Brad Paisley has always been one of my favorite country-western music stars. His songs have a way of grabbing your attention and holding on long after the song is over. He is not afraid to address social issues in his body of work as he did with songs like “Karate,” about a woman learning martial arts to fight back against a domestic abuser.
He sings one of his hits with Alison Kraus, the American bluegrass-country singer and fiddler, called “The Whiskey Lullaby.” It’s a song about the ravages of addiction and how it destroys relationships. It has one of the most haunting and evocative lines ever written for country music. “He put the bottle to his head and pulled the trigger.”
Then there’s “We Danced,” which features a woman returning to a bar that just closed to retrieve the purse she left behind. There’s a guy sweeping the dance floor, cleaning things up and as he holds the purse out for her, he says she must dance with him to get it back. They danced and if there is such a thing as love at first sight, chalk this song up to dance at first sight. They fall in love and live happily ever after, as the saying goes.
Country music fans can have a field day running through Paisley’s songs over his career that seem to set him apart from the guys and gals singing about how to sober up and get their lover back.
Paisley’s politics, like many country-western stars, is tough to nail down. With so much of their music purchased and enjoyed by that red belt of southern states who signed up with Trump, it was no surprise to find Paisley, who has performed at the Biden White House, along with other country western stars supporting Trump in 2016.
One tweet about a Paisley performance reported that he was playing at Jones Beach in New York with tailgaters sporting Trump and Confederate flags everywhere. No shock there. Given the caricature of the Southern Bubba as the archetypal country-western fan, don’t expect Paisley and others in his line of work to be out there challenging the politics of the paying customers of country-western music.
Or did Paisley step out of the red state ranks recently when he penned a song about Ukraine, “Same Here,” about how we share a set of common values with the people of Ukraine? Paisley sings about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, “I’ve got a friend across the ocean …A wife he loves and a bunch of dreams...for his country he holds so dear…he prays for peace and freedom.” The song also features Zelensky talking about how he appreciates “the same things — children, freedom, our flag, our soldiers, our people” as Americans.
That was just the first step in Paisley’s support of the war in Ukraine. He watched heart-breaking reports of a war that destroyed lives, demolished homes and sent remaining families into exile or temporary housing. Declaring that he would feel like a coward if he sang about it, but refused to visit the war-torn country, he joined a bipartisan delegation of Congress in Kyiv where he sang his song for the president and sat down for a chat with him.
Paisley also serves as an ambassador for United24, a program to Rebuild Ukraine, the largest rebuilding program in Ukraine since the Second World War. To date, it has raised $337.5 million to help the people of Ukraine rebuild their homes.
Brad Paisley sure seems to be pushing the envelope as he travels to a space in our politics that many of his country-western fans who listen to Trump have not visited. In his recent appearance on CNN’s disastrous town hall meeting, the former president was not exactly on the same page as Paisley when he told the audience that he would end the Ukraine war within 24 hours of taking office yet he would not say who should win the war. He cleared that up on Fox News when he predicted that Putin would eventually take all of Ukraine.
Trump’s Republican critics Sen. Mitt Romney and former Govs. Chris Christie and Asa Hutchinson immediately challenged Trump’s confusing and pro-Putin comments. Hutchinson tweeted that Trump reminded everyone tonight of his support of Russia and his willingness to sell out Ukraine, and Romney said Vladimir Putin would be the only person celebrating Trump’s remarks. Given how Trump cozied up to Putin during his presidency, can there be any doubt that he would hand off Ukraine to the Russians overnight?
Paisley is not the first country music star to ride into the political arena. With his visit to Ukraine, his celebrity draws attention to the people of Ukraine fighting for their very existence at a moment when some Americans seem to have lost interest in supporting Ukrainians fighting for their freedom from the Russian autocracy of Putin.
A poll earlier this year by the Pew Research Center showed that the percentage of Republicans claiming we are giving too much to Ukraine increased from 9% in March 2022 to 40% in January 2023. The news last week that Patriot missiles provided by the U.S. knocked out supersonic Russian missiles headed for Kyiv demonstrates the importance of American support for the Ukrainian military.
Kudos to Paisley for his public display of support for Ukraine and Zelenskyy. When it comes to Ukraine’s future, the rise of autocratic governments and the despot Putin, we cannot afford to sit on the fence. Let’s hope Paisley’s message about the values Americans and Ukrainians share will register with the country western crowd, especially those who have been listening to Trump.
As Ukraine begins a counteroffensive against the Russians, this is no time for Americas to falter in support of the Ukrainian people. Perhaps Paisley can make some headway opening the minds and hearts of fans who have taken their cues from a fallen and disgraced leader.
Bob Kustra served as president of Boise State University from 2003 to 2018. He is host of Readers Corner on Boise State Public Radio and he writes a biweekly column for the Idaho Statesman. He served two terms as Illinois lieutenant governor and 10 years as a state legislator.