Country Music and the 1968 Election

I suppose it’s no secret that decisions on the campaign trail can seem arbitrary, obtuse and even counter-intuitive. Now more than ever, we’ve seen the Republican nominee switch back and forth on his positions, use foul language, and fundamentally drive his campaign into the abyss. It’s simply wonderful to watch, in a rather dark and cynical schadenfreude kind of way that only American politics can induce.

The message that we’ve got to “make America great again” isn’t new – Nixon’s strategy in the 1968 election was built upon notion of “bringing America back.” In early 1968, Nixon’s own Harry S. Dent (former campaign aide to Strom Thurmond) created a set of ads featuring a country music song to boost the polls around the South:

How far down the road has our country gone,
In this time of trouble and strife?
How can we bring our country back
To the good and decent life?

Our votes can bring our country back
But it’s up to everyone!
This time, this time with leadership
From Richard M. Nixon.

Dent, like Nixon, was fanatical about trying to catch up with former Alabama Governor George Wallace, whose third party ticket threatened Nixon’s majority. But it wasn’t just country singers that they bought for campaign ads, but the most famous country singers money could buy. Between Dent and Mississippi senator Fred LaRue, favors were called in to get Buck Owens, Ernest Tubb, the Wilburn Brothers, Wally Fowler, Tex Ritter and Stuart Hamblen – all stars on the Grand Ole Opry who had at various times had previously shared platforms with George Wallace.

Though keen to spread as wide a net as possible, Dent and LaRue capitalized on Stuart Hamblen the most. Hamblen wasn’t a stranger to politics in the least. In 1952, he had run as a presidential candidate for the Prohibition Party, and in 1938 ran for California’s 20th congressional district seat. But it wasn’t just Hamblen’s political experience and Okie image were vital reasons for his recruitment – he also had a campaign song up his sleeve, fitting for the times. 

Of the many tumultuous events of the year 1968, none loomed over the country so much as Bobby Kennedy’s assassination. Beloved by his party and by many working class voters across the country, his image and populist appeal represented the flipside of Wallace’s, built on a campaign of economic uplift rather than racebaiting.

In July 1968, just weeks after Bobby’s death, the Nixon campaign commenced negotiations with Hamblen Music Company, Inc. in Los Angeles for the use of a campaign song. The song was not newly composed, but in fact had been written for JFK in 1961. Entitled “What Can I Do For My Country,” Hamblen took the words from JFK’s inaugural address as the launching pad for a song. It was rejected by LBJ in 1964, and by a host of local Democratic campaigns in 1966. Hamblen offered the song to the Nixon campaign, and despite the tasteless appropriation of the Kennedy legacy so soon after Bobby’s death, it was decided that in order to court both the Catholic and working class votes across the Appalachians, the song should be used.


(it’s pretty terrible, right?)

But the new campaign song came at a heavy price. In discussing the details of the payment for the song, Hamblen initially made several statements in the presence of lawyers that he wished not for his song to be used for financial profit, but for a political cause. That being said, when handed the contract later that week, Hamblen rejected it on the grounds that he would not receive sufficient royalties. In correspondence following a rearrangement of the financial terms of the agreement, the Nixon campaign became aware that Hamblen was insisting on royalties 20% higher than those of Irving Berlin, who until 1968 charged the highest royalty rate of any composer in the United States.

Why is this a big deal? Well, it changed the way musicians got involved in political campaigns. Firstly, the connections between country musicians and politicians were no longer informal and based upon personal friendships as in the case of George Wallace, but required the consultation of law firms, media agencies and one artistic management representatives. Similarly, the country music industry’s involvement in politics was no longer specific to Nashville, but encompassed the emergence of a national music industry, concurrently with a national conservative political consensus. This was no longer just Nixon’s Southern Strategy, but a national strategy in recognition of how pervasive the country music industry had become in American life by the 1960s.

But lastly, it is apparent that country musicians were using campaigns to enhance their own careers just as much as they set out to support a political cause. The final point reflects a wider trend in the country music industry. Due to the expansion of country music radio, television and recording industries, country musicians were reliant upon these media, as suburbanisation saw the gradual abandonment of live performance venues in city centres across the USA. With the exception of Nashville honky-tonk bars, which by 1968 were merely tourist attractions more than local haunts, city centres had mostly seen the closure of most of their large-scale country music venues. Physically getting in front of large audiences was the not the business it used to be – it was political rallies and not concerts that had the biggest crowds.

