Culture  /  Audio

How Country Music Went Conservative

Country music is assumed to be the soundtrack of the Republican Party. But it wasn't always that way.

BOB GARFIELD:  So the roots of country music, as we know it today, are a combination of blues, blue grass, folk. How did those disparate art forms come to be what they are today?

J. LESTER FEDER:  It was really simple. It was about race. The record companies created what were called “race records” to sell to black people and what were then called “hillbilly records” to sell to white people in the South. Really, it’s after World War II that Nashville emerges as a kind of capital of country music and a very tightly-controlled stream from production to what then became popular. In the late 20th century, radio was king. If you didn't make it on country radio, which was controlled by a handful of very large corporations, you couldn’t make it in mainstream country, And that largely remains the case today.

BOB GARFIELD:  Country music's first political marriages were not with conservatism, they were kind of new deal-ish, which is lefty.

J. LESTER FEDER:  Well, at the time, white Southerners were Democrats. Southern politics, the politics of the federal government and public assistance, had a lot of support among the white South. It was really only in the 1960s where the conservative movement used a lot of the anger and frustration over the civil rights movement to turn a lot of white Southerners against what became big government, where you had the federal government stepping in to desegregate. But that became a national phenomenon by the middle or late ‘60s, and some of the most violent backlashes were happening in places like Boston, where forced busing was highly controversial. And, in that time, you saw a brand of white southern conservative politics being nationalized, and the biggest force for that was Alabama Governor George Wallace who was a segregationist Democrat who ran for president four times, both as an Independent and as a Democrat, and really transformed the politics of race in America.

J. LESTER FEDER:  He was finding audiences in places like Wisconsin, in what we call the Rust Belt now. That 1968-1969 period was really transformative, both for the politics of race in America and also for the politics of country music.