Contrary to all appearances, country music star John Rich is not running for governor.
The singer/songwriter can be found at many events involving gubernatorial candidates, but he is there purely as a supporter, squarely in the camp of Republican Congressman Zach Wamp.
Whether hosting a fundraiser, attending a candidate forum such as last month’s event at Belmont University, or appearing at the very formal Old Supreme Court Chambers of the state Capitol, Rich stands out in a crowd in his cowboy hat and matching attire.
Wamp made note of “John Rich and his rowdy friends” in remarks to a largely supportive crowd at the Capitol when Wamp formally announced his candidacy last week in the Middle Tennessee portion of a statewide swing. It wasn’t the horn-honking kind of rowdiness the Capitol has seen in its day, but it’s fair to say the crowd in the room was a bit louder than most of the stately proceedings the room has seen historically.
While it might look like Wamp is dragging Rich around, using a celebrity to bolster the campaign, the fact is Rich put Wamp through a vigorous test to see if the congressman from Chattanooga was up to Rich’s expectations, not the other way around. Rich tested Wamp with what might be called his own political boot camp.
Wamp survived it.
Rich did some serious evaluating when he quizzed Wamp about his political beliefs.
The whole thing started from the friendship Rich had with another prominent Tennessee Republican, former Sen. Fred Thompson, and Thompson’s wife Jeri. Rich had performed at events for Thompson in the brief Thompson presidential campaign of 2008.
“The first person who ever told me about Zach was Jeri Thompson,” Rich said. “Jeri and Fred asked me what I knew about him. I said I knew his name but honestly I didn’t know a lot about him. In a little meeting with Zach, I asked him a bunch of really hard questions. He answered them all the way I wanted to hear them answered.”
He met with Wamp in Washington.
“One of the bigget issues for me was the Tenth Amendment.” Rich said. “I asked, ‘What are you going to do if the people in this White House try to pass unfunded mandates across Tennessee and across the country? Are you going to have enough backbone to tell them no thank you and take whatever lick it is they’re going to give you?'”
Rich said Wamp looked him dead in the eye and said, “Absolutely.”
“He said that was one of the biggest reasons he wanted to run for governor was to protect our states’ rights,” Rich said. “I was on board from that moment.”
Wamp is clearly the candidate who has embraced the music crowd in the current governor’s race.
There’s certainly nothing new about linking country music and politics. But while most of those relationships have involved support for presidential candidates — or in opposition of a president, the most famous case involving the Dixie Chicks — Wamp has managed to capitalize on impressive support from the Nashville music scene for the current governor’s race.
Wamp has events scheduled with Rich, the Oak Ridge Boys, Larry Gatlin, T.G. Sheppard and Christian music artist Michael W. Smith in the coming weeks. Rich and Smith are scheduled to hold events for Wamp in their homes. Rich has already hosted one.
Rich likes the intensity he sees in Wamp.
“If you’ve ever looked into that man’s eyes and spoken with him, he is not playing around,” Rich said. “It is not a game of politics to him. He is deadly serious, and that’s the kind of people we have to have if we’re going to survive the craziness we’re in right now.”
Rich even volunteered his own opinion about events in the campaign, including the early advertising blitz of Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam, a foe in the Republican primary.
“Mayor Haslam running ads this early, more power to him,” Rich said. “I told Zach, ‘I wouldn’t let that bother you. You’re going to continue to go to the counties.’ That one-on-one contact when you see Zach Wamp, he speaks to you and looks in your eyes. You know he’s a great man and he’s a great leader for our state.”
It’s not always easy for entertainers to get involved in politics. There can be a price to pay, since you potentially lose half your audience anytime you pick a side.
The debacle over the Dixie Chicks and President George W. Bush, where lead singer Natalie Maines’ criticism of the president cost the music group immensely, might serve as a warning to an image-conscious entertainer to think twice about getting too political in the public eye.
But the ties between politics and country music have been substantial. Former President George H.W. Bush is an avid country music fan and spoke on stage of the Country Music Association Awards in 1991. President Richard Nixon played the piano on the Grand Ole Opry in 1974.
Superstar Tim McGraw, a Democrat, has spoken of possibly running for governor someday. The late King of Country Music, Roy Acuff, ran unsuccessfully for governor of Tennessee as the Republican nominee in 1948. Tex Ritter, a Nixon supporter, ran unsuccessfully in Tennessee for the Senate as a Republican in 1970.
The Bush family has enjoyed the support, financially and otherwise, of the Oak Ridge Boys, Reba McEntire and Ricky Skaggs over the years. Republican financial contributors have included legendary music executive Mike Curb as well as Jay DeMarcus of Rascal Flatts and Sammy Kershaw, who ran unsuccessfully for lietenant governor of Louisiana.
Universal Music executive Luke Lewis has contributed in the past to a political mix of Sen. Bob Corker and Rep. Marsha Blackburn, both Republicans, and Democratic Rep. Bart Gordon.
President Barack Obama’s contributors have included top-flight songwriters Matraca Berg, Don Schlitz and, notably, Rich’s old Big & Rich partner Kenneth Alphin.