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The abrupt ouster last month of Mike Huckabee from the Country Music Association’s charitable board just 24 hours after his appointment sends a strong signal that Nashville’s cultural revolution is in full swing.

An organized right-wing backlash against the removal of the conservative gadfly and presidential aspirant quickly fizzled, and Music City breathed a sigh of relief. The swiftness of the forced departure of Huckabee, who has been vocal about his support for the NRA and objections to same-sex marriage and parenting, underscores how the country music industry has become a nexus of discussion for two of America’s hot-button topics: gun control and gay rights.

In stepping down from the position, Huckabee bitterly publicized his stance by posting his resignation letter on social media with the headline “Hate Wins” — far from how most of the town saw the decision.

Brothers Osborne (left) represent a new generation of country stars with liberal views and progressive actions (such as featuring a gay couple in their video for “Stay a Little Longer”). Says radio personality Blair Garner (right): “Nashville is a blue island in a sea of red.”
ROBBY KLEIN for Variety

Jason Owen, one of the most powerful managers in Nashville, had led the charge against Huckabee’s appointment with a strongly worded letter to the CMA in which he threatened to pull all of Sandbox’s artists, including Faith Hill, Little Big Town and Kacey Musgraves, from the organization’s future philanthropic endeavors. At issue for Owen, an openly gay man with “a child and two on the way,” was Huckabee’s long record of comparing the children of same-sex parents to “guinea pigs” and “puppies.” “This man has made it clear that my family is not welcome in his America,” Owen wrote. “And the CMA has [made] him feel welcome and relevant.”

Owen is reluctant to reopen wounds or bash the CMA, preferring to emphasize the group’s quick response. But, he tells Variety, “I had a visceral reaction to that appointment specifically because I have given my entire life to this genre and this community, and raised a family here. I felt hurt that it was not given more consideration. I expect that we can be better, all of us, me included. And so much of what this was about was just learning to be mindful and thoughtful about the people who are partly responsible for the future of our industry.” Owen’s leaked letter made him the face of the resistance, but others in the community were equally appalled, and sources say that Nashville label heads like Universal’s Mike Dungan and Big Machine’s Scott Borchetta were instrumental in the quick reversal. “I was blind CC-ed on probably 200 emails to the CMA,” Owen says, “and that’s what was refreshing and made me feel secure about the community that I raise my family in. I honestly think that if 24 hours had gone by without my letter being published, (the CMA) probably would have handled it the same way, to their credit.”

For the keepers of country music’s social conscience, some questions remain that are worth exploring: Is Nashville really the progressive bastion that Huckabee’s exit would seem to signify, or does the ease of his initial appointment indicate that the genre that’s synonymous with the city has a way to go toward being on the right side of history?

It wasn’t just Huckabee’s perceived backward-ness on gay rights that made him anathema to the new Nashville. It was the tone-deafness of selecting someone who’d also recently attacked opposition to the NRA as “cowardly” — particularly when the business was still reeling from the October 2017 massacre at a country music festival in Las Vegas, modern U.S. history’s worst mass shooting.

“Everyone I talked to [on the day the Huckabee announcement was made], including chairmen of labels and major managers, all collectively agreed that that move would have put Nashville back 20 years,” says Steve Schnur, head of music for gaming company Electronic Arts and a former CMA board member. “What Huckabee represents is everything that Nashville is not about anymore. I know plenty of country music artists who are next generation, and they don’t come here with redneck-pro-gun-conservative-religious points of view. While country will always remain respectful to older artists, it’s still a twentysomething coming to town, and they come with  a different attitude than the Oak Ridge Boys did, you know?” Fifteen years ago, Dixie Chicks singer Natalie Maines criticized then-President Bush, spurring a near ban on radio of the superstar act. Today, Schnur says “managers still fear that kind of repercussion from radio, so thank God for artists like Brothers Osborne, who speak about what they feel and don’t care what people think. That’s rock. That’s hip-hop. And that’s country.”

