The Banjo and the Ballot Box

How country music has been used on the campaign trail—and in political office

A rally for W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel during his 1938 run for Texas governor
A rally for W. Lee “Pappy” O’Daniel during his 1938 run for Texas governor

Love it, hate it, or refuse to listen to anything released after 1980—however you feel about country music, you can’t drive across the United States without hearing it. Even people who don’t appreciate the genre have been thinking about it lately, as the controversy over Lil Nas X’s exclusion from the Billboard country music charts has inspired discussion of country music, racism, and who gets to use trap beats on their tracks. It looked to a lot of people as if a genre that had traditionally celebrated outlaws and outsiders were locking its gates against a new kind of outsider. But as this week’s guest, the historian Peter La Chapelle, points out, none of this is new. Country music has been deployed to political ends since its birth in Appalachia. Nowhere is this more striking than on the campaign trail, where scores of politicians have used country music to appeal to voters. On the show, La Chapelle explains how fiddler-politicians and politician-fans have used this oddly flexible genre to advocate for the poor and dispossessed, fight for racial justice, fight against racial justice, lobby for gun rights, and articulate a whole range of sometimes contradictory positions.

Go beyond the episode:

Tune in every week to catch interviews with the liveliest voices from literature, the arts, sciences, history, and public affairs; reports on cutting-edge works in progress; long-form narratives; and compelling excerpts from new books. Hosted by Stephanie Bastek. Follow us on Twitter @TheAmScho or on Facebook.

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Have suggestions for projects you’d like us to catch up on, or writers you want to hear from? Send us a note: podcast [at] theamericanscholar [dot] org. And rate us on iTunes! Our theme music was composed by Nathan Prillaman. This episode features a song by the Downtown Mountain Boys recorded at KBOO and available at the Free Music Archives.

Permission required for reprinting, reproducing, or other uses.

Stephanie Bastek is the senior editor of the Scholar and the producer/host of the Smarty Pants podcast.


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