On Monday, Garth Brooks announced that he would be performing at President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration. That news didn’t sit well with conservative country fans, who have likened Brooks to the “Liz Cheney of Country Music,” which will undoubtedly be a very time-specific reference that no one will get in a year. As disgruntled fans fill the internet with calls for boycotts and accusations that the country star is alienating his base, Brooks and his wife, Trisha Yearwood, seem unbothered by the news.
In a Zoom call following the announcement, Brooks answered questions about the performance. Considering that nothing can be chill these days and that every move is a damning one, Brooks joked, “I might be the only Republican at this place. But it’s reaching across, loving one another because that’s what’s going to get us through probably the most divided times that we have. I want the divided times to be behind us.”
That is a rare, blunt political declaration from Brooks, who has historically avoided identifying with a political party. But when discussing why he accepted the invitation, offered by Dr. Jill Biden personally, he said, “It’s not Republican or Democrat. It’s a leader for whom I am the civilian of the greatest country on the planet.” He continues, “As long as you have people like the Bidens who are hellbent on making things good … That makes me feel good. Because I want to spend the next 10 years of my life not divided. I’m so tired of being divided.” Even with the self-identified-Republican of it all, Brooks fans who are outraged by his inauguration performance seem to be willingly ignoring, well… the entire track record when it comes to Brooks’ political history.
Brooks announced on the call that he’s performed for every sitting president dating back to Carter, with the exception of Reagan. But the particulars of those past performances are complicated. In terms of inaugurations, Brooks has only previously performed for Obama, where he sang his iconic 1992 single, “We Shall Be Free.” In a 2011 interview, Brooks noted of Obama, “I love him to death and I fully support him and I just wish him well because it’s got to be hell in that office.” After establishing an ongoing friendship with then-President Obama, he also performed at the annual Christmas tree lighting back in 2016. He also performed for the Clinton and Bush administrations during special events during their terms.
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When asked to perform for Trump’s inauguration in 2017, the singer declined, but the reason was beyond politics. In the throes of planning a tour, an additional date was added to his sold out tour, landing on the same day as the inauguration. Brooks prioritized fans over politics and did not attend, though he says he has performed for Trump privately over the past four years.
But when it comes to messaging in music, there’s some selective memory issues when it comes to Brooks’ more progressive ideological leanings . The multiple Entertainer of the Year winner has been one of the most outspoken artists in country music, introducing seemingly radical lyrics for a genre that is perceived to be more conservative. In 1993, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Brooks sang in “We Shall Be Free”:
When we’re free to love anyone we choose
When this world’s big enough for all different views,
When we all can worship from our own kind of pew,
Then we shall be free.
And then, in a 1999 interview with George, the singer said, “But if you’re in love, you’ve got to follow your heart and trust that God will explain to us why we sometimes fall in love with people of the same sex.”
This assumption that all country music must be specifically conservative is a modern development for the genre. Brooks’ “We Shall Be Free” is hardly the first time that country has pushed the envelope when it comes to then-perceived “liberal” issues. Dolly Parton’s “The Bridge” features a pregnant woman committing suicide after having no other options. Loretta Lynn’s “The Pill” was banned from radio for discussing birth control. Merle Haggard’s “If We Make it Through December” is an unparalleled meditation on poverty. Reba McEntire’s “She Thinks His Name Was John” is about a woman literally dying of AIDS. Their legacies as outspoken progressive artists remain intact. And young musicians like Kacey Musgraves, Sturgill Simpson, and Orville Peck carry that torch still today.
As for the protest specifically against Brooks, history suggests he’ll be fine. He was “cancelled” last year by conservatives for wearing a “SANDERS” jersey that fans perceived to be support for Bernie Sanders. It was, in fact, the jersey of Barry Sanders of the Detroit Lions—where Brooks was playing at the time. And yet, here we are discussing a boycott again.
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