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.


  • Comment number 1.

    Yes, indeed we need more civility now and bipartisanship after the election, especially at this moment when the world economy needs statesmanship to stabilize the markets.

    However, by its very nature elections are competitive and humans are flawed. Perhaps this piece may help clarify and inspire us:


  • Comment number 2.

    I think it's quite ambiguous to combine occupation with politics since it has got its pros and cons. truly, being a composer and showing your political ambitions will certainly voice out different meanings to different people and could affect ones income either adversely or favourably depending on the number of your clients, population size. Ones reputation could also be affected. But let's not forget that there is freedom of speech, freedom of association etc. exist for the peaceful co-existence of mankind.

  • Comment number 3.

    There used to be a time that you couldn't tell the difference between a southern Democrat and a western Republican, we were all Red Blooded Americans, sure we had some political differences, but they weren't big enough, to set us at each other’s throats.
    The Democratic Party has been high-jacked by socialists, making the Democratic Party-Line morally repugnant to religious conservatives in the Bible-Belt. These Southern Democrats found that they had no choice but to vote Republican, giving you the phrase "Reagan Democrat". Those conservative Democrats are still around, but they have either switched parties, or have turned a blind eye to the shenanigans of the Democratic Party.
    The Grand Old Party has also strayed from its conservative roots. By giving into George W Bush's power-grab for Big Government, Republicans allowed the federal deficit to become almost as big as it was in the eighties, and the Democratic who have controlled Congress for the last two years haven’t fixed that.
    We need leaders who believe in the conservative movement started by statesmen like Barry Goldwater and Ronald Reagan. Fred Thompson was as close as you can to that ideal, but he didn't win the Republican nomination, John McCain did. You might not like John McCain, but he's better than the alternative.
    Barack Obama wants to fool you into thinking he's not a socialist weasel, but his voting record, in the United States Senate and the Illinois State Legislature, clearly shows that his allegiance is with leftist partisans whose ideals are drastically different from most Americans. They hate the military and America. They are the people who spit on our troops at the end of the Vietnam War and called our veterans ‘baby killers’.
    Do you want that to happen to your sons and daughters who are fighting for freedom, or do you want them to receive a hero’s welcome, like the ‘greatest generation’ gave to the returning vets of WWII?
    Barrack Obama would decimate our military, destroy our intelligence services, and let his cronies in congress tax the US into another great depression, losing our super-power status be default to China.
    A lot of you are tempted, out of protest, to throw your vote away on a fringe candidate who can’t possibly win. On January 20th, either Barrack Obama, or John McCain, will be President of the United States. No one else can possibly get elected. You might not like the choice you’ve been given, but that’s it. Hold your nose and vote for the lesser of two evils, who in my view happens to be John McCain.

  • Comment number 4.

    Been to the States many times over the past 30 years. Great place, could easily live there. One of the things that has outraged me most though is how the neo-cons have so successfully forged their way into the Democratic heartlands and the Church. We saw something of a similar nature happen with Thatcherism in the UK. The skilled working-class Tory voter was always a particular irriation of mine.

    Not enough space to say how they did it. I am sure books have been written on the subject. But as I stand on the sidelines, I see what are perfectly good values, love of family and community, patriotism, and a desire to do well and better ones' self, hijacked by the sheer cynicism, viciousness and corruption of the neo-cons.

    The Americans, more than us in the UK these days vote by blocks. The move into the church was very successful. The Pastors and Ministers with one eye on their Church funding, broadcast the conservative message from the pulpit every week. God want your business deal to succeed, wants your promotion, wants that new pipeline from Alaska. What would Jesus say about all of this. I should imagine he would be thrown out. Yet the church has been one of the prime motivators of liberal policies and civil rights within the US. Hard to credit that now.

    Hopefully recent events and the GWB Presidency will show it up for the sham that it is.

  • Comment number 5.

    Responsibility for the loss of civility in American politics lies largely with the Republicans. There used to be liberals in both parties, but the Republican reactionaries declared "liberal" to be a dirty word and purged the party of theirs. The lack of civility by today's Republicans is evident in the current presidential campaign with the petulant posturing by McCain.

    The best thing Americans can do to restore civility in politics is throw out the Republicans, and keep them out until they reform their ways and become less divisive and more inclusive.

  • Comment number 6.

    I have to disagree with No. 5. The loss of civility is at least as much due to the Democrats as it is to the Republicans.

