America truly is a land of equal opportunity: It's so big a country that everyone who scouts around long enough can find a reason to believe themselves persecuted. That's not quite the intended moral of Rednecks & Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music (New Press, $25.95), Entertainment Weekly staffer Chris Willman's lively new analysis. But Willman's book, in which he chats with musicians on both (or maybe all) sides of the ideological divide—from Nashville's biggest stars to alt-country's most respected artistes to bona fide legends—isn't just another portrait of a country divided along simple red and blue lines. Instead, it shows a country riven by countless faults, where every group of like-minded folks, no matter how large, is convinced, sometimes justifiably, that there's another group out there with the power to silence them.
Willman leads with the 2003 Dixie Chicks debacle; as you may recall, the Chicks' Natalie Maines joked with a London audience that she was ashamed to be from the same state as George W. Bush, and her group was soon met with a nationwide boycott that knocked them off the charts. Willman astutely wonders where this movement originated: Was it a grassroots campaign, an uprising of rabid Free Republic ideologues, or a shutdown by conservative Clear Channel suits? Certainly Maines' statement was unpopular among country music fans, but "unpopular" is a dodgy word—though elections and market shares often indicate otherwise, prevailing majority opinion shouldn't be confused with unanimity.
After all, as any respectable poll shows, George W. Bush (you knew we'd be getting to him eventually) is an unpopular president, struggling these days to keep his head above a 40 percent approval rating. But he was also re-elected by more voters than any president before him: 62 million, or more than 15 times as many people as bought Gretchen Wilson's smash debut, Here for the Party,the same year. Of course, John Kerry's 59 million votes would have made him way bigger than, say, Kenny Chesney. But the point is that Bush's appeal is hard to quantify—as Willman puts it, Bush is "the biggest country star of them all these days," relying on the same style of down-home presentation favored by Nashville's biggest. And his character supercedes political detail: For every Lee Ann Womack who disagrees with the Republican Party but "believes" in Bush, there's a Merle Haggard who can't stand the guy.
Still, only a serious cultural shift could have readied Bush's "audience" for him. So it's odd that while charting country music's relationship with Carter, Dubya, and even Reagan, Willman glosses over the '90s. But it's worth noting that when Bill Clinton was in the White House, another sensitive pudge, Garth Brooks, reigned supreme in Nashville. After 9/11, women were largely shut out from the charts, beefcake heavyweights like Toby Keith brawled their way into the fray, and "war" in all its permutations made the "soft" sensibility of the Clintonian era off-limits. Willman also plays down the argument that the Dixie Chicks were singled out because they were women, but though a male country star might also have been targeted for similar comments, the specifically gynophobic language directed at the Chicks is a hallmark of a post-9/11 American popular culture that's hung up on a pathological notion of masculinity.
Since every discussion about Nashville eventually falls back on Southern manhood, it fits that Willman closes with a chapter on two gruff icons, Merle Haggard and Johnny Cash—and on how partisans of every political persuasion try to claim them. That's a testimony to the complex individuality of each man, of course. But it's also a triumph of the same politics of personality that allows supporters and denigrators to focus on Bush as a figure, rather than particular policies. "If I respect a man," the thinking goes, "he must agree with me." That's why all the talk of Haggard and Cash as independent voices misses the mark: We don't really value someone who "speaks his mind," we value someone who speaks our mind.
And yet, Willman's book is oddly reassuring. While many of his subjects echo conventional wisdom about "cultural" issues cutting the Democratic Party off from the heartland, most of them have more complex outlooks once they get to talking. Both Toby Keith and Tim McGraw are registered Democrats, for reasons they will or won't go into. Good-time pretty boy Ronnie Dunn of Brooks & Dunn steps out as an erudite (if slightly paranoid) fan of Bernard Lewis, every neocon's favorite orientalist. Singer/songwriter James McMurtry pleads with Democrats to stop running senators for president—the give-and-take compromises of Congress make them too easy to depict as wafflers. And the genuinely sweet Sara Evans simply can't understand why otherwise nice people support un-Christian policies. Maybe all that Americans do have in common is our disagreements with one another. But Willman's snapshots remind us of the wide ranges of thought and opinion that pop and politics sometimes obscure.