Political lessons in hard-boiled realism of country and western stars

POLITICIANS take advice from spin-doctors, pollsters, psychologists, football team managers and business leaders.

They never take advice from country music. They try to keep as far away from country music as possible, seeing country music as the uncool anthem of rednecks driving pickup trucks.

Which is why the description by a former leader of some of his dissidents as the Country and Western branch of Fianna Fáil was such a stinger. If you're busting your gizzard to define yourself by your Armani suit, Prada shoes and Gucci bag, being lumped in with that C&W lot must be like going through a red light right in front of a squad car.

Except that the C&W lot are the poets laureate of the real people. Country music is the evolution of the Celtic lament: all about separation and loss, interwoven with the Bible and steeped in cheap rotgut.

The most compelling country songs hit home in a way best exemplified by Johnny Cash's recordings in prison. The visceral roar greeting some of his lines was the response of individuals hearing a truth about their lives articulated in a way they themselves could never articulate.

Country music is funny, too. The same singer took an issue like 'asset wastage' and made a laugh out of workmen stealing a car 'one piece at a time' in their lunchboxes and ending up with something that stopped traffic because it matched no normal model.

Another singer, George Jones, who so frequently failed to turn up for concerts because of the pull of alcohol that he became known as No-show Jones, sobered up, took this failing and the name and made a hit song out of it.

Somewhere along the line the idea took hold that country music's practitioners were hillbilly hicks without ideas or beliefs other than honky-tonk fundamentalism. It was no accident that Hillary Clinton sought to make her peculiar marital situation acceptable by saying that it was not a Stand by your Man situation.

As a positioning move, that one misfired, big time. The singer of the song of that title, the late Tammy Wynette, not only got a great boost for flagging sales, but came out with her fists up, asking where precisely was the big difference between her song and a woman who stood by a serial adulterer?

Indeed, when America committed itself to the war in Iraq, some of the most lucid and heartfelt opposition was voiced by the Dixie Chicks, who were booed at music awards ceremonies as a result.

A lively acrimonious debate ensued, some of it in song, between them and a singer from the right wing of country music, whose most recent hit queries the rationale which has led television networks to stop showing footage of the attack on and collapse of the Twin Towers. The bottom line is that country music and its people were political long before Bono and Sir Bob got political.

Because many of them came from being dirt-poor and fought their way through rejection and fierce competition, because they have survived changing fashions and emerging media (Cash made a stunning music video only 10 weeks before his death) and because they have to be the chroniclers and observers of their own triumphs and disasters, country music artists represent an unequalled untapped resource for politicians. As advisors. Even just by long-distance quote.

Here's such a quote. From one Travis Tritt. "It's easy to find people who'll tell you what you can't do. Too easy. And it doesn't matter if it's in the guise of, 'you stink', or 'I'm only telling you this for your own good'. The result is the same."

Bertie Ahern, Enda Kenny and Pat Rabbitte all need to biro that on their hands. Because the essence of political leadership, these days, is to be surrounded by advisers urging caution.

I should perhaps make an exception of one of the Labour Party's advisors. I'm not sure Fergus Finlay has ever urged caution on anybody. But the general truth holds: caution is often assumed to be the same as judgment and a politician's natural capacity to be vivid, provocative or funny gets hosed down by those around him or her once they become leader.

Take Pat Rabbitte. Pat Rabbitte used to be Apocalypse on roller-blades full of moral condemnation and prophecies of state-shaking exposés. Quotable one-liners and soundbites were personal reflexes.

Nowadays, handed an unexceptional question on radio, he hesitates for half-a-heartbeat of dead airtime before answering. He didn't need that minuscule pause when he was just Pat Rabbitte.

These days, he has to check each thought to make sure it's of leadership quality. It may well be the voice of caution is his own. He may have become his own censor. But he should shut up any voice telling him what he can't do.

Himself and Enda Kenny need to pick up on an observation from a country singer who's also a fine actor, Dwight Yoakum, who points out that: "We're all compelled to follow a river, because it's going somewhere." Time to show us where your river is going, lads.

It's not enough to stand on the banks of the Fianna Fáil river fecking stones into it. Media can do that bit.

What applies to country music applies to the political audience, and Ronnie Dunn (of Brooks & Dunn) summed the imperative up better than many political commentators: "If you're not out there selling something that people feel they have to have almost as a necessity, they'll walk off on you in a second."

Over on the Fianna Fáil side, rumour hath it that next to the Taoiseach kicking Ned O'Keeffe around, the highlight of the recent parliamentary party two-day visit to the west was the presentation of muscular motivation tips by several guest speakers from non-political disciplines.

Self-motivation in a cruel trade is dog-hard, not least because of the assumptions all politicians are a) overpaid, b) crooked or would be given half a chance c) of diminishing relevance.

In this area, two female country stars are worth learning from. Tanya Tucker got arguably the worst coverage ever accorded any singer some years back when she had a chaotic affair with Glen Campbell.

Looking back, she says the coverage, painful as it was, nonetheless sustained her name at a time when she had no hit songs. All coverage keeps the name familiar. And the remembered name is a key factor in political survival.

Inarguably the best advice for politicians of all stripe when going through a bad patch, is Don't waller. That's country for 'wallow' and comes from Dolly Parton. One of the things she doesn't waller about is humour directed against her unique appearance.

Her response is unpompous and undefensive. Politicians please note.

"I'm not offended by dumb blonde jokes," she says. "Because I know I'm not dumb. I also know I'm not blonde."

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