    No one disagrees that massive mistakes have been made in Iraq. But, the Democrats have never proven that Bush lied about it. Yes, Bush was wrong and obviously didn't know what he was doing.

    Keep in mind, too, that former Presidents Clinton and Carter and former Vice President Gore made open and vicious anti-Republican comments while they were abroad.

    During the current political campaign, both Obama and McCain have distorted or misquoted each other's statements and positions.

    Too bad each campaign can't be forced to pay a big fine every time they do that.

  • Comment number 7.

    As a Brit living here in Vegas I do have to agree that the political process here is toxic and just down right nasty... Society is just so polarised - left hates right and right hates left (and I mean they really HATE !)

    Part of it I think is down to the fact that this great nation of 50 states, 3.7 million square miles and some 300 million people has but two political parties in its legislature and with any real hopes of providing its president. Sheesh - there are more than two shades of opinion in my own house !

    Britain on the other hand - with a land mass of just over 94,000 square miles and a polulation of around 60 million has twelve parties in the House of Commons.... It is very much harder to simply sling mud when there is more than one target to aim at...

    Just my $0.2's worth


  • Comment number 8.

    englishmaninvegas (#7), it is not literally true that there are only two political parties represented in Congress, although it's very nearly true.

    The dominance of two political parties is a natural consequence of the rule of electing the members of Congress by district, combined with the fact that we also have a national election for President and Vice-President (albeit indirectly, through electors). Nations which also elect members of Parliament by district (UK and Canada) also tend to have two dominant parties. I suspect the reason that they also tend to have strong third (and more) parties is that they do not elect their national leader directly.

    More and more Americans these days decline to identify with either major party. I am independent myself. Although election by district (or "riding" as the Canadians say) tends to favor the continued dominance of two major parties, I am nevertheless opposed to proportional representation, as I believe it leads to less stable government, and it seems to not allow for independent candidates.

    I expect that some day we may get a new center party to attract the independents, but not likely in my lifetime.

  • Comment number 9.

    The current toxic state of American political rhetoric can certainly be seen in comments like those from #3 (Reuben34g).

    Sir, I am a liberal. I would go so far as to say that I have some socialist leanings. It is not illegal in the US to be a socialist. It is not disloyal to be left-of-center. Being a liberal does not make me a traitor. It does not mean that I hate my country. I don't. I want my country to do the right thing, to be a force for good in the world. I think that other liberals feel the same. It is my opinion that the government is constituted by the people to protect the lives, health, safety, and well-being of its citizens. I am sure that you feel, in some measure, the same. It seems to me that the difference between us is simply in the circumstances under which we feel our government should step in and those under which we want our government to step back.

    Why, then, would you vilify me, and those who believe as I do, with statements like "they hate America"?

  • Comment number 10.

    Interesting to me that Rueben34g (#3) starts out with a balanced lament on how both parties have changed for the worse and then launches into a pretty vicious attack on Obama. Obama does not "hate the military and America." Give me a break! Not only is it laughable to claim such a thing, it's also more clearly unpatriotic. Equally offensive is grouping today's Democrats with those horrible people (who may or may not have been Democrats) who spit on veterans during the Vietnam conflict. That's like saying I'm a Nazi sympathizer because I have German ancestry. Furthermore, NO ONE can claim cronyism without first using the Bush administration as a case study. A McCain presidency will further erode our already meager global standing and will continue the devastation that eight years of failed conservative leadership and domestic policies have had on the already hemorrhaging middle class.

  • Comment number 11.

    #3 Reuben34g

    To quote Rowan Atkinson: Tell me, have you ever visited the planet Earth, sir?

    This gentleman takes the phrase "divorced from reality" to Bushian heights.

  • Comment number 12.

    One of the major problems is that big business owns both parties in the US and American workers have not succeeded in forming a party that is built to look after their interests. Unlike in Europe, where workers fought successfully to form their own parties, hence shorter working weeks, longer paid vacations, and universal healthcare in most European nations. Over here wedge issues, such as gay marriage, immigration, and abortion, are used to sway people to vote against their own families' interests. However, I think with the worsening of this economic crisis will worsen and make things a littler clearer for many. The cause of this crisis that can't be pinned on Mexican immigrants or gay people.

  • Comment number 13.

