Bette’s Ties To Nashville and The Democrats…


Thursday, April 22, 2004
New country group out called ‘Democrats’

Photo: Steven Tackeff

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — A new group called the Music Row Democrats is trying to shake the perception that country music is full of Republicans.

But it won’t be easy. Like the 1967 Sonny James hit says, “It’s the Little Things”:

-President Bush is a country fan who invited several Nashville acts to perform at his inaugural parties, including Brooks & Dunn, Travis Tritt and Hank Williams Jr. Others, including Reba McEntire, have contributed to his re-election campaign. George Strait and George Jones have been guests at the White House.

-A string of patriotic songs emerged after the 9-11 attacks, some of them fist-shaking anthems like Toby Keith’s “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American)” that helped cement the idea of country music being pro-war and pro-Bush.

-When the Dixie Chicks’ Natalie Maines criticized Bush before a London audience last year, some country stations dropped the band’s songs from their playlists and fans destroyed their CDs.

“A lot of us felt bad that we didn’t step up and defend them – their right to say whatever they wanted to,” said Don Cook, a music producer and founding member of the Music Row Democrats. “I think it’s terrible, and it’s one of the things that motivated me to get this organization together.”

The group, formed earlier this year, includes songwriters, musicians, producers and record label executives who work on the city’s Music Row. Membership has swelled quickly to more than 700 people. A few recording artists are involved too, including Rodney Crowell and Emmylou Harris.

U.S. Rep. Harold Ford, a Memphis Democrat, has been a guest speaker, and Cook expects Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry to visit this summer.

The organization grew from frustration, said Bob Titley, executive vice president of TBA Entertainment, which manages Brooks & Dunn as well as Terri Clark and Clay Walker.

“We felt our political voice was being stifled,” Titley said. “We’re associated with a community that is perceived as being predominantly conservative and Republican, when in fact that isn’t the case.”

While country music traditionally has reflected bedrock American values, Titley said people in the industry are no more Republican than the overall population.

“I think the truth probably is that there is a pretty even split (between Republicans and Democrats) in people who work in the industry, in the artists and in the consumers,” he said.

But Tennessee Rep. Beth Harwell of Nashville, who is also chairman of the state GOP, said the country music community has a long link to the Republican Party. Indeed, Richard Nixon played piano on the Grand Ole Opry and George H.W. Bush was a frequent Opry visitor. When he was California governor, Ronald Reagan gave Merle Haggard a full pardon for his stay at the San Quentin prison.

“I’m sure you could find Democrats and Republicans both in the industry, but I think the majority of them lean Republican,” Harwell said.

A review of campaign contributions from two Music Row ZIP codes – 37203 and 37212 – shows a strong Democratic bent. According to the Web site Fundrace, which tracks political contributions reported by the Federal Election Commission, 107 contributions were made to Democratic presidential candidates between January 2003 and last February, compared with 34 for Bush.

Among the Democratic supporters were Luke Lewis, chairman of Universal Music; Joe Galante, chairman of RCA; Tim Dubois, an executive at Universal South; and entertainers Bette Midler, Nanci Griffith and Harris.

With Bush facing no opposition in the primary, one shouldn’t make too much of the lopsided tally. But it’s an indication that Music Row decision makers might not be as conservative as some believe.

Crowell thinks a handful of jingoistic songs left the wrong impression. Without naming names, he calls the artists opportunists.

“I think it’s taking advantage of a particular mindset brought on by the fear that came from the attacks on 9-11,” Crowell said. “Sometimes putting out that kind of propaganda really divides more than unifies.”

Organizers have lofty goals for the Music Row Democrats. The aim, they say, is to continue beyond the November presidential contest and work to elect Democrats at all levels of government.

“It’s amazing how many Democratic candidates are very, very interested in our organization,” Cook said. “We are a real unique community filled with really talented, creative people and our voice is pretty powerful.”

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