What’s prompting this sea change? Migration, for one. Nashville is the 10th-fastest-growing metropolitan area in the U.S., adding just under 100 residents a day — an expansion that’s seen in the never-ending panorama of cranes in and near downtown (and in Music Row’s historic Craftsman offices increasingly being demolished for condos). Those immigrants aren’t retirees either. They come to attend Vanderbilt and Belmont universities and stay for a low unemployment rate, thriving restaurant scene, and a culture some compare to Austin in its heyday. The city’s new mayor, David Briley, points out that non-country music entertainment companies like Roc Nation, Weirdo Workshop and Fort Knox as well as EA have moved to town. “At the end of 2016 we announced the new global shared financial services center by Warner Music Group that will bring employees from New York and Los Angeles,” adds Briley, who recently succeeded equally music biz-championing Megan Barry after her resignation amid an adultery scandal. “The company’s decision to relocate employment from those two other key markets to Nashville marked a historic relocation, since it was the first time a major record company moved people from those markets to Nashville for label services.”

And even the strictly country side of Music Row skews more progressive than not these days, some say. “What once was a closed circuit is now permeated by people from all over America,” adds Brian Philips, who stepped down last year as president of CMT to pursue other TV and film development opportunities. “There are just differing points of view and interesting characters where there once might have been rather predictable older stereotypes. There were always people who withheld some of their personal lives from public knowledge, because that might have put them at risk in Nashville. And now I think they’re living with a sense of pride and fearlessness.”

Philips says he was “really proud of this CMA board and the way they reacted” to the firestorm over Huckabee being appointed to the offshoot board of the CMA Foundation, which promotes music education in schools. “I don’t like this narrative where there’s sort of a cabal of gay people who rose up and snuffed it. I think it was widely viewed in the Nashville music community as something that didn’t belong as part of the CMA. The guy had too many quotes that were coming back to haunt him for a trade organization with the goal of furthering the worldwide love of country music. I rather doubt I could get Bill Maher onto the CMA board either, you know? But what’s interesting is that not that many years ago, no one would have batted an eye. By 2018, it’s from the moon, that announcement. It’s the changing of Nashville along with the rest of America.”

Philips worried that Huckabee’s appointment might have been seen as reversing the industry’s recent disassociation from NRA Country, an NRA offshoot that once hosted events with singers like Blake Shelton but finally removed what was left of its once sizable affiliated artists page in March after most of the stars listed asked to have their names taken off. As CMT head, Philips says he made a copy of every artist who was on the NRA Country website and “tucked it away as ‘These aren’t people that we necessarily want to be in business with.’ If we were sponsoring tours with acts who were taking money from the NRA, [CMT parent] MTV Networks would have been outraged, and rightfully so.”

“There are plenty of people in country music who are pro-guns, so why can’t country music have some people who think there should be common-sense gun laws?”
John Osborne

But is applauding the influx of newcomers code for coastal elites taking over Nashville? “It’s a gross oversimplification that serves the other side to say that people are coming from New York and L.A. and turning it into California,” Philips says. “Jason Owen is from Arkansas. And I don’t know where Shane McAnally is from, but my guess is not Long Island.”

McAnally, one of the industry’s most sought-after writer-producers, is from Mineral Springs, Texas, actually. The Grammy winner and CMA board member came to Nashville in the early ’90s with significant trepidations about how a gay man would be accepted in Music City. “I was here when one of the biggest radio stars, Ty Herndon, had stories [circulating] of him being gay, and I saw what that did to his career.” (Herndon came out in 2015.) “At the time, that fed my fear of ever coming out, because my dream my whole life was to be in country music, but here’s this one glaring obstacle — like a very short person believing that they’re going to be the best basketball player.”

McAnally’s success came not in the spotlight but behind the scenes, producing breakthrough albums for acts like Midland and co-writing songs ranging from Musgraves’ history-making, gay-positive “Follow Your Arrow” to deliriously straight Sam Hunt megahits like “Body Like a Back Road.” (He’s currently at work on Hunt’s sophomore album.) “I just have experienced no homophobia whatsoever here,” McAnally says. “But in 2013 when the New York Times wrote an article about me, they so badly wanted to angle it to the small-mindedness of Nashville. And no matter how many times I said ‘That’s just not the case,’ they still made the story about that. Something like this Huckabee thing adds to that narrative,” he says. “But when you look closer, we’re not about that.”

A closer look between the lyrical lines also occasionally yields signs of a progressive view. The No. 1 song on country radio right now is Luke Bryan’s gentle “Most People Are Good,” which its writers say was a response to the vitriol of the 2017 elections. It fleetingly includes a moment of LGBT acceptance: “I believe you love who you love / Ain’t nothing you should ever be ashamed of.” When Garth Brooks put a line like that in his 1992 single “We Shall Be Free,” it stirred up such a controversy that, probably not coincidentally, it became his first flop.

