What we learned from the unfortunate and embarrassing blackballing of the Dixie Chicks from country music in 2003 is that country listeners will divest themselves from their music fandom way before they will ever consider doing so from their political convictions. Politics overrides music every time when it comes to polarizing subjects, and so an artist trying to use the bully pulpit of stardom to sway the political affiliations or opinions of their fan base is the absolute seat of a fool’s errand. Same goes for the attempts by the media to use artists or music as puppets to push political agendas or to create a wedge between artists and the views of their fan bases under misguided poptimist philosophies. It only results in division, the doubling down on previously-held stances, and the destruction of opportunity to find understanding or common ground, or to teach and inform about the importance of a given subject through the power of music.
This has evidenced itself very clearly once again in the growing backlash against Eric Church for his current cover story in Rolling Stone. In an article that had virtually nothing to do with music—and was merely a lifestyle piece on Eric’s home life and personality—Eric’s mild answers to inappropriate questions on political views were splashed across the cover in the most intellectually-insulting and unethical mischaracterizations possible for the sole purpose of sapping attention from the public, and at the expense of the dedication and civility of the Eric Church fan base and country music in general. The cover was nothing short of yellow journalism looking to stir vitriol that everyone involved should be embarrassed over, and everyone in music and journalism should publicly distance from.
Pulling information from the tail end of the interview with Eric Church and twisting it to meet their slanted and politically-biased perspective, Rolling Stone declared on the cover of the current issue, “Nashville Renegade Eric Church on Loving Bernie, Almost Dying, and Why He Opposes The NRA.” Other tweeted headlines from Rolling Stone promoting the article said, “Eric Church on meeting Obama in 2015: ‘I found him nothing but great.'” There was no other conclusion to deduce from these statements being forwarded by Rolling Stone than Eric Church was pronouncing himself a dedicated left-wing democrat, which would invariably cause him to cross swords with his assumed conservative country music fan base.
But of course this was not the case. In the article itself, Eric Church appears to go out of his way to remain undeclared and pretty categorically distrusting of the entire political system. Though he did answer certain questions taking certain political stances, including some that would traditionally be considered left-leaning, the characterization of the headlines was clear and categorical click-bait. In fact quantifying all of Church’s comments, he would probably come across as more conservative, if you had to categorize him one way or the other.
What did Eric Church really say?
On Hillary: ““Hillary just bored me. I just didn’t see much.” (He said he didn’t vote at all, and his wife voted for Trump)
On Trump: “I’m conflicted. I like that he’s thrown a monkey wrench into things. I think that chaos is good. I enjoyed the North Korea thing. Why haven’t we talked to that guy? Tariffs, I don’t know yet. I don’t want a trade war, but I’ll walk with him down that road a little farther. At the same time, I have a ton of problems with him. I don’t like the racial overtones. I hate the tweeting. It seems insecure, petty, not presidential.”
On Abortion: “I’m a pro-life guy at heart, but I don’t think we should change the law. Some things you shouldn’t govern.”
On the NFL Protests: “I was taught by my father to take my hat off [for the anthem], but if somebody wants to do something different, it’s not my place to tell them not to. That’s how the Constitution works.”
On Immigration: “I believe there’s a better way to handle it, but we’re a country of immigrants, and we always should be.”
On Politics In General: ““I believe most of [my fans] feel the way I do – regardless of their voter registration. Some of this stuff you look at and go, ‘What the fuck? Why is this hard?’ Why can we not get infrastructure done? Why don’t we do more clean energy? Why are [prescription] drugs so expensive? Because it’s a lobbyist-based system. It’s a money-based system. Either way, we’re fucked.”
On the 2nd Amendment: “I’m a Second Amendment guy. That’s in the Constitution, it’s people’s right, and I don’t believe it’s negotiable. But nobody should have that many guns and that much ammunition and we don’t know about it. Nobody should have 21 AKs and 10,000 rounds of ammunition and we don’t know who they are. Something’s gotta be done so that a person can’t have an armory and pin down a Las Vegas SWAT team for six minutes. That’s fucked up.”
His Bernie Sanders Comments, In Context: “I love Bernie. Bernie had a great message. It’s funny: If it had been Bernie versus Trump, I don’t know what I would’ve done. I would’ve at least thought about it more than I did.” (meaning he liked both candidates)
Notice that most or all of Eric Church’s stances start with taking a fairly conservative viewpoint, and then qualify it (“but”) with a caveat that would characterize him as a rationally-minded conservative moderate. But why are we asking a country music entertainer such questions to begin with? Where were the questions about the inspiration behind Eric Church’s upcoming album, perhaps the players on it, the approach, what fans can expect, how it was to work with Ray Wylie Hubbard? None of this was broached, but he was asked about abortion and climate change, as if Eric Church’s answers hold more weight because he’s a popular entertainer.
