“Rolling Stone Country” Breaks Promise to Not Get Political

When Rolling Stone first announced plans to open a dedicated subdomain for the country music genre, there were concerns that a publication known for mixing left-leaning political commentary with music and culture reporting would take this same approach to country music, potentially politicizing the country music space in a manner we haven’t seen before, and ultimately stirring unnecessary conflict.

The decision by Rolling Stone to focus on country music came in 2014 when the genre and the media covering it were undergoing great expansion due to the popularity of Bro-Country. Country music became the first genre Rolling Stone chose to cover in a dedicated manner, and with the publication being a traditionally liberal outlet, and country music being one of the more traditionally conservative genres in the United States, this set up the politicization of country music coverage as a potential flash point.

Addressing the worries of many that the new Rolling Stone Country venture would not just be about music, but would be a Trojan horse for political coverage and cultural media bias, Saving Country Music reached out to the publication’s original Senior Editor for clarification on the what the new subdomain’s coverage map would be before the website’s launch.

“As far as government politics, hell no!” said Beville Dunkerley in May of 2014, assuring readers the publication would not engage in political discourse as part of its country music coverage. “We’ll leave that to the magazine and RollingStone.com. But as far as the politics of country music, absolutely. We will dive right into that. We are planning think pieces about the Bro-Country movement, and why it’s so hard for a record label to break a female act over a male act.”

Beville Dunkerley has since left the publication to become the Head of Nashville Artist Marketing & Industry Relations for Pandora, while Senior Editor Joseph Hudak who was also brought on board early in the process has remained in Rolling Stone Country‘s top spot. And for the first couple of years of the publication, the subdomain honored its pledge to keep the politics to Rolling Stone proper.

That all changed with an editorial published by Joseph Hudak in January of 2017 just after the inauguration of President Trump, which directly called for country artists to get political, and on the liberal side. In a piece called “Why It’s Time For Country Stars to Speak Up About Trump,” not only did Hudak break the original promise of the magazine to not veer into politics, but he also did so in a completely biased and politically acidic manner, calling out artists for their “indefensible hypocrisy” if they claim reverence to Johnny Cash but would not speak out against Trump. Hudak also claimed the situation was “too dangerous not to stand up,” and possibly most alarming, proclaimed “there is no middle ground,” and how silence was tantamount to condoning lies, sexual assault, and any other sins pinned on the Trump Administration.

Of course country artists didn’t speak up en masse as the publication had prodded them to. Most performers continued to show respect to their fan bases regardless of their political alignment, and left politics isolated from their public discourse.

Since the Trump Inauguration, Rolling Stone Country has taken away all pretenses of political objectivity, and started championing certain causes within the country music space that are specifically political in nature. One of the outlet’s favorite issues is the NRA’s involvement in country music and gun laws in general, which became an even more stark point of interest after the Route 91 Harvest Festival massacre on October 1st, 2017.

Along with peppering its own opinions within country music coverage on this political issue and others, Rolling Stone Country has also used its social media accounts, especially Twitter, to drive home a political agenda by posting articles completely unrelated to country music whatsoever from Rolling Stone proper in an attempt to sway the mindset of country listeners. Dozens of examples of this practice have been logged over the past year. Here are a few:

In the vacuum of country artists coming out en masse to repudiate Trump as Rolling Stone Country Senior Editor Joseph Hudak compelled them to do in 2017, the periodical has decided to do the next best thing, which is to focus on and favor the artists who actively engage in left-leaning politics, giving lopsided and bias coverage to these performers, and giving them a platform to assert their political ideologies. Talking about smoking pot gives Rolling Stone Country extra incentive to talk about your music, while country artists who don’t engage in politics often get overlooked in the outlet’s coverage, even when their overall impact in the music marketplace is more significant either critically or economically than the artists favored by Rolling Stone Country.

For example, country music singer and songwriter Caitlyn Smith has been enjoying a stellar 2018, accumulating incredible streaming numbers for her 2018 album Starfire, embarking on a headlining tour, playing important festivals such a Pilgrimage near Nashville, all while being curiously overlooked by most mainstream outlets, including Rolling Stone Country.

While the publication has only posted a few quick news stories on Caitlyn Smith all year, they’ve written 25 total articles for Margo Price, who didn’t even release an album in 2018. This includes Rolling Stone Country publishing multiple Margo Price articles in the same day, and not just news announcements, but dedicated features. Often the articles on Margo Price deal with her political beliefs, or on her smoking pot, including articles with titles such as “Margo Price Smokes Up,” “Margo Price Smokes Pot,” and “Margo Price to Launch Pot Strain.”