“The first time I heard ‘Most People Are Good,’ I texted [Luke Bryan] right away and said, ‘On behalf of myself and my family, I just want to thank you for recording that song and that line.’”
Blair Garner

Bryan’s current chart topper is heartening to Blair Garner, a prominent syndicated country radio personality who came out to listeners just over a year ago. “Luke is one of our A-level stars,” says Garner. “The first time I heard ‘Most People Are Good,’ I texted him right away and said, ‘On behalf of myself and my family, I just want to thank you for recording that song and that line. It means more than you can know.’ And he texted me back and said, ‘The perfect lyric, perfectly written, proud to sing it.’”

As someone who deals with conservative programmers, Garner admits he took longer than some to reveal his sexual orientation, even submitting to the blackmail demands of a former employee in the ’90s who threatened to out him to the media. Garner agreed to a payoff, feeling then that a resulting scandal would have “been the downfall of our company.” But since going public with a quiet but purposeful social media post of himself with his husband, Eric, and their two children, he says he hasn’t lost a single affiliate, and his Facebook followers have only increased. Yet he and Eric also sense a shift as they get further into Tennessee’s surrounding counties.

Nashville is “a blue island in a sea of red,” Garner says. “When we see a national news story about the (politics of the) state of Tennessee, we’re often just shaking our heads, like, how in the world can that be? But it wasn’t that far away where [Kentucky clerk] Kim Davis and Mike Huckabee were holding their hands up in celebration of her failure to honor gay marriage.”

Garner is on the CMA Foundation board, and some might be surprised to learn that, as a gay man, he was among those at first giving a pass to Huckabee’s appointment. The radio host puts his initial assent down to Nashville’s reach-across-the-aisle politics. “The thing that I most enjoy about my work with the CMA Foundation is that whether we agree with everyone’s personal beliefs outside of that room, the one thing that does bring us all together is the desire to provide music education for kids,” Garner says. “So I did feel that Huckabee is a man who knew how to move things through the red tape of the political organization – even though I find his views on many things repugnant at best.” But he, too, came to think Huckabee unsuitable after seeing the infamous “Hate wins” missive. “I was really stunned by the letter that Huckabee wrote, which was a very junior high school, spurned-boy thing. And you espouse yourself to be a Christian leader? I thought that part of the Christian faith was learning to turn the other cheek. Unfortunately the cheek that he chose to expose was the one on his backside.”

Brothers Osborne are part of the new generation, along with their friends Musgraves and Maren Morris, who don’t necessarily go looking for trouble on social media but won’t go silent if they find it. In the Brothers Osborne’s case, that may involve serious statements or casual retweets about gun control, gay pride, pot, private prisons or the president’s remarks about Haiti being a “shithole” (which they countered by pointing to the fact that they, like many country fans, are proud of coming from a “shithole” upbringing).

Shane McAnally, who co-wrote Kacey Musgraves’ LGBT-affirming “Follow Your Arrow,” marvels that “it had no commercial impact and yet went on to win” song of the year at the CMAs. “That says so much about this industry.”
ROBBY KLEIN for Variety

“I think the fact that we and Maren and Kacey can all openly say these things without people steamrolling our records in the middle of a parking lot shows that we are moving in a more positive direction,” says John Osborne, the guitar-shredding half of the sibling duo. “We were surprised to find for every one person that gave us a hard time about putting a gay couple in our video for ‘Stay a Little Longer,’ there were 50 people that praised our courage. our intentions are always pure. It’s never to divide anyone or to poke the hornet’s nest. It’s just to remind people that it’s okay to speak. And we didn’t really come from much, so when people say, ‘We’ll take your career away’ or ‘We’ll Dixie Chick you,’ well, that’s fine. If I have to have this career by keeping my mouth shut, it isn’t worth it. We’ve had people multiple times say, ‘Shut up and sing,’ or ‘If we want your opinion, we’ll beat it out of you’ — I think that was a funny one, considering that me and T.J. are six-foot-four, big dudes, and I doubt that would be the case.”

T.J. says their speaking up is partly to make sure that country fans of different regional and ideological stripes feel represented. “Ultimately people are listening to music to forget about politics,” says the duo’s lead singing half. “But at the same time, you think, man, I feel like a bit of a sellout for keeping my mouth shut and just trying to better myself (career-wise). And  I think some people are wanting artists to be their voice… It’s good for country music that it isn’t just about one thought any more than it’s just about one sound. We just got back from Australia, where country music is thriving, and you’re talking about a place where they have extreme gun laws. Touring globally just reminds us how diverse country music has become, and it’s great that there are different artists for different people. That’s why we’ve chosen sometimes to be outspoken. There are plenty of people in country music who are pro-guns, so why can’t country music have some people who think that there should be some common-sense gun laws?”