    I disagree that their needs to be a party of the center. One of the major problems is that big business owns both parties in the US and American workers have not succeeded in forming a party that is built to look after their interests. Unlike in Europe, where workers fought successfully to form their own parties, hence shorter working weeks, longer paid vacations, and universal healthcare in most European nations. The Republican Party is openly pro big business and anti worker. The Democratic Party is simply craftier at hiding those same loyalties. Also, over here wedge issues, such as gay marriage, immigration, and abortion, are used to sway people to vote against their own families' interests. However, I think the worsening of this economic crisis will make things a littler clearer for many. The cause of this crisis can't be pinned on Mexican immigrants or gay people. Time for a workers' party because big business owns two.

  • Comment number 14.

    I'm tired of the partisanship. What causes it? Cable and the Internet. Growing up, we watched the same network news and debated this issues.
    Now, you can avoid the other side by viewing the media you want. Now certain parts of the country don't mix. You don't have to rub elbows with someone you disagree with.

  • Comment number 15.

    I think it is important to distinguish between democrats and is not quite the other. Perhaps even more important is to define what socialism is rather than accepting the old definition which immediately linked socialism with communism. Not having time to include the two definitions right now (will later) let me give a plug to a book which will shine a lot of light on to the present state of politics in the US. I encourage you whether you are 'left' or 'right' to read the book 'The Shock Doctrine' by Naomi Klein. Excellent book which documents the economic and foreign policies of the U.S. that have brought us to the place we are right now.

    Also, I believe that it was proven that Bush did lead the US into a war based on lies about the existence of WMD and Iraqi ties to Al-Qaeda. Even the UN weapons inspectors said so. Most people who know anything about Middle Eastern history would know that the two do not like each other. It is time for Americans to accept international law even when it does not go in their favour. The Americans are NOT the rulers of the world and need to adhere to the world courts just like everyone else...not just when it suits their purpose.
    Whenever there is a war, whether popular or otherwise, the people need to ask 'who is benefiting from this war?' In this case, I think it is pretty obvious that corporate capitalism and back-door deals have led the way to the present international mess.

    I would hope that people would stop bickering and look at the realities.


  • Comment number 16.

    Any chance the US will move to a multi-party representational democracy (like Germany, New Zealand, etc) sometime in our lifetimes?

    Seems to me there is at least room for a conservative leftist party and a liberal rightist party in addition to the liberal leftist democrats and the conservative rightist republics. But of course their system doesn't seriously allow for more than two parties. There may even be room for a Green party to play a minor role.

    I'm sure even Americans don't fit neatly into one of only two parties.

  • Comment number 17.

    I am glad to see that we are moving beyond the candidates. As I said in previous posts, I personally dont think either one stands a chance a fixing anything. The parties themselves are irrelevant as they are really the same entities, funded and driven by big business and special interests. Maybe the answer is more established parties in America but then we would run the risk of getting a president elected with only 25% of the vote and immediately having 75% of the country disagree with them. A lame duck as early as the inauguration.

    I still say the main issue is with the citizenry of the country. Until we can sit down, without social or class prejudice, and discuss in a civil matter what the real issues are we are going to continue to have major problems. It really isnt the fault of the candidates. Even if they really wanted to do what the citizens wanted them to, they have such a mixed message to deal with.

    Maybe it is going to take another great depression to get people to drop the more idiotic issues. I dont look forward to that by any means but that is what we might be heading for. At least at a time like that, most people should be concentrating on essentially the same issue. Survivial. Hopefully, people will remember that there is safety in numbers and not hold onto their current notions.

  • Comment number 18.

    LGD1983 (#16), if you mean proportional representation, no, there is no chance.

    We do, however, have several parties. We can have as many as people choose to form. In California this year, I have six choices for president on the ballot. In another state and another year, I once had twelve choices. We do have the Green party, and several others. Also, we have the possibility of candidates who are unaffiliated with any party, something not accommodated under proportional representation. Senator Lieberman is an independent in his current term.

  • Comment number 19.

    Franca13: disagree when it comes international law due to fact that the US withdrew from compulsory jurisdiction in 1986 of the ICJ and as such USA can determine on a case by case basis if it wishes to accept its jurisdiction. When it comes to the ICC that is really nothing more then a treaty based court system. I understand though that your point is that the USA should accept the jurisdiction of the ICJ and ICC anyways whether or not they agree/accept the jurisdiction. USA military might and what used to be its economic might says they are the rulers of the world. The only way the USA will fall in line is if there is an actual one world gov. there has to be just one gov. that rules the world in order for USA to fall in line.

    When it comes to middleeast history, doesn't matter if they don't like eachother, Syria sided with iran in the iraq iran war even though syria and iraq were both ruled by the exact same political party.


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