Meanwhile important women artists who released records in 2018 such as Kristina Murray, Courtney Patton, The Church Sisters, and Vivian Leva, along with major Texas music acts like William Clark Green, Randall King, Bri Bagwell, The Stryker Brothers (Randy Rogers and Robert Earl Keen), and a litany of other artists and events important to country music such as the death of Brandon Jenkins have received no coverage from the outlet, or only passing mentions.

Of course it is easy to criticize the coverage priorities of any outlet, and with the limited resources in publishing these days, any periodical is going to have coverage holes. But the obsession over Margo Price due to her political affiliations—especially in the face of continued mild sales and streaming numbers, and the fact that she’s well outside her album release cycle—is a clear illustration of political bias on Rolling Stone Country‘s part.

Brothers Osborne have also enjoyed very favorable and lopsided media coverage due to their political outspokeness and affiliations. Rolling Stone Country has run numerous stories on the duo playing political rallies for liberal candidates, as they have for Willie Nelson, Jason Isbell, and other country/Americana artists. They also covered Taylor Swift’s endorsement of Democrat candidates in Tennessee, while excluding similar coverage for artists who’ve stumped for Republican candidates, once again forwarding an illusion of a left-leaning shift in country music entertainers and challenging the genre’s conservative mindset—something Rolling Stone Country editor Joseph Hudak first called for in early 2017.

Rolling Stone Country Articles About Margo Price, 2018

  • January 3rd – See Margo Price’s Rousing ‘A Little Pain’ on ‘Colbert’
  • January 17th – Hear Margo Price’s Stomping Cover of Bob Dylan’s ‘Most Likely You Go Your Way’
  • January 25th – Margo Price on Feminism, Gun Control, Nashville Hypocrisy and Trump
  • January 29th – Margo Price Extends Headlining 2018 Nowhere Fast Tour
  • February 16th – Margo Price Brings Spontaneity, Attitude to Lunch Hour Gig
  • February 20th – See Margo Price Smoke Up, Shut Down Harasser in ‘Little Pain’ Video
  • March 5th – Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price Set for Willie Nelson’s 4th of July Picnic
  • March 8th – See Margo Price’s Call for Equality With ‘Pay Gap’ on ‘Conan’
  • March 27th – See Margo Price’s Rare, Alternate ‘Hands of Time’ Video
  • April 17th – 2019 Outlaw Country Cruise – Margo Price, Shooter Jennings, Old 97’s and more highlight the fourth-annual excursion
  • May 24th – Margo Price’s Triumphant Ryman Auditorium Run: 10 Best Moments
  • June 7th – Margo Price: Country Singer-Songwriter Smokes Pot, Gives Backstage Tour
  • June 12th – Margo Price, Lukas Nelson to Play AmericanaFest NYC
  • June 28th – Margo Price to Launch Pot Strain With Willie Nelson
  • July 2nd – An Afternoon with Margo Price
  • July 2nd – See Lilly Hiatt, Margo Price Sing Neil Young’s ‘Rockin’ in the Free World’
  • September 11th – Hear Margo Price Call Out Imitators in New Song ‘The Leftovers’
  • September 14th – See Margo Price Cover the Beatles at Surprise Nashville Rooftop Show
  • September 18th – Americana Roundtable: Things We Learned From John Prine, Jason Isbell, Margo Price
  • September 24th – See Nathaniel Rateliff, Margo Price Cover the Band’s ‘The Shape I’m In’ at Farm Aid
  • October 2nd – Road Test: Margo Price Steers a Ford F-150
  • October 2nd – Jack White Enlists Margo Price, Joshua Hedley for Nashville Headlining Show
  • October 9th – See Margo Price’s Trippy “Leftovers” Video
  • October 17th – Margo Price, Lilly Hiatt Announce New Year’s Tour

