‘We aren’t all dumb hillbillies’: how Covid caused a rift in country music

The Covid-19 culture war has a new front: country music. Be it the Nashville establishment or up-and-comers in adjacent roots, folk and Americana genres, numerous artists are taking a stand about concert pandemic precautions, often along partisan lines. Jason Isbell has become one of the most prominent musicians to step into the fray. The Grammy-winning independent alt-country artist – who has released acclaimed albums like Southeastern and last year’s Reunions – rowed with some venues and vitriolic Twitter users, while also eliciting praise, after announcing on 9 August that proof of a Covid-19 vaccination or a negative test was mandatory for his show-goers.

“We have the ability to limit the number of people who get sick. So I can handle pushback from anyone refusing that, because I believe I am correct,” Isbell said.

Related: ‘This is a public health issue’: can Covid-era music festivals ever be safe?

If venues don’t comply, he has vowed not to play, leading to a canceled show and a relocated one. When asked about the canceled performance, the president and CEO of Houston’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion said they commended Isbell and wanted to implement his measures, but were not allotted enough time, though Isbell has tweeted that is false and the venue “flat-out refused”.

It’s by no means the only dispute Isbell has taken head-on since his announcement – he also re-tweeted and rebuked numerous naysayers, who have called him everything from an “extreme leftist POS” to a rich elitist who is excluding marginalized fans.

Isbell is certainly not the only musician faced with Delta variant complications. While Eric Clapton recently refused to play concerts where proof of vaccination is required, Stevie Nicks scrapped her US tour because of pandemic spikes. Other acts as wide ranging as Dead & Co, Maroon 5 and Foo Fighters are requiring attendees to provide proof of vaccination. “We’re amplified when we’re untied. And a lot of people have reached out to say they’re grateful we spoke out”, Isbell says.

Yet Isbell’s efforts in particular have become a lightning rod for a genre that not only had some of its popular acts defy concert pandemic restrictions, but also saw numerous fans rally behind racial slur-uttering artist Morgan Wallen. Back in 2015, conservative politician Ted Cruz praised country music for its nationalistic response to 9/11.

Memphis singer-songwriter John Paul Keith – who has been acclaimed by American Songwriter, Lyric Magazine and more – says “I respect that Jason is taking the lead on this” despite the backlash. A savvy social media commentator, Keith also spoke out recently, after New Orleans Jazz Fest was canceled, tweeting that the pandemic is jeopardizing not only lives but also musicians’ incomes. He knows several double-vaccinated musicians who needed to postpone tours this summer because of exposure or breakthrough cases.

“This is entirely the fault of the unvaccinated, and the politicians, clergy, and media figures who are lying to them,” Keith says. When asked if he was afraid of online firestorms like the one Isbell’s comments sparked, Keith says, “No, I’m worried about having to cancel my gigs, or getting a breakthrough case.” Although he is fully vaccinated, he frets at the prospect of scrapping the precious tour dates he has, because the pandemic has stifled opportunities to support his latest album. “A lot of independent artists and working musicians are not in a position to demand that the places they play require vaccines. If a bar band musician tries that, they may just find themselves out of a job.”

Austin songwriter Cari Hutson agrees that the precautions for her shows are driven primarily by everyone’s health and safety, with economic ramifications coming in a strong second place. “We are following CDC guidelines at our shows, to try and help keep our industry alive. Especially for small venues, because they’ve had a devastating year and a half,” she says. “We can’t afford to sit out shows, we have to vaccinate and mask up or everything we’ve worked our entire lives for will be gone. And it’s so upsetting to work so long on a craft and lose opportunities left and right, because people would rather believe vaccine conspiracy theories than at least try these precautions out,” she says.

While Isbell has enough stature to cancel shows at noncompliant venues, the option to axe an entire tour a la legacy acts like Nicks is not feasible for him, as he tweeted at a recent critic who suggested he follow the Fleetwood Mac singer’s lead. His retort? She is “very rich.” Isbell told the Guardian that super-spreading concerts could lead to an economic doomsday scenario: “We want to keep working. And if we don’t do something to keep audiences safe, we’ll get locked back down, and a lot of people won’t financially survive.”

Keith says the rampant disregard for the physical and economic health of the industry stems from artists and fans that are not part of his scene. “It’s no secret that mainstream country music is, generally speaking, to the right of Americana. I don’t know any artists in the Americana world who are openly anti-vax,” he says. The largest jab-adverse faction in American music at the moment, in Keith’s view: “rightwing Christian musicians like Sean Feucht, who throw big super-spreader concerts and defy local safety measures”.

