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This is not something I ever imagined writing. That’s something I’ve thought way too frequently over the last few years, but this is the first time in a long time that it hasn’t been accompanied by a sinking pit in my stomach. I’m actually smiling as I sit down to write today’s post-inaugural edition of The D.C. Brief.
And that’s because I’m writing about the most unlikely of subjects in this newsletter about Washington and politics: Garth Brooks, the country music icon and perhaps America’s unlikeliest of political counselors.
Yesterday, I sat at the base of the Inauguration podium, cold and jotting down some phrases in my notebook. “Unity,” “truth,” “uncivil war” and “threat” were scrawled in chicken-scratch with my frozen hand. New-President Joe Biden had finished his inaugural address, but I wasn’t quite sure what to say about it. Its writing was quite fine, but the campaign themes felt familiar and some of the rhetoric bordered on trope. Biden’s trademark idealism sought to overcome the undeniable reality that the whole affair unfolded behind giant metal fencing topped by razor wire. It took tens of thousands of uniformed and armed military personnel to ward off a repeat of the Jan. 6 insurrection at the very spot where Biden swore his oath. Things sure didn’t feel united.
Then a lone trumpet began. It played the first notes of Amazing Grace, a hymn and a political declaration alike that stands as a testimonial for forgiveness and redemption. As someone sentimental to a good trumpet belt, I put my notebook in my lap and listened. It was a prelude for Brooks, and by the time he got to his microphone, my imagination was primed. I got it. It was a plea for normalcy from both the Marine Corps musician and the country superstar who invited the crowd to join him for the last verse. From under masks, a low chorus around me started to rise.
It was more than just the song that made this a powerful moment. This was a bona fide country music legend whose fans hail largely from the reddest of Red States on the map. Brooks is a self-described Republican who joked ahead of the event that he “might be the only Republican at this place.” But he couched his participation as “about reaching across and loving one another.” He was willing to put his career and his credibility out there for the world to see he was ready to call Biden his President. Unlike earlier performers Lady Gaga and Jennifer Lopez, many of Brooks’ fans may not have been thrilled over the Bidens’ move into the White House.
Ever since the group formerly known as Dixie Chicks were lambasted for speaking out against George W. Bush and the war in Iraq, country music and its consumers have largely adopted a strong and explicitly pro-Republican, anti-Democratic footing. The Dixie Chicks found themselves victim of cancel culture before we even had coined that term, and it became good business for country artists to wrap themselves in Old Glory. A twang on the tongue is still as good as any virtue signal when it comes to being with Real America — just ask the politicians with national aspirations who slip into a drawl when they get south of I-80.
Then again, as historian and informal Biden adviser Jon Meacham noted in his book with Tim McGraw about country music: it’s not always as simple as red or blue.
Which brings us back to Brooks. He’s been performing at inaugural events since Jimmy Carter. Though he did some similar heavy lifting at Barack Obama’s pre-inauguration concert back in 2009, he declined to perform at Donald Trump’s inauguration four years ago, when tensions were similarly high but no one knew what chaos he would create in power. Brooks cited a scheduling conflict — an out as easy as any to muster.
Four years later, when Jill Biden made the personal call to the performer, Brooks said yes. As Trump stewed over his loss and the country remained divided over false claims that the election was mired in fraud, Brooks used his platform to communicate that the peaceful transfer of power was an exercise in real patriotism.
Brooks knows the symbolism of unity. When he finished, he made a point of greeting the political VIPs on the stage from both parties. Perhaps more than any speech or slogan, it will be figures like Brooks who help break the political fever in Washington. It took Brooks to turn Biden’s message of unity into something real.
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Correction: January 26, 2021
The original version of this story misstated Garth Brooks’ history of performing for U.S. Presidents. He has performed for Presidents dating to Jimmy Carter but did not perform at events linked to Carter’s 1977 Inauguration.