Conventional western Washington wisdom holds that NPR is always playing solemnly in the background at home or on those increasingly traffic-jammed commutes. When we change stations, it's to reconnect with grunge or the hip-hop stylings of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis.
But Seattle also has what country and TV star Blake Shelton calls, “a hillbilly bone down deep inside.”
While serious Seattle may be tuning into NPR's 88.5 or 94.9 for their morning Obamacare debate, just a few turns down the dial (at country music's 100.7 The Wolf), there's a similar but less serious — and unexpected — conversation going on. One recent morning, just after the federal government shutdown, Wolf personalities Fitz and Tony Russell were arguing on-air about the Affordable Care Act and its role in Washington D.C.'s budget battle.
Fitz was stirring things up: Obamacare is too confusing, he said, and both parties are to blame. It's that confusion that has caused this whole mess.
Russell, in his West Virginia twang, fired right back: Democrats want the Affordable Care Act to work. Why would they go around making the debate more confusing than it already is? Affordable health care for everyone, he argued, is something we should all want even though we can't know yet if this plan will actually work.
“The longer I live out here, the more liberal I get,” Russell confessed.
The exchange was remarkable in a few ways. First, country stations are not where you'd expect to find a public affairs debate, and certainly not a balanced one. Second, country music? In Seattle?
It turns out it's more popular than you'd think. KKWF (The Wolf) is tied for fifth place with KUOW for Seattle-Tacoma market share. And of 33 local stations, country's KMPS is holding steady in the number nine position — well ahead of KPLU (NPR), which ranks 13th. In Portland, Seattle's more liberal stepsister, country is number two.
As Russell put it when we spoke later, in the towns and cities north, south, east and west of Seattle, KKWF is holding down the number one spot on the dial. A fact that puts the station in line with the rest of the nation, where Pew's Project for Excellence in Journalism puts country at number one.
Of course, if you’ve ever gotten within a country mile of any twangy musician playing the Tacoma Dome or Key Arena, you know that the Taylor Swifts, Kenny Chesneys and Jason Aldeans of the Nashville scene routinely sell out here in the Northwest. And the Little Red Hen dance hall in Seattle’s Green Lake neighborhood is packed with country music fans, not to mention the country-curious. We’ve even got a local NASCAR champion, Casey Kahne of Enumclaw, who last month beat Jeff Gordon at Pocono to take 8th overall.
What does this say about our coastal, blue-hued, tech-savvy region? After all, country music is heartland, red-meat, down-home, right?
NW country fans enjoy The Wolf's Watershed Day Two concert at the Gorge. Credit: Mat Hayward
There is some truth to that stereotype. Russell told me he had gotten strong criticism for his position. "The country audience is Republican-leaning," he said. "It's very conservative. God and country — and beer."
Country and politics have always mixed up a volatile cocktail. The Dixie Chicks were banned in parts of the United States for speaking out in London in 2003 against the Bush Administration’s war policy. Conversely, ESPN dropped Hank Williams Jr., a vocal Republican booster, for his derogatory comments about President Obama.
It didn't necessarily start out that way though. As blogger Eric V. Kirk points out, sometimes sarcastically, country has long been misunderstood as a platform for right-wing advocacy. In “Rednecks and Bluenecks,” author Chris Willman looks at the way country's increasing popularity and conservative drift parallel the transformation of the Democratic South into the heart of the Republican mainstream. If Woody Guthrie is to country what Elvis Presley is to rock, then country’s lyrical roots are buried in populist ideologies. Of course the Washington state song, Roll on Columbia, Roll on," was written by Guthrie, who identified with other Dust Bowl refugees who migrated to this region.
In his blog, Kirk writes that Johnny Cash’s "Man in Black" is a “liberal manifesto with light irony.” Loretta Lynn’s "The Pill" is about sexual liberation and Dolly Parton’s "9 to 5" is about class struggle in the workplace.
The direction of country music is drawing increased critical interest. The New York Times has begun devoting considerable Arts space to the genre it has, until now, largely ignored. Music critic Jon Caramanica wrote a keenly insightful Aug. 17th review of a new album by Luke Bryan (“Crash My Party”), one of country's top musicians. Bryan’s thematic shift, Caramanica wrote, "mirrors country music’s full-fledged arrival as an urban and suburban phenomenon – in the college towns where young people from small towns congregate, or cities that are home to large numbers who migrated from the South.” They aren’t in opposition to much of the rest of what’s on the charts, and they see themselves as firmly part of the world.
“Country music is more mobile, and more open-eared, than it’s ever been before,” Caramanica wrote.
And lately, its lyrics have been sounding pretty urban. Slate magazine wrote recently about the growing appearance of marijuana — and not whiskey — in country lyrics. Brad Paisley and LL Cool J try to work through the South's racism stigma, and Taylor Swift's just wondering why everybody’s got to be so mean.
The Wolf's Russell says country has turned to a more "pop-ish" sound that has grown its market share dramatically over the seven years he's been on the radio here.
To be sure, Seattle is no country neophyte. In his history of the Space Needle, Crosscut writer Knute Berger discovered that on May 18, 1963 the staff of Country KAYO radio milked a cow on the Needle "to prove Western music is high-class."
Perhaps the popularity of country in the Northwest is little more than youth mania for the likes of Carrie Underwood, Lady Antebellum and Taylor Swift. But music is full of framing, messaging and personal sentiment. Sure, there are still plenty of drinkin’, lovin’, fightin’ and fishin’ songs, but there is also still a healthy dose of self-reliance, hard work, patriotism and family values.
Country is playing to an increasingly broad audience — and the Northwest is listening.