There’s a brief but interesting article up on the American Prospect site by music historian J. Lester Feder that plays off the Dixie Chicks “controversy” to remind people that country music’s famous political conservatism was yet another legacy of Richard M. Nixon’s Southern Strategy.Feder’s right that country music got politicized in the Nixon Years, and I can add a few examples to his account, from personal memory.He rightly tags Merle Haggard’s “Okie From Muscogee” as the apotheosis of country conservatism, and reports ol’ Merle’s claim that the song was a parody. He doesn’t mention Merle’s follow-up superpatriot hit, “The Fightin’ Side of Me”, that was clearly beyond parody:I read about some squirrely guy who claims that he just don’t believe in fightingAnd I wonder just how long the rest of us can count on being freeThey love our milk and honey but they preach about some other way of livingBut when you’re running down my country, hossYou’re walkin’ on the fightin’ side of me.This tune anchored a live album, recorded in Philadelphia, that was a red-white-and-blue extravaganza. I remember it vividly. My parents, huge Haggard fans (they actually got to hang out with him a bit at an Atlanta country music venue called the Playroom, in those innocent, pre-arena days of the genre), naturally had a copy, and made sure I heard the cut that included his spot-on impressions of other country stars, most notably fellow Bakersfield legend and country-rock pioneer Buck Owens (whose ex-wife Bonnie was Merle’s then-wife and backup singer).Haggard did, a couple of years earlier, turn down a request from George Wallace to endorse his 1968 presidential candidacy. But other country stars–if I remember correctly, they included both Tammy Wynette and Loretta Lynn–did sing for George. And one of my favorite memories from the 1968 campaign was an ad featuring Grand Ol’ Opry fixture Roy Acuff, who did a soulful musical intro about the nation’s many problems, and then the camera pulled back to show Roy standing next to a gigantic, hideous photo of Richard Nixon (Acuff himself ran for Governor of Tennessee as a Republican back in 1948, and in 1970, campaigned for fellow country singer Tex Ritter in 1970, running for the same office with the same futile result).Perhaps the best example of the abrupt transition from populism to conservatism that Leder talks about was Whisperin’ Bill Anderson, a Georgia country crooner whose band, the Po’ Boys, was rooted in the Depression populist tradition. But in the early 70s, he did a song, “Where Have All Our Heroes Gone?” that arguably captured the rightward, nostalgic trend in country music more presicely than Haggard’s pugilistic odes (though Loretta Lynn’s “God Bless American Again,” co-written with Conway Twitty, which she typically delivered against a backdrop that featured a spotlighted Old Glory, did so as well in a less explicitly political vein).The omission in Leder’s piece that surprised me the most was the obvious antecedent to the Dixie Chicks’ liberal heresy: Earl Scruggs. An alumnus of Bill Monroe’s band, co-founder of the vastly popular Flatt and Scruggs duo, and basically, the inventor of bluegrass banjo pickin’, Scruggs scandalized much of his following by performing at the big 1969 anti-Vietnam War rally in Washington.And Earl’s still around, probably chuckling a bit at the Chicks’ successful notoriety and multiple Grammies. Scruggs picked up his first Grammy the same year as his anti-war appearance, for Foggy Mountain Breakdown, and won a second Grammy for a re-recording of the same piece, in 2002.
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By Ed Kilgore
This year’s big media narrative has been the confirmation saga of Neera Tanden, Biden’s nominee for director of the Office of Management and Budget. At New York I wrote about how over-heated the talk surrounding Tanden has become.
Okay, folks, this is getting ridiculous. When a vote in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee on the nomination of Neera Tanden was postponed earlier this week, you would have thought it presented an existential threat to the Biden presidency. “Scrutiny over Tanden’s selection has continued to build as the story over her uneven reception on Capitol Hill stretched through the week,” said one Washington Post story. Politico Playbook suggested that if Tanden didn’t recover, the brouhaha “has the potential to be what Biden might call a BFD.” There’s been all sorts of unintentionally funny speculation about whether the White House is playing some sort of “three-dimensional chess” in its handling of the confirmation, disguising a nefarious plan B or C.
Perhaps it reflects the law of supply and demand, which requires the inflation of any bit of trouble for Biden into a crisis. After all, his Cabinet nominees have been approved by the Senate with a minimum of 56 votes; the second-lowest level of support was 64 votes. One nominee who was the subject of all sorts of initial shrieking, Tom Vilsack, was confirmed with 92 Senate votes. Meanwhile, Congress is on track to approve the largest package of legislation moved by any president since at least the Reagan budget of 1981, with a lot of the work on it being conducted quietly in both chambers. Maybe if the bill hits some sort of roadblock, or if Republican fury at HHS nominee Xavier Becerra (whose confirmation has predictably become the big fundraising and mobilization vehicle for the GOP’s very loud anti-abortion constituency) reaches a certain decibel level, Tanden can get out of the spotlight for a bit.
But what’s really unfair — and beyond that, surreal — is the extent to which this confirmation is being treated as more important than all the others combined, or indeed, as a make-or-break moment for a presidency that has barely begun. It’s not. If Tanden cannot get confirmed, the Biden administration won’t miss a beat, and I am reasonably sure she will still have a distinguished future in public affairs (though perhaps one without much of a social-media presence). And if she is confirmed, we’ll all forget about the brouhaha and begin focusing on how she does the job, which she is, by all accounts, qualified to perform.