And yet, Nashville still loomed large in the Nixon-Agnew idea of what the strategy should be. While Country Music was popular everywhere, there was no Mecca like that of the Ryman auditorium, and Wallace remained the Opry favorite. Such was the importance of Nashville and the Opry the Wallace campaigns, that journalist Paul Hemphill remarked that whilst Music Row, Printers Alley and other areas of Nashville fast became political “battle-grounds,” between Democratic Party loyalty and Wallace’s third party candidacy, the Grand Ole Opry continued to represent the “end of the rainbow” for blue collar Wallace voters and country music lovers. According to other reports, the parking lot at adjacent to the Ryman Auditorium in 1968 was often filled with cars with bumper stickers reading “Wallace for President” and more extreme slogans such as “Bluegrass is White Folks’ Music: Vote for Wallace.”

Dent and LaRue also realized the symbolic importance that Nashville retained as Music City, USA. Hence, they spared little time in recruiting Grand Ole Opry host Roy Acuff to support Nixon publicly in 1968. It was widely known around Nashville that George Wallace and Cornelia Snively (who had been a back-up singer for Acuff on the Opry), approached him in early 1968 about endorsing the Wallace campaign, but he declined on ideological grounds. From February, 1966, Acuff and Marty Robbins had already been playing duo performance as Republican Party fundraisers, and in 1968 Acuff was named head of the Citizens for Nixon-Agnew Committee. While this was an unprecedented step in the nationalization of Republican country musicians as integral activists in campaign fundraising and promotion, it also brought the sharp political contrast between Wallace and Nixon to the Opry stage: Acuff’s primary partner on the Opry stage was none other than Wallace’s most ardent supporter in Nashville, Sarah Cannon.

Ok, so we know Nixon won by a landslide and that for the most part, he took the South. In looking back at the importance of the country music industry and it’s conversion to the Republican Party, scholars and politicians alike have equated the presence of populist music with political appeal. In Harry Dent’s own assessment, the Republican party’s spots on country music radio were “great for getting through to the working man and woman, especially in the South” and Wallace aid Tom Turnipseed testified to their “devastating effect” to Wallace’s campaign. But historians, musicologists, and sociologists alike have tended take these assessments at face value without undertaking any detailed analysis of 1968 electoral results. At most, historians have only pointed to Wallace’s achievement of gaining 13.5% percent of the popular vote and winning electoral victories in some Southern states. Did all this actually make a difference?

Between 1967 and 1971, the Country Music Association undertook a survey of the location and concentration of all-country music radio stations around the United States. But electoral statistics yield quite disparate results across the United States. For example, in South Carolina, where there was a concentration of more than ten country music stations, the election results were split evenly between Wallace and Nixon. In the middle and southern sections of the state, the areas with high concentration of country music stations voted for Hubert Humphrey. In Tennessee, despite the warm reception which Wallace received in eastern TN just days before the Presidential election, the eastern half of the state appears to have voted solidly in favor of Nixon. Despite Nixon’s best efforts in middle TN, and especially Nashville, the center and western half of the state (with the exception of predominantly African-American Memphis) voted for Wallace.

Further abroad from the Southern United States, the effect of country music advertising did not yield any more consistent voting patterns. Areas with higher concentration of country music stations in fact tended to vote in favor of Hubert Humphrey. In California, where Wallace notably received support from local country music bands and won 6.72% of the vote, there again appears to be no correlation between country music advertising and electoral outcome. Wallace as in other non-southern states received no electoral votes and the contest remained between Humphrey (who did elicited very little, if any support, from the country music industry and broadcasting) and Nixon along bipartisan division.

In addition to the research undertaken by the Country Music Association, a survey of ten US cities undertaken by Pulse magazine in 1969 revealed that apart from white ethnicity, there were no concrete occupational, educational, age or financial characteristics in country music audiences across the United States. Hence, whilst the country music industry has played an important role in how candidates chose to campaign in 1968, it’s not apparent that there was any consistent correlation with the outcome of the election.

I don’t know about you, but surely it’s common sense – how likely is it that people consider their favorite music artists when they walk into a voting booth?

