Nashville lies at the heart of a divided country: Trump got bubbas to the polls

As the president staged a rally attended largely by out-of-towners, Democratic-leaning denizens of Tennessees Brooklyn pondered an urban-rural rift

Men in stetsons, check shirts and jeans swing their partners around to the thrum of drums, fiddle, keyboard and steel guitar of Mike Oldham & The Tone Rangers. The walls at Roberts Western World in Nashville, Tennessee, are coated with beer logos spelled out in neon or on lampshades or mirrors, old concert posters, photos of country music greats and three rows of cowboy boots for sale. The tiled floor is barely visible under the heaving crowd.

At this and other honky tonk bars on Broadway, Nashvilles main tourist drag, the music is old country: songs about drink, divorce, hardscrabble heartbreak, the miserable struggle to make ends meet. It is a playlist that has taken on new resonance in the era of Donald Trump, like a requiem for white working class voters in small towns who, feeling left behind with nothing to lose, propelled him to the White House.

But Nashville is a booming city where southern civility, religion and conservatism collide with a young, creative and liberal population. Paradoxically, the heart of country music is increasingly at odds in class, culture and politics with the heartland that surrounds it. In this it mirrors the dislocation of other burgeoning American cities that are islands of Democratic blue in deep red Republican states.

There is a vast gulf in ideology and approach to the world, said Bruce Dobie, a Nashville-based media entrepreneur. Its just crazy right now. My street and city are overwhelmingly Democratic. Were astonished by everything we see at the moment.

Dobie estimated that when the US president rolled into Nashville on Wednesday for a campaign-style rally, around 80% of the crowd was from out of town. Trumps warm-up acts were country singers the Gatlin Brothers and Lee Greenwood, whose rendition of God bless the USA earned a cheer with the words to the hills of Tennessee. Trump joined him on stage, grinned, shook his hand and raised two thumbs up as the crowd chanted USA! USA!, some with fists raised, in a near-religious frenzy.

So Im thrilled to be here in Nashville, Tennessee, the home of country music, southern hospitality and the great president Andrew Jackson, Trump said, referring to the 19th-century populist described by the state museum as champion of the common man and notorious for forcing Native Americans off their land.

The crowd waved signs including Promises made, promises kept, Lefty media lies and Women for Trump. Carma Williams, 63, a retired office manager who had travelled from 70 miles away, said: I love him because hes honest. Hes doing everything he said he would do during the campaign. I think hes the first president whos done that.

Inside
Inside Roberts Western World after Trumps rally in Nashville, Tennessee. Photograph: Jon Morgan for the Guardian

Outside the Nashville Municipal Auditorium there was a modest gathering of protesters. One stood out. James Walker was wearing a red Make America great again baseball cap, sunglasses, a beard, a black North Face jacket and khaki trousers. He held aloft a sign that said: Ive made a huge mistake.

The 31-year-old explained: I voted for Trump. I thought it would be a positive change, a change that Obama didnt come through on, and it would shake things up. It has shaken things up but in a bad way. I realise now that some of the things that were just campaign promises seemed to carry on beyond the election and become a reality.

Walker, who grew up in California and spent two years in the military, said he ordered the trademark Make America great again hat many weeks ago but it had only just arrived. So that was the spark: I know what Im going to do with this.

He expressed a desire for atonement. I dont know what thats going to be but this is the first step: showing up and being honest.

Walker now works as a wine broker and lives across the Cumberland river in east Nashville, dubbed the citys own Brooklyn with its embrace of beards, tattoos and artisanal foods, along with Jack Whites record label and an explosion of diverse guitar bands and songwriters. Walker added: Its mostly Democratic, blue territory. Only a few of my friends admitted to voting for Trump and did so in confidence. Today is the first day Ive gone public.

Beside him at Wednesdays demonstration was Lisa Kaas Boyle, an environmental attorney holding a bag that posed the question: What would Dolly do? a reference to country music hall-of-famer Dolly Parton, who supports gay rights but said of Trump and rival Hillary Clinton: I think theyre both nuts. Surveying the queue of thousands of Trump supporters that snaked up and around and down a grassy hill, she said: Im shocked by this huge turnout. It really feels like a gut punch for me. Im sure they came from far and wide. Its shocking to me that people have no regard for their fellow Americans.

Boyle has just returned to Nashville after 30 years, partly to be close to family and partly in response to Hillbilly Elegy, author JD Vances personal insight into problems of the white working class including alcoholism, divorce, domestic violence, drugs and hopelessness. As the Washington Post put it, elites in both parties are studying the book as a sort of Rosetta Stone to understand the conditions that enabled the rise of Trump.

The 52-year-old, said: After reading Hillbilly Elegy, I feel progressives have to be involved. I cant just hang out in California with my like-minded friends. I have to make a difference here.

In last years election, Trump trounced Hillary Clinton by 26% in Tennessee, a Bible belt state that was the birthplace of the Ku Klux Klan and was last won by a Democrat when Bill Clinton, a southerner, carried it in 1996. Among the few counties he did not win were those containing Memphis and Nashville.

There are a lot of liberal artists

Now, Nashville is thriving with an influx of young professionals priced out of other cities. A record 13.9 million people visited the area in 2016, up 45% over the past decade. The music industry is worth $10bn to the region, according to a 2013 report commissioned by the Music City Music Council, and includes Americana, jazz and other genres as well as country.

