NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Red Country vs. Blue Country

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

Country music’s got a problem I can fix — namely the identity crisis that’s been with it since the music began. While there are many wings of country music, there have always been two main audiences for it. One is the traditional fan — historically rural — who likes the music straight and simple, maybe with a little pop “sophistication.” The other is the more uptown — often urban — listener who likes purist and retro sounds as well as more experimental fare. The rural/urban division is not so pronounced anymore, but a big split among fans remains nonetheless, and that’s a big logistical headache for artists, record labels, radio and retail. Here’s what to do about it: merely label and ship country music according to whether it’s directed at Red America or Blue America.

Remember in the last presidential election, when the popular vote split almost evenly between what the television anchors termed Red America and Blue America? The red states signified the areas that voted Republican; blue states went to Democratic voters who favored Gore and that guy who ran with him. So Red pretty much means conservatives, upholders of traditional values, NRA members and beer drinkers. Blue is shorthand for liberals, tree-huggers, NPR listeners and wine sippers. These days, most country music is falling along those Red/Blue lines as well. Red Country is sleeveless and tattooed and boisterous and loud; Blue Country is buttoned-up and a little more proper and melodic and not so loud that it’ll wake the baby.

Toby Keith and his “Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue” is clearly Red music. Steve Earle and his “John Walker’s Blues” belongs to the Blue. Charlie Daniels is obviously very Red; Nickel Creek is thoroughly Blue. All greeting card country music is indelibly and forever Red. It works for rock too — Kid Rock is all Red. Bruce Springsteen is pure Blue. Ditto for James Taylor. There’s a lot of overlap, but your Red Country and your Blue Country can be divided up pretty easily.

It’s not geographic so much as it is mental. If it wears a cowboy hat, it’s Red. If it wears a beret, it’s Blue. Beer is Red. Merlot is so Blue. If your SUV is a Mercedes, BMW, Range Rover or Hummer, you’re Blue. If it’s a Jimmy or a Jeep, you’re Red.

If your pickup truck is a Cadillac, you’re Blue. If it’s a Ford F-150, you’re Red. It’s snowmobiles vs. skis, power boats vs. sailboats; USA Today vs. the New York Times; Dunkin’ Donuts vs. Starbucks. Is your lawn mower a riding John Deere or a walking illegal alien? The first is obviously Red; the second, Blue.

Country fans have an added bonus because we have an abundance of populist artists such as George Jones , Willie Nelson , Dwight Yoakam , Merle Haggard , Johnny Cash , Ralph Stanley and Dolly Parton who effectively know no boundaries and blend music fans from the two categories — mixing Red and Blue to form Purple.

With many more Purple artists in country than in any other musical genre, country is in a unique position to be a national unifying force. The O Brother soundtrack and the Dixie Chicks , Alan Jackson and Trisha Yearwood are perfect examples of Purple music. We need more of it. Purple music can heal this country. And maybe even elect a Purple president.

Memo to Universal, BMG, EMI and Warners and the other record labels: when you ship out those country CDs from now on, just slap ’em with a Red or a Blue sticker — or a Purple. Red goes to Wal-Mart; Blue heads straight to Tower Records or Borders Books. Purple goes everywhere.