Yet the image of the effects of the country music industry in GOP politics remained strong from Nixon all the way through the Bush years. Great interest in the Nashville and the Opry’s relationship with high profile politicians was generated in the aftermath of the 1968 election. In 1975, Robert Altman’s film Nashville, set on Music Row against the backdrop of a major election, received critical acclaim across the United States for its satirisation of Wallace, Nixon and the recruitment of country musicians in Nashville. Since the 1970s, the country music industry has been consistently perceived as the most explicitly political of commercial music industries in the United States, despite its folky and anti-establishment overtones. In 2012, ABC drama series Nashville included a political sub-plot, showcasing the common association between the South’s political élites and country musicians.

In exploring the relationship between Nashville musicians and the nation’s politicians, the bulk of historiography has consistently turned back to Richard Nixon’s campaign as the starting point, with only sparse acknowledgement of the role played by George Wallace in third party and Democratic politics. In both cases, it is casually assumed that country music represented a cultural force for the Democrats prior to 1968 and has since been uniformly Republican.

However, it is apparent that the Nixon campaign’s strategy in relation to country music, whilst certainly inspired by George Wallace, differed in scope and scale. While Fred LaRue and Harry Dent have openly admitted that the country music strategy was meant to imitate that of George Wallace, Nixon’s association with country music was very distant and part of a larger media campaign across the United States. By contrast, Wallace’s association with country musicians, and especially Opry members, was based on personal and even familial relationships with the singers, which were maintained throughout Wallace’s life and political career. Furthermore, despite the Nixon administration’s attempts to court the country music industry, Nashville and the country music industry have never been firmly associated with the Republican Party over the course of the last fifty years. Indeed, despite Nixon’s victory in 1968, his legacy in the country music industry was still overshadowed by that of George Wallace.

Historians have often spoken of a “marriage” between country music and politics. In George Wallace’s case, the matrimony was literal as well as metaphorical. In 1969, Wallace married Cornelia Snively, a singer and guitarist who had sung and toured with Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys as far abroad as Hawaii and Australia in 1959. Cornelia often performed at her husband’s rallies in the 1970 gubernatorial campaign and in the 1972 presidential campaign, alongside Opry members Billy Grammer and Ferlin Husky, further strengthening the Wallace’s connection with the Opry. Wallace’s third wife, Lisa Taylor came to know Wallace first during the 1968 campaign when she performed with her sister Mona as part of the Wallace Girl country-western duo, Mona and Lisa. Though she did not perform for any of Wallace’s campaigns or political rallies after 1968, her political connection with country music and the Wallace campaigns was noted upon her betrothal to Wallace, adding to the mystique of country music’s political slant.

George Wallace Jr. is still active to this day as country music songwriter and record producer, and from 1987 to 1995 served as treasurer of the state of Alabama. Wallace Jr.’s country music career took off in 1971 upon the signing of his first record deal, a highly publicized event at which his father was present. In an interview with Wallace Jr., he revealed that much of his success amongst fans and in the country music industry came from the admiration that many held for his father. Not long after the attempt on Wallace’s life in May 1972, Wallace Jr. travelled with Hank Williams Jr. In many venues, he received more applause and recognition than Williams, reflecting his father’s stature amongst country music fans.

George Wallace expressed a personal and political affinity with country music and Nashville, a city that “grew up on music” as he had. Wallace’s mother was a piano teacher and always kept the radio going in the house, and always expressed the connection between his affinity for music and associations with his mother, focusing the personal and not just political relationship that Wallace had with music, and country musicians in particular. Southern musicians continually kept up their connection with Wallace after the 1968 election. Though they never met in person until 1976 throughout the late 1960s and early 1970s, Elvis Presley used to telephone Wallace on a monthly basis, out of admiration for Wallace’s political courage to campaign openly on issues that were considered too sensitive by many in the United States.

Yet despite Nixon’s more corporate approach, he went to great lengths to publicly imitate Wallace’s more intimate relationship with the country music industry. In 1970, President Nixon declared October to be Country Music Month, and invited Tex Ritter to a White House reception, at which the President was presented with a token of thanks from the Country Music Association. At a gala dinner, Tex Ritter presented an album as “our way of saying thank you for the recognition you, more than any other president, has given to country music”—country music being, in Ritter’s particular definition, “the voice of your Silent Majority.” Showing his gratitude, Ritter imparted, “May I be so bold now…to take your words and elaborate—to sort of try and prove them, and with the music of the people illustrate all you have said…[in] the speeches you have made.” Ritter proceeded to introduce each of the fifteen songs, by linking them with excerpts from Nixon’s speeches, asserting that their sentiments line up at every point, climaxing with Merle Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee,” a famous ballad about racial backlash in the United States.