It has come a long way since the Grand Ole Opry barn dance became a radio hit in the 1940s, leading to a recording industry and stars from Hank Williams then to Taylor Swift today. It has long been seen as music of the conservative heartland when Elton John denied a rumour that he would perform Trumps inauguration, he suggested, Why not ask … one of those fucking country stars? Theyd do it for you but its relationship with politics has always been more complex than often assumed.

Downtown
Downtown Nashville. Visitors to the area, drawn by its famous music scene, are up 45% over the past decade. Photograph: Jon Morgan for the Guardian

Bob Dylan, the troubadour responsible for some of the 60s defining protest songs, spent the end of the decade in Nashville and collaborated with Johnny Cash, the man in black who performed for presidents and prisoners. Merle Haggards 1969 Okie from Muskogee was regarded as a conservative anthem but he later defended the Dixie Chicks after they condemned George W Bushs invasion of Iraq and recorded a song in support of Hillary Clinton.

During last years presidential election an informal survey conducted by the trade publication Country Aircheck found that 46% of industry professionals supported Trump while 41% favoured Clinton. But unlike Hollywood, most prefer to remain silent, perhaps fearing that any declaration of allegiance risks losing half their audience.

Earlier this month an analysis by BuzzFeed found that of the 87 artists currently on either Billboards Top Country Albums or Hot Country Songs charts, only five Sturgill Simpson, Justin Moore, Chris Janson, Maren Morris and the Brothers Osborne have gone on the record with clear pro or anti-Trump views.

Sitting at the bar at the Red Door Saloon in east Nashville, Clay Johnson, 29, a composer, said: Trump probably got a lot more support from country music artists than hip-hop artists. But there are a lot of liberal artists. It would be wrong to paint them all as conservatives.

Musing on the urban-rural divide, he added: In rural Tennessee youll see people whove lived there and grown up there. In Nashville people tend to come and go like in any city. Its population versus space. Its shitty how one side can dictate how the other side lives because they live different lives. Its the same anywhere. When you live in the city, its different from living on a farm.

At another table as the clock ticked past 1am was Zie Campbell, 25, a freelance illustrator and teacher. Tennessee is a red state, Nashville is not, she said. Its a melting pot, as much of a New York as its going to get down here. This has been very hard for our specific community because we are surrounded by ignorance and bigotry.

In the rural areas theres not a desire to experience anything else. My dad smokes Marlboro Reds, Ill smoke Marlboro Reds. My dad listens to Johnny Cash, Ill listen to Johnny Cash. In the city you dont have that option any more: whether or not you are seeking it, youre forced to see others.

Zie
Zie Campbell, an illustrator and teacher in Nashville: This has been very hard for our specific community. We are surrounded by ignorance. Photograph: Jon Morgan for the Guardian

Campbells parents live 220 miles away in Knoxville. Her father voted for Trump but she found Clintons defeat devastating. She continued: I am an example of the exact opposite of my dads opinions. When the sexual harassment allegations against Trump came out, my dad and I had a long conversation. I cried. We decided were not talking politics after that.

If the other side is willing to bomb Dresden, how do you fight that?

How can the rift between urban and rural, between blue and red, be healed? I dont know if there is something to be done, Campbell said. I dont think anyone is trying to sway anyone else. I dont think theres a whole lot of grey area.

Dobie, the media entrepreneur, said: Thats the $64m question. If youre a modern Democrat youre not in the mood to pussyfoot any more, having been subjected to what amounted to the bombing of Dresden in the last election. Trump committed Dresden. No one is in the mood be accommodating or easy.

Were now in a moment when I dont see much room for sitting around the campfire and holding hands. If the other side is willing to bomb Dresden, how do you fight that? You really have to take it to the streets.

Both parties are likely to compete fiercely for what might be described as the country music constituency. Dobie said: Struggling to meet bills, shooting a deer, breaking up with your girlfriend the lyrics of the country song speak the needs, desires and concerns of the conservative folk and thats why its been successful.

Thats the crowd were all talking about. Thats the demographic thats up for grabs in America and Clinton couldnt harness. Trump got the bubbas to the polls; Clinton did not. The bubbas are listening to country music.

Clay
Clay Johnson, a composer in Nashville: Its shitty how one side can dictate how the other side lives. Photograph: Jon Morgan for the Guardian

The divisions here are reflected across America, after an election that exposed brutal faultines and the education split among whites was said to be the critical factor.

Nadine Hubbs, a professor of music at the University of Michigan and author of Rednecks, Queers, and Country Music, said: In the US, our cities are places where many of us go to prosper while small towns or exurbs or suburbs are often places where people are left behind.

Nashville and Austin [in Texas] are really good examples of this phenomenon. To bridge the gap there are economic inequalities we need to pay attention to. Often the most unbridgeable gaps are the ones created by contempt for another group: lack of respect and stripping of dignity.

The way people who are prospering look down on folks who are in rural spaces, often associated with country music, creates the kind of divisions that are really hard to bridge.

The elites talk about the need for education of people in rural spaces; well, we know almost nothing about them. The economic and social segregation of the classes is worse maybe than its ever been in our history.

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2017/mar/18/donald-trump-nashville-republicans-democrats

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