.

"My hope would be that they would play this music at campaign rallies," he said, "and when the volunteers are out on a hot day driving door to door, they'll put it in their cars to keep themselves pumped up and in a good mood."

The songs include Braddock's Thou Shalt Not Kill and Big Blue Ball of War by Nanci Griffith. Another longtime songwriter, John Scott Sherrill, contributed You Let the Fox Run the Henhouse, and former Vice President Al Gore speaks a few words at the end of Al Gore, which was written by Robert Ellis Orrall.

Many singers and songwriters who contributed are not household names outside Nashville, but their work is recorded on other labels by many big stars, including Toby Keith, LeAnn Rimes and Travis Tritt.

The songwriter Darrell Scott contributed Goodle U.S.A. Faith Hill had recorded it under a different name and without the line "It's like Joe McCarthy was our acting president."

"I've never thought of myself as very political," he said. "It just seems like in the current environment even I have to write about it."

Chris Willman, a senior writer at Entertainment Weekly magazine, said that although the members of Music Row Democrats had industry credibility, few were in the limelight.

"They have a tough row to hoe in convincing people that country music is really, seriously Democrat friendly," Willman said.

Though Music Row occupies a small patch of Nashville, it looms large over the city's culture. When the lead singer of the Dixie Chicks, Natalie Maines, said at a concert in London in March 2003, "We're ashamed the president of the United States is from Texas," the reaction was fierce and swift.

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