Throughout his Presidency, Nixon continued to invite country and Southern artists, including Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard to perform at the White House. Such was the media’s interest in Cash’s appearance at the White House, that questions were raised over Cash’s politics when he refused to sing Haggard’s “Okie from Muskogee” when in fact, he simply did not know the song. In December 1970, Nixon was approached by Elvis Presley to be made a “Federal Agent-at-Large” in the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs. In Presley’s letter (written on an complimentary notepad from American Airlines), Presley presented his credentials and ‘in-depth of drug abuse and Communist brainwashing techniques’. Presley was indeed granted such an honor, and as a token of thanks, Nixon was presented with a series of autographed photographs and a commemorative WWII Colt 45 pistol. But more importantly, when it came to planning the 1972 election campaign song, Nixon was clear “that it should be one with country music performers.”

Nixon’s relationship with the country music industry reached its climax on March 16, 1974, just weeks after the indictment of the Watergate Seven before a grand jury, and only months before Nixon’s resignation. As a last minute attempt to gain a token of public good will, Nixon attended the first performance of the Grand Ole Opry at its new premises on the outskirts of Nashville, becoming the first US President ever to visit the Opry. Nixon was invited to come down from his box to appear on stage beside Roy Acuff. HE even performed a few songs, including accompanying himself in a rendition of “Happy Birthday,” dedicated to Pat Nixon. Acuff proclaimed him to be “a real trooper, as well as one of our best Presidents.” In turn, Nixon had his own words of praise for country music and its listeners. In a recitation of country music’s virtues, Nixon echoed Wallace’s enthusiastic pronouncements about country music from the 1968 campaign and tapped into a nostalgia intimately connected to the music’s national appeal in the late 1960s. In expressing what country music has meant to America, Nixon proclaimed:

“Country music is American. It started here. It’s ours. It isn’t something that we learned from some other nation, it isn’t something that we inherited…. It’s as native as anything American we could find. Country music also has a magnificent appeal all across the country. It’s not regional. It comes from the heart of America, because this is the heart of America, out here in Middle America. It talks about family. It talks about religion, the faith in God that is so important to our country, and particularly to our family life. And as we all know, country music radiates a love of this nation. Country music, therefore, has those combinations which are so essential to America’s character, at a time that America needs character.”

At the end of his speech, Nixon concluded:

“I wanted to take this opportunity on behalf of all the American people to thank Country Music…for what it does to make America a better country.”

But not everyone was convinced by Nixon’s performance that evening. Lifelong Democrat and Opry regular Ernest Tubb, was asked in private by fellow country star Bill Anderson, “Did you ever think you would live to see a president of the United States come to the Grand Ole Opry?” Tubb replied, “Naw, I never did. But just between me and you, I wish it had been another president.”

Despite the attention paid to Nixon, the evening’s proceedings were not without an acknowledgement country music’s wider political tradition. Upon announcing the presence of the president, Roy Acuff serenaded the crowd with “You Are My Sunshine,” the song used by Louisiana Governor Jimmie Davis in 1944. But more importantly, George Wallace was present that evening, being granted a seat of honor not in a box as Nixon was granted (at short notice) but on the front row, alongside Sarah Cannon and Jerry Clower. Whilst Nixon received much the national media’s spotlight that evening, George Wallace received just as much attention by Southern media and praise by Opry members after the show, including Ernest Tubb, Sarah Cannon, Roy Clark and Billy Grammer. Even at the event often labeled as the “apex” of presidential politics and country music, George Wallace’s importance and influence was yet pervasive.

Hence, the evening at the Opry thus paralleled the ongoing political division within the country music industry and the Southern United States. Not long after Nixon resigned, one country song in particular illustrated the South’s regret that Nixon was elected President over George Wallace. Released on June 24, 1974, just weeks after Nixon’s resignation, Lynyrd Skynrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama” quickly reached #8 in the US charts, including in its lyrics a, homage to Wallace and Nixon.

In Birmingham, they love the governor (boo boo boo)
Now we all did what we could do
Now Watergate does not bother me
Does your conscience bother you?
Tell the truth

Sweet home Alabama, oh, sweet home baby
Where the skies are so blue and the governor’s true…

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