Some people have termed a typical blunder as “foot in mouth disease.” It is a common occurrence in a political year. It refers to when a politician says something so outrageous, so wrong, so politically incorrect or offensive that he or she has to spend lots of time and money trying to recover. Sometimes, as another saying goes, “Loose lips sink ships.” In this case, some political figures have wrecked their own chances with their words, whether a slip of the tongue or a deliberate blunder.
Such was the case in 1943. As hard as it is to imagine a Michigan governor saying he was against automobiles or a Florida governor attacking the orange juice industry, a Tennessee governor attacked country music.
The governor, long since forgotten, was Prentice Price. The occasion was an invitation by Grand Ole Opry star Roy Acuff to the governor to come to the Prince Albert portion of the Saturday night Opry performance. Instead of accepting, Price referred to Acuff’s music as disgraceful and then attacked him and his fellow Opry stars for making Nashville the “center of hillbilly music.”
The Republican Party of Tennessee, like its fellow branches in other Southern states, was a minor player in state-wide elections. In this case, however, it saw an opportunity. Acuff, best known for his songs “Great Speckled Bird” and “Wabash Cannonball,” accepted the offer to run for governor. Price’s governorship was saved, in spite of his statements, mainly because of the Democrat Party’s strong ties to the voters.
For decades, most Southern voting patterns followed their ancestors’ shooting patterns in the War Between the States. That meant that most Southerners voted for Democrats and against the party of Lincoln. The Great Depression, having hit during the administration of Republican Herbert Hoover, entrenched this pattern even more. Even the King of Country Music, as Acuff was often hailed, could not interrupt the reign of Democrat Party politics.
One country star, Jimmie Davis, did manage to win political office. Davis was twice elected governor of Louisiana, but he ran as a Democrat, which helped him as much as his campaigning by strumming a guitar and singing his hit song “You Are My Sunshine” as well as some gospel tunes. Davis once paraphrased Theodore Roosevelt, saying, “If you want to have any success in politics, sing softly and carry a big guitar.”
Country music and musicians generally steered clear of partisan political battles. The farmers, factory workers, and rural audiences that listened to country music were predominantly Democrat, but they were also much more concerned with who was running for local sheriff than for the elections of senators, governors, or Presidents. These country music fans were also “agrarians” with a little a. Most never read the actual Agrarian classic I’ll Take My Stand and would have had little in common with the literary scholars who made up the movement. For all their celebration of agrarianism, men such as John Crowe Ransom, Allen Tate, Donald Davidson, and Robert Penn Warren were much more at home in a library or college faculty lounge than in a feed store or a cotton patch.
Still, the Agrarian ideal was rooted in the true people of the soil. The key political article of faith was that plowing fields, putting shoes on the kids’ feet, and listening to good music were all more important than state and national political battles. That being said, country music fans were flag-waving patriots. When Alvin York and other Tennessee men were training during World War I, some of their families thought that America was once again at war with Britain, since their own ancestors had fought the British. Whatever the case, when the country called out the young men for military service, Southerners responded.
In the classic movie Sgt. York, one of the men from Pall Mall, Tennessee, explains his own indifference to the war in Europe by saying, “Taint in our corner no how.” It was the community, the family, the farm, the valley or mountain ridge that constituted the greater world.
Country music stars first made political waves and appearances in 1968. It was then that a fiery Southern former Alabama governor named George Wallace stirred up politics by running as an independent candidate. Wallace’s campaign rallies were known for having Confederate battle flags waving and country music performers singing and entertaining. In some cases, some country singers, such as singer and entertainer Minnie Pearl, performed because they were hired to do so. Other singers, such as Hank Snow, endorsed Wallace and campaigned for his effort wholeheartedly.
Racial troubles, the Civil Rights Movement, and integration issues had fueled much of Wallace’s support. But he also gained traction in both the North and South over law and order issues. Country singers were generally quiet on racial issues. It would be ironic if they were supporting Wallace because of his association with segregation in the past. The reason is that this was the same time period in which nearly all white country fans and artists were flocking to black country singer Charlie Pride.
Richard Nixon was elected President in 1968 and he, more than any President before him, gave great support to country music. Stars such as Johnny Cash, Glen Campbell, and Merle Haggard were invited to perform at White House dinners. Unlike the clueless Prentice Price, Nixon appeared on the Grand Ole Opry with Roy Acuff and Tex Ritter, another Republican singer and political candidate, on the night that the Opry moved from the Ryman Auditorium to its new building. Acuff showed off some of his yo-yo tricks and got the President to try them himself. Nixon proved more much adept at playing a few songs for the Opry crowd on the piano.
Nixon has been endlessly analyzed for his private and calculating political judgments. Did he truly come to like country music? Probably, but he was a master politician. Early in his campaign in 1968, he, along with South Carolina Senator Strom Thurman, and his advisors began creating what would become known as the Southern Strategy. The South had politically been known as “the Solid South” for its unyielding support for Democrats. “Yellow Dog Democrat” was a common description for the Southerner who would vote for a yellow dog if it were running on the Democrat ticket.
Times were changing and Republicans saw an opportunity to crack the electoral block of votes from the Southern states routinely given to Democrats. Nixon echoed George Wallace’s law and order themes and strongly promoted the U.S. military. Wallace’s candidacy was largely drawing on traditional Democrat voters, and they were being siphoned away from Democrat candidate Hubert Humphrey, a Minnesota liberal. The split in Democrat votes provided the wedge for Nixon to win Southern states, provided those Southern states did not go for Wallace.
Here again, country music played a role. The Republicans craftily placed campaign ads on television so that they would appear during the Saturday afternoon Porter Waggoner Show. Porter Waggoner was a flashy singing star with dazzling outfits and two- to three-inch-high combed-back hair. The ads warned that a vote for Wallace would put Humphrey in the White House.
Did it work? Who knows exactly what tips the balances in elections? At any rate, Nixon and Wallace split the Southern states, with Humphrey getting only Texas. Nixon won enough votes to get to the White House.
During his years in office, he continued buffering the Republican Southern Strategy and supporting country music. During the years 1971, ’72, and ’73, Nixon issued proclamations declaring October as “Country Music Month.” Country music stars responded to Nixon’s outreach by producing a tribute album in 1972. On that album, Tex Ritter wove some of Nixon’s themes and policies into prefaces for each song.
When Nixon made his famous Opry appearance, he gave a short speech extolling the virtues of country music, the Grand Ole Opry, and the people who created and loved that music. Nixon said, “What country music is, is that it comes from the heart of America, because this is the heart of America, out here in Middle America. . . . It talks about family, it talks about religion, the faith in God that is so important to our country and particularly to our family life. And as we all know, country music radiates a love of this nation, patriotism.”
That was in March of 1974. In August of that year, Nixon would resign the Presidency over the Watergate scandal. With all of his political flaws and complexities, he was right on target in what he said about country music and his embracing it for both its political and personal benefits.