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Millions of people mourned the passing of country music legend Loretta Lynn, who died Tuesday at the age of 90, with obituaries and tributes remembering her songs, her voice, her authenticity and her charm.
There was relatively little mention of his politics.
Some stories were written recalling the feminist impact of her 1975 hit “The Pill”, and even her eve: “Don’t Come Home a Drinkin’ (With Lovin’ On Your Mind)”.
Moviegoers elated by Oscar-winning actress Sissy Spacek’s portrayal of Lynn in the 1980 film coal miner’s daughter could impute to him all the political attitudes they wished.
But Lynn has been an integral part of politics at several stages of her career.
At the height of her fame in the 1960s and 1970s, Lynn was part of a key shift in country music politics – a shift akin to the shifting partisan leanings of the music’s most loyal fans.
This change made a big difference in American politics when it happened, helping elect Republican presidents such as Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and both Presidents Bush.
And it continues to make a big difference today.
Some of Lynn’s fans were surprised this week to learn that she supported former President Donald Trump
She once told an interviewer that she went with Trump partly because her audience would have booed her if she had endorsed Hillary Clinton. (The 2016 Democratic nominee alienated some country music fans with what seemed like a slight reference to the phrase “Stand By Your Man,” the title of the song defining Tammy Wynette’s ethos on marriage.
The surprise of Lynn’s alignment with Trump was a rehash of the reaction from some of her fans when she appeared on stage in 1988 with Republican presidential candidate George HW Bush.
On that occasion, referring to one of her own songs (“You’re Looking at Country”), Lynn told the crowd and the cameras that watching Bush was “watching country.” And in case there was any doubt, she leaned into the microphone and proclaimed, “I know George Bush, and he’s country.“
It caused a few smiles and a lot of head-scratching at the time. Bush was born in New England and raised in Washington, D.C. As the son of a senator from Connecticut, Bush graduated from a super-elite private prep school at Yale. After his Navy service and a few years in Midland, Texas, where he established an oil business, he moved to the Silk Stocking section of Houston and from there to Washington, where he served as a Congressman, Director of CIA, Chairman of the Republican Party and Vice President of Ronald Reagan. (Later, she also campaigned for her son, George W. Bush.)
Of course, the elder Bush had spent much of 1988 doing his best to deserve Lynn’s description, getting his picture taken driving a truck and professing his deep love of fried pork rinds.
But none of that really mattered. If Loretta Lynn said Bush was country, in a way, he was. She wasn’t making up a fake biography for him; she communicated a certain shared faith with her audience. She told them that Bush would act as their guardian, standing up for what his fans saw as America (and certainly doing so better than that year’s Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, the technocratic governor of Massachusetts).
There has been a listening to heritage in music and politics
Lynn was always close to her audience. Her Butcher Holler, Ky. background shone through in everything she said and sang. She embodied both desire and aspiration, both humility and a genuine pride that could be fierce.
She was also part of a generation of country music stars in the 1960s and 1970s who defined their public personas largely in contrast to the folk and rock stars of their day.
While the Woodstock Nation opposed the Vietnam War while supporting civil rights and radical lifestyles, Nashville’s sound was in tune with traditional American social norms. Country music artists seemed to be circling the wagons in defense of America as they — and their fans — remembered.
And since then, Republican candidates have struggled to identify with country artists’ sense of attunedness to heritage, to the way things used to be. Reagan had buttons that said “Let’s make America great again” long before Trump shortened the motto and put it on a hat.
If Bush Sr. was an unlikely campaign hero, Trump was even more so. Trump didn’t even have fleeting ties to country life or country music, but he forged an affinity with those who did.
He was, of course, from a wealthy New York family. But he had created a tough businessman persona on a reality TV show and was able to translate that into a “tell it like it is” political persona as a candidate. He was also shown to embrace the pop culture tastes and social attitudes of blue-collar Americans, especially those of rural working-class whites.
Trump was able to harness the fiery and often defensive spirit that has long informed the (wider) Appalachian region that spawned much of what Americans have come to call “country western.” It’s akin to the fiercely provocative spirit that drives JD Vance’s memoir. Hillbilly Elegy and it drew Trump’s endorsement of Vance’s Senate candidacy in Ohio.