And of course, little to none of this coincides with how the cover portrayed an otherwise decently-written, though fairly inappropriate lifestyle article that would have been more suited for People Magazine as opposed to what’s supposed to be one of the world’s premier music periodicals. It was an incursion of a political agenda into the country music space, and when Rolling Stone didn’t get the answers they wanted from Church, they misconstrued and embellished for their cover.
Even Eric Church when he pasted an image of the cover on his Instagram account said, “Read the full interview (don’t be misled by the headline).”
Eric Church did say about the NRA in the context of the Route 91 Harvest Festival, which he’d headlined the night before the mass shooting, “There are some things we can’t stop, like the disgruntled kid who takes his dad’s shotgun and walks into a high school. But we could have stopped the guy in Vegas. I blame the lobbyists. And the biggest in the gun world is the NRA. I’m a Second Amendment guy, but I feel like they’ve been a bit of a roadblock. I don’t care who you are – you shouldn’t have that kind of power over elected officials. To me it’s cut-and-dried: The gun-show [loophole] would not exist if it weren’t for the NRA, so at this point in time, if I was an NRA member, I would think I had more of a problem than the solution. I would question myself real hard about what I wanted to be in the next three, four, five years.”
And of course this is the crux of where the majority of the criticism for Eric Church has come from. After the cover story was first posted on July 25th, conservative media outlets pounced, and often in similarly unfair and out-of-context coverage with misleading headlines. Soon vociferous defectors from Eric’s fan club known as the Church Choir were making a ruckus, as were many other country music fans who are calling for an Eric Church boycott.
We know the editorial board and many of the writers for Rolling Stone are obsessed with this notion that if huge country music superstars would just come out against the NRA, then that would be the end of the lobbyist organization since these entertainers are such strong cultural influencers. But in truth, country performers coming out against the NRA would only mean the end of their ability to be influential among NRA members, just like we’re now seeing with Eric Church.
Eric Church has a right to say whatever he wants. But whether you personally believe he’s right or wrong about the NRA, the only result of Eric Church’s words is that he’s just parsed his fan base in two, just like Sturgill Simpson did when he responded harshly about Trump during his CMA Awards protest. There will be no harm, no foul to the NRA, no effect on the nation’s gun laws, no positive results for the gun control movement whatsoever. No hearts or minds have been changed in this instance. The only result is Eric Church will have less fans henceforth as people of strong political convictions exit his fan base, fair or not, right or wrong, as Eric Church’s ability to sway hearts and minds through the power of music, especially on the issues of gun control, has been drastically diminished, if not rendered outright inert.
It’s completely understandable why someone like Eric Church would amend his feelings on the NRA after he was so directly affected by the biggest massacre in modern American history. The political affiliations of any artist should not weigh into what someone thinks about that artist, or their music. But the simple, hard reality in the polarized world of today is that it does. And this is unfortunate, because curating your musical experience based off the political affiliations of artists is an undue burden, and is counter to the spirit of music as something that people of all different ideologies and backgrounds can enjoy together.
This instance probably will not result in Eric Church being “Dixie Chick’d.” But it will result in him being a significantly more polarizing figure moving forward. Perhaps if his opinions on the NRA had been approached with more nuance, or the cover and headline hadn’t been so charicaturist of his opinions, maybe it could have been a moment of leadership as opposed to polarization. Eric Church says he doesn’t care if his opinions piss off some of his fans, and you have to take his word on that. But the ultimate result will be nothing short of doubled-down convictions from the NRA members of his fan base, and less tickets and records to sell for Eric Church.
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In the aftermath of the Route 91 Harvest Festival massacre, Eric Church took the stage for a scheduled appearance on the Grand Ole Opry. He almost canceled the appearance, worried he would be too distraught to perform. During that appearance, he gave a teary-eyed performance of a song he’d written right after the incident called “Why Not Me.” The song, Eric’s performance, and his words introducing it received widespread acclaim and attention. Eric Church was doing what music does best in times of trouble, which is spread healing and understanding through the power of music.
If “Why Not Me” appears on Eric’s next record, and is perhaps released as a single as one of the most poignant and powerful reminders of the Route 91 Harvest massacre, it will have a significant impact on the hearts and minds of many people. However the power of that song will be diminished simply because of the highlighted and misconstrued words conveyed by Rolling Stone and others. Many of the people who most need to hear the message won’t, because they’ve turned away from all things Eric Church.
Music has the unique ability to break down the barriers that guard the human heart like words never could. It holds the power to unite, and to share perspective so common ground can be found among people. But when sullied and diluted by political rancor—often interjected by the media simply looking for attention, or to stab a knife it the belly of adversaries to expend anger as opposed to being a vehicle for social or political change—it significantly reduces music’s power to create consensus and spread wisdom, rendering the medium less effective in being one of the last modes of expression in our society that can bring us together.
This Eric Church, Rolling Stone, NRA business is another potent reminder of that.