The year 2018 may be a particularly opportune one to make country music feel like a welcoming place for all comers, with crossover suddenly looking to be on the upswing again. In March, there were two country artists in the overall pop top 10 for the first time since 2000, albeit both in collaboration with pop artists, as Florida Georgia Line’s hookup with Bebe Rex (“Meant to Be”) and Maren Morris’ featured vocal on a Zedd track (“The Middle”) both became official pop smashes.

Busbee, the predominantly L.A.-based producer responsible for country breakouts like Morris’ acclaimed debut album and the Carrie Underwood/Keith Urban hit “The Fighter,” as well as non-country fare from Pink and Gwen Stefani, sees a crossroads at hand. “As the genre continues to expand,” says Busbee, “there are a few artists  leaning more traditional country than they have in a while, and then so many more leaning more progressive or pop or whatever you want to call it. It seems like the the spread is wider than it has been in a long time, which is super exciting, but then, of course, it brings different people to the party, which does exacerbate the potential tensions.”

David Hodges, a former Evanescence member who’s co-written a number of country smashes with artists like Underwood, enjoys the way those tensions are embraced within the confines of Music Row. “In L.A., there are certain feedback loops where everyone is thinking the same way, and you don’t learn as much from that as being in a place like Nashville where you have a lot of conservative thought and liberal thought and that stuff meshing together. Maybe the Fox News or MSNBC version of it is a lot more contentious, but with the people that I’m writing and working with every day, it actually seems really productive and helpful, and there’s a lot of community to be found amid the differences.”

Chely Wright, meanwhile, is not ready to make nice, at least on the gay rights and gun issues she believes transcend traditional partisanship. Wright, who reached No. 1 in 1999, and 11 years later became the first country star to come out, believes there’s a lingering dread of stirring a hornet’s nest in red-state America, even among Nashville’s most proudly liberal executives. She’s distressed that — for all the actions behind closed doors — none of the town’s top execs other than Owen would go on the record as endorsing the Huckabee exit when the flap was going down, nor have they since. (The top major-label presidents all declined to be interviewed for this story.)

“I made a commitment when I came out that I would never delete anyone’s remarks to me on social media,” says Wright. “I think it’s important for people who might be on my page who think, ‘Is that even a big deal? Nobody cares anymore!’ to see (the homophobic replies). And when I posted an open letter to Huckabee, it was maybe right down the middle between supportive fans and people who told me I’m going to burn in hell… again. I kind of want to get a T-shirt that says ‘Chely Wright: Burning in Hell Since 2010’ and trademark it.”

She wasn’t surprised that James Dobson’s Family Research Council sent out a newsletter urging a social media campaign against Owen’s artists after the Huckabee flap, suggesting that country music was in for an NFL-style backlash, or that there were hundreds or thousands of “Et tu, Nashville?” tweets from right-wing fans lamenting that country music was now full of snowflakes and no longer a safe space for conservative Christian males.

To Wright, “Country music came by some of that bad rap honestly. But when people can look online and see that the CMA, which is the gold standard in our industry, had a discussion around issues of inclusion, and that the guy who was pandering to old belief systems was uninvited to the table, that absolutely moves the needle for the industry — which sets the tone for what the fan base will and will not tolerate. Country music had a really good, progressive week last month. Even my friends in media in New York reached out and said, ‘Good for Nashville! Were you surprised?’ And I had to say, yeah, I was.”

But to anyone who thinks they can just work behind the scenes on something like influencing the CMA’s Huckabee decision, “I throw a red flag,” Wright says. “In this day and age, if you are not overtly saying you’re an ally, and if you’re not publicly rejecting someone who has made his brand off of subjugating and excluding minority groups, you’re part of the problem. And I know it’s hard, and I know it’s scary. You don’t want to lose a single record sale — they’re harder to come by than ever. I love Tim McGraw and Faith Hill’s outspokenness about gun control and LGBT issues, and I can’t say enough about how powerful their voices are together. We need a few more of those big, current voices to move the needle, but I definitely think something’s afoot. I think 2018 is the year to find one’s courage, and a lot of people are.”