I walk the line

  • Jon Kelly
  • 9 Oct 08, 03:54 AM GMT

NASHVILLE, TN: The strains of Rhinestone Cowboy twanged around Tootsies bar. An aging covers band were working through their repertoire of country classics. Tourists in plaid shirts and Stetsons murmured appreciatively.

I stared into my drink. I've enjoyed a bit of steel guitar as much as the next man ever since one night when I was left alone in the house with a bottle of single malt and a Johnny Cash CD. But this wasn't exactly the Man In Black at San Quentin.

If the music of Memphis had given me an insight into how black culture was integrated into the American mainstream, I was hoping Nashville might tell me something similar about the recent history of southern whites.

Ed Pettersen and Buzz CasonThis was, after all, a sound with its roots in the folk music of poor Scots-Irish settlers. Country was defined by mavericks and outlaws like Cash and Hank Williams. Songs about working-class men and women struggling to get by were articulated by outspoken left-wingers like Willie Nelson, Kris Kristofferson and Steve Earle.

But as the south and Appalachia moved into the Republican column, so too did country music. The genre became so associated with the conservative right that the Dixie Chicks were inundated with death threats and subjected to to boycotts after they said they were ashamed that George W Bush hailed from Texas.

But I wondered if this most self-effacing of idioms really could be the property of any political faction. I went to see a pair of Nashville musicians whose friendship spanned the red-blue divide.

Buzz Cason, 68, and Ed Pettersen, 46, had been writing songs together for the past five years. Buzz, the co-author of Robert Knight's hit Everlasting Love, had been a Republican for the past four decades; Ed was a staunch Democrat and organiser of a pro-Obama group, Music City for Change.

Both bemoaned the atmosphere of partisan hostility that, they said, made partnerships like theirs increasingly rare.

It wasn't as if they found it difficult to see things from the other's perspective. Buzz told me he'd been raised in a true-blue Democratic household, but had, like so many southerners of his generation, moved rightwards.

"Growing up, we were Roosevelt Democrats," Buzz said. "My father was a factory worker - he wouldn't have dreamed of voting GOP.

"But after I had my first hit back in '68, I was hit with a tax bill of 72%. I immediately became a Republican."

Conversely, Ed acknowledged that his politics put him in a minority among Nashville artists. But he said country's preoccupation with the mundane reality of everyday life made it a natural vehicle for those motivated by a concern for social justice.

Ed Pettersen "Back in the '60s, country music was targeted at the working man," he argued. "It was all about themes everyone could relate to - love, hard work, the economy.

"Today, there are country singers who are Democrats. Some are willing to put their reputations on the line. But most keep their heads down - their managers tell them it won't be good for sales."

Buzz shook his head. Even as a conservative, he didn't want to see his political rivals ostacised from the Nashville scene - that wasn't what America was about, he said. But, he insisted, country music wasn't to blame for this hardening of partisanship: it was a problem with US society.

"I think it's a cultural thing - we're living in a combative society. All these TV shows with people shouting at each other.

"It don't need to be like that. You can see that Ed and I get along pretty well, huh?"

I could. But the current partisan climate doesn't exactly lend itself to partnerships like theirs.

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