TRAVIS TRITT SINGS TRIBUTE TO JOHNNY CASH
John Sommers  /  Reuters file
Travis Tritt is among a number of country music stars who have performed at Bush campaign events.
By
Special to msnbc.com
updated 6/22/2004 3:55:19 PM ET 2004-06-22T19:55:19

As you’ve probably heard at least a hundred times by now, America is a divided nation, split 50-50, conservative Red vs. liberal Blue. And the upcoming presidential election, it seems, has only intensified the country’s cultural and political battles — over abortion, gay marriage, gun rights, religion and the war in Iraq.

But there’s another battle taking place in American politics that probably hasn’t received the attention it should, though not for a lack of noise. It’s the battle of the musical bands.

This isn’t a joke: Third Day, the Grammy award-winning Christian rock band, has endorsed Bush's campaign, and has participated in GOP online chats and news conferences with Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie. “We made [the decision to support Bush] knowing the consequence that we might be ostracized, but we decided it was time that we answered the call to participate and voice our opinion — our positive message about the president’s leadership,” said Third Day bassist Tai Anderson in a recent online chat hosted by the Republican National Convention.

“It does take courage to take a stand. But look at the courage our president and our troops show every day. I think it is a small challenge for us to stand up in support.”

“Fat Mike” Burkett, the lead singer and bassist of the punk band NOFX, has a much different, and much harsher, view of Bush. And Fat Mike is doing everything he can to make sure the president is defeated in November. “I think he’s a religious fundamentalist nut, born-again Christian who believes in the Apocalypse. And I don’t think he cares about the American people at all. I think he cares about American corporations.”

Indeed, the different bands that have volunteered their electric guitars, drum sets, and vocal chords to support the Bush and Kerry campaigns provide perhaps the most entertaining glimpse into America’s Red-Blue divide. On Kerry’s side, for example, musicians like Jon Bon Jovi and Moby have played at fund-raisers for the Massachusetts Democrat. Fat Mike, meanwhile, founded the liberal 527 group Punkvoter — which includes his band, Blink 182, Sum 41, Good Charlotte, Bad Religion, and others — that hopes to register 500,000 voters in an effort to defeat Bush. And on Thursday, Barbra Streisand, Neil Diamond , and Willie Nelson will perform at a Democratic fund-raising concert in Los Angeles.

Backing Bush are Christian acts like Third Day and vocalist Michael W. Smith, while country artists like Travis Tritt, Larry Gatlin, and Billy Ray Cyrus have performed at campaign events.

Pursuing the young
These musicians’ participation in the 2004 presidential election, however, extends beyond concerts and online chats. They’re also using their Web sites, e-mail lists, and CDs to drum up grass-roots support inside a prized demographic: young voters.

“We feel very strongly that the youth vote is going to be the swing vote in this election,” said Jay Strell, the spokesman for non-partisan Rock the Vote, which is trying to register a million new voters and also have 20 million 18- to 30-year-olds vote in November. “Twenty million young people getting out to vote could be a tremendous force.”

Punkvoter, for instance, is using its Web site, which Fat Mike says gets 15 million hits per month, to disseminate political news to punk fans. It is also selling a “Rock Against Bush, Vol. 1” CD compilation, which includes songs like Sum 41’s “Moron” and Offspring’s “Baghdad.”

This summer, moreover, 10 Punkvoter bands will be playing at the Warped Tour concert series, where they will be working to get their fans registered to vote while playing behind a “Rock Against Bush” banner. And in September, many of these bands will go on a concert tour, hitting the battleground states of Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania.

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Not all punks are liberal
Although not all punk fans are liberals (in fact, there’s a group called Conservative Punk), Fat Mike estimates that only 1 or 2 percent of them are actually conservatives. As a result, these voters could be a potential gold mine for Democrats, especially if the election is as close as many expect. “I wouldn’t be doing this if it was anybody else but George Bush,” Fat Mike said of creating Punkvoter. “I did it because I think this man is really dismantling this country. And he’s affecting the entire planet.”

Fat Mike’s support of Kerry, however, is notably lukewarm. “Do I think he [would be] a great president? No. But I think George Bush is the worst president, and anyone’s better than him,” he said. “But I think John Kerry’s said a lot of good things. I think his plan to keep jobs in America sounds legitimate. ... I think he has the right idea.”

Fans of Christian rock and country music, though, also provide Republicans their own gold mine. John Hart, the president and CEO of Bullseye Marketing Research Inc., which focuses on country radio, says the country-music audience tends to support both Bush and the Iraq war. Hart’s firm, in fact, conducted a poll of 865 country listeners in 16 different radio markets, and in that poll, 55 percent said they would vote for Bush, while just 27 percent said they’d vote for Kerry.

Jay Swartzendruber, the managing editor of Christian Contemporary Magazine, points out that typical Third Day fans are high school or college students who are evangelical Christians. And he adds that Third Day is so popular that it sold 60,000 copies of its newest album in its first week at the record stores. “Third Day is pretty much as big as they come,” he said.

Registration drives
And like Punkvoter, Rock the Vote, and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network (a non-partisan group that is reaching out to rap and hip-hop fans), Third Day is doing its part to register voters. Anderson says he talks to his fans before each concert, explains to them the importance of voting, and then tells them they can register to vote outside in the lobby of the arena.

"At first, I'm quick to write off our efforts as probably insignificant," he said in an interview by e-mail. "Then, I remember how polarized the country is and how close the election was in 2000. I think that more than ever, every vote really does count."

However, he adds, "We really don't see our efforts as an attempt to benefit Bush as much as ... wake up our fan base to the importance of making their political voice heard."

Fat Mike, despite his caustic words toward Bush, also suggests that getting young Americans to vote might be the ultimate accomplishment of his nosedive into politics. “We are for sure making a difference. Are we going to swing the election? Who knows? But there are definitely going to be … 100,000 kids or 500,000 kids [who] are gonna vote that wouldn’t have normally voted.”

Rock on.

Mark Murray covers politics for NBC News. NBC’s Jesse Levine contributed to this article.

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