You’d have hoped that the kind of fierce, reactionary backlash against the Dixie Chicks – now known as The Chicks – when they poured scorn on George W Bush in 2003 would now be a thing of the past. But 17 years later and artists trying to push country music forwards are still finding themselves caught between their progressive beliefs and a traditional fanbase who just want them to “shut up and sing”.
Yet whereas The Chicks were forced to apologise for their words against the US President – a statement the band’s lead singer Natalie Maine later retracted – after their CDs were smashed in the streets and their records banned from the radio, the class of 2020 are handling the haters head on. Step forward Margo Price and Jason Isbell, whose social media feeds see them confronting absolutely livid country fans about their outspoken political beliefs with wisdom and wit.
After appearing on an empty Grand Ole Opry stage last month for the weekly broadcast of the long-running radio and television show, Price took a moment to address the current climate as well as suggesting that the Opry should give a platform to Lady A, the Black singer currently fighting for the use of her own name after the band Lady Antebellum tried to wrestle it from her. “Country music owes such a great deal of what we have to Black artists and Black music, and there is no place for sexism, racism in this music,” said Price. Almost immediately, Price was subject to a brutal Twitter pile-on. Almost immediately, Price clapped back. “Some people are ‘disappointed’ by my words about ending racism in this country, but I will never be ashamed to stand up for what is right.”
Fellow Nashville resident Jason Isbell has also been using his sizable platform of almost 350,000 Twitter followers to celebrate the power of protest, with Donald Trump a regular target of his exasperation. Earlier this week the four time Grammy Award winning Americana artist responded to the accusation that by sharing his left-leaning views he was alienating and ostracising his fanbase. Isbell was happy to agree. “If the choice is between being divisive and normalizing racism and narcissism, I’m not at all interested in bringing people together,” he wrote. “All this unity talk is just more of the same old “don’t make trouble” bullshit. Don’t fall for it, y’all.” It’s a stance he’s stuck by all through the summer, deftly responding to similar accusations in June by saying: ““You’re gonna lose some of your audience!” Maybe so, but I get to keep ALL of my SOUL.”
Fellow Grammy winning country artist Kacey Musgraves has also used social media to implore racist fans to rethink their prejudices. “If you’re on the wrong side of racism and you call yourself a friend or fan of mine: SHOW YOURSELF NOW. I wanna know exactly who you are. Explain why you hate. Really. Why? It’ll take time but love WILL win & your outdated, inhumane views will be extinguished. It’s already begun.” She then Tweeted Isbell to ask who had lost the most followers. Isbell, sassily, said he’s actually gained about 10k.
And it isn’t just support for Black Lives Matter and comments on Trump’s seeming incapability to run a country and treat all of its residents with equal dignity and respect that’s seen contemporary country’s finest facing a kickback from conservative corners. Earlier this year outlaw country singer Jaime Wyatt came out and found herself subject to attacks from people who called themselves fans. “My experience thus far is that it’s still hard,” she said in an interview with NME when asked about her experience as a queer artist in country. “I was surprised that in 2020 I would still be getting tonnes of homophobia on Facebook. I get questions like, ‘Why’s [it] important [to broadcast your sexuality]?’”
That such toxicity still exists within certain factions of country’s fanbase is grim news for sure, but here’s to the artists that refuse to shut up about what matters and who carry on singing anyway.