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You've heard this before, derived from a similar banality about celebrities: Music and politics don't mix. And yet, to claim an art form should remain spotlessly nonpartisan defies logic and history. Even if love songs will always outnumber "Fight the Power," music has pushed everything from "give peace a chance" to a foreign policy of "putting a boot in your ass."

In Rednecks and Bluenecks, Entertainment Weekly's Chris Willman talks with songwriters, Nashville music execs and artists to map the political landscape of what he contends is the most mainstream American music genre. While country is often seen to be as reliably red as a Hummer dealership, the reality, he argues, is more complex.

Like the culture at large, country has witnessed considerable polarization in recent years. The apogee of this entrenchment occurred on the eve of the Iraq War when Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks told a London audience that George Bush made her ashamed to be a Texan. A trio that was insanely popular days earlier returned home to find their CDs destroyed in public displays organized by conservative DJs and radio conglomerates. To country artists inclined toward critical singing, the implications were as subtle as a HUAC hearing.

Willman is astute when he notes that the "incident" stoked so much anger not because the Chicks were women or because they criticized Bush. Rather, in a cultural marketplace where Fox Newsies and NPR listeners seldom cross-pollinate, the Chicks' views came as a shock. Middle-aged middle-class fans assumed they were "on their team" or at least sensible enough to keep quiet. The realization that a beloved band had opposing views smacked of betrayal, even if the Chicks never took any oaths.

At its worst, Rednecks substitutes a cataloging of political songs and a few bizarre subchapters – the politics of stage banter, anyone? – for real analysis. But mostly, Willman's wit and access to country's big names make for a nuanced and enjoyable read.

Oddly enough, on the hardening of political views, one longtime Nashville music executive tells Willman everything while articulating nothing: "I don't know how to explain it," he says. "[Back then] it was still God and country, but it seemed like a different God and country."

Rednecks and Bluenecks: The Politics of Country Music
By Chris Willman

(The New Press, 320 pages)

books@orlandoweekly.com

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