Music | January 19, 2021 11:16 am

Is Garth Brooks the Last Bipartisan Country Star?

He insists playing Biden's inauguration isn't about politics. But will his conservative fans buy it?

garth brooks
Garth Brooks performs onstage at the 2020 Billboard Music Awards, broadcast on October 14, 2020 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles.
Getty Images for dcp

When Garth Brooks was announced this weekend as one of the artists who will perform at Joe Biden’s inauguration on Wednesday, it turned a few heads — from conservative fans who were surprised and disappointed that the country star would play for a Democrat, as well as from more progressive listeners who were perhaps pleased to find out Brooks is maybe more liberal than they had assumed.

That’s because for several decades now, Brooks has been able to toe the line and appeal to fans on both sides of the aisle, coming out of an era when country stars didn’t talk politics out of fear of alienating their base. Brooks has said he’s a Republican, but he has also voiced support for more liberal causes like gun control and gay marriage in the past. And while he also performed at Barack Obama’s inauguration in 2008, he insisted that playing for Obama and Biden’s events has nothing to do with politics for him.

“This is a great day in our household,” he said in a press conference on Monday. “This is not a political statement, this is a statement of unity. This is history. And it’s an honor, this is how I get to serve this country.” He joked to reporters that he’ll likely be “the only Republican at the ceremony.”

“I’ve played for every president there is, since Carter, with the exception of Reagan,” he said. “This is an honor for me to get to serve … and it’s one of the things that, if my family is around, no matter who the president-elect is, it’s an honor to be asked.”

That statement isn’t entirely true: Brooks declined an invitation to play at the Trump inauguration in 2016, claiming the date conflicted with his scheduled tour dates at the time. Still, his dedication to performing for presidents no matter their party affiliation harks back to what feels like a bygone era, when many artists — whether it was country singers like Brooks or pop stars like Britney Spears, who famously said “I think we should just trust our president in every decision he makes and should just support that” in 2003 — leaned on a vague, blind respect for the office of the presidency as a way to avoid alienating any fans with a stronger political statement.

Nowadays, it’s another story. We’re living through one of the most polarized eras in modern political history, and playing both sides no longer means avoiding ruffling some feathers — instead, it only makes everyone angry. Country artists in particular have gotten less shy about speaking out in recent years, whether it’s stars like Kacey Musgraves, Maren Morris and Jason Isbell speaking out in support of liberal causes and candidates, or songs in support of Black Lives Matter like Mickey Guyton’s “Black Like Me,” Morris’s “Better Than We Found It,” and Tyler Childers’ “Long, Violent History,” which asks white fans of the genre to reckon with the South’s … long and violent history. Even Taylor Swift, who began her career as a Nashville star before going pop, has finally spoken out in recent years after staying apolitical for the majority of her career.

Brooks is a product of another time, when “shut up and sing” was something country artists took to heart, for better or for worse. He deserves credit for staying true to his beliefs regardless of party politics, but are those beliefs too gray for the black-and-white political landscape we currently find ourselves in? Only time will tell, but it seems likely we’ll continue to see more and more country stars picking sides.

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