- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 25, 2000

NASHVILLE, Tenn. Once it was songs about lyin' cheatin' hearts, but now it is reminders like Faith Hill's to use our lungs and just "Breathe" relentlessly wholesome sentiments, perfected by pop country that blanket the airwaves around Al Gore's Democratic campaign headquarters.

More than 850 miles away in Austin, Texas, it is tales of broken promises and a devil moon as in Jimmie Dale Gilmore's "Blue Shadows" offbeat and rootsy strains of folk, blues and alternative country or "redneck" rock that waft around the staff of Republican George W. Bush.

In this tale of two boot-stompin' cities, one unabashedly radio-ready country, the other a little bit honky tonk rock 'n' roll, the contrasts were cause for rivalry long before the matchup between the major parties' White House aspirants.

Now there is the sight of two successful politicians both Ivy Leaguers, born into privilege, sons of prominent national leaders playing up their folksy images, drawing on the school-of-hard-knocks lyricism that gets played out nightly in Nashville with its rows of downtown clubs and in Austin with its statue to Stevie Ray Vaughan and a nearly institutionalized renegade status.

"It reflects things about the campaigns," says Bush spokesman Tucker Eskew, who once roamed Nashville's music scene as a college student an hour-and-a-half away in Sewanee.

"Austin music is more independent, less stuck within old traditional lines," he says. "Governor Bush is a different kind of Republican, and Austin music is a different kind of music mix, not wed to old traditions."

Gore spokesman Douglas Hattaway sees it a little differently.

"The Nashville music scene is very much of, by and for the people, and that's who Al Gore is fighting for the people," he says. "Austin's open-minded, forward-looking music scene is a stark contrast to Bush's retro agenda."

In some ways, neither comparison fits.

Unlike some Democrats' anti-establishment imagery, Nashville's Grand Ole Opry and prominent recording industry represent the musical establishment. And unlike some Republicans' buttoned-down portrayal, Austin, as self-proclaimed "Live Musical Capital of the World," is the place Bush strategist Karl Rove once called "the People's Republic of Central Texas."

At the opening of Nashville's new Opryland complex in 1974, for example, President Nixon tried to learn how to play with a yo-yo from Roy Acuff, singer of "Wabash Cannonball" and a 1948 Republican candidate for Tennessee governor.

"Politics and country have always been intertwined, sometimes for better and sometimes for worse," says Jimmie Rogers, a communications professor at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville who studies country music, politics and religion.

Tennessee may have gained a friend when it helped Texas fight for independence at the Alamo, but that was long before Willie Nelson left Nashville in the 1970s to make his home on the banks of the Colorado River in Austin. Mr. Nelson's unvarnished outlaw tunes, establishing him as king of Austin's cosmic cowboys, helped set the town's experimental styles apart from Nashville's polished music-making.

"The Nashville sound was smooth, recorded in such a way that they considered it to be perfect," says Mr. Rogers. "They used strings and horns, they brought it uptown. What Austin did was they brought it back down to its roots."

Some staples of the country music industry Pam Tillis, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Kathy Mattea, John Michael Montgomery, Ricky Van Shelton and Marty Stuart back Mr. Gore.

But Mr. Bush draws support from other big Nashville stars: Brooks & Dunn, Wynonna Judd, Hank Williams Jr., Loretta Lynn, Travis Tritt, Lorrie Morgan and the Oak Ridge Boys.

Of course, there's plenty of crossover that same magic word used by musicians seeking genre-bending appeal, and by politicians chasing votes.

Mr. Bush, taking aim at working families, has as a campaign theme "We The People," a new composition by Billy Ray Cyrus mixing country, rock 'n' roll and blues. Mr. Cyrus, not exactly known as a proponent of Texas-style compassionate conservatism, is a Flatwoods, Ky., native and lifelong Democrat.

The musical centers also have been fertile ground for campaign money.

Mr. Gore's Tennessee roots so far have garnered his campaign $2 million in donations from the state. Of that, Nashville residents gave $964,455, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Mr. Bush has received $16 million from the far more numerous Texans. More than $1 million of that has come from Austin, which ranks behind Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth in donating to presidential campaigns.

"This place is crawling with music lovers," Mr. Eskew says of the Austin headquarters. "From Robert Earl Keen to Lyle Lovett to Willie Nelson, there's a lot of fans in this building. There's no set playlist at our events, but the music that gets played afterward certainly is twangy."

The Bush campaign occasionally plays a compact disc with a mix of tunes such as John Fogerty's rock tune "Centerfield." So it is in the Gore camp, which lacks an official campaign theme song, but has played the likes of Shania Twain at rallies.

"We go to the country-and-Western night spots quite a bit. That's fallen off as the campaign's gotten more intense," says Mr. Hattaway. "People on the campaign listen to all kinds of music. That said, we've taken great advantage of all the music offered in Nashville, because it's not just country."

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