Before World War II, country music was often referred to as “hillbilly”, according to authoritative genre historian Bill C. Malone, whose volume with Tracey E. W. Laird, Country Music, USA (informed Ken Burns’ PBS documentary Country Music: An American Family Story).
It wasn’t always a term of derision or rejection, notes Malone. But when it became the case for some in the music industry, it served as both fighting words and a shared badge of honor. Malone said he’s seen country singers “privately describe themselves as hillbilly, but respond bitterly if someone else calls them that.”
What Wallace and later Nixon and Trump drew on was the bitterness of that response.
Lynn always talked about the private pride made public and the sweetness of the bond. That’s why people were surprised to discover that they could have differences with her when they did, and why they could overcome those differences to honor her art and her life.
For generations, these voters have been the foundation of the Democratic Party.
No one thought that a single country singer, however beloved, could bestow the presidency on Bush or any other candidate. But the motivations for Lynn’s endorsement were important because they expressed changes that had been going on for years in agricultural America and among middle-class voters who worked for pay and didn’t have a college degree.
For generations, these voters have been the foundation of the Democratic Party. In the South, the Democratic Party had been the dominant political identity since before the Civil War. With the Great Depression and New Deal in the 1930s, the Democrats had greater appeal in the rest of rural America, although they remained stronger in the rural South. Franklin D. Roosevelt attained sainthood.
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George Vecsey, the New York Times writer who collaborated on the memoirs, coal miner’s daughter (the basis of the film of the same name), relates that Lynn inherited some of this reverence from her father.
“Dad thought [FDR] hung the moon,” Lynn told Vecsey. “George, you write a few things about FDR. “
But in the second half of the 20th century, the country changed and the allegiances of many artists also changed. Early in Lynn’s career in the 1960s and 1970s, when these folk and rock heroes were increasingly identified with leftist causes, trouble drove many mainstream Democrats out.
Many went to see Alabama Governor George Wallace, an ardent segregationist who ran for president as a candidate for the American Independent Party in 1968.
Never a threat to win the White House, Wallace was nonetheless a threat to block the candidacy of Republican Richard Nixon. He won two Southern states, and had he won a few more, he could have denied that Nixon needed to win an absolute majority in the Electoral College.
In that bid, and in subsequent bids for the Democratic Party presidential nomination, Wallace leaned heavily on major country music figures, such as Roy Acuff and Ferlin Husky, who conducted star-studded shows for Wallace at the Ryman Auditorium, the original site of the Grand Ole’ Opry in Nashville and “country music’s mother church.”
Wallace secured only a minor fraction of the national popular vote, but he won several Deep Southern states and threatened to deny Nixon a majority of the Electoral College vote. That would have thrown the election into the House of Representatives, where the outcome was far from clear.
Among those who took notice was Nixon himself, who recruited country artists for his own campaign in 1968 and would do so again in his bid for re-election four years later. Along the way, Nixon made sure to visit the Ryman Auditorium and say hello to its inhabitants. The Country Music Association responded with a commemorative album titled Thank you Mr President. It featured what was said to be his favorite, Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” anthem.“- and also “Coal Miner’s Daughter” by Lynn.
Not all country artists have leaned right, of course. Guitar demigod Chet Atkins was a liberal with plenty of lines toward other types of musicians. Willie Nelson, author of hits for Patsy Cline as well as for himself as early as the 1950s, was a left-wing populist who campaigned for the last Democratic Governor of Texas, Ann Richards, as well as other politicians. Dolly Parton is a long-time advocate for LGBTQ rights.
The Dixie Chicks were sailing to the top of the country charts when their opposition to the second President Bush and the war in Iraq deviated them from their trajectory. More recently, we’ve seen country superstars like Taylor Swift turn away from years of apolitical posture to speak with the voice of their own generation.
The same could be said for Maren Morris, Kacey Musgraves and others who have raised funds and championed causes far removed from the Nashville vibe of half a century ago.
Over time, we may look back and see them as transformers as well.