Rolling Stone Country Articles About Brothers Osborne, 2018

  • January 2nd – Hear Brothers Osborne’s Blistering Opus ‘Shoot Me Straight’
  • January 9th – Sturgill Simpson, Brothers Osborne Lead Bonnaroo 2018 Country Lineup
  • January 24th – Brothers Osborne Announce New Album ‘Port Saint Joe’
  • April 6th – Hear Brothers Osborne’s Breezy New Song ‘Pushing Up Daisies (Love Alive)’
  • April 13th – Hear Brothers Osborne Celebrate ‘Weed, Whiskey and Willie’ in New Song
  • April 17th – ACMs Red Carpet: Brothers Osborne, Lindsay Ell, More Talk Need to Confront Violence
  • April 18th – Why Brothers Osborne Are Country Music’s New Working-Class Heroes
  • April 23rd – Why Brothers Osborne Had to Change Melody for New Song ‘A Little Bit Trouble’
  • April 24th – See Brothers Osborne’s Searing ‘Shoot Me Straight’ on ‘Colbert’
  • April 25th – See Brothers Osborne Talk Royal Baby, Facebook in ‘Hot Takes’ on ‘Colbert’
  • May 3rd – Old Crow Medicine Show, Brothers Osborne to Play Grand Ole Opry at Bonnaroo
  • May 11th – See Brothers Osborne Sing ‘Shoot Me Straight’ at Weed Dispensary
  • May 17th – See Brothers Osborne’s Gentle Acoustic ‘Pushing Up Daisies (Love Alive)’
  • May 22nd – See Brothers Osborne’s Aching ‘Weed, Whiskey and Willie’ on ‘Seth Meyers’
  • August 21st – Brothers Osborne Lampoon Bro Cliches, Space Force in ‘Shoot Me Straight’ Video
  • September 10th – Brothers Osborne Are Coming Out in Support of a Tennessee Democrat
  • September 19th – Brothers Osborne Talk Angering Fans at Democrat Fundraiser for Karl Dean

The other way Rolling Stone Country‘s political bias has manifested itself is in the way the outlet will mischaracterize the words of an artist or a song, or focus on political subjects as opposed to music, often in an effort to create a wedge between country music artists and the political beliefs of their fans, or to stir controversy for clicks or political gain. In this way, the messages of songs, or the words of artists are twisted to make the political alignment of these artists look different than reality.

For example, in a recent article about Justin Moore playing a benefit for the Parkland High School shooting victims, the article attempts to portray Justin Moore as going soft on his pro gun stance, hoping to stir acrimony within his fan base. Moore is one of the most outspoken pro-gun, and pro-Trump artists in the mainstream.

This politicizing approach to content was illustrated best via a recent cover story for Eric Church in Rolling Stone proper that spent virtually no time discussing the music of his upcoming record Desperate Man, and instead delved into a litany of political questions, many of which Church answered with reasonable right-to-center answers on hot political topics. But that didn’t stop the periodical from portraying Eric Church as an anti-gun, far left-leaning Bernie Sanders supporter on its cover, crossing a line and mischaracterizing the superstar to the point where he was even forced to say, “Read the full interview (don’t be misled by the headline)” when presenting the article to fans.

Unfortunately, some Eric Church fans did not heed the warning and have subsequently sworn of Church’s music forevermore, and some have called for a boycott of the country star due to his left-leaning views. Saving Country Music’s article showing concern for the cover went viral among Eric Church fans after they felt misled by Rolling Stone. The long-term effects of the cover story mischaracterization came into full view when Saving Country Music recently posted a review of Eric Church’s new album, and got swarmed on Facebook for covering an anti-gun, anti-American artist. Some are blaming the cover story for Eric Church’s low debut sales of Desperate Man. In this contentious political environment, simple misunderstandings built from media embellishments often spiral out of control, with significant ramifications for the artists, the civility of fan bases, and the civility of country music in general.

This is what happened to the Dixie Chicks in 2003 when Natalie Maines said from the stage in England, “Just so you know, we’re on the good side with y’all. We do not want this war, this violence, and we’re ashamed that the President of the United States is from Texas.” It wasn’t the initial comment that caused the stir. It was when the UK outlet The Guardian published the remarks, and then other opportunistic publications swooped in looking to capitalize off the acrimony swirling around the Iraq War. This action by the media is what ultimately resulted in the Dixie Chicks being banned on certain country radio stations, boycotted by consumers, and eventually blackballed by the country music industry entirely, despite the reconciliation in recent years, including the trio being invited to perform at the 50th Annual CMA Awards.

A boycott was also called for when the story broke of Willie Nelson playing a rally for Texas Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke, at least by some. Though Nelson’s left-leaning politics should be well-known to many country music fans, the embellishments of the situation from both sides of the political divide exacerbated the emotional element to the story, overflowing into downright vitriol. Fox News and other right-leaning outlets took a few social media posts complaining about Willie Nelson’s political stances, and made it appear that an outright insurrection was underway against Willie. This spurned other fans, artists, and outlets to come out in vehement support of Willie, stirring the issue even more, even though the initial blowback against Willie Nelson was embellished, and mild at best.

