Sunday, February 10, 2019

Slotted for Best New Artist, but she can't get on big radio: Margo Price shows country music's growing political divide

Margo Price, a native of northwest Illinois, is up for Best New Artist at tonight's Grammy Awards. (Entertainment Tonight)
UPDATE: The Grammy for best new artist went to English singer-songwriter Dua Lipa.

Margo Price, a country singer-songwriter nominated on tonight's Grammy Awards for best new artist, has a great voice but can't get play on big country radio. That's "a testament to the way America's poisonous politics are scrambling country music," reports Greg Jaffe of The Washington Post.

"Study after study has documented the widening social gulf that separates the major parties," Jaffe notes. "Republicans and Democrats report increasing levels of animosityfor those on the other side of the political divide, according to surveys. They have few close friends from the opposing political party. They watch different television shows. Those same pressures are fracturing one of America’s most distinctive art forms, giving rise to separate musical genres aimed at liberal and conservative fans." Price told Jaffe, “I’m just singing the truth. That’s what country music is supposed to be — three chords and the truth.”

"Increasingly, though, that truth is shaped by America’s political war," Jaffe writes. "Hit country songs tended to celebrate small-town life. Often, they responded to the growing partisan rancor by emphasizing America’s essential goodness, as Luke Bryan did in his hit “Most People are Good.” . . . Price was offering a different view of America. She sang about sin and struggle and the sorts of misfits who never felt comfortable in football stadiums. 'I’m an outcast, and I’m a stray / And I plan to stay that way,' she sang. Her songs were about small, depressed towns that people longed to escape. These were the very places country music expected her to celebrate."

Nate Deaton, general manager of country station KRTY in San Jose, told Jaffe, “There’s a lot of people in big cities that came from small towns, and there’s an awful lot of us that never lived in small towns, but nonetheless there’s an appealing nature to it.” Price is from a farm family in northwest Illinois; for a story on her in today's Quad City Times, click here.

For most of its 90-year history, commercial country music "accommodated different sounds and styles — the Bakersfield Sound, Outlaw Country, Urban Cowboy country and alt-country among others. What united them was a working-class sensibility that rose above politics," Jaffe writes. "These days the divide in country music has become more obviously partisan, reflecting the political division among its main supporters: white Americans. Mainstream country music has little patience for messages that fail to celebrate small-town America or tilt even remotely anti-Trump.

"Liberal country music fans, meanwhile, want assurances that their favorite singers are sufficiently to the left. . . . For left-leaning country singers, like Price and Sturgill Simpson, there’s pressure to signal to their fan bases that they are on their side. . . . A few years ago there was an expectation that stars such as Simpson and Price might bring a new sound and sensibility to country music. Instead, they became their own subgenre and today are often classified as 'Americana' artists, a subset of roots music aimed largely at liberals. Americana music isn’t always easily defined, but the Milk Carton Kids, who opened this year’s Americana awards show in Nashville, took a stab at it in a song: 'A country song that’s a little too political / A feminist anthem that’s a bit too literal / Your lyrics are biblical / Your Twitter feed is liberal . . . '"

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