Culture  /  Origin Story

How Country Music Became Patriotic

Country music boosters rebranded the genre and tied it to America's military mission as a way to build popularity.

CMA Fest, the Country Music Association’s (CMA) lucrative annual takeover of downtown Nashville — which produced $75 million in revenue in 2023 — kicks off on Thursday with special events including a live interview with Dolly Parton followed by a program billed as “Enlisted: Where Music Meets Military with Craig Morgan and Gary Sinise.” Morgan, a country singer and U.S. Army veteran, has long made his service a prominent aspect of his public personae, while Sinise has built a reputation in acting and music as a vocal supporter of U.S. troops.

This combination of musical profits and military promotion is nothing new for the CMA. In fact, it has driven the organization’s business and political aspirations since its founding in 1958. Established as a “chamber of commerce” for country music, the CMA sought to boost the genre’s commercial and political power in the U.S. and around the world, adopting the founding slogan “Best Liked World-Wide.” The organization used its connections to politicians and the U.S. Defense Department to turn that slogan into reality. Together, these forces promoted country music as “America’s music” and cemented a relationship between the genre and the U.S. Armed Forces that continues to shape the country industry’s politics in 2024.  

The effort to rebrand country music and tie it to the U.S.’s Cold War mission began in the early 1950s. In 1951, country music impresario Connie B. Gay booked artist Grandpa Jones on a tour of Japan and South Korea, where he played for an estimated 38,000 U.S. and U.N. troops. Gay, who owned multiple radio and television stations around Washington, D.C., also joined with the U.S. Army and Air Force Recruiting Service to create country music-themed recruitment radio shows. 

The Army found a spokesperson for those efforts in Faron Young, an up-and-coming country artist who was drafted in 1952 just before his break-out single hit the Billboard charts. Taking advantage of this new star in olive drab, Young’s commanding officers excused him from basic training and sent him on the road as the voice of recruitment and entertainment for the Third U.S. Army until he received his discharge in 1954. Country music recruitment campaigns proliferated throughout the late 1950s and early 1960s, eventually accounting for more than one-third of all musical recruitment on television.