In the early 2000’s, it was the political right that often used country music and many of its artists to assert a biased political agenda upon country fans, and with disastrous results for the careers of certain performers, along with the sanctity of the genre as a place apart from political vitriol. The current incursion of political acrimony is not just happening from the left either. Conservative site Brietbart recently lashed out at Americana artists Jason Isbell. In April of 2015, Brietbart incited a controversy surrounding a Tim McGraw appearance at a fundraiser for the victims of the mass shooting at Sandy Hook. Travis Tritt and others came out in opposition to McGraw’s appearance. The issue became so contentious, Billy Currington pulled out of his opening slot for the show amid the pro-gun backlash.

But now there is a concerted effort by many in the media to shift the alignment of country music to the left, with numerous publications and public media figures seeing the infiltration and conversion of country music as a way to undermine conservative support for Trump and the Republican party in middle America. Often these journalists and outlets use anecdotal examples of country music’s progressive past as talking points, similar to how Rolling Stone Country editor Joseph Hudak cited Johnny Cash as a progressive figure, even though Cash never professed a specific political alignment himself. Cash’s efforts towards causes such as prison reform and Native American rights had just as much or more to do with his strong Christian values as it did any political agenda.

From the beginning, country music has been a place for all rural dwellers, all blue collar workers, many others in between, and everyone regardless of their political affiliation, representing both sides, and with numerous examples to cite, from Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill,” to Merle Haggard’s “Fightin Side of Me.” Neither song means country music is right or left. They mean country music has always been both, or neither. The legacy of Johnny Cash is a perfect example of how country music has created a big tent via shared values as opposed to being a party to political divisiveness. Country music predates the current red vs. blue, Democrat vs. Republican composition of the United States, to a time when there were conservative Democrats, especially in the South, and they were the party most opposed to Civil Rights.

In the modern era, it’s true that country music has been a bit more right than left, but this is not something for the media to meddle with. It’s the media’s job to be objective, and cover the music as a cultural entity, and let it choose it’s own fate. If Rolling Stone Country was sensing a cultural shift in the genre and reporting on it, that would be one thing. Actively attempting to dissuade country fans from their long-standing cultural values via biased reporting on music is another. Not only is this practice disreputable, it has been and will continue to be ineffective, aside from stirring anger and chaos. As was learned during the Dixie Chicks incident—and as has been verified with more recent incidents such as with Eric Church and Tim McGraw—country music fans are much more likely to divest from the fandom of their favorite country artists before they do so from their political beliefs.

The idea that popular music can be used as a bully pulpit to create a wedge between country music fans and their political opinions is presumptuous and shortsighted. It only results in further discord among the populous, a digging in on difficult issues, and ultimately results in the impotency of country songs and artists to help change hearts and minds of listeners in more organic and natural ways, like through sharing stories that point out the similar struggles all Americans go through as country songs have done for going on a century.

Similar to Rolling Stone Country editor Joseph Hudak, many believe that in these troubling times, it’s imperative for news outlets and everyone else to join in the resistance and disruption of the American right. Along with the conceit and shortsightedness of the hypothesis that American Democracy has never been more tenuous or in trouble, the argument could also be made that it has never been more crucial that the public is given places apart from political discord to catch a breather, and find a level of equilibrium. Suicide and cases of mental illness are skyrocketing throughout society, and are thought to be the direct result of political acrimony, as well as a side effect of social media immersion.

Even in times of outright war, the need for entertainment as an escape from the stress of the moment was seen as imperative, from Hollywood to USO tours for troops abroad in combat zones. When fans speak up and say they don’t want to see political rants from their favorite artists or music outlets, it’s not always a rebuke of their 1st Amendment rights, or a request that they “Shut up and sing.” It’s sometimes a call for their own sanity, or the desire to see music to continue to be one of the few places in a polarized society where people can still come together.

Rolling Stone Country and other media outlets have every right under the 1st Amendment to assert whatever political agenda they choose through their music coverage, as do performers. However, the public should be completely open-eyed and aware of the bias Rolling Stone Country has professed when considering their articles. Where Rolling Stone Country was launched under the promise of objectivity, and under the oath to not veer into the political, now they’re vehemently lobbying artists and fans to flock to the left—the exact concern many had when they first announced their plans to start covering country music. Even the outlet’s stories on right-leaning performers often focus more on the artist’s politics than would be the norm in music coverage, diminishing music in the discussion, and leaving a bad taste in the mouth of liberal readers.

So when seeing coverage for certain country artists from Rolling Stone, when reading headlines or the body of articles, when regarding who they decide to cover, how they grade albums, what they choose to highlight in end-of-year lists, and all the rest, understand this is not coming from an objective source. It is coming from an entity that themselves are attempting to goad musicians to become politically active in a slanted direction, so you can guarantee they’re heeding their own advice.

© 2023 Saving Country Music