The New York Times Magazine profile of young, nontraditional country singer Kathy Musgraves by contributor Carlo Rotella was infected with smug urban liberalism and a stale defense of the defunct Dixie Chicks, "who had a patriotic fatwa declared against them for saying they were against the war in Iraq and ashamed that George W. Bush was from Texas." You may remember that happened a few days before the beginning of the Iraq War in 2003, and was proclaimed from a stage in London -- a safer place to indulge anti-war stridency than their home state of Texas.
Standing with guitar in hand on the stage of the Ryman Auditorium, the former home of the Grand Ole Opry, Kacey Musgraves faced an audience of gatekeepers and kingmakers. It was Feb. 27, and her major-label debut album, “Same Trailer, Different Park,” would be coming out on March 19. Her label, Mercury Nashville, and others owned by Universal Music Group were showcasing their artists in a private concert as part of the annual Country Radio Seminar. The curved wooden pews of the Ryman, a former tabernacle known as the Mother Church of Country Music, were lined with insiders representing radio stations, syndicators and other players in the proc-ess of deciding what airs on country radio -- which still determines mainstream success in country music.
Since the corporate consolidation enabled by the Telecommunications Act of 1996, country radio has been dominated by the format-homogenizing influence and right-wing politics of Clear Channel, which does its best to please a traditional base of older female listeners interested exclusively in country music. “After consolidation,” says Tim DuBois, the former head of Arista Nashville, “we were very definitely assigned a 35-plus female demo,” a core audience happy to leave the radio on one station all day and listen to whatever the programmers choose to play. And many of those programmers still look askance at a song featuring same-sex kissing and joint-rolling.
When I asked Musgraves if country’s mainstream was really that strait-laced, she said, “Yeah-uh” -- yes, duh -- and noted the recent uproar over Thomas Rhett’s “Beer With Jesus.” Then there’s Shania Twain, whose exposed bellybutton caused a scandal only 20 years ago, and the Dixie Chicks, who had a patriotic fatwa declared against them for saying they were against the war in Iraq and ashamed that George W. Bush was from Texas.