While Keith is happy to be in the camp of Hutson, Isbell and his current touring mate, Americana vet Lucinda Williams (who tweeted she was “proud to stand with him”), the Tennessee singer-songwriter admits to one concern about Isbell’s precautions. “I worry there will be a political backlash in Tennessee. Our Republican supermajority in the state legislature could pass a law to ban venues from requiring vaccination cards,” Keith says, adding that a current anti-mask campaign in the state’s schools leaves him certain “they will ban them everywhere if they can”.

A ‘Let us worship’ concert by Sean Feucht in January 2021.
A ‘Let us worship’ concert by Sean Feucht in January 2021. Photograph: KC Alfred/REX/Shutterstock

But Isbell isn’t fazed by that prospect or other backlash beyond social media, saying his team will “do what it takes, and if that means going to court and arguing with a governor to convince people, then that’s what I’ll do to keep people safe. I have good lawyers, and I’m a good arguer myself,” Isbell says, adding that the loss of his friend and genre titan John Prine to Covid-19 last year is part of what propels him. He is also quick to point out that politicians playing to an anti-Covid precaution base are frequently vaccinated themselves.

Isbell’s efforts appeared to be vindicated on 12 August when AEG, the second largest concert promoter in the United States, began requiring proof of vaccination at its venues nationwide. And earlier this year, some of mainstream country’s biggest household names starred in a PSA promoting vaccination. A Los Angeles Times columnist praised Eric Church, Darius Rucker and Ashley McBryde for starring in that video, made by none other than the Academy of Country Music. The columnist also said “country music can help America get back to normal” if those stars’ many fans are persuaded to follow such anti-pandemic procedures.

This approach stands in stark contrast to country pop acts like Chase Rice and Chris Janson. They each not only drew large crowds to their concerts last summer during one of the pandemic’s peaks, but also penned songs that appeared to criticise Covid-19 precautions. Keith, meanwhile, has criticised Brad Paisley, one of mainstream country’s most popular acts, for appearing in a tourism ad with Tennessee governor Bill Lee, who has opted against statewide mask mandates and whose state has one of the country’s lowest vaccination rates. “Country music and Christian music are the only genres to so openly embrace rightwing politics,” says Keith.

From the conduct of such artists, to the criticism of Isbell’s virus precautions, the pandemic has laid bare one of country music’s longest running divides. Before those ongoing rows, Isbell regularly traded barbs with right-leaning followers who implored him to focus on music and forget politics. In 2018, Canadian country music up-and-comer Donovan Woods (whose songs have been turned into smash hits by household names like Tim McGraw) was similarly criticised on social media for his quips about Ontario premier Doug Ford. In an interview he said: “I don’t think most people want entertainers to shut up and sing. Anybody who doesn’t understand that politics and music have always been bedfellows is kidding themselves.” A greater part of country lore occurred backstage at Willie Nelson’s 70th birthday concert in 2003, when a Nashville chart topper argued with elder singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson about his “lefty shit”.

“There’s more than one kind of country singer, and if everyone outside our community learns we aren’t all big dumb hillbillies then that’ll be a nice side-effect to all this. But I’m not setting out to do that, I just want everyone to be safe,” says Isbell. “A lot of country stars look just like me. And we have a lot of white men in our audiences who feel disadvantaged these days. But if the music had been more inclusive of other stories, we’d have a broader cross section,” he says, before adding that this has compelled him to support female African American country singers like Adia Victoria, who has frequently opened for him.

Clifford Young, a pollster who worked on a 2019 Ipsos survey about country music and tribalism (among other matters), surprisingly determined that the genre was not as rightwing as assumed. While classic rock is the most popular and unifying type of music in the US, according to those results, country “only has a 15 percentage point partisan gap,” far below more divisive matters brought up in the survey. When asked what insights that survey gives him on the current country music chasm, Young says context is key. “There is a portion of the unvaccinated that are outright hostile to mandate or mandate-like measures,” he said. “We are seeing such reactions across the board, from school districts to companies to country music.”

Regardless of how it breaks down, Hutson says it is “infuriating” that vaccination and mask wearing “is seen as a political issue, rather than a health, or a human issue”. She maintains hope the divide will lessen so “we can follow these protocols and the virus improves. So we can move on. Because we can move on. But coming from a place of love is key”.